Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Death by Shopping and Other Holiday Thoughts

Have you seen the Wal Mart commercial they started playing over these last few days? The one where troops of smiling Wal Mart employees swarm to their registers and blink their "register open" lights timed with the "Carol of the Bells"?

(I pause to send my regards to all you dear, church-choir people, with your sweet, nerdy white-gloved hand bell teams. Maybe you are too good to do much deploring? I will do it for you. Wal Mart is clearly appropriating some bit of your earnest devotion to their wretched purposes).

Anyway, Wal Mart's promise of "every cash register will be open" is yet another - no doubt unnecessary- lure to bring shoppers into their stores on the day after Thanksgiving.

"Black Friday" got that charming sobriquet from the poor people who have to sell things that day. Now retailers use it to suggest all the fun we can have shopping in a mob! I hope Wal Mart will be a little better prepared this year to avoid deaths by crushing that dampened the experience for at least one of their employees last year.

Watching this commercial last night, I couldn't help noticing that the expanse of ceiling visible in the shot of the register lights was devoid of security cameras: those purple-bottomed globes hanging from white stalks, like upside down lollipops. These are as ubiquitous as the fluorescent ceiling fixtures in every Wal-Mart I have ever seen.

Years ago I had a client who had worked at Wal-Mart. One night, she was called into the windowless back room of the store and confronted about having stolen thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. She denied it categorically. However, the insufferable petty tyrant security man who accosted her told her that he was going to go to her house and wake up her young children, that he had friends on the police force who would get a warrant that night and she couldn't leave until she signed a (completely untrue) confession. She was instructed to keep confessing to stolen merchandise til it added up to about $10,000. I remember how she told me she was making stuff up at the end just to get to the dollar figure he wanted. She signed it at about 2 AM. Then she went to see a lawyer. Some years later (it is famously difficult to sue Wal Mart), after a jury trial, Wal-Mart paid her a substantial sum, I can't remember how much just now as I had left the firm by then. It was paid partly for falsely imprisoning her and partly for wage and hour violations.

I never see a Wal-Mart commercial without thinking of all this. When I saw that ad last night I thought, wouldn't it be a revealing twist if, instead of the cash register signs blinking in time to the "Carol of the Bells", they showed Wal Mart security switching on all their monitors in time with the song?

And Now for Something Completely Different...

This dispatch comes to you from the brink of age 45. It's bearing down on me in January. Next stop, 50. Fifty rhymes with … ? Yes. "Sixty". Brrr.

I remember seeing as kid some TV show that included a Chinese man who said something about how, in China, people regarded reaching 60 as a fine achievement after which one could comfortably die. I know that's not the way we think of 60 these days but my view of it was formed when I was about 10 and such views can be hard to dislodge. When I started working part time more than two years ago my intentions were to halt what I already perceived to be a general decline. I was going to get in shape and to write a book. The opposite has happened, if there can be an opposite to "write a book". Certainly, physically, my downhill slide has continued.

There is a franchise of exercise establishments called "Curves" that have sprung up everywhere these last 10 years or so. They seem especially prominent in the little cities where there are plenty of working class middle aged women. Curves is not a fancy place inhabited by the spandex-clad iron-haunched set - I looked in one once and saw a collection of exercise equipment arranged in a largish room. No brushed aluminum. No spa. The one I drive by on the way to work has a sign out front on the sidewalk now that says "walking is not enough." Well, I guess I am proof of that.

I was thinking of "Curves" the other day when I managed, at last, to catch an episode of "Mary Queen of Shops" on BBC America.

Mary is a fixer for wayward shop owners the way Gordon Ramsay is (supposedly) the fixer for restaurants on the brink.


The shop owner in question in this episode was a wisp of a thing who had, for some reason, opened a shop for plus sizes. The shop was, of course, on the verge of bankruptcy. In one part of the show, Mary took the shop owner to Harrods with the pictures of three women whom she was instructed to dress from the Harrods's inventory. Studying the pictures, the shop owner referred to at least one of the women, of rather ordinary chubby appearance, as "misshapen, poor thing". Similar comments and a wave of pity attended the shop owner's efforts to pick out clothes under which the women might decently be hidden. Mary pointed out, relentlessly, that this was not the way to market clothes to "curvy" women.

Well, it's commendable to be kind, and euphemisms have their place, but fat is fat and all us fatties know it. I felt a bit sorry for the shop owner who was being required to ignore the evidence of her own eyes as surely as the audience for the Emperor's New Clothes. We fatties know we would feel better and look better if we were thinner. We are not fooled even by friendly shop keepers or clever designers. Most of us used not to be fat so we know there is alternative reality. (Actually, we thought we were fat most of the time but now we look back and marvel at how thin we used to be). Yes, some of us have generations of Nordic milkmaids in our genetic backgrounds and slowing metabolisms to contend with but the cold fact is that we bear the chain laziness and overindulgence we forged in life. We feel bad about that, so I suppose reminding of us of our failures as we shop is not a good idea, but we are not deceived.

In the spirit of honesty and reality that is, apparently, overtaking me at the moment I thought it might be apposite to suggest a chain of gyms called "Flaps," or maybe "Folds"?


Well, euphemisms, as noted, have their place. Enjoy your mashed potatoes and apple pie. I'd like to enjoy mine but I'll be remembering this post. I probably will at least get a walk in on Thanksgiving Day.

When I shop on Friday it will not be in any plus size boutique or any store where there is a possibility of stampede or wrongful arrest. Despite the tone of this I am hoping for a bit of fun over the long weekend.

Here's a nice piano version of the aforementioned Carol of the Bells for your listening pleasure. Happy Thanksgiving.