Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Blackest Friday...

Hello Friends.

A shorter entry is in order, I’m afraid, as I must reserve my strength. Retail work during the holiday season is stressful, and Boxing Week sales are a tough slog right after Christmas, but nothing is quite so horrifying as the aptly named Black Friday.

A cursory Wikipedia search shows that Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year since 2005 as it unofficially marks the beginning of holiday shopping season. Don’t YouTube Black Friday. Really don’t. I go to YouTube for clips of cats eating with a knife and fork, not people literally trampling each other to death outside a WalMart. But that’s what happens. People die. And for what? Electronics? Clothes? I know times are tough, money is tight, and a deal’s a deal, but how do you enjoy your plasma TV if you bought it where all those people died? “Isn’t that a crisp picture? I can still hear the screams of that mother of four who perished. Everything’s better in HD, don’t you think?”

Thankfully, blessedly, it’s not nearly so bad here in Canada. The store I work at has extended hours tomorrow and, though I work a nine hour shift, I’m incredibly lucky that I neither have to open nor close. I just show up, grit my teeth from 11 – 8, and go home. Plus, I work with good people, which makes all the difference on days like these. But even as I see quality merchandise go for rock-bottom prices and try to stretch my hard-earned dollars this holiday season, one thing becomes abundantly clear.

Dream: Never shop on Black Friday.

Goal: Achievable, at least for now. I don’t have any kids, and I’m still at the age/income level where an inexpensive, “thought-that-counts” gift (ie. Something cheap and shitty) is something my nearest and dearest accept from me every holiday and birthday without complaint. So really, I have no earthly reason to wake up early, wait out in the cold, and fight a horde of people for stuff.

Plan: Remind myself of the many truths of retail that I’ve learned as a customer service rep in one iteration or another for years and years. Truths like:

Shopping on Black Friday reinforces the idea that people will buy anything if it’s cheap enough. Literally anything. I worked in a drugstore for years, and we would have this clearance rack that had discontinued or nearly expired items that we just had to get rid of. Some purchases made perfect sense. Why not get Halloween candy on November first, or bulk Valentine’s cards on February 15th to be prepared for next year? But I couldn’t get over what people would buy. For instance, I once sold a MegaPak, let’s say a 96-tablet bottle, of Children’s Advil that was expiring in less than a month. HOW SICK IS YOUR CHILD? Yes, maybe your brood will all get colds at the same time, but unless you’re a Sister Wife with a 16-child house, or you run an illegitimate pediatrics operation out of your garage that’s about to be shut down by the feds WHY do you need all that? I really think we could have sold rusty nails if they were 10 for a dollar.

The saddest part of these super-cheap last-chance clearance sales is that they often didn’t benefit the people who really could have used these goods. The drugstore I worked for in Toronto was near Chinatown and many of our clientele owned stores in that area. We had one family in particular, a man, his wife, a mother, and an aunt or something, who would all come in at different times, buy our cheapest stuff, then turn around and sell it at their store. That’s fine, I guess, except when it wasn’t.

I remember one weekend, we had a bunch of double extra-large diapers on clearance. They were a tie-in to some movie (Cars, we’ll say, or Poopin’ with Elmo) and the tie-in was over, so we had cheap diapers for once, and double XL was the variety we had the most of, I think because they really were big diapers and most kids that fit them probably were into Pull-Ups territory, if not completely toilet-trained. But there was one couple who had a teenaged son who was severely handicapped. They had to buy diapers for their boy every week of his life, they surely still have to. The dad explained to me once that adult diapers worked for their son too, but were designed in such a way that an incontinent older person could easily get them on and off. This meant that their son could also easily take them off, make a mess, etc. The advantage to buying big kids’ ones instead of small adults’ ones was a practical one. He couldn’t rip the children’s diapers off of himself as readily, it saved the parents a headache. I know this seems like an unnecessary diversion into the topic of incontinence, but the dad explaining this to me wasn’t embarrassed when he talked about it, just frustrated. That was because all of the double XL diapers had been purchased by a childless couple with a store down the street, hoping to re-sell the items at a higher markup, and the mom and dad who came down to our store because they had heard of the sale left empty-handed. I wanted to cry for these people who worked so damn hard for their kid, and I wanted to scream at the couple selling our stuff for their profit, but I didn’t do either. What I take away from those experiences is a gnawing, rotten feeling in my guts when I’m about to buy something just because it’s cheap, not because I need it. If I buy an ugly Christmas sweater at a thrift store because “it’s SO hideous I just HAVE to have it”, does that not insult the person who needs to buy a sweater for four dollars because it’s fucking cold outside?

