First, twenty-two years ago at a holiday potluck at work, the subject had somehow turned to shopping for parents, and I mentioned that I didn’t always know what big present to get my Mom, but there was a particular kind of candy that she loved and I had been buying her a box of it every year since I was a teen-ager, so there was always a point during the opening of the presents when my Mom would pick up the box and realize what it was and grin. A new co-worker expressed shock and disbelief, insisting that any mother she knew would be irritated to get the same thing every year. She further insisted that my Mom must be faking the enthusiasm for the candy.
Second, twenty years ago, I visited Mom for Christmas and drove her to Grandma’s for the big Christmas Eve shindig Grandma used to throw. At said shindig, Mom received a present from one of the other relatives that was an enormous (and ugly) knick-knack. It was taller than any table lamp that Mom owned. And Mom had just recently moved into a smaller place specifically because she was trying to get rid of stuff. Mom had said thank-you to the present, but the look in her eyes had clearly communicated to me, “What am I going to do with this?”
During the almost hour long drive back to her house, there was a point when Mom went really quiet for a moment, then asked, “Where am I going to put that thing? I mean, it’s so big!”
I made sympathetic noises, but otherwise didn’t have an answer.
She suddenly grabbed my arm and said, “Promise me you won’t get me things like that! Give me candy, or cookies, or candles—things I will use up! If you don’t know I need it or will use it, please don’t spend the money!”
Third, seventeen or eighteen years ago, Mom had mentioned needing a specific thing for the kitchen, and I had found it, but it was in a weird, truncated pyramid-ish shaped box. And while I was trying to decide how to wrap it, I noticed that the broad base of the box was almost exactly the size of the box of those candies I have been buying her for Christmas since I was a kid. So with some wadded up newspaper and a lot of tape, I turned the two things into a large, retangular package, then wrapped them together.
Christmas Eve was at my Aunt’s that year, and Michael and I drove Mom to it. During the gift opening, one of the kids of one of my cousins had distributed everyone’s presents as piles beside each of us, and it had turned into a bit of a torn paper frenzy. I had watched Mom getting quieter and more sad looking as the evening progressed. She hadn’t been feeling well that morning and had almost decided to stay home for Christmas Eve, so I thought that she was feeling worse. I quietly asked a few times if she needed something.
There was only one present left beside her chair—my two-in-one box. Everyone else was finished, and one of the kids asked Mom if she was going to open her last one. She sighed and said something that sounded quite a bit less than enthusiastic. She picked it up into her lap. She turned it around looking for an edge to the wrapping. And when she did, the candy jiggled inside its box—making a distinctive sound she recognized.
Mom’s eyes lit up like search lights. She turned the box again and looked at the tag to see it was from me. She grinned at me. “I know what this is! I know what this is!” And then she tore the paper off like a tornado of ninjas attacking a castle. She liberated the box of candy from the rest of the present and exclaimed, “You didn’t forget my candy! My son didn’t forget my candy!”
Michael had to point out that there was another part of the gift she might want to look at. She was glad that I’d gotten her the kitchen thing, but she was clearly more happy about the candy. And she was enthusiastic the rest of the night.
So, my Mom really does like it when I give her that candy every year1.
Fourth, as long as I can remember, Mom has loved hot tea. She loves nothing more than to curl up with a new book and a cup of hot tea and spend the day reading. For various health reasons, she can’t do caffeine any more. So the tea needs to be herbal. Unfortunately, when most of the rest of the people in Mom’s life think “herbal tea” the go for camomile3. Mom doesn’t dislike camomile, but she gets tired of it after awhile.
So every years I look for interesting herbal teas for Mom other than camomile. Last week I found two boxes that looked interesting while I was out shopping. I went to a rather large number of stores that day. When I got home, there was a lot of stuff to put away. And when I was finished, I couldn’t find the two boxes of tea.
I searched all the shopping bags. I looked around the house. I looked in the pantry with my teas. I looked everywhere. I confirmed on the printed receipt that I had paid for the tea. I decided that when I and the person at the store were bagging my groceries, one of us had accidentally pushed the boxes aside.
