Archive for the ‘Consumerism’ Category

  • The Worst Writing Job in the World (2014 Edition)

    Date: 2014.04.17 | Category: Consumerism, Internet | Response: 0

    The most popular post on this blog was published way back in 2010, and was titled The Worst Writing Job in the World. The job? Writing Groupon descriptions. I felt it was high time to revisit that post.

    First, I had to check Groupon.com to see if the once-popular discounter was still around. I unsubscribed from its mailings years ago, and haven’t heard anybody mention that they’ve purchased a Groupon in forever. It turns out that the company still exists, and the writing is as marvelously awful as ever. One current sample: “The dough wizards at Papa John’s create circular masterpieces with original and thin crusts made from high-protein flour to support warm bouquets of toppings.” Somebody got paid to write that!

    Unfortunately for the Groupon writers, their stock options aren’t going to make them rich. Groupon closed today at $7.41, down from its NASDAQ debut (and all-time high) of $26 per share. Founder Andrew Mason, who was fired as the company’s CEO in 2013, released a CD of “motivational business music” called Hardly Workin’ after his dismissal. Sample lyric, from “K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid)”: “Don’t make me cut through no thistles/ You can keep all your fancy bells and whistles/ and shove them where the sun don’t shine.” Perhaps Mason could have gotten one of his former employees to ghost-write some better lyrics.

    Now that Groupon is no longer the hot new start-up on the block, it’s time to crown a new king, and I don’t think anybody would disagree with me when I say that the new Worst Writing Job in the World is… Upworthy headline-writer!!!!!

    Upworthy is the horribly annoying site that generates those hyperbolic headlines that just dare you to ignore them. When they first appeared, I clicked on them. But you won’t believe what happened next. I trained myself never to click on an Upworthy URL. Because the articles never lived up to the OMG this is so amazing! promises of the headlines.

    The site has become a favorite target of parodists (Funny or Die, riffing on the Pixar movie “Up”: “The First Ten Minutes Will Make You Sob. The Next 86 Will Change The Way You Think About Balloons”). A joke “headline generator” uses random bits of Upworthy-type phraseology to create counterfeit click-bait. Can you guess which of these headlines are real, and which were generated by the randomizer?

    1. Before You Say Babies Can’t Be Homophobic, Listen To These Six Words From A Former Klansman.

    2. Watch What This Make-Believe Girl Means To 1000 Sexual Predators.

    3. I Thought It Was A Deadly Poison. But Then I Saw This Amazing Short Film.

    4. 9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.
    At 1:05, I get a rude awakening. At 1:41, he starts talking about you.

    5. That Moment When An Author Gets Real About The Biggest Problem In America.
    Get ready to spend the rest of the day trying to pick your jaw up off the floor.

    6. His Military Dad Was Disappointed In Him When He Came Out. For A Really Good Reason.
    At 4:48, we meet his dad. At 5:20, we learn why his dad is so amazing. And I try to keep my composure. And at 6:53, it’s party time.

    7. Think You Have Job Security? Maybe You Should Listen To This Queer Former Model.
    At first you’ll be intrigued. Then you’ll be blown away.

    8. I’d Ask You To Like This Photo, But Then I Think That Proves The Photo Right.
    Seeing these three ads was like getting a tweeting-hearting-liking punch in the stomach.

    9. Watch A Slandered Witness To A Murder Become A Legend With Six Words.
    The good stuff starts at 0:30. Make sure to stick around till 1:34.

    10. This Amazing Kid Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

    Ready for the answers? The even-numbered stories are real; the odd-numbered ones are fake. “I thought all ten of these headlines were real Upworthy stories. When I found out the truth, it blew my mind.”

    When I wrote my initial post, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Groupon style guide, which revealed the secrets of achieving the “Groupon voice.” Well, Upworthy has been kind enough to make their how-to document available as well. Page 15 made me roll my eyes. Page 23 made me mad. And by the time I got to Page 28, I kind of hated life.

    Here is the key to writing Upworthy-style headlines, and what must make working there an unmitigated hellscape: you have to write 25 headlines for every single story. Twenty-five! And they illustrate that dictum with a photo of a toilet. In case you didn’t get the point the first time, the document repeats the 25-headline dictum over and over again. (“You should write 25 headlines unless you want the terrorists to win.”)

    The doc also reveals the target market for Upworthy content: moms on Facebook. “Almost all your traffic will come from Facebook,” says one slide, illustrated with a photo of Mark Zuckerberg with a Photoshopped crown on his head. “Middle-aged women are the biggest sharers on the Interwebs.”

    Unfortunately, relying on Facebook is a dangerous business strategy, since the social network site is constantly tweaking its algorithms; one report said that Upworthy’s traffic dropped by 51% after Facebook made major changes to its users’ news feeds. The assumption is that you’d rather see photos of your friend’s new baby than links to Upworthy or the many clones (ViralNova, Elite Daily, etc.) that have followed in its wake.

