Thursday, December 23, 2010

Plastic Grace

In a recent report from the National Retail Federation (otherwise heretofore conveniently known as NRF), numbers were supposed to rise this year for projected spending on holiday gift cards. You know what I'm talking about: those incredibly close-at-hand, pocket-sized, credit-card style rectangles of plastic with a magnetic stripe running across their back. Gift cards are the gift just within easy reach in the checkout lane--the last-minute, "oh-my-gosh-I-almost-forgot," "my-cart-is-full-but-I-have-to-get-him/her-something," "I-don't-know-what-sort-of-things-kids-want-these-days," "I-don't-care-what-sort-of-things-kids-want-these-days," "what-do-you-get-for-someone-who-has-everything-anyway?" "I-was-thinking-about-you-in-the-checkout-line" kind of gift.

It's the gift which--quite literally--has come to define that age-old cliche': "It's the thought that counts."

According to this year's survey by the NRF, however, the unassuming little gift card remains the most popular, most requested item this holiday season, with 57% of adults reporting that they prefer to receive it, and 77.3% of shoppers supposedly being willing to support that desire by falling under the spell of the wire slip-rack in the front of the store and buying at least one of the miniature plastic presents for at least one of the lucky people on their to-buy-for list. (

Forget about your flatscreen TVs, your Playstations, your iPads, your iPhones, and any other bit of techno-gadgetry that has an over-abundance of lowercase-i's in its name.

Behold the gift card.

Something is going on here. Exactly what, though, I'm not quite sure. American holiday consuming has now gotten to the point, it seems, where it isn't so much about what we buy, it's simply about buying something--anything--and scratching yet another name off our lists. It's about ease, and speed, and convenience. It's about crunching numbers and good "business sense"--meeting our required shopping quota while expending the least amount of mental and physical energy doing so. It's about shopping made simple. It's about avoiding long lines and crushing crowds at both the Layaway and Customer Service desks. It's about cutting expenses where expenses can be cut--which would certainly include postal fees of boxing up, and wrapping with paper and ribbon and bow, only to be boxed again, and then weighed, and then shipped halfway across the country only to be torn into, and ripped open, and discarded.

*[Aside: I would say, "Imagine how much simpler (and cheaper) all of this would be if, instead, we just dropped a gift card in an envelope, licked it, stamped it, addressed it, and sent it on its way," except I don't have to say that since--if we are to believe the annual numbers being put out from the NRF--most of us are doing that very thing anyway. Including me--as it turns out--in all of my knee-jerk, hypocritical moaning about what something like this surely must mean. I have been known, in recent years, to rely more heavily on resorting to buying gift cards during the holidays. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reasons everyone else seems to be doing it: Because it's easy, and it's quick, and it's convenient. These days, more often than not, I find myself being that person I described earlier who finds himself near the store's entrance, falling under the lure of the wire slip-rack that bulges with thousands of dollars of intangible "gifts," hanging in neat little plastic rectangular rows, waiting to be bought. These days, as well, more often than not, I am also that person--now to be included in the 57% of us, I guess--who, when asked what I would like for Christmas, thinks about it for approximately ten seconds, shrugs, and then responds as casually and noncommitedly as possible: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess."]

Ten words: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess." That's a pretty subtle summation of whatever it is that's going on in our consumer culture these days. What do we mean when we respond in such a way? On the surface, of course, it sounds so casual and nocommittal of us. It makes us sound so selfless and almost zen in our elimination of desire. Nothing as trivial as wanting--and asking--for a specific little something on Christmas could possibly trip us up in our journey of spiritual purification.

All of which, of course--for most of us, anyway--is total bullshit.

Of course we want things. We want lots of things, more than likely. But we've gotten to the point in our society where there is almost an unspoken stigma that goes along with asking for something that you either: 1.) need, 2.) want, or 3.) feel in some ridiculous core of your being that you can't live without. And if you're asking for it, then more than likely that means you don't already have it, (unless you are a hoarder, or a collector, or some other sort of bizarre fetishist for which there is no name yet--all of which is well and good, I suppose, but must remain as another topic for another time, perhaps....) In a culture of affluence such as ours--a culture of big TVs nestled inside big homes with big cars parked out front--there is almost a sad sense of shame in asking for something that you don't already have--even at Christmastime, as it turns out! It's an odd mixture of: 1.) cultural guilt, and 2.) an admission of that guilt, and finally 3.) a way to seek refuge and redemption from that guilt.