The next day I headed out shopping again with a list of people I needed to get gifts for. At the first store I went to the back of the car to get a shopping bag. And there was a shopping bag from the day before with four things in it. Two of which were Mom’s tea. Fortunately, nothing in the bag was perishable, so I didn’t waste anything by forgetting some groceries in the car overnight.
So there will be several presents under Mom’s tree from me this year. And now you know what three of them are. And I’m pretty sure as soon as Mom picks them up, she’ll know what they are, two. Ever since that one Christmas, I have made sure that the box of candy was wrapped by itself, so it would be no surprise to Mom what was inside.
But surprise isn’t the point of that particular present.
1. One time when I told this story, a friend who is also a mother and grandmother told me that there was a type of salt-water taffy she liked, and anyone who bought her some of that for Christmas was a winner in her book.2
2. Another person (who also happens to be a mom and grandmother) pointed out that while it is undoubtedly true that Mom likes this favorite candy of hers, by the time I was an adult and I still gave her a box of the candy every Christmas, the candy had become a symbol. “I have absolutely no doubt that every Christmas when she opens that box, she looks up at you and she doesn’t see you as the grown man you are. She sees her little boy—how you looked as a small child. That isn’t a box of candy, to her, it’s a box of memories of her baby.” I suspect she’s right.
3. One time my Aunt found a big boxed set of “herbal teas” in the gift box aisle at Walmart. Except they weren’t herbal. When you read the small print on the box, the teas were all regular black tea4 with artificial flavoring. So the “camomile” was regular black tea with some kind of camomile flavoring. And the “hibiscus” was black tea with hibiscus flavoring. And the “elderberry” was black tea with flavoring and so on.5
4. Loaded with caffeine.
5. The set included I think it was 8 little tins, each of which had the name of the herb in question, and then behind each tin in the box was a little foil packet with three of the skankiest looking oily tea bags. And they all smelled absolutely awful.6
6. Mom begged me to take it home. Michael and I had a lot of fun throwing it away.
As ridiculous as I think all the stories about a war on Christmas always are, I have to admit that I like Buzzfeed’s use of the “War on Thanksgiving” label in this and related stories: Your Shopping Guide To Stores That Won’t Ruin Their Workers’ Thanksgivings.
They’ve compiled two lists:
- Big national chains that are opening on Thanksgiving and making their employees come in on the holiday,
- And the chains that are remaining closed the entire holiday.
I wound up in a chat online this week about the phenomenon. I have always felt a little guilty because my entire adult life I’ve had jobs where we get both Thanksgiving and the day after off as paid holidays. Meanwhile, my mom worked retail and always had to work either Thanksgiving Day or Christmas (a few years both). And each serious relationship I’ve been in, my partner has either had to work the holiday or at least both the day before and the day after.
And for the last many years, visiting my mom for the holidays has required us to rent a hotel room. Mom’s previous two living places where so small, the entire place would have fit inside our living room. When she was still living in Vancouver, that also meant that if my sister and her kids were there, they were all sleeping at Mom’s place, where there was no guest room.
Anyway, that means I also feel guilty about the people at the hotel who have to work that day, in part, because of me.
I still feel bad about the times I’ve had to run to a store on a major holiday. Though I must admit, the year that all of the sinks clogged up while I was in the middle of cooking (first Thanksgiving after Ray & I moved into the place, first time his mom had come to have a holiday dinner with us, and all of my sinks clogged!), that when I showed up in the checkout line with multiple bottles of drain opener and a plunger as my only items, the cashier laughed, and then said, “Thank you for making me feel like working this shift was worth it.”
Anyway, there are the lists, if you want to boycott or just send a letter to the folks in charge. I’m really hoping that they have so few people show up to shop that they don’t do it next year.
I am a crazy optimist, after all!
The ads usually pop up as Christmas time approaches: give people the gift of experiences, not things. They suggest paid excursions, theatre tickets, sports event tickets, and so on, with an appeal against consuming natural resources. As a person with a house continually crammed full of stuff that I love but don’t really have room for, I understand the sentiment.
