27 December 2013

Free after rebate

I set out to write this post because it seemed as though the world had changed.

Back when I was in late high school my Sundays followed a pretty regular routine. I'd get out of bed and head down to the kitchen. My parents would be there, eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. My dad would cook me an egg and heat me up whatever else he had cooked earlier. Over breakfast, I'd jockey for space at the table and get to work, looking through the advertising circulars: Staples, Office Max, CompUSA, Office Depot, Circuit City, Best Buy. I'd draw up a plan of attack and head out right after breakfast.

Then I'd come back with the spoils: all sorts of electronics I had very little need for. Sure the scanner and cable modem that I bought were genuinely useful. I still have some of those surge protectors. The spindles of CD-Rs and DVD-RWs, well they were useful at first, but each new spindle bought before the previous one was finished brought diminishing returns. The chemical air dusters were of some use, but were probably more responsible for enabling in unhealthy relationship with inhalants in at least one UMass Amherst student. But the five-pack of ethernet cards and the poorly made mini-ATX case purchased with no computer in mind to build into it, well your guess is as good as mine.

So why'd I do it? It was mostly out of pride. I had a reputation as a master deal-finder among my friends and family. And these electronics were really good deals. I didn't work an awful lot in high school--a website here and there, technical support--and didn't need to in order to support this habit. That's because these items were free--free after rebate.

The premise of free after rebate items is pretty simple. A store sells an item at an inflated price, but the store or the manufacturer of the item issue a mail in rebate for exactly that price. Their hope is that some of the people buying the item will forget to fill out the paperwork, or make some mistake doing so. Even for those who dutifully fill out the form and mail it some exotic locale like Young America, Minnesota or Calais, Maine, the company gets to hold on to the money for several months, collecting interest. Scumbag companies may further up the ante by denying perfectly valid rebates and issue the cash to only those who have the time and energy to haggle. As an added benefit, retailers drive traffic into their stores and manufacturers drive attention to their brand. Not every store would run free after rebate sales every week, but typically at least one would in a given week. The diligent (and unfortunately sometimes only the lucky) consumer gets the benefit of only paying sales tax on the original price. Just the sort of unsustainable scheme to tide over our intrepid nation between the tech bubble and real estate one.

Of course, the High Holy Day on the free after rebate calendar was Black Friday. It was a bonanza of both quality and quantity. Rather than hiding the free after rebate items in the margin as usual, there might be a whole page of free items. And maybe instead of a 50-spindle of CD-Rs, this time around you could get a full 100 for free. Stuff like that.

My interest in finding good deals and my acquisition of a car largely coincided. So the idea of getting up early, maybe 4 AM, standing in line and snagging a bunch of free stuff took on a meaning beyond its component parts. As a mission that I planned and executed entirely on my own, it was a show of independence. My parents never really set strict limits on what I could and couldn't do, but I did a pretty good job imposing these on myself. I didn't smoke or drink in high school and I can't remember a time I spend out late socializing on a school night. In this context, Black Friday wasn't just something that I thought of as fun and exciting. Sure, there was sneaking around at odd hours of the night and the sense of plundering and ripping off the stores (despite their utter complicity with this). But more than that, it was in a sense an act of rebellion--not against some authority figure, but limits I'd imposed on myself.

This Thanksgiving I was at a friend's house watching TV and got bombarded with ads for Black Friday sales. I didn't remember many advertisements like these in the years that I stood in line. They were pushy, establishing that your loved ones were expecting good gifts and these sales were your only chance to satisfy all of them. Furthermore, the ads focussed heavily on the earlier openings times of the stores, onto Thanksgiving day itself. It made Black Friday seem less about getting up early and more about anxiously ducking out of a relaxing day of celebration. After a few viewings I was strongly repulsed by what Black Friday had become.

It seemed as though they were misappropriating something that I held kind of dear. Black Friday was an innocent time, celebrated with the most consequence-free forms of rebellion. Now it seemed the amalgamation of the basest elements of consumerism, infiltrating a holiday celebrating being appreciative of the things one already has.