I won’t shop on Black Friday because I don’t know anybody that needs anything that badly. This is where not having kids is the key issue here, and where I must re-emphasize that my unsuccessful gift-giving doesn’t potentially ruin anybody’s holiday. But still, I have friends who are parents of young children and they don’t go overboard in the gift-giving, and their children aren’t deprived, unfortunate hooligans. 

I worked in a video store when the Nintendo Wii was released. Mind you, this was a video rental place, not an electronics store, so we usually only had about four consoles in stock at any given time. So we’d get a few in stock and they would immediately sell, and then we’d get more, and then they would sell, and so on. It was always like that, even after the Wii had been out for 18 months. I was working the till one December when a frazzled woman asked if we had any Wii’s. I checked and we didn’t, but I could see from our computer that another store location across town had a couple in stock. “Across town!” she whined. “I’m not going all the way over there! Dammit! You don’t have any?! How am I supposed to explain to my kids that Santa screwed them over two years in a row?” I remember exactly what she said, all these years later, because I found so many things wrong with it. First of all, this is not an impossible situation: if she really, really wanted this stupid thing, she could have driven across town to the other location, or visited any number of system retailers in the city. The Wii had, as you’ll recall from earlier in this paragraph, been out for 18 months. Also, WHAT? You’re going to explain to your kids that “Santa screwed them over”?! How’s THAT gonna go, Mom? “Oh no, Jayben and Braxter! No Wii’s! That Santa’s such a dick! I can’t believe he screwed you over like that! You must be really bad kids, I guess.” I know you shouldn’t judge any parent, but what a terrible mother, am I right?

I won’t shop on Black Friday because that can’t be what this time of year is about. What’s shocking is that Black Friday is an American phenomenon and it falls the day after their Thanksgiving. This means that some people go right from their Thanksgiving dinner, after they’ve discussed all they are thankful for, to go camp out in front of a Best Buy. That’s fucked up. And for the record, I think Boxing Day shopping is just as horrible. If you camp out and line up and trample and scratch and claw to get some stupid thing, isn’t that just few steps below draping yourself in blood diamonds?

I said this was going to be short, but I lied. It’s past my bedtime and I’m probably going to be a big cranky baby tomorrow, but I was planning to be like that anyway. I think a true Christmas miracle would be if I showed up tomorrow to a pleasantly dead store. My coworkers and I will marvel at the untouched piles of merchandise, sit on our hands and watch the clock. Someone will do a coffee run and we’ll all get silly on caffeine and dress the mannequins in ugly outfit combinations. We’ll be so busy goofing off that we won’t notice that entire mall has emptied out. Our sales will be so bad that hours have to be cut drastically to compensate. Most of us will spend the weekend at home drinking hot chocolate, and waiting for that creepy hand to pop in on the Fireplace Channel to adjust a log. We’ll return on Monday to business as usual and gird ourselves to the onslaught of holiday consumerism, but we’ll face it with much greater optimism, as we remember the Black Friday that never was. You can’t put a price on memories like that.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Hey Mr. DJ...

Hello Friends.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned how working the concession counter at the movies would be the worst job because everybody hates you for circumstances beyond your control. The nicest kid in the world could take your order and you say, “I’ll have a popcorn and Coke, please” and the kid says, “Okay, that’s twelve dollars,” and you go black in the eyes and scream, “WHAT? WHAT? NO! WHAT THE F IS WRONG?! WHAT IS WRONG?!?” and the poor kid just stands there.