    If annoying viral headlines are still plaguing you, you might want to try installing a browser plug-in called Downworthy. No longer will phrases like “Will Blow Your Mind” and “You Won’t Believe” infect your web surfing; Downworthy will rewrite them for you on the fly. “Will Blow Your Mind” will be automatically replaced with “Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment”; “Will Change Your Life Forever” turns into “Will Not Change Your Life in ANY Meaningful or Lasting Way”; and “Won the Internet” becomes “seems alright.”

    By the way, if you enjoyed this blog post, be sure to share it with your social network. Feel free to tell them that this photo of a sleeping Boston terrier will totally restore their faith in humanity.

    sleeping Boston terrier

  • In the Bag

    Date: 2014.02.12 | Category: Consumerism, Personal | Response: 1

    Today, I did something I very rarely do–I looked at the traffic stats for this blog. By far the most popular post is a review of a Rush concert I wrote, titling it “What about the voice of Geddy Lee,” a reference to a song by my favorite band, Pavement, which mentions the Canadian singer’s distinctive warble. Apparently, anybody looking for info on Geddy’s voice winds up here. Somewhat disturbingly, another perennial favorite is an entry I posted shortly after a friend of mine committed suicide called “50 (or 25) Reasons to Go On Living.” The top search query that lead people to that one: “why go on living.” Somehow, I can’t imagine that anyone on the brink of doing themselves in will read about my desire to see the rest of August Wilson’s oeuvre or my curiosity about the ultimate fate of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and say, “Why, it really is a wonderful life!”

    This is, in general, not a terribly popular blog. And I’m fine with that. It is simply a place for me to vent when I feel I have something to vent about. I can also target specific readers. This entry is dedicated to my friend Vallery, who always reads the blog and even comments. She is an extremely talented, generous and intelligent person whom I feel privileged to know. Vallery is an avid quilter; you can see some of her work here.

    She is also the person in charge of book bags for the mystery convention I’m involved with, Left Coast Crime. If you have never been to a mystery convention, when you go to the registration desk to sign in, you are given a canvas tote bag filled with books. Free books! Awesome!! However, if you attend a lot of mystery conventions, you will find yourself accumulating a closet full of canvas tote bags. I have at least a dozen of them, and I’ve given a bunch away over the years.

    The thing is, Vallery always does an amazing job selecting the fabric and design. The totes are sturdy and attractive. I almost always take them along on trips; if you see me in an airport, chances are that I’ll have a Left Coast Crime tote slung over my shoulder. However, I will be receiving two new totes next month–Joe is also registered–and I’m reaching a state of Tote Overload. Knowing Vallery, the 2014 tote will probably have unique features that previous bags lacked, but if the new tote becomes my bag of choice, what will I do with all of my old ones? Like a true pack rat, I don’t want to part with them–they hold too many memories.

    So here is what I’m suggesting for future conferences: a BYOT (Bring Your Own Tote) option when you register. If you’ve already attended a million other mystery conventions, simply let the organizers know that you’ll bring an old favorite along next time–no need to manufacture a brand-new bag. It would be fun–you can strike up conversations with people carrying souvenirs of Hawaii ’09 or Santa Fe ’11 and reminisce about times gone by. (I suspect I’d want to flaunt my credentials as a world traveler and would bring a tote from the U.K. CrimeFest conference.) The free books could be kept in boxes behind the registration desk, and you would be handed a few volumes to drop in your tote. Folks like me who have surplus bags could bring extras, in case somebody checks off “I’ll bring a tote” when they register but then forgets to pack it.

    So how about it? It would be economical and environmentally friendly. And I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of closet space in my tote–I mean coat–closet.

  • The Five Worst Christmas Carols

    Date: 2013.12.23 | Category: Consumerism, Music | Response: 3

    This morning, I had to visit a couple of stores to buy food so that Joe and I could, y’know, eat this week. This was nothing out of the ordinary; I always do our grocery shopping on Monday mornings, after I deliver Meals on Wheels. Monday morning is a perfectly fine time to shop. Unless it’s Dec. 23, in which case shopping becomes a nightmarish hellscape in which you are cursed to drive around and around looking for a parking space within a mile of the Safeway. Then, when you finally reach the store, because it is December, they will be playing Christmas carols on the P.A. In the Safeway, the carols are broken up by prerecorded P.A. announcements that go off approximately once every 30 seconds: Courtesy desk, two… oh… two! Courtesy desk, two… oh… two! And on and on, because nobody at the Courtesy Desk ever answers the page, and I’m feeling positively homicidal. I start wondering why I actually choose to go to the Safeway, when I could use that Amazon subscription service to have a 12-pack of toilet paper and a pallet of mac ‘n cheese sent to my house once every six weeks.

    Just as I was feeling in the mood to bludgeon someone to death with a honeydew melon, Safeway’s Muzak system began playing a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” featuring a children’s chorus. 11 AM isn’t too early to grab a pint of Bombay Sapphire gin and chug it down in the parking lot, is it?