But thinking about it more, I think that I was the one who misappropriated Black Friday. How could it be about anything other than consumerism? It wasn't the world that changed, it was merely the way I was looking at it.

26 December 2013

A brush with reason

Something strange happened in SeaTac on the day before Christmas. As I approached the security line at the airport, the wandering, town-crier-like TSA agent announcing the rules and regulations told us to keep our shoes on. As we approached the security line proper, the woman in front of me asked if her tablet had to come out of her bag, and an agent too her not only could the tablet stay in, but laptops could too. I asked if my two laptops were in fine in the bag, and was politely told this was alright. I asked if my belt had to come off, and the answer, surprisingly, was 'only if it sets off the detector'. Hmm. I left it on, hoping for the best. As I approached the line, I looked for a bins in which to put my winter coat. They were all with an agent standing behind the X-ray machine, and said agent told me to just throw the jacket on the conveyer. As I walked through the metal detector, I realized that I had my hat on. No one cared.

I wasn't sure then and I'm still not sure what was going on. Was it an early Christmas present to us long-suffering travelers beaten down by living in the era of backscatter radiation and enhanced pat-downs? An attempt to relieve congestion on what could be a busy travel day? Maybe I had gotten diverted into some special line--I didn't get a chance to observe what was happening elsewhere. And if that was the case, what had I done to demonstrate this worthiness to the TSA? I have an honest face? Can the NSA read my thoughts and intentions now (hey guys!)? Perhaps a rogue TSA supervisor was running the show? The terrorists won, so why bother? The terrorists lost, so why continue? Nihilism? Mission accomplished?

All in all it just seemed so absurdly reasonable. I'd like to think that in general the world operates in a fairly reasonable way, based on facts, and understandable by me. But an airport, fuck, that's like the epicenter of arbitrariness. Will this continue, or when I fly out of Boston, will I get an extra grope for recompense? Or will life just go back to being the same. Each laptop in its own bin; belts off; hats off; holding my hands up above my head, my thumbs pointing in at my ears, standing in my stocking feet? I strongly suspect the latter. And that day before Christmas will be looked back at as some fleeting and confusing thing, as I jockey three bins and two bags down that very same security line.

But fuck, there'd be nothing quite like a world where airport security goes and changes.

Christmas Dinner

My family never celebrated Christmas. We're Russian-American, and in Russia, you have a tree and you decorate it with ornaments and you give each other presents, but it's not for Christmas, it's for New Years. I guess this is since religion was taboo in the Soviet Union, but honestly, I don't really know much about it. All I know is that the usual secular Christmas stuff was moved over by one week. Moreover, my family's not religious at all (well, not myself or my parents, anyway), nor are my friends, for the most part. Meanwhile, my girlfriend's family is Jewish. All of these things added up meant that Christmas dinner wasn't something I had on my mind as the 25th of December approached.

Now, my parents have a timeshare for a week and a half in late December, and so while they're off in the Caribbean, I move in to their house in Needham to take care of the cat and fish. My girlfriend was with me, but on the 25th she decided she was going to go to her parents' for a couple of days. The food situation at the house was getting scarce, and I thought we'd go grocery shopping before I dropped her off, until it occurred to me that it was Christmas day and everything was probably closed. So I dropped her off and then wondered what I was going to eat for dinner.

I figured maybe some foreign-run restaurant or big chain grocery store would be open, but driving through Needham, I had no such luck, only finding the most generic and least culinarily attractive general stores open (7/11, CVS). Finally, I decided 'fuck it' and pulled into a Tedeschi parking lot. I'd never been in a Tedeschi before and was hoping that it was a bit classier than a 7/11, i.e. that I could find some sandwich or something there that didn't look like it was made out of plastic and grease. Walking in, though, I saw that I'd had no such luck.

Browsing, I heard the cashier talking to the other one or two other customers, wishing them a merry Christmas, good luck on their scratch ticket, and so on. This guy was very very very nice, and though it seemed genuine, gears started turning in my head. I eventually picked out a sandwich that seemed the least likely to destroy my intestines and went over to pay for it. The cashier remarked, kindly, "A nice Christmas dinner, huh?" and then, with a big smile, wished me a wonderful day.

