Greetings from the ‘Great State of Texas’!
I’m very pleased to have been invited to write a couple of times a month on this excellent blog.
A little about me… Born and raised in Arizona, I had the tremendous opportunity of teaching junior high school students for over a decade. Oh no! Your face is contorting. Please, someone give that nice woman over there some water. Really, it’s great fun. However, there came a point when it was time to close that door and start something new before I lost the few remaining hairs that I still had. So, the beautiful Linda (Clark) Larson (of Culver City, California and 21 years of happy-to-be-with-you marriage) and I packed up the house and moved our four nifty tax-deductions…er… 'blessings from heaven' to College Station, Texas. A new career as a ‘Guy’brarian awaited at Texas A&M University (home of the fightin’ Texas Aggies). Whooooooooooop!!! (That’s a battle yell that means: ‘Guy’brarians are Awesome!).
I love to write! I love to find humor and great meaning in the world around me. I love to pick up good writing tips from others; and, I will share a few hard-won writing tips with you too. I've been blessed to have had a few things published over the years. In addition to my bi-monthly posts, please feel free to check out my ‘groove’ on my website.
I encountered an interesting phenomenon recently. I came to the realization that my level of excitement at getting my work published has never been higher than when that first article went to press. Holding that journal in my hands; looking at my name under the article title on page ## was one of the most exhilarating feelings I've ever had. I felt like I was leaving a distinctive fingerprint on the collective thought of humanity. It was amazing! No other article or posting has given me the same rush. On the flip side, it was somewhat terrifying. What if my ramblings weren’t liked and enjoyed by others? What if my ponderings were discarded as rubbish? What if my mother read it and found a typo? Aggghhhh!
Mike’s Minute (aka ‘Preaching to the Choir’): This essay was written after once working as a greeting card merchandiser at a local chain store. As I would be working at stocking and organizing the rows of greeting cards, I would often get a gentle tap on the shoulder by the Spirit to pay attention to some event happening around me or to see something happening in a new light and with a fresh perspective. It would usually leave me grabbing a piece of card stock from my trash bag and scrambling to find something to write with before the prompting went away. Over time, my number of paper remnant reminders grew so large that I finally had to sit down and write everything out. Edit…yes. Entertain second thoughts and doubts…nope! So, without any fanfare (No seriously! I really don’t like fanfare. You there…put that giant foam finger down and stop clapping!), here is Between Birthday and Sympathy—
I found a second job. It’s flexible and the pay is good for part-time. I am . . . the Card Guy. That’s right; I am the guy who ensures that the greeting cards you browse, giggle at, and hopefully purchase at your local big-box store (we’ll refer to this environment as the Store) or convenience mart are stocked, orderly, and presentable. I am a ghost. Most of the time, I am unseen as I go about making the card displays just right. Sometimes, I might get in your way. Occasionally, a customer wants me to find space heaters, lotion, or beach sandals. I only do cards—I’m the Card Guy. I am invisible. But you’re not.
A Study in Buying a Greeting Card
You should just see yourselves. A grad student could easily make a nice dissertation out of the psychological processes involved in a customer choosing to purchase (or not purchase) a greeting card. However, it’s so much more than just pulling a card out of the slot and dropping it into your shopping cart. I mean, a card is really just paper—paper inked with a tender thought or a witty joke, perhaps with a splash of glitter, a wearable button, or a nifty tune. Choosing a card can be planned or an impulse. It can be a form of therapy. It can elevate the expression of the meek or seemingly untalented to a level of eloquence commensurate with the most famous poets and weavers of prose and rhyme. When you say you’ve found “just the right card,” you’re basically telling the receiver that the card is a reflection of or something unique about him or her. But the observations I’m going to share are about YOU, the customer.