    I think one of the reasons I hate Christmas music is overfamiliarity. Here’s an alternate example: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. Back in nineteen-ninety-whatever, when I first heard that song, it sounded fresh and exciting. Now, I feel like I never need to hear that song again, ever. Because it’s been played relentlessly for the past two decades, I know it so well, every single note is tattooed upon my brain. Ditto the American Christmas canon. I feel like the people who are excited to turn on KOIT (a local FM station which plays nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving on) are as freakish as those who, say, think it’s fun to craft their own chain mail shirt. God bless ‘em, but it’s just not for me, you know?

    Today on NPR, I heard a Spanish version of “White Christmas” called “Blanca Navidad” and it was actually pretty darned fun to hear a twist on a holiday classic. But some holiday songs should just be retired and never played again, ever, anywhere. Here are my picks:

    5. “Wonderful Christmastime”: This one is down at #5 because it’s not as ubiquitous as other Xmas songs–I don’t think I’ve heard it at all this year (yet!)–but it’s still terrible. It sounds like it took Paul McCartney about five minutes to write. Just thinking about this sing-songy nightmare is the mental equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.

    4. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: This needs to be up there just on the basis of Bono’s line “Thank God tonight it’s them instead of you,” which instantly makes this song the musical equivalent of Justine Sacco’s Twitter feed.

    3. “Jingle Bells”: I was subjected to this song during today’s shopping trip and it occurred to me how simple it is. Simple in a bad way. If you’re older than six, you have no business ever singing or enjoying this song. If my honorary nephew Eric, who is currently two, likes this song when he’s seven, I’m going to put a stop to it A.S.A.P., probably by forcing him to listen to Lemmy’s cover of “Run Run Rudolph.”

    2. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: The repetition… oh God, the repetition. Mike Huckabee tried poking fun at Obamacare a couple of weeks ago with a “Twelve Days” spoof, to which Stephen Colbert rightly responded, “Folks, that is a great song to parody, because everyone know jokes get better the more times you repeat them. It’s what comedians call the rule of twelve.”

    1. “The Little Drummer Boy”: Everyone knows this is the worst carol of all time. Back in the pre-Internet era, former Grand Rapids Press film critic John Douglas used to write an annual column decrying the tune and tracking the first time he heard it each season. When I was a junior in high school, I had an internship working for Douglas’s production company; he was the sort of salty curmudgeon every 16-year-old should get to spend time with. Douglas’s “LDB” hatred rubbed off on me, and I become righteously apoplectic whenever I hear it in public. My first time this year was at the post office. The clerk seemed oblivious. Had it been me behind the counter, I would probably have started throwing packages around in a white-hot rage. The only mitigating factor is that I can’t help but feel some nostalgic warmth for John Douglas whenever I hear it. Such a lovable ol’ grump!

    Other terrible Christmas carols: “Jingle Bell Rock”: If this was a top 10, this would definitely be up there. It’s awful, no doubt about it, but I feel like the original “Jingle Bells” is just a tad bit worse. “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”: A truly dreadful novelty hit, but no one ever covers it and it must have been a good five years since the last time I heard it, so I’m letting it pass just due to its lack of ubiquity. “Baby It’s Cold Outside”: A favorite worst-carol pick these days due to its rapey lyrics, but the tune is actually quite pleasant. “Saturday Night Live” put a genuinely sweet twist on it a couple days ago.

  • It’s Showtime!

    Date: 2013.11.04 | Category: Consumerism, Personal | Response: 2

    If you’d peered into my kitchen window yesterday afternoon, you would have seen me sitting on the floor with a moist rag and a bowl of Ajax cleanser, wiping the dirty fingerprints and random food stains off the cabinets. Prior to that, I was dusting the wainscoting in the dining room, as well as the base of the pedestal dining table. I also cleaned between the countertop tiles using a grout brush.

    A few minutes ago, I was busily cleaning the kitchen island and spraying the living room with Febreze “Meadows & Rain”-scented air freshener. According to the manufacturer, it is supposed to smell “like a grassy meadow misted in early morning dewy freshness.” I actually find it quite pleasant, though its main selling point is that it effectively masks the smell of dog.

    Intensive cleaning is not something I just do for the fun of it. I only clean like this for one reason: people are coming over. If you are reading this and are upset that you aren’t on the guest list, don’t be–I didn’t decide whom to invite. Occasionally, we volunteer to host a cocktail party for supporters of a nonprofit we are involved with. There is no hard sell, or any sell at all for that matter, at these events, but hopefully they will make people feel warm and fuzzy and inspired to make a donation. A couple years ago, someone at one of our parties made a $10K donation shortly thereafter. Joe and I don’t have that kind of money, but we do what we can to help. In my case, that is to make sure the house is tidy. (I will note here that Joe does help, but he doesn’t obsess over the details like I do.)

    Even when our house is spic-and-span, though, I still feel like it is biding its time to return to its natural state of clutter. Have you heard of a “dry drunk”–someone who still has an alcoholic’s mindset despite the fact that they no longer imbibe? One of the reasons I was so obsessed with the now-canceled TV show “Hoarders” was because I sometimes felt like I was a few stacks of newspapers away from becoming one myself. You just give up that vigilance for a little while, and the next thing you know, you’re making your way through your house via an elaborate network of goat paths.