As I was going through the usual motions and noises here, I couldn't stop thinking about this guy's tone and manner, and what he may have been thinking. Here I was, a guy coming in to a Tedeschi at 5 PM on Christmas and buying a factory-made sandwich for five bucks to go home and eat alone. Meanwhile, this cashier was so kind and gracious, I started wondering: was he like this because he was always like this, was he like this because it was Christmas and he wanted people to have a nice holiday, or was he like this because he was worried about the circumstances of people going in to a Tedeschi to buy a solo Christmas dinner and didn't want me to go home and hang myself? Maybe it was some combination of the three. I wanted to assure him that my life was in good shape and Christmas wasn't really any different from any other day from me, but I just paid, left, ate my greasy sandwich at home, and played some video games.

14 December 2013

Fire and Rain

[Author (Jon Rosenberg)’s note: this is part of a larger reflection I was writing, but realized I was going pure stream of consciousness without a bound.  I chopped this out and tried to edit it up a little.  As such this may be the first of a series.]

Sometimes I try to analyze life like it’s a literary piece.  I’ll consider what’s sitting on a table when I walk in and think “Ok, what does this symbolize?” or “What could this be foreshadowing.”  If it’s pizza it’s probably foreshadowing us eating dinner, but it could also be symbolizing my host is great big slob.

Months ago now I went on a trip to the Caribbean with my now ex and her family, and when walking along, just her and I, we passed a restaurant with a live musician doing his rendition of “Fire and Rain.”  I reflexively uttered a note of displeasure that he wasn’t even trying to carry the somberness of the song, thus making it more upbeat than what I feel the song IS.  My ex retorted that it was a cover, and that it was annoying I didn’t like covers.  The conversation didn’t proceed.

I was admittedly a little jarred at the strength of the response as I didn’t realize it was a sore spot.  Given the later discovered context that she was trying to paint me as someone with whom she had a minimum of commonality, the reaction seems more logical, but none the less unkind.  It did make me think though, am I against covers?  I had never thought of myself that way.  I almost always like Hallelujah, and I definitely like the Simple Man cover by Shinedown, and there are covers genuinely unlike their source material such as Smells Like Teen Spirit covered by The Wounded, or Metallica being played by Apocalyptica that have wound their way through my headphones a fair number of times.

There was an itch for me to scratch here.  Even when the covers I liked took the song into their own, they didn’t leave the genuine piece behind.  They picked songs to cover that they had a respect for, and then typically didn’t try to turn the provided set of words against the original creator.  They instead seemed just to want to tell the world how they heard it.  It had not crossed my mind that a cover might actually intentionally be a rejection of the source material.

It wasn’t that I took immediate offence to this thought, and upon this new view, would have liked to talk about that I think, but my partner had seemed to close off.  Instead I ruminated on my own and came to reflect on my own visit.

Our setting at the time was a timeshare heavy portion of St Maartens.  Among our fellow island populace, the members of our party were of an age with an average well below the Island at large.  The contrast was hard to miss, but through my suddenly altered perception, it gained more form.  While I might consider my trip as just a vacation, many of the others had committed to something more.  They had picked The annual, or more frequent trip, until the ultimate end.  Their lives were behind them, no going back now, and even a disappointingly low amount of variables when looking forward.

When my fellow islanders heard the live music at the bar, even if they requested Fire and Rain, that’s not really what they wanted to hear.  They HAVE seen fire and rain, and they don’t want to be reminded about the terrors of their past, or worse, how they won’t see them again.  They want the same thing they wanted when they first purchased their spot on the island: an escape; and the knowledge that yes, things are as they are, but bad isn’t here right now.  In that light, the cover made much more sense.  By producing the song in the same words and chords, but somehow more upbeat, the song acknowledged that, yes, we have not all climbed a crystal stair to the present day.  None the less, we know we can be happy in this moment, and now we can reflect on our Fire and Rain, and whether true or not, we still declare we have very much come to terms with it.

Of course, the much more probable reality is that producing the song accurately was not in the realm of this singer's talents, and so the visitors got the version they did.