Monday, February 17, 2014

If You Close Your Eyes, Madison, Does It Almost Feel Like Nothing's Changed At All?

Last year, I told myself I would not write another snarky post about big box stores.   This, for 2 reasons.  First, I don’t want to sound like a broken record.  Those are hard to play on phonograph machines.  Also, kids under 20 don't even know what a record is, so they will just be confused.  Second and most important -- while I am fond of quoting Jack Black, that the world is turning to poop – my online editorial about Target wasn't too popular either. 
Now, citizens of poop world, let me say this.  I’m no economist.  As far as I’m concerned, the Futures Market is a room full of gypsies with crystal balls.  And I do realize that big box superstores aren’t the only places that sell enormous quantities of cheap consumer goods made in unregulated work environments, ship them across the planet, and then stuff them into dozens of plastic bags at checkout.  As I’ve written elsewhere, there are even problems with relative do-gooder retailers like Whole Foods.   Though last time I checked, Target didn’t list out the origin or environmental rating next to either its porch furniture or its “fresh foods.”

Still, I was surprised by the overwhelmingly negative response to my little article.   As my readers so politely articulated, my argument was na├»ve, waging class-warfare, annoying, inaccurate, whiny, and dumb.  And that's exactly what makes the internet so awesome.   One can share her or his opinions with a wider audience, and that audience is free to make harsh comments that will never go away.   Television is a blessing and a curse.  Anonymous internet bitching is a right and a gift.
Everyone had a slightly different take on exactly why I’m an idiot.  One person said Target would not undermine local business, because the neighborhood was not urban.  Another person said Target wouldn’t increase traffic because the neighborhood was already so urban.   My favorite unidentified person praised Target for being so well-stocked and convenient.  He gave the example of how he often urgently needs things.  Like, paper towels.  And a lemon juicer.   Prior to this comment, I had not realized that lemon juicers were such a critical kitchen appliance.  And it definitely is a relief to know that recalcitrant lemon juicers in Madison will now never have to hand squeeze a lemon again.  Not even for one day.  

Had I been so inclined, I suppose I could have left a follow-up comment in regards to the fact that – had he really needed an emergency lemon juicer before Target built its fourth store in town -- there was already a locally-owned kitchen store (Wisconsin Cutlery) one block away.   That sells lemon juicers.   And there was already a Walgreen’s across the street.  That sells paper towels.  As well as a locally-owned grocery store (Metcalfe’s) that was – let’s see -- oh yes.  Right next door.

There were other perspectives on my idiocy.  One woman pointed out that “compact urban development” was the wave of the future for urban planning.  “WHAT is the author thinking?” she asked, rolling her eyes with capital letters.  People who previously had to drive four miles in any direction to shop at Target, could now schlep their Target supplies back home in their bike baskets and “folding personal shopping carts.” 

Wait.  Whoa.  Stop right there, Olmstead.   It’s fine to roll your eyes at me in the comment section of an online newspaper.  But if you’re gonna get all urban, I must ask you: What the fuck is a folding personal shopping cart?  Everyone in New York knows the proper term for those is Granny Carts.  Or in the ethnic Slavic neighborhood of Chicago where my mom grew up: Bohemian Zephyrs.  If you’re going to cite the urban cultural traditions that Target is supporting with its new compact urban superstore -- which I have noticed, is so routinely packed with people pushing around their folding personal shopping carts – then let’s get our terminology right. 

But no, I get it.   We all need more paper tablecloths.  Washable, reusable ones are just so hard to use.  And even though you can get those at both Metcalfe’s and Walgreen’s, you can’t ALSO go to ONE store and get a video game, a bath mat, and a gallon jug of lighter fluid.  Plus, if you want a plasma TV on that SAME shopping trip, you can then load all of that into your folding fucking personal shopping cart for your short walk home.

So no.  I’m not going to write a post about Home Depot.   I'm not going to write about how almost nobody who works there ever seems to know anything about the products they sell.  Or about how even if they did, finding someone to help you in that store is a little bit like finding a public bathroom in New York City.   I will not be the one to say that if you shop at Home Depot because it’s convenient to go there for drywall and light bulbs and a new toilet seat --  and then since it's so convenient, you stop at their garden store and buy a few poinsettias and a Valentine’s Day bonsai tree – then you might be contributing to the demise of a local, family-owned garden store. 
I’m not going to write that.  Because then, when Home Depot opens another store in the heart of town and everyone cheers, I will be an idiot again.