The purpose of cards is static; in other words, their existence and use are constants. What changes are the thought processes and behaviors of the humans who purchase the cards. Why did you pick that particular card from all of the thousands of others? Most big-box stores have approximately 3,500 greeting cards that are standard sets throughout the year. Topics include birthdays, babies, weddings, anniversaries, sympathy, get-well wishes, and language-related cards. This standard set does not include the seasonal rotations, stickers, and stationary. If you think there is any randomness to the greeting card business, there’s not. There is a reason behind every card placement (height, width, proximity to other cards, genre, customer eye-level, customer buying habits, etc.).
So, what made you pick that particular card? Perhaps even more interesting is how did you behaved and appeared to other people while you were picking a card? I’m going to tell you.
Deep in the Heart
In Texas and the Deep South, polite human behavior is ingrained in most people from an early age. We say “Yes, Ma’am!” or “No, Sir!” with the same effort as it takes to breathe. We hold doors for people, we apologize profusely if we offend, and we loathe the thought of inconveniencing another person with our silly little needs and wants. Now, the way we go about these behaviors is both interesting and downright humorous at times, especially when it comes to greeting cards.
When I’m working a card aisle, it’s inevitable that I’ll have customers come down that aisle looking for cards. The Store wants this, and my card company wants this. It’s also Murphy’s law of greeting cards. Here in Texas, the politeness gene kicks in and the customer will stand behind you, quietly, not saying a single word, focused with laser precision on the card he or she wants, but without wanting to ask you to move. “Excuse me, Sir,” a lady could say to me. “Would you mind moving for just a moment while I grab a card for a baby shower I’m going to tomorrow?” But she won’t. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to move. So, I often take the initiative and say to the customer, “Ma’am, ya’ll let me know if you need me to move, okay?” Without fail, the response I always get is, “Oh no. You’re fine where you are. I’m just lookin’.” I only believed this social nicety one time. A little, white-haired lady in her golden years said it to me and then proceeded to wait five minutes while I finished working that section of the cards. By the time I finally moved down the aisle, she had set up a little camping chair, pulled out her cross-stitch project from her bag, and was using a Sterno can to heat up some water to make tea. There was no way on this planet that she was going to offend me by asking me to hurry along out of her way. I love Texas!
That night, I started feeling a little odd about this interaction. So, I looked up the words she had used in the Southern Living & Rules of Etiquette book I’d purchased when I first moved here. I was shocked! The literal translation of ‘Oh no. You’re fine where you are. I’m just lookin’ is “I don’t mind you wrapping up what you’re doing in the next little bit, but you better get your hind end boot-scooted out of my way before I perch on your shoulder like a vulture and start pecking your brains out.” So now when I hear the phrase, I automatically move to another section of the aisle. Everyone gets to move on with their lives, and I get to keep my brains intact.
There is an interesting phenomenon that happens to people when they browse through a greeting card aisle: short-term spatial memory disappears. For example, Brenda the Browser spends a good 15 minutes pulling out one card after another, chuckling, evaluating, and then putting the card back into the slot. The wrong slot. Now, you would think it should be easy to look at the card in your hand, find the slot containing identical cards, and reunite the card with its brothers and sisters. But no. Cards pulled at eyebrow level somehow end up in slots at knee level, backward and upside down. How does this happen? It’s as if gravity multiplies by a factor of three and the card suddenly became overwhelmingly heavy, forcing the customer to let gravity pull the card downward into a slot near the floor before the card smashes the customer’s toes. I especially like watching the customer who pulls a card from a slot 12 inches from his nose, reviews it, and then gets a thoroughly confused and perplexed look on his face as his eyes dart up, down, left, and right; then, that gravity I mentioned kicks in.
When I arrive at the Store, I sign my name in a binder for guest merchandisers. About this time, a kind woman approaches me, hesitantly, with a small basket of rogue cards that somehow escaped the confines of the greeting card aisles and made their way to all parts of the Store. The woman has an apologetic look on her face. Her expression seems to say, “Please forgive us. We've failed you. We let these cards escape.” I smile at her, thank her, and ask her for the most exotic location where any of the cards were discovered. “Garden equipment,” came the reply one day. Garden equipment? A card was discovered atop a small stack of bagged fertilizer. I looked at the card. No wonder. It was one of our Election 2012 cards. Well, that just figures, doesn't it?
