Big Boxification

When was the last time I purchased an actual book at Barnes and Noble? In a vain hope that they might have something intellectual and edgy, I stop in once in a while. If I were a faster learner I might have known that I’d leave disappointed. You see, it’s been rainy a lot around here and rainy Saturdays are perfect for book stores. But where are the good books? I’m not just picking on B&N. I stopped in Bed, Bath, and Beyond (they don’t really use the Oxford comma, but then, who had time for commas?). This is not a frequent occurrence since we rent and it’s hard to gentrify bohemian decor, but we needed a practical household item. After wandering enough aisles that I thought it was time to hire a jungle guide, I found that the choices were actually rather limited. If I don’t like what they tell me to like, well, I’m out of luck. The local stores were driven out of business, you see, and you have to like what we have to offer because we are the BIG GUYS.

It’s not just housewares. It’s everywares. We’re a big box society. Costco and Sam’s Club and SUVs to haul it all home. Once, back when paper was still a thing, I had to find some file folders. I tend to like color coding—my non-Harvard-educated mind just rolls that way. So I went to the local stationary store and found a virtual reading rainbow of options. A year or so later, strangely, more papers had accumulated. I went back and the store was out of business. A Staples had opened nearby. Everyone was going there. They offered a superfluous loyalty card—where else would you go? They had four colors of folders. Just four. In industrial cardboard boxes that mean business. I mean BUSINESS. You want choices? There’s a clinic down the road. Unless you’re female, of course.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a genius, but I can recognize repeating patterns. Big box settles outside your town then limits your choices. I consume, therefore I am. To buy, or not to buy? I am not a number, I am a—what? What am I if I’m not a consumer? A communist, I guess. And everyone knows the Bible says communism is evil. And if you need a Bible you can purchase one from Sam’s Club. To be part of the resistance, you need to buy from Amazon. What a radical I’ve become! At least at Amazon they still have books.

United We Fly

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I’m on a flight from New York to London. This wasn’t a trip I particularly wanted to take (what business trip ever is?). I don’t like flying, and changing time zones takes days off my life. Bowing to the inevitable, I dutifully checked in yesterday. However, that didn’t go quite as planned. I’m flying United. I generally take United since they offer many destinations out of Newark, and who wants to cross Manhattan to get to JFK or Laguardia? I’ve actually become rather fond of United’s snack boxes. Since I’m so 1990s, I decided to check in on their website. Two or three pages in, they stopped me and suggested I should use my cell phone. This is much preferred, I’m told. Well, I do have a cell phone, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to access it in the UK. Still, this is the way things are done these days. I had United’s app on my phone from a previous flight, so I happily typed in my confirmation number, to fly the friendly skies. Since this is an international flight, I have to scan in my passport. That’s a bit worrisome, but the app says to do it and who can argue with an app? Click. My passport is being encrypted and verified. I’m free to go. Then the message pops up. I can’t check in.

I’m old enough to know how to use a landline. I called United. The agent was very friendly, just like the skies, but clearly couldn’t comprehend the complexity of my issue. One, I couldn’t check in. Two, my passport had been sent to somebody, but who was it? United? Some foreign government? James Bond? I didn’t mean to make the guy nervous, but this is my passport we’re talking about! He said he would transfer me to tech support. The call was transferred. The cheery female robot asked me if I wanted a $100 Wal-Mart card. I should press one. I don’t support Wal-Mart so I didn’t press one. She cheerfully insisted. I resisted. She came back on and said that I could press any button for a Wal-Mart card. When I didn’t comply, she hung up on me. I called United again.

This time the agent assured me I would have a human response at tech support. I heard the two tones connecting me with a guy who sounded surprised to hear a voice from the outside world. It was like he was speaking from a dank basement somewhere. He had no idea where my passport scan went either. He suggested deleting the app and then downloading it again. Start the process over. Reboot, as it were. I know the reboot drill, but I was worried about my passport scan. Where had it gone? If his solution worked, at least one problem would be solved. I could check in and reserve my place on the flight (ironically, buying a ticket isn’t enough to do that). I confirmed the instructions with my light-deprived docent. I asked, in parting, what I should do about my missing passport scan. His advice was the very image of an ouroboros. “You might try calling customer service,” he said. I don’t like flying.

Fear of the Known

Social media has become the new reality. Not that rumor ever had much trouble before the internet, but now our cultural memes explode so fast that we have to be wired constantly to keep up. And what we see makes us afraid. The other day I came across a story on channel 7 WSPA website out of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t suppose I have any business needing to know what was going on in South Carolina, but the headline “Mysterious ‘woman in black’ spotted in Tennessee” got my spidey sense going (or my Men in Black sense, but that’s just a bit cumbersome). Was this a female urban legend who shows up after UFO reports and warns the witnesses to keep quiet? The truth is much more mundane. She’s a woman, dressed in black, walking south from Virginia, currently in Tennessee. Police say she has a name and she’s from Alabama. Since she’s all over social media, however, people are worried.

She’s on a Bible mission one woman has claimed. A Blues sister in black? Others claim she’s from an Islamic nation. Some implicate the Pentagon. When someone exhibits unusual behavior our minds turn to religious causes. Why would a person dress in black and walk down the highway? It’s just not done! Must be religion. On YouTube apparently a video shows her arguing about religion with a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where’s the element of surprise there? If there are any firmly fixed social markers they are surely Wal-Mart and religion. Time to be afraid.

Scarcely a day passes when I’m in New York that I don’t see someone doing something peculiar. It’s the new normal. I suppose religion is sometimes the motivation, but I wouldn’t know. The gospel can be pretty difficult to identify definitively these days. You can’t trust someone just because they dress in black any more. After all, we’ve seen agents K and J battling aliens on the big screen since 1997 and there doesn’t seem to be much preaching involved. There is conversion, however, and just a dash of conspiracy theory. That’s more like American-style speculation. Internet fame is remarkably easy for some. Put on your black and walk down the road. And if you see Johnny Cash along the way, there will be no doubt that this is newsworthy indeed.

Bible-thumper or alien?

Bible-thumper or alien?