    A few years ago, I tried out a few methods of keeping your house clean. One of them involved index cards–you were supposed to record all of your household chores on 3×5 cards, and then do a certain number of them every day. Fly Lady is another popular resource, though her command of “dressing to your shoes” even when you’re inside the house is a deal-breaker for me. (Scandinavians, like the Japanese, simply don’t wear street shoes in their homes. We are a slippers-wearing people. For events like tonight’s, I don a pair of simple black flats that I have never worn outside. And no, I don’t ask visitors to remove their shoes.)

    The only method I’ve found that is completely foolproof is having people over. Now that we have a house-sitter, I spend the day before we leave on a trip in a cleaning frenzy. (She always leaves the house tidy, though coming home from vacation always seems to require a week or so just to put away everything you brought back with you; I spent part of last night alphabetizing my Playbill collection.) But there’s something extra-intimidating about having people you don’t know in your home. I don’t want anyone to drive away asking their spouse, “Did you see the size of those dust bunnies?”

    Of course, no one ever notices the absence of dust bunnies. That’s one of the things that makes cleaning a thankless task. Plus, no matter how well you do it, you’ll have to do it again in a few days (or, in the case of dirty dishes, a few hours).

    As I was writing this entry, I received an email from an East Coast friend who is in the Bay Area for work this week. He’s coming over to visit us on Saturday. That’s good news: it means the house will stay clutter- and dust-bunny-free for a little while longer.

  • Commercial Music

    Date: 2013.10.11 | Category: Consumerism, Music | Response: 0

    Last weekend, Joe was watching football in the living room when he called out to ask me to come see something. It was an ad for a smartwatch–I’m not going to name the brand–which featured a montage of Smart Watches In Popular Culture, from “Get Smart!” and “Dick Tracy” to “Star Trek” and “Knight Rider.” It’s a clever ad, and I can only imagine how much work it was to get permission to use all of those clips. However, the reason Joe brought it to my attention had nothing to do with the product or the clips. It was the musical accompaniment, a simple eight-note melody playing over a bed of synthesizer sounds, which I suppose was considered “retro-futuristic” enough to back up the kitschy imagery.

    For me, though, that music is much more than just a bleep-bloop soundtrack for “Jetsons” and “Flintstones” clips. It is one of only a handful of songs I have heard in my life that I can say I love unreservedly. The name of the song is “Someone Great,” and it’s by LCD Soundsystem. There are no lyrics heard in the ad, which makes sense, since the song is about reacting to the death of a loved one. The songwriter, James Murphy, has never been willing to discuss who exactly he had in mind when he wrote the song, which makes it somewhat enigmatic; there are dozens of comments speculating about it on a site called songmeanings.com, but no one will ever know for sure unless Murphy decides to spill. I kind of like the fact that he hasn’t done so. In a way, that means the song belongs to everyone who has ever lost a loved one; they can find comfort in it, as I did when I posted the video and lyrics on this site shortly after a close friend’s suicide.

    I hate to sound like an anti-capitalist fogey, but it makes me unhappy to hear that song being used in an advertisement. It cheapens it somehow. I recognize that it’s not my song, it’s James Murphy’s song, and he can do as he pleases with it; he disbanded LCD Soundsystem a couple of years ago, so he no longer has that revenue stream. (He is still active in the music world, though, most recently producing the new Arcade Fire album, Reflektor.) And I’m aware that a lot of people discover new music through commercials. Nick Drake would never have had his posthumous career resurgence were it not for the car ad that featured his “Pink Moon.” But still, I can’t help but feel, why did they have to use this song?

    Earlier today, through my TV lineups page, I received an email from a guy named Steve Young who writes for “Late Show with David Letterman.” He has co-written a book called Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. These musical numbers were “glimpsed only at conventions and sales meetings… the audience is managers and salesmen, and the songs are about how great it is to be working at the company.” I was listening to a few of the tunes, like “An Exxon Dealer’s Wife” and “Don’t Let a Be-Back Get Away” (the latter from the 1959 Oldsmobile show “Good News About Olds”), and while the songs weren’t written and produced for the general public, they still made me think back to the days of commercial jingles. No one seems to write music specifically for ads anymore. It’s probably cheaper and easier to license pre-existing songs, and when they’re already fairly well known, you have the added emotional resonance that comes with them. In the case of “Something Great,” though, the feelings that song brings up in me definitely do not make me want to run out and buy a watch.