I’d like to posit now that the concessions kid has a slightly less-abused brother in arms. I’m talking about the DJ at the bar. We love this guy (or girl) until we HATE them. I’m talking about bars where dance floors figure prominently, and I suppose that’s more typical of gay bars than straight, but I’m sure the same thing happens at both places. Let’s say the DJ plays a remix of Katy Perry’s Walking On Air (or, if you’re in a straight bar, Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy). The crowd cheers! The DJ transitions this seamlessly into Daft Punk’s Get Lucky (straight people, uh… I don’t know, is there a song called Dust on the Bottle? Whatever that shit is). The crowd cheers even louder! Emboldened, DJ puts on Move by Mausi (or, let’s see… Cotton Eye Joe) and everybody turns INSTANTLY! I love Mausi, but nobody knows/cares about that song, so the floor clears! Al the goodwill built up towards the DJ disappears as soon as the wrong song comes on. 

I was on a completely full dance floor at a gay bar once, probably doing that move where it looks like I’m unloading the overhead compartment, and the DJ comes on the mic to say he just married his boyfriend last week. We all cheered! Marriage! Gay stuff! Hurray! So then he says, “I’d like to dedicate this track to Laird (or whatever his gay name was. Dante. Criss)” and puts on this.  And the floor cleared completely. Like nobody was there, except maybe poor Laird. As a Sade fan, I have no specific problem with this cover, but I can’t do my Rusty Gate move to something so slow!

I was thinking about this recently when the Doc and I hosted a friend for drinks. This was decidedly more lowkey than a dance floor, but after a few compliments from our guest about how good our background was, I began to take the task VERY seriously. I left our conversation for long stretches to lengthen the iTunes playlist playing on my compy. Could I get away with two Miles Davis tracks in a row? Was now the time to bring in some Brubeck? Was Charlie Brown Christmas too cutesy? What about some Wet Wet Wet? Decisions, decisions! But it didn’t matter what I put on, I wasn’t going to incur the wrath of a hundred sweaty dancers. The point is, I quite enjoyed choosing the music when the stakes were low. Maybe I could turn that into a new career path.

Dream: Become a DJ on the radio.

Goal: Achievable? Probably, right? Terrestrial radio (as opposed to satellite radio) has taken a real hit in recent years. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who listens to the radio proper anymore. So being a DJ on the radio must be pretty chill. I could do that.

Plan: List the pros and cons of the job to determine if I would be suitable.

Pro: DJs must necessarily remain upbeat and cheerful. I could benefit from that. If I had to be sunny in my job, maybe I’d take a more positive attitude in life. I used to have an old radio in my bathroom that I would play when I showered in the morning. I hate getting up in the morning, but was often bolstered by the pleasant but inane chattering of the morning zoo crew.

Con: DJs must necessarily remain upbeat and cheerful. God, that would be the worst. I bet the morning zoo crew I used to listen to still all work together and fucking hate each other. Everywhere I’ve lived, there’s always been a morning radio duo or trio with names like Alana and Crazy Dave or Buzz and Bam-Bam in the Mornin’ or Cracky and Zoloft AM Pit Stop. Cool it, guys.

Pro: Radio personalities get invited everywhere as they are beloved in the community.

Con: Radio personalities are always “coming atcha!” from somewhere. Why are you coming at me? And it’s usually the parking lot of an electronics store, or the parking lot of an auto dealership. TOUGH one!

Pro: DJs don’t choose the songs that they play. That’s got to take ninety percent of the work out of it! Apparently, it’s all determined by computerized algorithm, which also ensures here in Canada that we get a certain percentage of Canadian content. This accounts for the career of Roch Voisine.

