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.