But I’m not terribly good at following it.
While I was browsing the dealer’s den at RustyCon (a small local sci fi convention), one of the booths was filled with zillions “Rare! Hard to Find!” soundtrack albums on CD and movies on DVD. I have a weakness for soundtrack albums and started flipping through the tightly packed rows of discs. Within the first half dozen I looked at, all labeled with a price of $44.95, were two which I had happened to buy in the last year at the iTunes store. One for 9.99 and the other for 7.99.
I have no doubt that many (if not most) of the discs he had there are not available for download from iTunes or Amazon or any of the other digital music sources. And I’m sure that many of them were difficult for him to obtain. Certainly storing and transporting those enormous piles of discs isn’t cheap. So I’m not in any way disparaging the vendor.
It’s just that seeing those two albums (one originally released in 2002, the other originally released in 1975) which I had by chance purchased digitally recently made me stop to think about the situation. The reason I like owning music is to listen to it from time to time. I have a rather daunting amount of music in my digital collection, and how often any individual track is listened to is rather less often than might justify even the typical digital price of 99₵ per song. So does it really make sense to spend 45 bucks on a disc with 12 – 16 tracks on it?
I had just this last week commiserated with two friends about our shelves and shelves full of music and movies, which even though many had been digitized, we were still reluctant to get rid of because the discs now constituted the backup. But we also were all a bit frustrated at how much space they took up.
Not too many years ago I still owned a couple boxes of music albums on vinyl. I hadn’t owned a machine that could play them in a few years, so I finally admitted it was time, and got rid of them. I should mention that among those boxes was the 1975 soundtrack I mentioned above which I recently purchased digitally.
I’m afraid all this thinking about how much stuff is cluttering up the house made me steer clear of the booksellers. If I stopped acquiring new audio books and ebooks, and just focused all my reading time on the piles (multiple) of “new books to read” beside my bed, it would likely take me a few years to get through them.
I have been enjoying myself at the con. I’ve had several good conversations, attended interesting panels, and yes, I bought some things. As a person who frequently has a table with things for sale at conventions, I don’t want people to stop buying things at cons, don’t get me wrong.
I just think that I, personally, need to focus more of my enjoyment on the experience, and less on carrying home a pile of toys and such afterward.
I realized this weekend that the wall calendar is soon to go the way of the phone book.
In previous years, while I was out Christmas shopping, I was constantly coming across racks of wall calendars for the following year. There would be scores of different calendar designs at some places. And most years I would see one that leapt off the shelf at me, “Oh, I have to give this one to Michael!”
Some years we each gave the other multiple wall calendars. Which was fine. We need them in multiple locations in the house. At a minimum, one upstairs and one down. And I have always had one at work. At work I also always have a year-at-glance style calendar. While the latter technically makes the former redundant, I use them for slightly different ways of thinking.
Plus, I like having some interesting art or a photograph to look at that changes every now and then.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still wall calendars for sale in stores. But this year I noticed that the displays were far smaller and less varied. It’s always been the case that the variety of cute kitten or puppy calendars outnumbered everything else, combined. And lame landscape photo collections came in a close third.
But this year, those were the only ones I ever found!
So I didn’t buy any before Christmas. And when I realized that the only 2013 wall calendar either of us had was the Brony calendar several of our friends did art for, I went looking specifically for a good downstairs calendar for the house and one for my cube at work.
It’s not just that there wasn’t ones that appealed to me–a lot of places that I could previously count on to be selling slightly discounted calendars for a couple months after New Years didn’t have any calendars in stock at all.
I did see a couple at the FedEx store, of all places, that would have been acceptable. I probably should have grabbed them, but that would have meant getting in the checkout line after we’d finished our shipping business, and we were on a schedule.
And it’s also true that I far more often consult the calendar app on my phone (which automatically synchronizes with my calendar app on my laptop), so I don’t really need a hard copy calendar hanging on the wall. It is slightly convenient having the hard copy, but it has more to do with habit than need.
