Our Pantheon of Consumer Gods and the Walmart Wars

Photo credit - Roz Foster

by Roz Foster

Just as the Iliad and the Odyssey may provide all one needs to know about Ancient Greek mores and the Trojan War, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and Black Friday may provide all one needs to know about the values inherent in 21st century American consumerism and the Walmart Wars.

Visiting my parents’ southern Californian home in Porter Ranch for Macy’s Day, I pull into a nearby shopping center after my two-hour drive north from mellow North County San Diego. There’s always tension here. It’s not just the holiday. Sharply featured women wearing red-lipped grimaces threaten me with their waxed, black, battle-ready humvees. They compete for the rare open spot in the vast parking lot that sprawls before Ralph’s, Best Buy, and Walmart. I park sheepishly half a football field away from my target, Starbucks. There, I grab a double latte and quickly make it back to my car before anyone checks me with a shopping cart.

I drive up the hill, sipping my coffee, passing the large California-style homes with their white stucco walls and red-tiled roofs. Parking in front of my parents’ house, I deftly avoid a black SUV whizzing by, only a red-lipped grimace visible beyond the sheen of the windshield. Finally, I step safely through the front door where my parents, my sister and her children wait warmly for me, relieved that I didn’t get hit by the holiday “crazies” on the way. In the living room, we sit as a family below a 42” television set, which my parents complain is too small. We watch the parade.

The name “Macy’s Day” parade, as most call it, is clearly a misnomer, as it celebrates much more than Macy’s alone. The annual parade began in 1924 as what it is now, a marketing stunt to draw publicity to the department store. That year, it drew a quarter of a million New York consumers. Today a staggering 3.5 million gather to watch it live on the streets of Manhattan. A stupefying 50 million watch from home.

The parade makes its way through New York City from Central Park to Macy’s Herald Square, where pop singers lip sync a few seconds of a hit, sparkling cheerleaders shout “Macy’s!” and militant marching bands salute the entrance to the store with blaring brass horns. Aside from the TV commercials, the real attractions are the giant, helium filled balloons representing some of our most powerful corporations. Adults cheer with fervor, children point wide-eyed, our heads tip toward the sky as these beloved characters loom over us, our powerful pantheon of Consumer Gods.

There’s the Nestlé Quik Bunny! And Ronald McDonald! How BIG! Oh, the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee is coming up behind him! Look! It’s the M&Ms! How cute! The Pillsbury Doughboy! Adorable! And here comes the Energizer Bunny. Don’t you love him?

Later that evening, after my family and I had stuffed ourselves silly and after we’d watched Miracle on 34th Street (such a heart-warming feature-length advertisement for Macy’s), we caught the eleven-o-clock news. That’s when we learned about the woman who—in order to get her hands on a brand new, discounted Xbox at the Porter Ranch Walmart down the hill—pepper-sprayed her way through the shoppers ahead of her.

“Shocking,” we said.

And with Macy’s Day at a close and Black Friday dawning early this year, we went to bed, listening to the high hum of a police helicopter hovering over the house, over the neighborhood, watching over us there in Porter Ranch during the days of the Walmart Wars.

{This is a reprint from Rozfoster.com.  Click to visit.}

Martine Aubry: a New Spring for World Leadership

http://www.martineaubry.fr

by Roz Foster

In 2012, Martine Aubry may become the first présidente (female president) of France.  In 2000, Aubry pushed through the 35-hour workweek along with universal health care for France.  She’s been mayor of Lille since 2001 and the leader of the French Socialist party (the first woman in the role) since 2008.  She is currently a candidate in her party’s primary (which will be held October 9, 2011) for the upcoming 2012 French presidential election.  On July 26 of this year, she revealed a key facet of her proposed presidency.  Publishing an article in Le Monde,“Un nouveau printemps pour la culture,” or, “A new cultural spring,“ she detailed that under her leadership, the state would support young artists and those called to culturally-oriented vocations by nourishing their education and careers with a 30% to 50% increase to France’s cultural budget.  The proposal might be perceived as impractical in these times of world economic crisis and, as such, Aubry’s push for it seems, on the surface, strategically cryptic, even reckless.

