Msnowe's Blog

the things we wait for

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on November 27, 2007

It is simple to understand history and trends in society from a textbook, or from old newspapers, or even economic data. But our lives are not measured in units of pages, or tabloids (unless you’re a debutante), or bell curves. Real human life is measured in units of time, or perhaps how we fill what Kipling so eloquently dubbed “the unforgiving minute.”

Unforgiving because it knows no retractions or redactions, it thankfully relies on no machinations or computer software. But it also makes it irreversibly final and scarily accurate – it tells us unabashedly about ourselves. If some books and articles are called primary source, time is pre-primary source material. So one of the best ways to understand what we value as a whole, is what we dedicate time to. And let’s not examine perceived necessary time-takers, such as work, chores, etc., but isolate the time in which we have to freely choose what it is we can do.

Nothing is more disturbing than what many newscasters and newspapers observed over this past week, in terms of how we as Americans choose to spend our free time. As a holiday, Thanksgiving is usually a time set aside for family and friends — and luckily that was the trend this year, for the most part. But here’s a question: How many people at your house spent at least a fraction of Thanksgiving with their eyes glued to the sales ads in the paper as if they were children who had discovered the ecstasy of kindergarten paste? There were ads larger than the rest of the paper’s content leading up to Black Friday, as expected. We can’t entirely blame stores and marketers – after all it is their livelihood, and as free people, we have the choice whether or not to pay attention. But increasingly, attention is all we can seem to give them. Across the country there were reports of families lining up at midnight, and in many cases, before noontime on Thanksgiving Day, in anticipation of black Friday sales. Traditionally, black Friday was a clever adjunct – and a relatively benign idea, because bored families naturally gravitated out of the house on that free Friday off after the holiday. (You can only spend so much time indoors with family before the systematic emotional implosions commence). Although marketers took advantage, it was buyers who really dictated where they would go, and what they would purchase. Somewhere, somehow, in the shift of pronoun importance marked by caring more about “what” than “whom,” that power swapped hands, and the stores seem to be pulling Americans in by the millions and encroaching on the time usually reserved for Thanksgiving. People have now placed a higher priority on material things at a bargain price above priceless immaterial things – and the clock is ever ticking away as our compulsion to buy spins out of control quicker than the ticking second hand.

One could argue that the shopping, and waiting in line, in itself is a bonding experience – it’s like a new ritual, as sought after as splitting the wishbone. But the inescapable fact of black Friday is that you must acknowledge it is not engineered to be fun. The only people who get joy out the experience are severe masochists, and the kinds of people who watch shows like CSI and Law and Order purely for glimpses of carnage. Everything about black Friday is in direct opposition to Thanksgiving the day before = you wait in the cold, you get up super early (or stay up all night), you’re huddled with a bunch of strangers probably more cranky than you, you get trampled on the way in, and chaos ensues. And after all that effort, you may not even leave with what you wanted in the first place. Maybe our tribal instincts are at play here, but there’s a reason we no longer live in caves and club our women (at least most people understand the reasons).

Doing a rather informal poll, and some research, here’s a list of what people have waited in line for: Bread (Depression Era), Soda Fountain Bars (mid-1900’s), tickets to shows and movies (all century), and now, store sales. Our reasons for queuing up, (though some have stayed constant when necessities like food or water are involved), have taken a turn from Experiences that ultimately give us enjoyment and fulfill us, to actual Items that we perceive will give us or someone we care about some future enjoyment. No longer is the wait about getting to the end and fulfilling some inner need for culture, or time with friends while sipping a fountain drink – the most fulfilling aspect of the wait, whether people admit it or not, is the wait itself. Those hardcore black Friday shoppers are quick to give you their stats with the gusto of an Olympic athlete: “I woke up at three AM to travel to Allentown, where the good store is, and waited in line for hours,” or “I snatched up the last guitar hero game from the clutches of a quadriplegic, while balancing on a trolley and simultaneously pushing back a few small children by their hair.” Yes, the gadgets themselves are the ultimate goal of the black Friday festivities, but they are festivities nonetheless, and despite our engorged tummies on Thursday night, black Friday as a legitimate holiday is spreading over into the real holiday the day before it, and sucking everything into its vindictive and time-consuming path. And like a true black hole, there is no end to its devouring nature. Only we can stop it — but honestly, the prospects, and the unforgiving minutes, don’t stand much of a chance.