Con: DJs don’t even get to pick their own songs! I knew a DJ who hosted the five o’clock drive time show on a pop station, and he said he puts on a couple of tracks in a row, turns the volume off in his booth, then puts on his iPod and listens to music of his own choosing. He’s not opposed to pop radio, but the playlists are so completely limited and repeated so many times that he’s sick of all of it.

Pros: Radio predates all other forms of our current media and can be a comfort in troubling times. A battery operated radio during a power outage is a savior, as is a traffic update on a treacherous roadtrip. I remember listening to the radio during a morning shower on September 11, 2001. The same morning zoo crew I was talking shit about earlier really stepped it up. They cut into whatever song was playing and said, “We don’t know exactly what’s going on right now, but we’ve got the best news team in the business! In just a few moments we’re going to cut into their broadcast and they’ll be able to tell you what’s going on.” I thought that was a straightforward, humble way to handle a mess of a news day. “I may not be able to make sense of this, but here’s someone who can.” Kudos.

Cons: Sometimes the wrong person gets the news bulletin. The Doc and I were driving somewhere 
shortly after Chris Brown was arrested for beating up Rihanna. The DJs were discussing it, perhaps not with due solemnity, but they were pretty shocked. Then the girl of the zoo crew said, “You guys, we don’t know the whole story! Come on, Chris Brown is a sweetheart! I love him!” I’d like to think we pulled the car over in this moment, but I don’t think we did. Her comment went unanswered and a song quickly came on. Jon called the radio station later in the day to complain about such insane insensitivity.

There is still some great terrestrial radio being made today, although I admit that I listen to most of it when it’s podcast-ready. Fresh Air with Terry Gross is the best interview program of any medium. She is probing, insightful, unbelievably well read, and an hour with her flies by. Ross Porter, formerly of CBC’s After Hours and now on Jazz FM 91, sounds JUST like you want your jazz DJ to be. I find Jian Ghomeshi quite pleased with himself and I don’t think he always listens to his guests when they are talking (his follow-up questions almost never follow up), but when he’s engaged in his topic, he’s pretty great. I’ll always have a place in my heart for… I want to say his name is Tyler Glenn, who used to work for Z99 when I listened as a teen in Regina. As I listened one day in 1997, as the countdown drew to it’s inevitable number one song which was still My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion, Tyler began his spiel in earnest and then deteriorated. “And once again, the number one song in the city from the number one movie at the box office, it’s… shit. Fuck. I can’t do this.” Then the song played! That went out live on the air! I wish I had been with someone who could confirm what had just happened. There was no comment about it after the song, nor ever again as far as I knew.

Tyler Glenn, you have a common name and will probably never read this if you Google yourself. But if this does find a way into your eyes, what happened there? Was that a take they weren’t supposed to use? Or were you live on the air? What “couldn’t you do?” Play that song again? Force enthusiasm for something so banal? Or be a DJ anymore? I was fourteen when I heard that, and it was thrilling! Not just for the swearing, but because of your total on air breakdown. It was fantastic, Saskatchewan version of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” If I ever become a DJ, you’re welcome to co-host with me as long as you want, or at least until you can’t fucking do this anymore.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Dream State...

Hello Friends.

They say we’re supposed to sleep eight hours in a 24 hour day. I always find that statistic startling, not only because I hardly ever achieve eight full hours of sleep, but it means I spend sixteen hours a day doing stuff. That can’t be right, sixteen? I feel like I wake up, drink coffee, go to work, eat something, look up Dianne Weist on the internet and go to bed again. But anyway, here is what’s interesting:

I have, so far, never heard of a movement or a school of thought or a religious sect or any kind of group that contends that our sleeping life is more important or significant than our waking life. Nobody says, “When we are asleep, that’s when we are truly alive! Your waking life is dull and predictable, sleep presents an existence of heightened circumstance, emotion, and opportunity! Forgot about your conscious mind, your subconscious is where it’s at!” Think what relief that could potentially provide to someone. People living in prisons, for instance, might see their captivity as an inconvenience to be sure, but they could see their dream life as one of limitless potential! Maybe it’s cruel to think these things, but I hope labourers in factories have vivid, thrilling, exciting dreams every night. It’s only fair that their subconscious minds compensate them for a lousy day-to-day, y’know?