  • 50 (or 25) Reasons to Go On Living

    Date: 2013.05.17 | Category: Consumerism, Personal | Response: 4

    A few years ago, a book called 14,000 Things to Be Happy About was published, and it became a huge best-seller. Naturally, as a cynic, I thought this sounded ridiculous. (I like this Amazon.com customer review: “Should be 14,000 random things to put in a book. I am happy I could use this book to start a fire.”) I’m disappointed that somebody came up with the idea to write a spoof called 11,002 Things to Be Miserable About, because I should totally have thought of that! Judging from some of the items on the authors’ web site (“According to experts, canned tomatoes contain potentially dangerous levels of Bisphenol-A, a chemical that has been linked to reproductive problems, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity”; “More than two-thirds of elderly people will need assistance to cope with the tasks of daily life at some point”), it looks like the book could bear the alternate title, 11,002 Things to Worry About.

    But we’re not here to talk about misery! We’re here to talk about hope for the future! I went to the Amazon page for 14,000 Things and clicked on the “Search Inside/Surprise Me” link, and came up with pages featuring the following entries:

    • Harvest chowder (But what if you hate chowder? Plus, this looks like vomit.)
    • Baby-sitting (Then I must be one of the happiest person alive, since I babysit my faux-nephew every week)
    • Remembering your sunglasses (I had to share this one with Joe because he is constantly losing pairs of sunglasses)
    • Bean lovers (Does this mean that beans, the legumes, bring happiness? Or that people who love beans should fill you with joy?)
    • Men who explain their behavior, “I’m just a wild ‘n crazy guy” (That would make me think they are ripping off old Steve Martin comedy routines)
    • Little Women, the 1994 film version (Because seeing Winona Ryder portray Jo March is far superior to reading Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel)

    Anyway, I decided to see if I could come up with 50 reasons to go on living in the space of half an hour. Please note that I am not going to mention “family and friends,” because that should go without saying. Also, this is my list. Any one of these things may make you want to throw yourself under a bus; I don’t know.

    1. Eurovision is tomorrow
    2. There are still four August Wilson plays I haven’t seen yet
    3. My tomato plants are already so huge that I figure they must bear fruit sometime this summer
    4. I want to find out what happens to Toronto’s (allegedly) crack-smoking mayor
    5. There’s a new flavor of Mangria
    6. I just found out that there’s already a sequel out to the book I’m currently reading and enjoying (The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen)
    7. John Oliver starts hosting “The Daily Show” on June 10, and while I adore Jon Stewart, that should be an interesting change of pace
    8. The bakery down the street sells macarons
    9. Sue Grafton still has four more letters of the alphabet to cover
    10. I still need to buy and use some of those cool round Global Forever Stamps
    11. The ABBA museum opened in Stockholm
    12. One of my faux-nephew’s other faux-aunts is coming to visit in August, meaning she can babysit and Joe & I can go out for a quiet dinner with our friends
    13. “Parks & Recreation” got renewed
    14. Nathan Rabin’s new book will be published next month
    15. The Tony Awards are coming up shortly
    16. I still haven’t tried all the different Thai curries at Bluefin
    17. Josh Kornbluth’s new play
    18. Sopapillas
    19. Aspiring to not always be in fourth place (out of four) in the Fitbit rankings (though this may require one of my friends breaking an ankle or something)
    20. Sutter Brown
    21. Hoping to visit Australia & New Zealand someday
    22. Waiting to celebrate gay marriage legalization and the end of DOMA
    23. Upcoming reservations at Honor Mansion and Bravas Bar de Tapas
    24. My friend Janet from Ohio has promised to visit this summer
    25. Our third-row tickets to Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” (Berkeley Rep) starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

    OK, time is up, and that’s only 25… so I’ll have to reset the clock and come up with the rest later on.

  • I Blame Gaga

    Date: 2013.05.10 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 1

    I didn’t mean to leave such a depressing blog post up front for so long; however, I am a slow writer, and I don’t often have time to fit blogging into my busy schedule. This weekend looks to be another hectic one. We’ll be attending a fancy fundraising event for one of our favorite arts organizations. It’s one of the very few occasions where I really have to try to glam it up a bit. This year, I decided maybe it was time for me to get a new pair of heels.

    Because I walk about five miles every day, I own a lot of comfy shoes. After years of searching, I finally discovered the Holy Grail of walking shoes: Easy Spirit Reinvent, which are incredibly lightweight, soft, comfortable, and reasonably priced (they’re listed at $79, but if you sign up for Easy Spirit’s mailing list, you can save quite a bit during their periodic sales). Plus, they don’t look too bad, as long as you avoid the more garish neon colors (I own them in black and the unfortunately discontinued dark red). A good 90% of the time, when I leave the house, I am wearing my Reinvents. I purchase them from EasySpirit.com, so I don’t spend much time hanging out in shoe stores.

    Since the party is tomorrow, however, I hit the brick & mortar shoe shops. First, I visited a cute little boutique in Berkeley. There were three sales attendants, standing around gabbing at the back of the store. No one greeted me or offered to help. They were probably judging me by my shoes (Ecco, Vibration II, silver). I flipped over a pair of snakeskin pumps to see the price tag. $190. Eh, too expensive for shoes I will only wear a couple times a year, at most.