*[Aside: Of course another reason that we take the 5th when asked during the holidays what it is we would most need or like (choosing instead the easier, quicker, and more convenient path-of-least-resistance in the gift card) is that we are, in essence, lazier than hell. As it turns out, we're too lazy these days to even give added effort to coming up with a halfway respectable wish-list. When and how did all of this happen? Is there a time and place in our collective contemporary history that we could point to as a hinge, of sorts, a time that led us to where we are now in our habits as fully westernized consumers--a nation of professional wanters and desirers? Think back to when you were a child and of the days and weeks and months leading up--in time-numbingly slow anticipation--to Christmas Eve, and to Santa Claus, and to selfish, shameless abundance and greed. Do you remember the thrill of looking through the toy section in the J.C. Penneys or Sears catalogs--the feel of the slick pages beneath your fingers, the addictive smell of the binding glue, the weight of the book spread out upon your thin lap, holding you down to the couch, keeping you from jumping up for joy (but just barely!) at the turn of each page? Can you remember the thrill and sheer exultation of being a kid at Christmastime, and of how you couldn't believe--you SIMPLY COULD NOT BELIEVE--that all you had to do was ask for something, and you just might find it wrapped in bright, glossy red and green paper and ribbon and bow beneath the twinkling Christmas tree on Christmas morning? And of how difficult it was--painful to the bone, in fact--to be reminded that you couldn't get everything you wanted, and to choose your words carefully when sitting on Santa's lap in the mall, and to be a prudent and mindful editor when writing your yearly wish-list to the North Pole? How, oh how, would you ever be able to narrow your desires down that much? to today. Can you imagine that child of yesterday looking over your shoulder, listening in on a recent conversation as you whine about your adult worries and complaints of the rushed and harried holiday season, moaning about "not enough time in the day," and "just look how fast the year has gone," and "I can't believe how soon the stores start advertising for Christmas, earlier and earlier every year?" And the coup-de-grace', of course, coming when asked what you would like for the holidays this year: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess." That little child--the younger self you used to be--watching and listening to you carry on in such a way, would more than likely turn and walk off in utter contempt and disgust and confusion over just how far away you've drifted from the person you used to be. Your better self, undoubtedly. Your truer self, perhaps.]

Don't worry, this isn't going to turn into some maudlin eulogy bemoaning the loss of our youth. I won't bore you with yet another overly-romanticized nostalgic trip down Memory Lane, wistfully looking over our communal shoulders like Lot's wife at the city she so loved before turning into a giant salt-lick.

Because we all know the obvious, anyway: Christmas is a magical time when you're a child. (And by "magical," I mean, quite literally of course, magical.) And we are equally aware of the obvious opposite end of the spectrum: Christmas is a lot less "magical" and much more "real" with the passage of time. (That's not to say that the much heralded "Christmas spirit" can't still be found and enjoyed as an adult. Of course it can. I'm simply saying that as I've gotten older, and as the bills pile up in my mailbox faster than the Christmas cards from long-distance friends and family--those same long-distance people who eagerly await the box of gifts I was supposed to have dropped in the mail the other day--I find that the mythic "Christmas spirit" is more elusive than ever. The magic of the season isn't gone, necessarily. It's just decided to take a holiday of its own, it seems, and decides to leave in its absence a tangled mess of head games and heartburn knotted in a tighter ball than those stupid Christmas lights that I dig out each year. Just how in the hell those things get knotted in their 11-month hibernation, I'll never know...)

Which brings me back--in an admittedly roundabout way--to the gift card.

Are they really such a bad thing, after all? I mean, in theory, hasn't the idea of "the gift card" been around for a long time anyway? Isn't this little 2" X 3" rectangle of plastic just the evolved version of the old-fashioned "gift certificate"--printed on old-fashioned card stock--that existed in the business world since time immemorial? Doesn't the gift card--as did its predecessor--provide a unique service for the consuming public? It has, within its narrow dimensions, the amazing capacity to make you happy. To fulfill a desire. To reaffirm that it's okay to want something, even if it's simply money in the disguise of a plastic rectangle. To remind you (in a sly, subconscious way, perhaps) of the joy and exultation of selfishness and greed you used to feel this time of year when you were younger. And to be all right with that. And to recognize that deep down inside--in the part that makes us most human and most in need of something like happiness, and hope, and grace--there's nothing wrong with feeling like that, if only for a short time each year.

"You're worth it," this little card seems to say. "Now go out there and buy what you want. When you want. Online or in-store...however you want to do it."

There's something incredibly freeing about all of that, something quite magical in its own way. Hidden within the thin, gray borders of that magnetic stripe running along the card's backside is a promise of fulfillment, and of forgiveness for the year's past wrongs, and of hope for happiness in your new purchase.

