Monday, December 17, 2018

The Music Of The Icosahedrons: We The Put-Upon

     [Enough acquaintances have complained to me of late about their Christmas shopping experiences that I’ve decided to resurrect an Eternity Road piece from 2005 that speaks of how best to go about it. Yes, yes, I know it’s somewhat late for the purpose, but...well, there is a week left to shop, and there are people out there in need! -- FWP]

     That most anticipated and dreaded of all days is upon us once again: Black Friday, when retailers everywhere brace for an onslaught unexampled on any other day of the year. Shoppers will jam the stores, pushing, shoving, elbowing, cross-checking (north of the 49th parallel), and generally making a fuss over what might be the very last She-Ra action figure in a mauve teddy and puce platform heels to be found within a hundred miles, and was that really what little Johnny wanted, or did he mean those offhand remarks during the commercials for the Acme Junior Sodomy Kit to be taken as hints?

     Gahh. Your Curmudgeon will be staying home with his sweetie, his dogs and cats, his books and his DVDs, behind a securely bolted door, guaranteed impregnable up to 30 psi overpressure. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

     It's not that your Curmudgeon disdains to shop. He enjoys it most of the time, provided the C.S.O. isn't in one of those try-everything-on-in-every-possible-combination moods. But Black Friday seems to bring out the very worst of shoppers' behavior -- and in tandem with it, the most appalling, universal sense of unmet entitlement, as if someone had guaranteed each and every one of those folks that he'd find what he was looking for, at a bargain price, and with gift wrapping thrown in.

     It's unseemly, especially given the time of year. But then, it would hardly be better in August or March, and we get plenty of it then, as well.

     That sense of entitlement, and the resentment and smoldering, barely controlled rage that go along with it, can manifest even in the nicest of persons. To hone the ironies unbearably sharp, it usually thrusts itself into the light under those precise conditions when it will most impede the sufferer from getting what he wants. Your Curmudgeon has a young friend, whom he'll call Miss Smith, who's sweeter than SplendaTM toward him and her other friends and intimates, but who seemingly can't control herself around retail clerks or waitresses. Not long ago, your Curmudgeon took her out to lunch in celebration of a recent achievement, ordered for both, and enjoyed a pleasant hour over good food and conversation. On the ride back to the office, Miss Smith remarked about how uncharacteristically pleasant and considerate the waitress had been.

     your Curmudgeon: Oh, you've had a bad experience there before?
     Miss Smith: No, but every waitress I've ever gotten in a place like that has been rude and obnoxious to me.

     your Curmudgeon: Wow. You must be eating in the wrong places.
     Miss Smith: No, just casual restaurants like that one. But they all seem to hire the worst-tempered people they can find.

     your Curmudgeon: (hesitantly) Are you sure you're not over-generalizing from a handful of unpleasant encounters?
     Miss Smith: Perfectly. When I go out to eat, I have to scream until I'm blue in the face to get decent service. You must have charmed her.

     Your Curmudgeon barely has enough charm to register on the finest detectors. All he'd done was smile and say "may I," "please," and "thank you." At the time, he shrugged it aside, but a few days later, when nearly identical comments issued from another of his friends after another lunch out, it set him to thinking.

     Today, North America's retail establishments will feature plenty of scowling, grumbling, and shouting, but very few smiles, pleases, or thank yous. Retail workers will go home exhausted in body and spirit. Most shoppers won't be any happier.

     As a rule, people respond in kind to the treatment they receive. They return courtesy for courtesy, and insult for insult; consideration for consideration, and blow for blow. Moreover, none of this is being kept secret. When Christ told us to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," He wasn't articulating some bizarre and unnatural theory of human relations; He was elucidating the way human society actually, observably works. So why are so many of us unable to draw the lesson?

     Perhaps at the core of the mystery is the sense of being under continuous pressure from the demands of others. A lot of people suffer it -- possibly most of us, at points during the year -- and the sense of having one's nerves and energies taxed to their limits is not conducive to moderation or restraint. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, with their hospitality and gift-giving traditions, are sources of that pressure, especially for those with large families or another reason to feel interpersonal obligation.

     Most Americans feel more obliged to keep true to our cultural traditions of holiday hospitality and generosity than they do to obey the penal laws. (Black Friday isn't just the nation's biggest shopping day; it's also our biggest shoplifting day. Keep an eye peeled; you'll see it all around you.) It doesn't help that the generosity obligation, once confined to immediate family, is now widely deemed to include friends, coworkers, and the purchasing agents for one's largest customers.

     This is not good. It must be undone before it turns what was once a credit to us into a cultural chancre to be condemned.

     Accordingly, your Curmudgeon would like to issue a few suggestions:

  1. Try to gauge the amount of irritation and anxiety holiday shopping will bring you before you begin it. If it strikes you likely that you won't be able to draw a net gain from it -- without factoring in the feigned squeals of delight from the recipients of your purchases -- then abandon the enterprise. At the least, put it off until you've built up some reserves of equanimity.
  2. Do not ask anyone what he'd like as a gift. Not only is this contrary to the central principles of gift-giving; it also increases the pressure on you, by prescribing what you must locate and how much you must spend. Conversely, the only answer you may give to "what would you like for Christmas?" is the old standby: "Peace in the world."
  3. If you feel you must shop for gifts, then before you set out, do all the following, without exception or reservation:
    • Tot up the amount you'd be comfortable spending, set that amount aside in cash, and resolve firmly to spend not a penny more, regardless of all inducements.
    • Eschew conversation with anyone -- most especially with family members -- about holiday shopping, whether yours or theirs. This is an underappreciated source of poorly cloaked hints and overall competitive pressure. If someone else introduces the topic, change the subject at once.
    • Go only to stores that pride themselves on customer service, and maintain the highest degree of courtesy toward everyone while you're there.
    • Wherever you shop, patronize stores at their least busy hours. Early mornings are usually best -- Black Friday is an exception to this -- as are late evenings.
    • Under no circumstances are you to say to yourself "I have to get something for XXX." No, you don't, no matter who XXX may be. Your only real obligations, even to your spouse, are affection and respect. If you can't find an appropriate gift for your wife, rub her feet. If you can't find an appropriate gift for your husband, rub his back. Accompany these "gifts" with the promise of a special occasion, for example a dress-up dinner out at a nice restaurant, after the holidays are over.

     It ought not to be necessary for prescriptions as simple as these to issue from a Certified Galactic Intellect calibrated for unscrewing the inscrutable, but one does what one must.

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