    Then I figured I might as well visit the self-service discount shoe barn in Emeryville. It is the antithesis of a cute boutique. There are hundreds of shoes on display; you find the pair you like, then check the stack of shoeboxes underneath and hope that they have them in your size. I skipped the comfy flats and went straight to the high heeled dress shoes.

    What I saw there was truly horrifying. What has happened to shoes? These… things didn’t look like shoes. They resembled bizarre modern sculptures, or something you might imagine would be used in an S&M torture chamber. And there were rows and rows of them! Good God, are people buying them? Are they wearing them? If so, how?

    I remembered seeing pop star Lady Gaga wear this extreme footwear, but I had no idea it had trickled down to the masses. (The ones in the photo had been marked down to $19.99.) People, Lady Gaga may be a fashion icon, but no one should emulate her style in shoes. For one thing, not even she can walk around in these so-called “heel-less platforms” without tumbling down. And the singer’s career is now on hiatus due to chronic pain, which some are speculating may have been at least partially caused by her shoes. (Gaga, may I suggest you pick up a pair of Easy Spirit Reinvents while you’re recuperating?)

    The shoes do not have heels. I guess you’re supposed to put your weight on the front of your foot. They’re so high that it must feel like you’re walking around on tiptoe. In the interest of science, I decided to try on a pair. You can see them at left. It did indeed feel like the back of my feet were sort of floating in space. I walked about three feet in them, and almost twisted my ankle. Plus, they are super ugly. I remember hearing that when Oprah was still filming her daily talk show that she would wear sneakers until the moment she sat down in her chair. At that point, an assistant would whisk away the athletic shoes and O would don a pair of Louboutins. Heck, if I only had to sit, and if I had mad Oprah money, I’d wear Louboutins too. These are SO pretty! You could display them on a shelf when you weren’t wearing them! The Gaga-esque shoes, on the other hand, look like something you might use to tenderize steaks (perhaps they come in handy when you’re assembling a meat dress).

    Anyway, after an exhaustive search, I finally found a pump with a reasonable heel. I walked up and down the aisle a bit without tottering over. They were actually pretty comfortable… something I could imagine myself wearing, maybe not for a long walk, but to a restaurant or party. I noticed the name on the box… Easy Spirit. My old friends.

    It’s easy to laugh at these bizarre shoes, but to be honest, I find them pretty disturbing. Women are literally being crippled in the name of beauty. Some women are even undergoing surgery so they can better fit into pointy-toed stilettos. Obviously it’s a free country and anybody can choose to wear whatever they like, but it seems that a lot of women are making the choice to be really, really uncomfortable (in the now) and risk serious damage (down the road) in the name of fashion. I agree with this Jezebel.com poster, who contributed a comment on an article titled “Wearing Heels Does Not Make You A Bad Feminist”: “The fact is as women we ARE pressured to dress and look a certain way, even the most intimate aspect of our appearance is judged and regulated by a culture that says ‘beautiful women wear heels, are white, have hairless bodies, etc etc etc,’ so it’s never that simple and it’s certainly worthwhile to keep challenging the emerging status quo. Indeed there is a certain privilege that comes with being the kind of woman who pulls off a pencil skirt and high heels, it can be difficult to get taken seriously when you’re a woman who wants nothing to do with the heels, make-up etc that we associate with being ‘dressed for work.’”

    There is one big advantage to heels, though (and this goes for men as well as women–if you think men can’t wear heels, well, check out the drag queens on parade in Broadway’s smash “Kinky Boots”): height. When I put on those horrible studded shoes, I was suddenly close to six feet tall. I imagined myself at a show at Bottom of the Hill or the Great American Music Hall, clubs where I usually wind up stuck behind some super-tall dude and have to settle for catching an occasional glimpse of the band’s lead singer over his shoulder. In those shoes, I could tower over almost everyone else. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if standing on actual stilts would be more comfortable.

  • Math Is Hard

    Date: 2013.03.22 | Category: Consumerism, Pets | Response: 1

    Following up on my last post, Nordstrom apologized via Twitter, stating that “We really do appreciate your honesty & apologize for your disappointment. We’d like to pass your feedback to the store.” I never heard from the store, but at least I have expressed my outrage via social media, as a good 21st-century citizen.

    Once again, however, I have been tempted with ill-gotten gains, this time at Petco, which is where I shop for Bibi’s incredibly expensive dog food. (I’m disappointed that Merrick’s French Country Café flavor hasn’t made it to my local Petco yet–I’d love to serve her that while my parents are in Paris next month. “Peut-être ta grand-mère et ton grand-père sont aussi manger de canard, les pommes de terre, les carottes et les petits pois!”) This afternoon, I stopped by to stock up, and my total was $31.56. Because I hate getting a bunch of pennies in change, I gave the cashier $40.01 in cash–two twenties and one cent. She had already entered $40.00 into the cash register, however. She gave me a deer-in-headlights look. It was obvious she had no idea what to do next. At that point, I should probably have asked for the penny back and accepted 44 cents in change.