The merchants aren't joking, I guess, when they say that it's wisest to gather up the gift cards you received over the holidays and to go shopping for yourself as soon as possible. Redeem the cards for what they're worth. Don't wait, in other words, and let them gather dust and run the risk of expiring. Who would want to risk something like that?

Come to find out, it's all about redemption, after all.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Good Stuff

A funny thing happened recently at New York City's 92 Street Y. Or, I guess to be more accurate, a funny thing didn't happen recently at New York City's 92 Street Y.

Which was the problem.

It seems Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) was in the middle of a discussion promoting his recent novel, An Object of Beauty, at the well-known Manhattan venue (which, incidentally, has a long history of hosting writers and filmmakers and musicians and artists of all walks) when New York Times columnist, Deborah Solomon--who was hosting the evening's conversation--was handed a slip of paper advising her to move the conversation along to funnier, more light-hearted matters. Martin (who is himself an avowed art collecter and whose recent novel presumably deals with the contemporary art world) was supposedly in an involved conversation with his interviewer about--what else?--art.

Imagine that.

As it turns out, however (despite the venue and its legendary history, and the fact that Martin was there to talk about his latest novel--which is about the artworld, of all things--which also, incidentally, just happens to be something of more than just a passing interest of Martin's), art was the last thing on the audience's mind that night.

*[Aside: To quote Capt. Willard, as he rides aboard PBR Streetgang in the heat of Vietnam's jungle, wiping sweat from his nose and reading even-voiced from the dossier spread out on his lap of the tortured and troubled military history of Col. Walter E. Kurtz, who--on one particular instance--pissed off a league of military upper echelon: "It seems they didn't dig what he had to tell them..."]

What Martin didn't seem to know was that the management at the Y was taking real-time email requests from its audience members (oh, you've gotta love the magic of hand-held computers/cameras disguised as phones these days), and those requests more than indicated an audience that was growing increasingly disgruntled, dissatisfied, and disenchanted with the interview's "artsy" turn.

In short, the audience was bored out of its collective mind and demanded to take charge of the interview. They didn't want to hear a long, drawn-out dissertation on art, after all, from a gifted writer (essayist, playwright, and novelist as Martin has proven himself to be). No, what they were there for, as it turns out, was the good stuff. They wanted the old Steve Martin. They wanted the "fake-arrow-through-the-head-and-banjo-playing" stand-up comedian of 30 and 40 years ago, the genius who stumbled onto the comedic stage with a breathtakingly iconoclastic "anti-comedy" act that deconstructed and reinvented the whole notion of stand-up comedy forever. They wanted The Jerk. The Man With Two Brains. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. They wanted the Steve Martin who--over Saturday Night Live's long-running career--has guest-hosted more than any other star. They wanted to hear from Martin the funny man, the "wild and crazy guy" of yesterday. The Y's (wise) audience that night, in other words, wanted to laugh.

*[Aside: I'm guessing such stringent demands from the audience in what can now, infamously, only be called "the Y interview" would have invariably overlooked certain stages in Martin's checkered career, then. With such an opinionated live audience as the Y seems to attract--an audience short on patience and with a taste for all things humorous--I shudder to think what they would have done to Martin had the conversation moved into a discussion of the comedic cornucopia examplified by "Cheaper By the Dozen" and "The Pink Panther"--Parts I and II for both, respectively. Oh...the horror! The horror!]

It was as if--in these days of communal empowerment--the Y's (wise) audience decided to rise up, and to breathe a sigh of disgusted frustration, and to scrunch its forehead and narrow its eyes with simplified focus and determination, and to mutter in rebellious, pent-up rage: "Let's roll."

And in the end, they demanded nothing less than a full refund. And the Y acquiesced. (After all, I guess, the customer really does know best.) But be that as it may, the angry audience members got their money back for that afternoon's failed talk. And Martin was left speechless. Literally. (Well, that is until after the interview, anyway, when he was able to get his own hands on his own cellular device and start tweeting and emailing opinions of his own of how the whole affair went down.) In the days following, it seems, Martin has calmed down somewhat from the Kafkaesque ridiculousness of the whole situation; in the ensuing days his own angry tone has softened somewhat. Some of this may be due to his background as a philosophy major in college and to his familiarity with existential absurdity in our daily lives. Some of this may be due, as well, to his years as a stand-up comedian and to his impeccable entertainer's intuition to know that--like it or not--the audience will have the last word. Some of this also may be attributed to a public-relations spin team, earning its paycheck from Martin to keep him out of the headlines as much as possible.

I don't know.