But I am going to write about Johannsen’s Greenhouses.  Because that store is gone now.   In the State Journal story about the closing, Karen Johannsen DID NOT SAY that the cultural hegemony of stores like Home Depot was the main reason they closed.   First of all, normal people don’t use words like cultural hegemony.  Just snooty academics.   Also, the article emphasized that the Johannsens wanted to take advantage of a solid offer to buy the lot, in anticipation of their retirement.  That totally makes sense.  

Of course, if you read the article, you'll notice she did say this: The independents are going away. I don’t care if you’re selling nails, books, or steaks,” she said. “Our youth has been brought up on Home Depot and the big-box [stores].”

Actually, one of the owners (who shall remain anonymous here, because this is the internet and because I can't remember which one it was) said something a lot like that to me last year.  Before they announced they were closing, I knew they were probably closing.  And I was thinking about that conversation recently, because someday soon -- or maybe in six months -- it will be spring.   I’m sad about Johannsen’s closing, because I used to go there all the time.  I didn't go because they were the cheapest option, or the most convenient, or even the most friendly.  In fact, sometimes the person helping me was downright cranky.  But I don’t mind that, because I’m usually the same way.  

No, the reason I shopped there was because those cranky garden gnomes knew a shitload about plants.  They knew what perennials would grow under oak trees.  They knew what indoor plants would survive in our cold, workout space.  (Or as I call it, our dead body room.)   They knew that poinsettias are not great holiday flora for devoted cat owners, because they are mildly toxic.  And they knew that bonsai trees are not a traditional Valentine’s Day gift.   They just aren’t.     

There was another reason I loved it.   I had great memories of it from childhood.    My mom has always shopped there.  My mom is an non-recovering gardenaholic.  Several times a year when I was a kid -- on the way home from school, or after ballet class -- we’d stop there.  I grew up on the south side of Madison, and it was right down the highway from our house.  I loved the building, this large, rustic frame with greenhouses along the back and sides.  Its outdoor sections were filled with durable goods like mulch, soil, and adult human-sized pots.   While my mom scoured the store scooping up every sprouting petunia and snapdragon in sight, I would entertain myself by weaving in and out of the mulch bags, talking to the St. Francis statue about my dog, or playing under the tables of plants in one of the greenhouses. 

Admittedly, I didn’t particularly look forward to this excursion in the middle of the humid summer, when the greenhouses were steaming hot, and the store was packed with obsessed plant people like, uh, my mom.  But in the winter and especially early spring, when the air outside was still very cold, I totally loved it.  It was sunny.   It was toasty warm in there.  The whole place smelled like dirt and dirty water, odors which – playing there in my winter coat and wool hat and gloves – reminded me of summer.

When I spoke with that Johannsen's owner, I thought she made it sound like the link between their closing and the rise of Home Depot, etc., was somewhat more causal.   I recall her saying that the economic downturn -- in combination with the popularity of big box stores like Home Depot, which had vast gardening sections filled with cheaper and higher volume products – had reduced their business over the years.  She said it as she loaded plants into the back of my car, a personal service touch that they always practiced over there.  Good luck finding a Home Depot employee willing to cart your bonsai tree out to the parking lot.

Maybe she was just having a cranky day, and wanted Home Depot to suck on it.   Maybe she had suspected a connection between the rise of big box stores and the decline of mom and pops, but didn't say it that way to the newspaper because she didn't really know. Maybe the only way to really know is for all of us to start shopping at the new Futures Market that just opened.  Compact urban development.  I hear they give out free economic analysis with every purchase.  Those gypsies call it like they see it, too. 

Well, that's how I see it.  Mostly, I’m just sorry I won’t be able to take my own kids to Johannsen's again this spring.  So they can play in the sparsely-filled greenhouse, and drink in the smell of dirt.    I’ll think of it every time I pass by, and see the expanded Nissan dealership that is slated to take over the now empty lot.     

Thursday, February 13, 2014

So What, Who Cares?: Your Stupid Smartphone is Driving Me Crazy!

Dear Erin:

One of my biggest pet peeves is how everyone now takes out their devices constantly, and checks their messages.  The other day, at an Elvis Costello concert, the woman on my left did it every three minutes. It was like she had a nervous twitch. I very nicely leaned over and said, "Please, the light from your Ipad is very disconcerting. Every time you turn it on, it catches the reflection in my glasses and distracts me from the music."

 She responded: "Well, you getting up to dance is just as annoying." 

I wanted to smack her.  I was so shocked by her response, I mumbled something like, “Okay, so I won't dance.”

 But this was ridiculous, because we were in the back row on the floor, and there was a seat between us.  My dancing did not block her view, nor was I touching her. 