Oh, the Agony!
There is nothing more humorous than watching a grown man being forced to help choose a card (and accessories) that he has little or no interest in . . . at all. To the credit of the men who find themselves in this predicament, I acknowledge the discomfort and pain your faces and body postures display. The cards I’m speaking of are baby and wedding cards. Since the events attached to these cards are usually awkward and uncomfortable for guys, it stands to reason that selecting cards to celebrate these events is tantamount to reopening old scabs and scars with a rusty screwdriver. I applaud you for doing your best to feign interest in front of your special lady. You may fool her (which you’re probably not doing), but you can’t fool me. I’ve been there and barely lived to speak about it. “Oh, honey. This card is sooooo cute. It’s perfect for Tricia’s baby shower. What do you think?” Be careful! It’s a trap. You want to say: “I don’t give a rat’s whisker about Tricia’s baby. The ultrasound already showed it’s got vampire fangs. We should be looking in the sympathy card section.” But you’re smart, and you won’t say what you really think. Instead, you’ll say the smart thing: “Sweetie, I like your choice.” Atta boy! This will earn you a snuggle later tonight. One last caution: The fancy gift bags and wrapping paper are less than six feet away. Start thinking of your response now, because as soon as her radar picks up on those items, you could be a goner.
And Put a Handle on It
A child getting injured in the Store is never a good thing, especially when the injury is an adult’s fault. But I’m beginning to see why it happens so often. It comes from something I call store stress. That is, when children are over stimulated by the endless displays, sounds, and lights (same marketing philosophy used by Las Vegas on adults), we shouldn't be surprised that they act a little crazy. Nevertheless, it often leads to some surprising comments from the accompanying adults.
One morning, I noticed a boy pushing his younger brother down one of the greeting card aisles, with the younger brother riding underneath the shopping cart. For some reason, the boy doing the driving found it hilarious to bring the cart to a sudden stop, thereby letting the physics of momentum take over and sending the younger boy shooting out from the cart’s undercarriage onto the floor. Eventually, the grandfather accompanying the boys reached his limit. “If he falls out again because you pushed too hard, I’m going to find a strap, put a handle on it, and . . .” One of the beautiful things about living in Texas is the raw eloquence of the speech used by its citizens to describe violence (or the potential use of violence). First, the grandpa would find a strap (I understand there is a sale on belts on aisle 9); then, he would create or attach a handle to ensure a sturdy grip; and finally, he would administer a certain style of best-used-on-an-ornery-steer form of lashing. I started laughing so hard at the description (a threat the boys ignored because they’d heard it all before) that the grandfather looked up at me. I told him that was the best line I’d heard all day. He smiled and explained they were shopping for travel items for a promised trip to Disney World in January (even though it was only August). I wiped the happy tears from my eyes with my handkerchief and asked why he was shouldering this daunting responsibility. He replied that his wife was the one initiating this devious plan. As he regained control of the cart from the offending grandchild, his body language took on the appearance of a man beaten down. His final words to me as he trundled off with the two boys were “Just shoot me!” Mercifully, we were nowhere near aisle 27 (pellet/BB guns) or I might just have had to put him down the Texas way.
A Sandwich for Mother’s Day
Store items make their way into the greeting cards section on a regular basis. It’s not unusual to find small toys, clothing, makeup, jewelry, and food. Leaving items around the Store is not uncommon. I’ve done it before myself (and am now paying eternal penance for my actions). For some reason, though, it seems especially egregious when non-card items are left in the greeting card aisles. A bra hanging from the sympathy section could just be a lazy person’s second thoughts about a pending purchase, though Freud would probably have something to say about the particular section the person chose to leave the bra in. It’s not that I particularly mind clearing out the gunk from the card aisles now and then. It’s archaeological proof that humans—potential customers—have been going down the card aisles. However, I really have to object to the half-eaten Panini stuffed in the humor section. Was this, too, a subconscious message?