    “Just give me back 45 cents instead of 44,” I helpfully suggested. She started grabbing random coins and bills from the drawer and was about to hand me a 20, a 10, a one, and a couple of quarters. “No, no, that’s too much,” I said. “I gave you $40.01 on a total of $31.56. Give me eight dollars and 45 cents.”

    I should add at this point that I am horrible at math. The first time in my life I ever got a C was in high school algebra, and I was just grateful to have passed the class. However, I have managed to get by; despite the fact that I am married to a math genius, I manage the family finances. Sure, I do it with the help of computer programs and calculators, but I am OK at basic arithmetic; I can calculate tips in my head and figure out bill-splitting in restaurants. And I knew, without having to think too much about it, that the cashier owed me $8.45.

    She, however, apologized and pulled out a calculator. She entered 40.01, the amount I had given her, and subtracted 31.56, the cost of my purchase, including tax. Voila: $8.45. She handed me a five, three ones, a quarter, and two dimes. I left the store with my change and purchase, thinking, “From now on, I’m just using my debit card at that store.”

  • The Last Honest Man

    Date: 2013.03.07 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 3

    A few days ago, my mom asked me if I’d heard about the Kansas City panhandler who received a valuable diamond ring in his donation cup. The woman who mistakenly gave the ring to homeless Billy Ray Harris was so impressed by his honesty–he held onto the ring, figuring it must have been donated to him in error, until the owner returned for it, instead of immediately pawning it for a few quick bucks–that she and her husband set up an online fundraising campaign to raise money for the panhandler. So far, they’ve raised over $175,000, which “will be given directly to Billy Ray” at the end of the 90-day fundraiser.

    Somehow, this story had escaped me until my mom told me about it, but I have to admit that my first thought was, perhaps a bit uncharitably, “Is it really a good idea to give $175,000 to a homeless dude?” Giving someone a vast infusion of cash often leads to misery, as many studies of lottery winners have proven. I’m sure the couple had no idea their little fundraiser would wind up raking in a six-figure sum, but in retrospect, maybe it would have been better to raise the money for, say, the Kansas City Rescue Mission instead. Of course, that wouldn’t have generated the publicity that “Honest panhandler gets rich!” did.

    The story of Billy Ray Harris also struck a bit of a chord with me because of the experience I’d just had with Nordstrom. I’ve been a pretty loyal Macy’s shopper for many years, but lately, I’ve been trying to make my purchases elsewhere because of the Trump factor. If you’ve been in Macy’s men’s department lately, it can be difficult to find accessories that aren’t Trump’s cheap made-in-China crap. And I don’t just hate Trump because of the whole birther thing–seriously, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of reasons to hate Donald Trump. For instance: did you know he stacks his pizza slices and eats them with a fork?

    So I went to the Nordstrom in downtown San Francisco for the first time in ages to buy a small purse. I’m not someone who is a big connoisseur of designer labels, as anyone who’s ever observed my fashion sense can attest, but it just so happens that there was a Kate Spade bag that was exactly what I had been searching for. I took it to the counter. The woman at the register was on the phone–she seemed to be chatting with a customer about various handbag options–and after a few moments, she rang up my purchase on one of those little portable devices they have now at certain stores (they’ve been using them at the Apple store for years now). She asked me if I wanted her to email my receipt. Since I’ve gotten lots of emailed receipts from Apple and other retailers, I said sure, and gave her my address. She showed me the device to make sure she’d entered my email address correctly. I checked it and confirmed that it was indeed accurate. San Francisco retailers are no longer allowed to give out free shopping bags, so I put the item in a plastic bag I’d brought from home, and left the store.

    Later that evening, I realized that I hadn’t received the emailed receipt. Usually they come pretty quickly, so of course I started second-guessing myself, wondering if there had been an error in the email address after all. The next day, though, I got a “Thank you for being a Nordstrom shopper!” email, so I knew that wasn’t the case. Everything was fine, right? Well, not quite. A week later, I logged into my credit card company’s web site to reconcile my statement and pay my bill. The charge for the purse was nowhere to be found.

    It had been an entire week! Something had to be wrong. I suppose some people would go, “Whoo, free designer bag!” and that would be the end of it. However, like Billy Ray Harris, my conscience would not allow me to do such a thing. I looked up the phone number for Nordstrom customer service and called.

    The woman who answered was polite, but somewhat befuddled by my call. First, she asked for my credit card number so she could check if it was in the system. (I only have one credit card, so I obviously knew which one I had used for the purchase.) It was not. Then she announced that she had never come across this problem before, and would have to “pow-wow with [her] supervisor” to figure out what to do. I gave her my phone number and she said she’d call back.

