Black Friday

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on November 23, 2011, and in the Fairfield Sun on December 1, 2011, both in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in the fall of 1621, when the Native Americans inadvertently got the Pilgrims thinking about their first holiday buying opportunity. Over the next 300 years, they brokered a series of “deals” that netted Pilgrim descendants about 3.1 million square miles of prime real estate. The Native Americans got pox-infested blankets and the colonial equivalent of a continental timeshare. Is it any wonder that Americans have been obsessed with finding bargains around Thanksgiving ever since?

The National Retail Federation released forecasts last week predicting up to 152 million people plan to shop on the weekend after Thanksgiving, higher than the 138 million people who planned to do so last year. For men that enjoy shopping as much as they enjoy bamboo chutes under their fingernails, it’s no surprise that the day after Thanksgiving is called “Black Friday.”

Some believe the origins of the term stem from the rush of crowds pouring through the malls, reminiscent of the craziness that resulted from the Black Friday stock market panic of September 24, 1864. For others, the name derives from the fact that this major shopping day can push many retailers from red ink losses into the black ink of profit for the year. Growing up with four sisters, I have come to believe it’s based on the 1940 movie Black Friday, where Boris Karloff replaces part of the brain of his dying friend with that of a dead gangster, resulting in his friend’s feverish hunt for that gangster’s hidden treasure trove. Seems to capture the day nicely, right?

In our family, Black Friday was primarily an estrogen-fueled exercise in commercial exchange. While my brothers and I would still be sleeping off the effects of that second helping of Grandma’s corn pudding (how could we forget that Grandma didn’t believe in expiration dates on dairy products?), my sisters would be up before the sun to make the switch from stuffing themselves to stuffing their shopping bags. This made sense in the time before the internet, when things like store hours and banking hours still mattered. Opening stores at 5:00 AM had the appeal of novelty, and my sisters used it as a bonding experience.

Now, like most things American, it’s been super-sized into a three-day event. For those lucky enough to make it through the traffic, a trip to the mall now comes with a mandatory mile hike from your parking spot—one you probably had to risk car damage to secure from other desperate drivers who prowl the lots like sharks in search of a closer spot.

Where Black Friday used to mark the start of the Christmas season, now it’s just another rest stop on the retail highway. CVS was selling miniature reindeer the day after Halloween, and Santa’s been popping up on television ads since the leaves turned color. Still, Black Friday is the first time many retailers throw themselves fully into the holiday season without shame. It’s a great time to indoctrinate your children into good ‘ol American consumerism at its finest—store owners bring their “A” game to every window display in the unending competition for limited consumer dollars. All kids should have their “Ralphie” moment, where they spy their own equivalent of the Red Rider BB gun with a compass in the stock and “this thing that tells time.” If you don’t understand the context of that reference, chances are you never had your “Ralphie” moment—or you just don’t own a TV.

As much as Black Friday confuses me, I’m grateful that retailers have this opportunity to recover in this tough economy. While not daring enough to brave the stores myself, I applaud my wife for wading into those waters. I’ll stand on the shoreline and cheer, enjoying the holiday decorations even as I note one glaring absence: Even on the day after Thanksgiving, there are no decorative references to the Native Americans who saved our bacon four centuries ago. Not surprising, really—depictions of that first meal always seem so forced, as if you can actually hear the Pilgrims wrapping up the party with, “So, thanks for the food. Mighty fine land you have here. You, ah… mind if we take it?”

Spending the next two hundred years systematically killing and relocating your hosts to get their land is not the best way to say “thanks.” Besides, if only the Pilgrims had waited, it probably would have been on sale the next day.

From my family to yours, we wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings. If you’re lucky enough be in a position to help, donations of old clothes, linens, blankets or money are needed year-round at homeless shelters like the Prospect House in Bridgeport (203-576-9041), Spooner House in Shelton (www.actspooner.org), the Bridgeport Rescue Mission (203-333-4087), or Operation Hope in Fairfield (www.operationhopect.org). Soup kitchens run by organizations like Hunger Outreach prepare and serve over 1,000,000 meals a year through a network of over 34 food kitchens in Greater Bridgeport, pantries and mobile units made up of mostly volunteers working seven days a week, 365 days a year. (For more information, please contact Byron Crosdale at byroncrosdale@ccgb.org.)