Daycare for Daddy
How and when the card section of the Store became a day care drop-off location for husbands, I will never know. What I do know is that if there ever were a place to tame the troubled beast within husbands, the card section is it. I have seen countless examples of wives, young and old, dropping of their irritable don’t-want-to-be-here-shopping husbands or boyfriends to be entertained for a few minutes so the women can shop in peace. Though I've never heard it said directly, the message the women are giving the men is crystal clear: If you promise not to whine about shopping with me, I’ll let you play in the card aisles for a while so I can finish. I’ll be back in 15 minutes, so be good. Momma loves you. (Kiss.) The very least these men could do would be to straighten a few cards as they peruse the card shelves . . . while eating their Panini.
In the olden days, a horde of locusts sweeping through a farmer’s young crop usually spelled an untimely end to the growing season that year. Though farmers have made valiant efforts to poison, squash, burn, and even drown the critters, few if any methods have worked. Surprisingly, hordes of “locusts” also appear on an annual basis at the Store. They are called Black Friday shoppers, though major retailers have started fudging on the starting day of this annual event of insanity. Recently, the “Friday” part has been moved to after-you-push-your-gut-from-the-Thanksgiving-Day-meal-and-get-into-your-car-Thursday. Much like locusts, shoppers attending this annual event darken the entryway of the Store so as to block the sunlight. They start making low, guttural buzzing sounds in their throats in anticipation of the doors opening, and when the doors do open, the locusts spill into every inch of entryway. One would think the card aisles would be spared the madness. With flat screens going for basement prices and toys and clothing marked down every ten minutes, card merchandisers hope that customers will spare the card aisles the carnage wrecked in the rest of the Store. Not so. I’ve seen the aftereffects. The human locusts sweep around the Store in great swarms, not wanting the competition to get too far out of sight so they don’t gain advantage over others in their bargain shopping. Thus, the swarms head down the main store lanes, devouring everything in their paths, including greeting cards. Many of the locusts grab cards they don’t even need or want; they do so purely out of feeding instinct. For a few short hours, their minds make them believe that if they don’t grab everything they can, they will somehow never be able to get the items ever again. And so, cards are grabbed by the fistfuls, envelopes fly through the air like wheat chaff, and the singing and dancing Christmas tree card gives up the ghost from having its “Play me!” button pushed one too many times. I dread going to the Store the day after Black Friday, because after seeing the destruction of my beloved cards, I suddenly have . . . Blue Saturday.
An Angel Here and There
Please don’t get the idea that if you deliberately spend time in the Store observing human behavior that you’ll only see one absurd situation after another play out. Quite the contrary; there are an equal number of heart-warming events going on all the time. For instance, I was once taking my empty cardboard boxes to the storage area of the Store to recycle them. As I made my way down the central aisle, I saw three lovely ladies peacefully shopping in the newborn baby section of the Store. For the record, I don’t have solid evidence that I was witnessing a mother, her adult daughter, and a newborn infant. But my heart-of-hearts tells me that I was seeing three generations of females out for a day of shopping. What I keyed in on was the grandmother, who happened to be tenderly holding the baby girl in her arms. This matron had the most tranquil, radiant look on her face as she held that baby. The smile on this grandmother’s face bespoke pure joy. She was literally beaming to be holding perfection. I am fairly certain that this woman could have been standing in the midst of a stampede of live longhorn steers and would have paid them no mind as she serenely looked into the eyes of that angelic little baby.
These are reasons I like being the Card Guy. Human life unfolds before me every time I go to the Store, like a tri-fold specialty card, replete with glitter, 3-D elements, and sound. Now, if ya’ll don’t mind a smidgen of moralizing, we also get misplaced and bent out of shape, lose our protective covering, and displace the tidy orderliness we often come to expect. Gratefully, there is someone out there willing to help straighten us up and put us back where we belong.