    About half an hour later, someone from the downtown San Francisco store called me. She sounded more annoyed than befuddled, and said something like, “I understand you left our store without paying for a handbag.” Um, hello, I’m trying to do the right thing here! I immediately start stammering that I had seen the transaction on the sales associate’s screen, and it was not my intention to not pay for the item. My guess is that the people at Nordstrom were a bit freaked out–after all, if this had happened once, it could have happened on other occasions, and not everyone is as honest as I am (or they don’t check their credit card statements as carefully as I do–if Nordstrom’s handbag department had been but one stop on an all-day shop-a-rama, would I have noticed the omission? Perhaps not). However, I kind of thought someone would thank me for my honesty. Instead, the person on the phone simply took down my credit card info. She asked if I wanted my receipt emailed or snail-mailed. I said emailed, figuring it would have to work this time. And it did, though it took six or seven hours for the receipt to turn up in my inbox. The transaction also appeared on my credit card company’s web site next time I logged in.

    A day or two after this wacky little misunderstanding, I went to Safeway to do some grocery shopping, and when I came home, I noticed on the receipt that somehow I’d only been charged for two containers of orange juice, instead of the three I’d purchased. (Juice happened to be on sale, but it wasn’t a buy-three-get-one-free deal.) I’m sorry, but you know what? I decided to just keep the extra juice. I didn’t want to get back in the car, drive across town to the store, and try to explain what had happened to a bewildered customer service person. It was $2.50. I spend loads of money at Safeway every week. I decided not to stress about it. Call me a scofflaw, but my conscience feels clear.

  • The Twinkie Defense

    Date: 2012.11.18 | Category: Consumerism, Food | Response: 1

    The Internet has been abuzz with news about Hostess Brands’ bankruptcy. Twinkies are no more! Opportunists are trying to sell them on Craigslist for far more than the old retail price of around 50 cents a Twinkie; one seller in San Jose is peddling a box of 10 for $20, and he’s not willing to haggle (“Price is Firm”). Of course, there are already plenty of companies reportedly hoping to snap up Hostess’ assets, including Flowers Foods, maker of Tastykakes, which most East Coasters prefer to Twinkies anyway. “Tastykakes are to Hostess products as prime rib is to the McDonald’s McRib,” wrote one Yelp reviewer. “Seriously, have a Tastykake, and then try to eat a Twinkie or a Ding Dong again without being sorely disappointed.”

    The last time I ate a Twinkie was when I was 11 or 12. I suspect if I bit into one today, which I have no intention of ever doing even if a box of the cakes was delivered to my doorstep this evening, it would be akin to Proust’s madeleine. But I don’t need to actually eat a Twinkie to remember that last time. It’s been a vivid memory for years and years.

    On Wednesday evenings, I had to attend confirmation classes at my church. The schedule went like this: first, we would eat dinner in the church basement. Dinner was provided by moms according to a rota. Most moms back then were stay-at-home and actually cooked casseroles and things (my mom made chicken pot pie), but occasionally a working mom would pick up Pizza Hut, which was especially exciting. Following dinner, we had choir practice, and after that, Bible study. It took four years to get through all of the classes and in that time, we read the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments. Students had to use Bic four-color pens to make notes, draw symbols and underline things in the Book. Jesus’ words, for instance, were supposed to be highlighted in red.

    I hated everything about these evenings. The kids at my table would inevitably wind up discussing some TV show I hadn’t seen (I started watching “Happy Days” because it aired on Tuesday nights and was always a hot topic of conversation); I disliked choir to the point where I would occasionally suffer from panic attacks during rehearsal (though I didn’t realize until years later that that was what they were); all of that business with the four-color pen seemed like mindless busywork; and worst of all, in that pre-DVR era, I had to miss my beloved “Little House on the Prairie,” which was on at 8 PM on Wednesdays. Why couldn’t it have aired on Tuesdays instead of “Happy Days”?

    It never occurred to me that not attending these classes was an option. I dutifully made it through all four years and was confirmed. Then it was my brother’s turn to start. After a couple of weeks, he just said he was never going back, and that was that. I was furious, but mainly because I would never have thought of simply refusing to go. That’s the sort of outside-the-box thinking that has made my brother the very successful person he is today.

    I did like the church’s friendly minister, Pastor Samuelson, who sat with a different table of students each week. One week, he wound up sitting next to me. I enjoyed that, because it meant I could talk to an adult, which I found preferable to trying to make conversation with my peers. Anyway, while the dinners changed every week, depending on whose mom was cooking, one thing stayed the same: we always had Twinkies for dessert. I think a member of the church owned a Hostess distributorship and donated Twinkies by the crateful. It was always Twinkies, never any of the other Hostess brands, like Ding Dongs or Ho Hos. I grew very tired of Twinkies, but being a kid, it never would have occurred to me to just not eat one. I mean, it was dessert! Who turns down dessert?

    When we received our weekly snack cake, I asked Pastor Samuelson why we had to have Twinkies every week. The minister — who always seemed incredibly old and wise to me, despite the fact that he was only in his mid-50s at the time — replied that those Twinkies were a gift from God, and he made it very clear to me that only a spoiled, ungrateful child would complain about them. I shut up and ate my Twinkie, probably disappointing God even further by wondering during class what Laura Ingalls was up to instead of drawing the proper symbols in my study Bible.

    Ever since, I have associated Twinkies with my insubordination and God’s wrath. Is it any wonder that I grew up to be an agnostic food snob?