I don’t think that demand is going down nearly as fast as the practical obsolescence of the phone book. I suspect the lack of selection in brick and mortar stores is as much to do with online shopping as more and more of us using calendar apps. The wall calendars that physical stores will carry are going to fall into the categories of things that people will buy on impulse or out of desperation because they don’t know what else to buy Aunt Martha.
It only took me two minutes online to find a couple of calendars I liked and order them. So I’m contributing to that part of the process.
Not that it’s a bad thing. I just need to learn some new habits.
And we all know how easy and fun that always is, right?
I try not to be that guy—the angry, impatient guy deeply affronted because you’re taking too long at whatever you’re doing, preventing him from getting on with his business. Ideally I wish that I could have the zen-like patience of a taoist monk. Taking what is happening in stride. Using the extra time I’m stuck waiting in line someone to think about things, or enjoy some music, or maybe play a little game on my phone.
But sometimes you are just tired, hungry, and sore. You just want to get finished with your errand and get home. So when something happens that holds you up, it’s hard to smile an wait patiently.
I came into work yesterday to some upsetting news about an oversight in a project we had just finished. An oversight that I and at least two other people ought to have caught, but didn’t. An oversight directly involved in my part of the project. We have a few days to fix things, and we quickly hammered together a plan, but it still meant that I spent the day doing something very different than I had planned, with more than a slight sense of urgency.
And I had to leave early for an end-of-the-day dentist appointment, which meant that I would be setting up my work computer after getting home from having the scary man
attacking me with medieval implements drill and fill my teeth, and be productive for a few more hours. The dental appointment took longer than scheduled. An extra injection of novocaine had been required after a bit of stabbing pain happened partway through the second tooth. I just wanted to go home and collapse.
But I had the work to do. And I had two prescriptions that needed to be picked up. And a few other things that we needed at the store. Once I had picked everything up, I came to the front of the store and there were four registers open. Three had three people in line. One had only two. So I went for that one.
The person in front of me was a tiny little old man with a great bush of silver hair. His shopping cart contained only one item: a 20-ish pound bag of dry cat food. The kid working the register was just handing the customer in front of Cat Food Guy her receipt and wishing her a nice night as I got in line.
The kid rung up the bag of cat food. Cat Food Guy handed the kid a couple coupons and his Store Card. The kid scanned those, then told the man price of four dollars and change. Cat Food Guy nodded, then searched his pockets until he produced a rumpled check book. Not a checkbook in a nice leather or plastic cover, just the bound bundle of checks. He had to search his pockets some more until he found a little rectangle of cardboard to slip under the carbon copy. Then he started writing the check.
Cat Food Guy muttered something about what day it was. The kid told him the date. Cat Food Guy stopped writing, looked up, and asked (well, really more of a bark than a simple question), “What did you say?” The kid repeated the date. Cat Food Guy said, “I know what day it is!” The kid apologized.
Cat Food Guy bent and started writing again for a millisecond. He stopped, looked up and said. “I’m just a little hard of hearing. Not angry or anything. People always assume I’m angry or having a bad day. I’m not. Just couldn’t hear you.”
The kid says he understands and apologizes again.
Cat Food Guy bends down again, but this time he doesn’t even get his pen back on the paper. He looks back up and says, “People don’t even ask anyone how their day is, any more, you know? They just assume!”
The kid says. “I’m sorry. How has your week been?”
Cat Food Guy, who had just started writing again, stops, looks up, and barks, “What did you say?”
“Just asking how you’ve been. Sorry, I’ll stop interrupting.”
Cat Food Guy shrugs, then goes back to writing. He tears off the check and hands it to the kid.
While the kid is typing on the register, Cat Food Guy babbles some about getting old, not being able to hear, and so on.
The kid nods while he’s working. He puts the check in the part of the register that is supposed to print on it, and pushes a button. The register spits the check back out. The kid says, “I must have done something wrong.” He pushes some more buttons, puts the check in, and this time the machine takes it. “There we go… oh, wait, now it wants me to check your ID.”