Hoping For The Best: Cancelling the NBA Season

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on November 17, 2011, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

As a basketball fan, I am the least of anyone’s concern in the NBA. Both the commissioner, David Stern, and the head of the player’s union, Billy Hunter, regard me as little more than the wallet that carries their money. Amid the battle to win over public opinion, however, they’re forced to pretend they care about me. So here goes, fellas: Cancel the season. Please.

While hoping for a restoration to sanity, I’ll settle for a Knicks ticket I can actually afford. I’ll never get it under the current system. The owners and the players are too greedy, counting on fans too stupid to vote with their absence. The owners set this failed system into motion, of course—their inability to work in the long-term interest of the game allowed the wheels to come off long ago. Now they’re taking it out on the people who can least afford it: the fans and the people who make a living off concessions, parking, or merchandising. The lockout is an excuse for the owner’s lawyers to do that which the owners can’t: fix the cash cow. If they’re counting on lawyers to fix basketball, that cow’s a goner.

However, the players are even more deluded—someone forgot to tell them they already won the lottery. They’ve managed to make a living playing a child’s game, revered by millions for doing what we all grew up doing at recess. Now, in a stunning feat of entitlement, they’ve decided the league average of five million dollars a year in salary is not enough to stop them from taking their ball and going home. “Lockout!” they scream, yet some of the players should be locked up for their arrogance

About 21 percent of N.B.A. players had undergraduate degrees in 2009, according to Debbie Rothstein Murman, the director for career development for the NBA union. This means around 80% of NBA players should otherwise be making the national average of $32,900 for their education level, according to the 2011 Condition of Education report from the National Center for Education Statistics. However, even the lowest rookie can’t get paid less than $475,000 under their current contract, and that’s before adding in licensing fees, appearance fees, and the free swag that accompanies these fully guaranteed contracts. I defy any player to find another profession that pays such a fortune to men with so little formal education. The players shouldn’t be knocking Stern, they should be building him a statue.

Instead, they’ve victimized themselves in the same way NHL players did in 2004. Today’s hockey players still skate delicately around the corpse of that lost 2004-2005 season, when owners ground the players into a fine powder by imposing a hard salary cap and forechecking union head Bob Goodenow into irrelevance. The NBA union seems completely oblivious to its impending defeat, demanding no less than 53% of the overall league revenues (numbers that seem to change by the hour) amidst an economy that’s long been on the inactive list.

Making no concession to common sense, the players claim a kind of leverage that defies logic. They stand on the assertion that, as the face of the league, the league owes its success to them. Funny how one of the real faces of the league, Michael Jordan, doesn’t see it that way. As an owner, he realizes there is only one NBA; no one else is stupid enough to match that business model. Only in professional sports do the employees feel they deserve more pay than the owners who built the franchise. Players and owners will lose a lot of money in a cancelled season, but only the owners have a shot to make any of it back. If history holds, most owners will be around to realize the cost savings of a new collective bargaining agreement, and their ability to make money from the NBA will far outlast the players’.

So I’m taking off my Knicks jersey and rooting for the No Team; let the player’s union decertify and watch as time and the courts show them the folly of their ways. Maybe then we can hope the owners are so desperate to regain their fans that they price their tickets accordingly. It ain’t much, but it can’t be any worse than when players got 57% of the revenue. Better yet, the nuclear option would involve replacement players and $10 tickets; toss the players and get the paychecks out to the real folks who work at the stadiums. I can’t afford a ticket to see Lebron or Kobe anyway, and a clean slate for the Knicks would be a dream come true. I’d still be nothing but the wallet that carries their money, but at least it’d be a smaller wallet.