Of course, there is a much darker side to such a notion. If you devote yourself to your dream state and don’t care for your waking life, nothing can keep you from behaving amorally. If you think, “Doesn’t matter what I do every day, it’s every night that truly counts!” what’s to stop you from stealing and murdering? You might welcome a prison term, even solitary confinement (more time to sleep!).

This preamble is all to say that I haven’t been especially productive or fulfilled in my working life lately. A few writing opportunities have dried up, a couple of contracts have expired, and there is little traction in anything I have recently applied for. Plus, my day job is becoming necessarily more task-oriented as the holidays draw closer and there are more shoppers, requiring a faster, more impersonal approach to the increasing busyness. I had a great visit with my folks last weekend, and have been in touch with friends and everything, I don’t mean to paint a picture of depression or unhappiness, just a lack of creative thought lately. Consequently, though, my dreams have been amazing.

Dream: Glean wisdom and insight from my dreamlife to aid my waking life.

Goal: Achievable. I’ve heard of novelists dreaming of a plot or a character before writing it down, or painters dreaming of an image and then creating great art as they attempt to paint it. Surely attempting to record my dreams will open a well of creativity I can waste on tweets or whatever.

Plan: Write an account of recent dreams exactly as I remember them.

First Dream: I am at an unfamiliar airport but I know that it’s an airport. I’m just wandering around, though, apparently not coming off of a plane or trying to board one. Then I see an old friend we’ll call Sandy, who works for an airline IRL (in real life, which is a necessary acronym to learn, here) and appears to be working at this airport. I try to avoid her in the dream because IRL (see?), Sandy and I don’t keep in touch. Our friendship ended kind of abruptly, as I recall. We had been coworkers and gotten together socially, but she began to break off plans for future get-togethers, then quit the job, then never returned phone calls or email messages from me. I never knew if she put up distance because of something I said or did, or if she associated me with the former job and therefore didn’t want to maintain any connections, or if I simply valued a relationship that didn’t really exist. Maybe we didn’t connect the way that I thought we had and maybe what I saw as a friendship was what she saw as a way to waste time during the workday. So that’s why, in the dream, I turn away and try to leave. She spots me, though, comes over, and we talk. I wish I knew what we talked about, but it was just like it used to be. She realizes her flight is boarding. Before she leaves, she acknowledges that we haven’t been in touch and that she feels really bad about that and hopes we can be friends again, then she hugs and kisses me and goes back to work and that’s all I remember of the dream.

Significance: Well, pretty obvious, I guess. I’m still mystified by the end of my friendship with Sandy (which, by the way, was YEARS ago) and this dream closure is the closest I’ll ever come to resolving it as I wouldn’t know how to contact Sandy even if I wanted to. I think we have this tendency to assume all friendship is loose and malleable. That we don’t necessarily have to keep in touch to stay friends, but I don’t think that’s always true. I have closer friends I don’t speak to as much as I’d like, but we’re still friends and always will be. That’s not the case with everybody. But seeing Dream Sandy in the Dream Airport made me really happy. The fondness with which I recall this dream and my experience with Sandy belies my “all’s well that ends well” attitude.

