"Things that interfere with writing well: Earning a living, especially by teaching."

-William H. Gass

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

how to buy a wedding dress

It's simple really. You drive to a mall you have never been to, because you'll need to go in the kinds of stores that have restrooms with extra little rooms that contain flower arrangements and cushioned seats, all precedents to the actual bathroom in which you do your business. These stores employ women (dressing room sharks) who are there to make you feel poor and fat. Accept it. You are supposed to want to buy your way into another life. Try to remember that your life, without perfume that only takes one squirt to smell up the whole room, is just fine the way it is.

You are here, deep breath, for a dress.

On your way by the herd of perfume counters, be sure to spray something on your wrist. The dressing room sharks can smell fear, and they can also smell bar soap. Given the bandana on your head, the 11 year old loafers on your feet, and the way you have to keep pushing your glasses up every two minutes, this perfume gesture is a little bit like putting lipstick on a pig. But, hey, you've given it a little bit of effort.

You may have to ask for directions. The store has an organizing principle that you don't understand. Aside from the shoes being with the shoes and the perfume being with the perfume, there seem to be groupings of clothing that, other than being divided by gender, make no sense. If you stand in one place and just stare blankly, someone will help you.

"You look like you have a question."

"I have two, actually. I need a restroom and a fancy dress."

She will find this sweetly pathetic, and point you to the restroom like a lost child and then say, as you back into the entrance flanked by potted evergreens, "evening gowns are down the escalator to the right."

The restroom is larger than your apartment and the sound of your peeing echoes. The handsoap is divine.

The evening gown section will be right where she said it was. It glitters. Dressing room sharks named Tiffany and Amber descend upon you within minutes. Gaze over their heads at the clearance rack. Resist. This is, after all, your wedding dress. If everything goes as planned, you will only ever get to wear one of them.

Tiffany and Amber immediately bring you two white dresses, a few golds and ivories. They start a fitting room. The fitting room is somewhere mysterious. They keep disappearing with every dress you pick up.

The more expensive an item of clothing, the less important it is that the thing fit, apparently. So try on dresses sized between 2 and 12, mentally adding a tailor to the list of people you must pay to be married. Tiffany and Amber alternate knocking on the fitting room door to ask if you need anything. They will always knock when you are bent over trying to step into something, causing a fresh jolt of panic every time. Bonus: there are mirrors to reflect back to you, at angles you hope to never see again, every inch of your reaction.

"What size shoe do you wear?"

Wonder why, suddenly, the sharks are making conversation through the slats of the dressing room door.


You can't comprehend, for the life of you, why this information is important.

Like magic, a pair of gleaming heels appears outside the door. A shark says, "I left some heels outside the door." You realize that you are supposed to wear heels with this thing. Stick your arm out of the door and snatch them in quickly before one of the sharks peeks in and tries to influence your opinion of the current dress. They are laid in a box, peeking out from tissue paper. They are sharp, dangerous, frightening. Put them on the floor in front of you, press your hands to the walls, and try to balance in them. Stand in them, precariously, in one dress for about thirty seconds. Put them, carefully, back in the box and leave.

Sigh heavily in the food court.

Enter with caution the only Bridal store with a capital B. The teenaged sales girl is on the phone, chewing gum. Pick up the most extravagant, gigantic, almost too heavy to lift, white monstrosity off the rack. She says, "Okay I gotta go. Call you later."

She puts the thing in a fitting room. Inside, totally surrounded by mirrors, you step into this complicated morass of lace and satin and strings. Pull it up, stare at yourself, squint even. Drop it back down to your feet, step out of it, and leave.

Stop at a sporting goods store and, with some reverence, touch a few sneakers. You are good at sneakers.

Arrive, finally, at the other end of the mall and the last giant, shiny department store. On the clearance rack there is one dress, a crazy patterned thing without any straps. Figure that you might as well try on one dress you actually like, even if it isn't a wedding dress. Tiffany and Amber are nowhere in sight. Ask a tiny old woman in a purple sweater if you can have a dressing room. She says only, "There ya go," and wanders back to whatever she was doing.

Perfect. Alone, at last, kick off those beloved loafers and step into the dress. It's fun. It's spicy. Decide that you want, more than anything, to be having dinner and a drink somewhere, done with this shopping trip. Look in the mirror. Picture flowers, a haircut, maybe some makeup. Decide, suddenly empowered, that white, and really any solid color, is just not going to work - this is The Dress.

You have to carry it way above your head or it will drag on the ground. The cashier whisks it over the counter and zips it into a garment bag. You present your credit card, which boasts a lovely mountain scene and lets everyone know that you support some nature conservancy organization. The store, of course, will not take Visa.