But what I do know--for better or worse--is that this incident seems to serve as a very specific social and cultural landmark, indicating (to me, anyway) a particular trend in these times we live in. As Americans, we celebrate our "Americaness" at every turn. Yes, we're a free society (on paper and in our cultural mythology, anyway). And yes, we celebrate liberties not enjoyed by other countries around the world (again, at least on paper and in our cultural mythology). But this "freedom" and this "liberty" has led us--over time--to arrogantly assume that we are free to take liberty with whomever and whatever we happen to disagree at any given moment.

Our cultural mantra--in these millenial days of ours--seems to have evolved into an uber-simplistic: "If you don't like something, change it." (Which, of course, can be reduced to even fewer words to synonymously--and possibly even more effectively--say: "Get 'er done!")

It's the reality-show mentality. The "Survivor syndrome," for want of a better phrase. If you don't like someone, vote them off the island and be done with them. Or the "American Idol syndrome," if you prefer, where--to fully emphasize the word "American" in the show's title--the audience (that would be the members in the studio as well as the millions watching their TVs, with access to a computer or a cellular device) can cast their votes and have a voice in selecting the show's winner. True democracy in action. The spirit of America, after all. What the hell has happened to us? The old, fitting phrase, "the Ugly American," used to simply refer to an American attitude of arrogance and self-entitlement when away from the friendly confines of American shores. But now it seems to have shifted somewhat so that the Ugly American has nested closer to home. It has nested at home, to be more exact. We have become a country of unsightly patriots, it would seem. And if something doesn't suit us--say, a President, or a celebrity interview--we get up in arms (because, after all, it's our 2nd Amendment right, don't you know?)--and we demand recompense. We demand our God-given right to give voice to our dissatisfaction. We demand to be taken seriously. And to be heard. And to be listened to. And to be taken seriously.

We demand, finally, that things be the way we want them to be.

And if they're not...then we demand that things change. We demand to be happy. And we demand it right now. "Get 'er done," in other words.

You can see this attitude in the whole idea behind the current "Tea Party" movement which is all the rage. And the "Birthers" movement, as well. (I could even be mean and lump the Klu Klux Klan movement in this category, I suppose, but...well, I wouldn't want to be mean...) We have steadily become a country of whiners. And of pathetically unaware conformists bragging--all the while--of our distinctly American trait of nonconformity.

When did this happen, exactly? Has it always been this way? Were our American forebears--whom this new brand of "patriots" so quickly and proudly hoist upon the nearest pedastal--the same way as we are today? Or is it only for expediency's sake that we make them so? Does it make us feel better--for convenience and for our natonal conscience--to believe this is so?

What has happened to America? Seriously. I mean...after W.W. II, for example, we were the world's heroes. We could do no wrong. (In a more blunt way of putting it, I suppose, at that time in history, if you were an American, then it was guaranteed you could get laid. Period. Anytme. Anywhere. No questions asked. That's what it meant to be from the good ol' U.S.A.)

Something has changed, though. Since that time, we've become incredibly self-absorbed. We are overwhelmingly concerned with ourselves, it seems--isolationist in the micro- and the macrocosm. If it doesn't involve us, then we don't have the time (quite literally) to worry about it. And if it does involve us, then look out. We might just run a little "shock-and-awe" bombing campaign on you. Or we might run a campaign of a different sort, to "take our ___________ back" from the evildoers who so diligently and tirelessly want to steal our ______________ away from us.

*[Aside: And for the sake of argument, please feel free to fill in the above blanks with any word that seems fitting. In case you're drawing a blank in regards to the above blanks, here are some thoughts: country, little-league baseball team, Girl Scout/Boy Scout troop, country, church, book club, local school board, country, public library, downtown business district, celebrity interview, country, etc.]

What happened to the good, old-fashioned, "gentlemanly" notion of playing fair and of awaiting our turn? What happened to the outdated idea of sitting out the rough patches and of patiently, devotedly, and faithfully awaiting the turning of fate? Whatever happened to decency, and to respect, and to be willing to take the bad times along with the good? Now it seems we're only in it for the good. The good stuff is all we're worried about. To hell with anything else. We're all about immediate gratification. We want what we want, and we want it now. We don't want to have to wait. And we don't want to be disappointed. And we don't want our time to be wasted. Or our money, for what it's worth. And if anyone disagrees with us--or dares to point out the faulty logic in our nature--we want them gone. And we want it now.

Ironically, we've lost our sense of humor at the very same time we've lost all sense of seriousness. (Leave it to one of the great ironic comedians of our time to point this out to us.) It doesn't make any sense. And it's no laughing matter.