Eventually the kid gets Cat Food Guy’s driver’s license, and tries to type in the license number, while squinting and apparently having a very hard time reading the license. Cat Food Guy is babbling something about a problem he had on the bus or something. I couldn’t really follow the gist of it.
The kid hands the license back and says, “That should do it.” And he presses another button. The register makes some noises. The kid frown. “Uh oh.”
“What?” Cat Food Guy asks.
“I may have spoken too soon,” the kid says. “I haven’t seen that message before…”
He looks up to see if the assistant manager in the next register is free. He’s not. There has been a steady stream of customers through all the registers except ours while I’ve been waiting.
“I’ll just have to ask the man—” the kid begins.
“You know what,” Cat Food Guy says. “Never mind. Just give me back my check. I don’t need this that badly.”
The kid is stunned. “Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m sure it’s just something I did wrong.”
“Not your fault,” Cat Food Guy says. “Not at all! It’s just the damn machines, all trying to take over our lives.”
He snatches the check and stomps away leaving his big shopping cart and giant bag of cat food smack in my way.
The kid looks at me and says, “I’m so sorry. Just a minute.” He gets the bagging gal to take the cart away while he takes the bag of cat food and scans it again to void the sale. He gets the assistant manager’s attention. “I’ll need you to verify the voided sale.”
Without even looking away from his own scanning, he tosses the kid a ring of keys with several laminated cards. The kid hits some buttons and scans one of the cards.
Cat Food Guy comes stomping back from nowhere. “You know what?” he declares loudly. “You can tell them to take this back and shove it! I don’t need to shop here ever again!” He slaps his store card on the counter.
The kid looks hurt. “I’m really, sorry, sir!”
“Not your fault,” Cat Food Guy says, suddenly all smiles. “It’s just those machines and the damn company!” And he storms off again.
The kid gets the manager’s attention again. “I don’t think I did it right.”
Manager steps over, looks at the register, and says. “Sure you did. Just hit enter again. See?” Then he notices the store card sitting on the counter. “What’s this? Did someone forget their card?”
The kid shakes his head. “The customer got very frustrated because it was taking so long, so now he says he doesn’t want to shop here any more. I don’t know what I should do.”
Manager rolls his eyes and expertly throws the little plastic card past the kid and into the wastebasket. “Not our problem.” And he goes back to his register.
The kid keeps apologizing while he quickly scans and bags my stuff.
I tried extra hard to be pleasant and assure him he has nothing to apologize for. Because he didn’t. I kept hoping that I wasn’t scowling or something earlier, because I had been getting pretty cranky.
I don’t blame the kid. He seemed a bit tentative at some tasks on the register with Cat Food Guy, but only at some tasks that I assume aren’t very common. For my stuff he was very fast and efficient.
I probably shouldn’t blame Cat Food Guy as much as I do. What he contributed to the delay was at least partly due to his hearing problem. I have a hard enough time trying to talk to Michael in the store, the noise from the overhead music and other customers talking can be quite overwhelming. And checks are the way we paid for everything for decades. The fact that almost none of us do anymore, that the procedures for processing them are longer and more involved that cash or swiping a debit card isn’t his fault.
Goddess knows I’ve been angry and said things to people who weren’t to blame for what I was angry about. I’m sure I’ve stomped angrily out of a place of business more times than I’d like to admit.
I think the most disconcerting thing was how Cat Food Guy kept switching demeanor. He would bark a sentence in a tone that I think any reasonable person would describe as angry or annoyed. Then turn all smiles the next sentence. I think most telling was how he said, “People always assume I’m angry or having a bad day.” If this is how he normally acts, I can see why people assume that.
I eventually got home. Michael cooked dinner while I got my workstations set up. I worked for a few hours. Sent chapters off for people to review. I goofed off a bit before going to bed. Had a really good night’s sleep.
I hope whatever poor kitty was waiting for food isn’t starving because her hard-of-hearing and cranky owner has stomped out of more stores empty-handed.