The Electricity Derby

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on November 3, 2011, and in the Fairfield Sun on November 10, 2011, both in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

It was odd enough having the first week of school cancelled because of Hurricane Irene, but dealing with power outages on a snowy Halloween? Not even the Great Pumpkin saw this one coming.

Since my childhood days, I’ve long been a fan of the Electricity Derby. In the days before laptops or Gameboys, I’d sit vigil during electrical outages while trying to guess which part of our neighborhood would get power restored first. Occasionally, a random house would suddenly sparkle to life, the glow of its lights illuminating our defeat. These were the cheaters, of course, the ones smart enough not only to buy generators but also keep them filled with gas. I hated them for their forward thinking and their refrigerators filled with unspoiled food. My mom would unearth the decades-old box of Carnation powdered milk that blighted the pantry shelf and inflict it upon us if the outage lasted more than a day or two.

Power outages were dangerous for the youngest boy in a family of seven kids. Electricity formed a kind of invisible fence that separated my brothers and sisters from me. The distraction of the radio, the televisions, and the video games protected me from their gaze. When the electricity went out, it was as if all the cages inside the zoo were opened at once. A boy could find himself pinned to the ground while his brother performed the dreaded “Loogie Drip” over his face, or get cornered by a mother who’d just noticed several more chores that needed doing.

This is probably when I first noticed how one’s senses are heightened when the power goes out. Without the white glare of the streetlights, suddenly the sky is filled with stars. You smell the trees and the leaves and the ground at your feet. You rediscover the sounds of nature around you in a way that’s never possible when you simply choose to turn all the lights off. You truly hear what your house sounds like: you notice every squeaky stair, every loose shutter. You begin to hear the conversations that your neighbors are having just behind the hum of the cicadas.

My neighbor, upon informing me that the power company had told him it would take a couple of days to restore power this week, calls this a “return to nature – a chance to live like our forefathers did, before electricity.” Sometimes, I hate my neighbor. After all, there’s no comparison here; our forefathers never knew any better. They lived every day with salted beef and reading by candlelight, so they never knew what they were missing. Take away their saltpeter for a day and they’d squeal like stuck schoolgirls!

We, on the other hand, are dependent on electricity; those who aren’t, like Unabomber Ted Kaczynsky, tend to go off the rails. I need to see “SportsCenter” before I go to bed or else I get owly. Losing electricity forces me to become hyper-conscious of things like the battery life of my iPod, cell phone, and laptop computer. My wife and I scramble to find our car charging cords, wondering how long we can hook them up before the car battery dies. We suddenly learn how much hot water is stored in the hot water tank in the basement, or how long the ice stays frozen in the freezer. Will the house alarm still work, or even the house phone? For the first time, we realize how many things rely on D batteries—every flashlight and emergency radio in the house seems to need one, and I haven’t bought one since 1994. Instead, I have scores of the AAA batteries that power the TV, VCR, DVD, cable box and dog alarm remotes that now sit useless… next to the useless flashlights. We are forced to use candles, which my wife buys without any thought of the practical reality of flame; she has only trinket-sized patchouli and clover candles that give off less light than my wristwatch. We begin to navigate the rooms more by smell than by light; the acrid rose candle in the bathroom, the vanilla in the bedroom, the maple (maple? maple candles?) in the kitchen. And who has matches these days? We stopped smoking years ago; the Smiths across the street smoke like chimneys so their house is lit up like a joint in a dorm room. We usually spend half the night looking under the couch cushions for that book of matches we remember from three years ago.

Still, after a few days we begin to get confident that we’ll never need electricity again. We get used to the ethereal silences and grow to appreciate the lack of electrified distraction that we often allow to dominate our lives. We keep the lights out at night, reveling in our newfound power over power. Maybe our forefathers had it right all along?

Then, just as I go upstairs to drift off to sleep amid the sounds of the crickets, I step in a steaming pile of dog crap. That’s when I remember that our forefathers lived like filthy animals, and I fall asleep to “SportsCenter.”