Second Dream: I’m cast in a family-friendly musical revue that’s in a theme park or a cruise ship or something, with John Stamos as the lead. It’s a broad, silly show aimed at kids and I’m Stamos’ second banana with lines like, “Any more bright ideas?!” and “That went well!” We rehearse quickly and it’s clear that Stamos is taking this very seriously. He’s giving me constant direction and it’s kind of chapping my ass, but I’m aware that he’s a big star and this is a good opportunity. Suddenly it’s opening night and the auditorium is packed with kids and their parents. I think I’m dressed as a dog, and Stamos is a pirate. We take the stage and everything goes completely wrong. Everyone is dropping lines, I’m forgetting large sections of the play, the other actors are a mess, the children are restless and angry, parents are walking out. Incredibly, Stamos is still committed a million percent. I’m fearful because I think he’s going to scream at everyone, but he’s just out there trying harder and harder. He does the final number by himself and I’m aware that I’m just standing onstage, not doing anything. The curtain falls and I’m petrified that we’ll be eaten alive by this 80’s sitcom mainstay and ageless heartthrob. Instead, he’s surprisingly upbeat. He acknowledges that it didn’t go as well as it could have, but we just have to keep rehearsing. He’s confident we’re going to be a smash. That’s all I remember.

Significance: This one is tougher to analyze. I remember watching Full House as a kid and realizing, maybe for the first time, that these were characters as portrayed by actors. The names in the opening credits were real people and the characters on tv were fake. I remember thinking that if I was an actor, I could be a character on a show and have that dual existence, as a person in the real world and in the tv world. This is not to say that Stamos made me want to become an actor, but maybe he did. It wasn’t Coulier, that’s for goddamn sure. And it’s also true that the few professional acting credits I do have are in children’s theatre. But I’ve never worked with a star, or been in a show that’s completely fallen apart onstage, or met Stamos. But perhaps I miss the youthful naiveté with which I once regarded creative things. How do actors or writers do what they do? How can you be so inspired by something you know nothing about?

Third Dream: The Doc and I are walking back from a beach to a place that I’ve never been before IRL, but I understand is where we are vacationing in the dream. It’s a huge beach house that I approach with a towel around my waist and nothing else, as if to suggest that we were skinny-dipping. I open the door and realize that all of my extended family and friends are there waiting for me. Everyone I’ve ever met in my entire life is in one room or another of this beach house. Aunts and uncles and cousins and high school friends and old and new coworkers, everybody. They’re all sitting down to eat, but each group is in a separate but equally beautiful room. For instance, my father’s side of the family is sitting in one room all together, coworkers from Blockbuster video take up another table in another room.  For some reason, I’m only slightly inconvenienced by the fact that I’m in a towel, and nobody comments on it. I run upstairs, change into clothes, come downstairs and try to decide where to sit. The thing I can’t emphasize enough was how beautiful it all looked. These were gorgeous, airy, light-filled rooms and everyone was fantastically turned-out and well-dressed and happy and healthy. Each room of people sitting down to dinner looked like a Ralph Lauren ad or a Norman Rockwell painting. I feel like I’m supposed to choose a table to sit at, but of course, I can’t decide. I want to see and talk to everyone, but everywhere I turn, there’s someone else who wants me to join them. I don’t know where to sit and consider my options but don’t make a decision and that’s all I remember.

Significance: I’m sure everyone has had a version of this metaphor-fest of a dream. Any psychologist worth their salt would have started the meter when I mentioned I was only wearing a towel and send me a bill at the end of this blog. The thing about the dream and the choice at the end was that it wasn’t agonizing because every prospect was pleasant. I didn’t feel pressure to choose friends over family, old acquaintances over new ones. I just couldn’t decide where to park, but I wasn’t panicked by it. I probably have a sense of that now, being in a newish place that I feel no connection to in terms of people. Sure, I have friends and the Doc here, but feel pulls to several other places where friends and family are. I often think if I had my druthers that I’d be able to travel easily and frequently to visit all the people I’ve been promising visits to for years.

The thing about living to dream, or spending too long in your subconscious, is that everything would cave in on itself. Much like the computer geek who forgoes experience in the real world to create a vivid online one becomes isolated and weird, someone giving too much credence to dreams suffers a pretty bleak reality. I’m sure the balance will right itself for me again soon. I’ll be able to work smarter, not harder, get time and opportunity to travel, pitch my children’s show to Stamos, and reconnect in person with all of you. Until then, I’ll see you in my Dreams.