Later that week, during an IMAX 3D movie at a museum, the woman in front of me started looking at her Facebook account.   I tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Do you mind?  Please turn it off, put it away, and watch the movie.”  I could go on and on with examples like these. And don't even get me started on the people who walk around in the grocery store talking loudly on their cell phones as they shop.  And yet, no one seems to regard my opinion as correct.

 What should I do?

Sick of Smartphones

Dear Sick of Smartphones:

I regard your opinion as correct.  Well, for the most part, anyway.  Checking your tablet repeatedly during a public concert could be distracting.   This behavior might not irritate everyone, since concerts are usually loud and chaotic and packed with people who are doing zany things like dancing.   But during a film -- where there should be a reasonable presumption of stillness and darkness -- these 4G speed freaks might as well be freebasing crack.  It’s that distracting. 

And yet, I must admit, I am probably one of the people you want to smack.   I like to take videos and post them in real time so my friends know I’m all that.  I like to check who’s at a concert, and chat publicly about it because that is cool.   I frequently talk on my phone at the grocery store (even Whole Foods, when I can get reception) because I like to return calls while strolling mindlessly through the fresh fruit section.  Shopping can be boring.  And the bananas never have much to say.   

And, texting?  OMG.  I HEART texting.  I’ve never understood  those fuddy duddies who mourn the loss of “real conversations.”  Real conversations?  Is that what we used to have, over the phone?   You mean those heartfelt talks with people who returned your call while strolling mindlessly through the fruit section?   Most of MY real conversations seemed to involve waiting for the phone to connect, getting dropped, calling back, listening to a voicemail robot explain how to leave a message, and then recording a stupid message just to close the loop.   The other person didn’t even hear the phone ring.  They were watching a movie in 3D.

Texting, on the other hand, is awesome.  It’s quiet, direct, efficient.  And now, with emojis of zucchini, so very entertaining!  I understand why some people hate it.   It’s addictive.   It sucks us small-minded people in.  We open our phones in the middle of conversations, and concerts.   But as an early adopter, I can’t help but view texting as a great advance to modern civilization.  When I hear parents complain about how much texting their teens do, I just want to roll the videotape of myself talking, for hours on end, with my middle school girlfriends – phone cord stretched all the way down the hall, and under the door of my bedroom -- about the latest Loverboy album.  Unfortunately, no such video exists.  Because we didn’t have smart phones back then.  Just perpetually occupied ones, with really long tangled cords.  

So, how can I harmonize these two, contradictory positions, and give advice on coping with gadget junkies, knowing full well that I drink in my own device like a speedball cocktail?

Here is how.  I sympathize with tech addicts, but I also follow the rules.  As with so many issues of human behavior, this issue needs to be managed with rules.   If there is a stated rule or even a strongly suggested policy against the use of devices -- and there is now at most movies, theatrical performances, public lectures, and school classrooms –  then I put my device away.  No questions asked.  Done.   And if I don’t, I fully expect to be reprimanded, and for other customers to complain.  Shaming someone publicly for being disruptive is perfectly acceptable if that person was warned in advance that their behavior would be disruptive.

In the absence of official injunctions, I’m afraid this issue comes to down to common courtesy.   And common courtesy only works, I'm afraid, if people share common beliefs.  On this issue – with its rapid-changing technology, and its vast generation/culture gap – there isn’t much commonality. Whether you complain or not, the dance-hating ninnies will still record Elvis Costello for their fake friends on Facebook, and the middle aged losers will continue to answer phone calls from their mom (it’s always my mom), and force you to listen to their whole life story, while you chat quietly with your organic bananas.  

There is simply no common belief system to govern this behavior. There won’t be for some time, maybe ever.   I get that.  There isn’t even one inside my own head.  But that’s why people make rules.  That’s why they have Quiet Cars on trains.  And cartoons of canine-esque red balls that remind people to turn off their phones before a movie.  That’s why we’re finally seeing laws against holding cellphones while driving.  People couldn’t practice common courtesy.  Or common sense.  So they got rules. 

I understand why this issue bugs you.   Smartphones are addicting, and distracting.  But try to remember that we --- all of us, even the smart phone dummies -- put up with things that bother us too, all the time.   You know what bothers me most in a movie?   When the person next to me is loudly munching on a huge bucket of popcorn.  I hate popcorn. Also, I have a pet peeve about listening to people munch while I'm trying to have an emotional moment with a hobbit.   And some people seriously attack that popcorn like they are making sweet love to it.  And that is obviously not OK.

Complain when you want to!    Enlist the help of ushers if you want!   But for your self preservation, you may also need to accept that some people in this world will always dance to the sound of their own ringtones.  And sometimes, all we can do is dance away -- across the theater, to a different seat – so we can’t see the phone anymore.  Or hear the sound of that infernally hot and heavy munching.