Leave the store to find an ATM. Extract more cash than you needed to purchase your first car. Bring it back, more determined than ever, to be done with this transaction.

At dinner in a mall restaurant, pull the chair on which you have draped the dress close to the table. Protect it like it's a baby. Be suddenly terrified that something will happen to it. Grow, ridiculously, attached to this material thing. Register the silliness of it all, but involuntarily flinch every time a waiter passes with something spillable on a tray.

On the way home the car smells like the perfume you put on earlier. Go ahead and be somehow annoyed by this.

In your living room later that night, put the dress back on. Stare and stare and stare at yourself in the mirror. Admit, to no one but yourself and the internet, that at that moment, alone in your living room, in a very expensive dress, your little grinch heart swells a bit, and you have an inordinate amount of fun.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

On the Management of Customer Care

Dearest Michael, and all other customer care mangers of the world,

In an uncertain world, I feel lucky every time I settle on something that I know to be a fact.  My favorite variety of fact is the kind arrived at following a long period of discovery.  The sort of fact that comes with life experiences.  Like...

Fact: the Greek style yogurt really IS worth the extra 30 cents at the supermarket

Fact: learning to ride a bicycle is much easier when you are under the age of 25

Fact: the only thing worse than shopping in a store owned by a monstrous corporate machine is working in a store owned by a monstrous corporate machine.

One doesn't need a crystal ball to predict what would happen if I revealed the hour and day of my visit.  One simply needs some experience working in a monstrous corporate machine (MCM).  Fortunately, I spent seven years waiting tables in a place where the menus had pictures and the soundtrack was dictated by "corporate."  A place in which, if you ever had a grievance, you were told, "Take it up with corporate."  A place that (shudder) had people with titles like "regional manager" and "secret shoppers."  

I know EXACTLY what would happen to every single person assigned to that shift.  They would be told there was a "Mandatory Meeting."  Signs on colored paper would be taped in the bathrooms and break room.  "Mandatory Meeting on such and such a day at such and such a time.  All Employees Must Attend."

If some poor apron questioned the pimple-faced 12 year old manager, the apron would be told, "It's mandatory.  No big deal, just show up."  No additional information would be provided, and a current of frustration and worry would start to flow through the smoke breaks and lunch times.  Layoffs?  Annoying team building exercises?  A test?  What is this meeting about?  

By the time the meeting happens, one person has figured out what it is about and therefore everyone already knows.  Because the staff discovered the purpose of the meeting via leaked information or subterfuge of some kind (rather than open and honest communication) everyone arrives annoyed, sharply aware of their expendable and powerless position in the company, and preemptively dismissive of any information the meeting presents.  Many have to come on their day off.  Some have to take time off another job just to make it, since skipping the mandatory meeting, the taped-up notes insinuated, jeopardized one's job.

Presiding over the meeting is a slightly overweight white male wearing blue chinos and a blue button down oxford shirt.  If you want to be a regional manager, you had better fit the above profile.  You also must hate your life.  You must hate your life in the particular way a regional manager hates his life, however.  For example, you must smile.  Picture a very, very ugly room that is poorly constructed, dark, and terribly decorated.  Now paint it bright purple but do nothing else to fix it.  That is exactly the sort of smile you need to be regional manager.

Everyone comes in slowly and sits as far away from the regional manager as possible.  The regional manager says hello to people according to spec - most MCMs have a specific script for greetings and the regional manager always adheres to spec.  So he will say, "Hello (glances at name tag) what can I help you build today?"  Or whatever.  Anyway, the more annoying it is the more effective he imagines himself to be.

He will use some sort of corporate-mandated assistant for his talk.  Either a powerpoint or a manual or something.  Whatever the circumstances, the following lines are guaranteed:

"Without the customer we don't have...what...somebody finish the sentence...what don't we have?"

Blank stares.  Someone finally says, "Jobs."

"Right!  Jobs!  Without the customer, I don't get paid.  And neither do you."

"What does the customer want?"


"I'm gonna level with ya..."  [this one is particularly unhelpful, given the fact that the whole manner in which the meeting was called already made it quite clear that there is no 'let's be honest with each other because we're a community of equals' kind of crap going on in this MCM]

"What's our mission statement?"


Yada yada yada.  The meeting usually ends with some kind of activity or quiz and everyone is reminded that performance evaluations determine whether or not they get raises and hey, have a great day if this is your day off!

Now, Mr. Customer Care Manager, if you want your people to treat other people well, treat them like people.  My guess is everyone in there hates her job.  But I have had plenty of "crappy" jobs, in terms of pay or the work I was doing, that I didn't hate.  Usually, though, they were jobs working for small, independent businesses.  Coincidence?  Probably not.  Give everyone in an apron a day off.  Paid.  And don't send in the blue shirt guy.