So, why encourage young people to pursue a creative vocation at the state’s expense in the midst of the worst economic crisis to hit the world since 1929?   In Aubry’s late July proposal, she writes, “Creation and culture are not a luxury in times of crisis.  Instead, they offer the keys for our exit from it.”  What Aubry sees—that other world leaders seem blind to during periods of turmoil and economic contraction—is that artists are the foundation of cultural innovation and renewal.  They provide a crucial communications channel between the underclasses and the ruling classes, a channel, which, in an economic crisis above all, must remain open.  Artists break down outmoded ideologies and dated infrastructures.  They introduce pioneering solutions for modern problems.  They provide a cathartic, frank and highly practical outlet for expressing the suffering of the impoverished and unemployed, messages designed to inform the ruling classes.  This bridge of communication between the rich or powerful and the poor or powerless is essential today when the gap between them continues to widen.  When the bridge is broken, the socially, economically, culturally and politically marginalized must find other ways to communicate with the more integrated and influential echelons.  If unheard, the discussion tends to manifest as civil unrest.  We saw this happen in Britain this August; in Grenoble, France, last year; in Paris in 2005; in Los Angeles in 1992; and, of course, we’re seeing this in the Arab Spring.

Visual, literary and performing artists show us how to understand the chaos and crises of our present so that we can find real and lasting solutions.  Far from foolhardy, Martine Aubry possesses a practical and penetrating understanding of how national neglect of creative expression leads to fractured communications between disparate communities, isolating them from one another, and breeding broken societies.  Her influence on the international community would be a boon to us all, especially to us here in The United States, where most are blind to the link between the decline of Arts and the decline of our national unity and stability.

Sources:

Aubry, Martine.  “Un nouveau printemps pour la culture.”  Le Monde.   Paris: July 26, 2011: http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2011/07/26/un-nouveau-printemps-pour-la-culture_1552720_3232.html

Sleeping Beauty Wakes: A Critique

by Roz Foster

http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org

Sleeping Beauty Wakes at the Mandell Weiss Theatre (La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, California) seemed, on the surface, to be a delightfully modernized version of the original French conte or fairytale (La Belle au Bois Dormant by Charles Perrault, 1697, from Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye, literally: The Fairytales of My Mother the Goose). Nine hundred years after Rose pricks her finger on a cursed spindle and falls into a slumber from which she cannot awaken, she is brought to a sleep clinic in the present. The night the unconscious fairytale princess is admitted, other patients, who seek cures for angst-driven sleep disorders like insomnia and night terrors, sleep deeply having entered Sleeping Beauty’s dream-kingdom. For the girl, this fairytale realm has become an endless nightmare from which she cannot awaken.

On the surface, the tale seems an edgy, postmodern, feminist struggle between father and daughter, king and princess, patriarchy and woman, for control over the girl’s life.  Her father tells her background tale: prince after prince have kissed and failed to wake her. The king, thusly, entreated the fairies to enchant him so that he might live, caring for his daughter, until she woke.

Nine centuries later, an awkward orderly with narcolepsy falls into Sleeping Beauty’s dream-mare. The ensuing duet and dance, which spans the audience-imagined moat separating the envisioned castle where she’s trapped and the shore where the orderly stands, is the highlight of the show. And not just because Bryce Ryness, as the convincingly hunched and pitiable orderly, discards his shirt to reveal a tall and tanned modern prince with washboard abs. The swim is elegantly choreographed to complement the dreamy music and lyrics of “Drifting.”  The song and dance so simply suggest the scene in the minds of the audience using but one sleep clinic bed on wheels, two performers and a whole lot of whirly watery lighting.

Now Rose is newly invigorated to fight for her right to awaken into the real world and sings “Good For Me,” an anthem of revolution for all of the Daddy’s little girls out there who are dying to break free of the patriarchal curse of their father’s protective moats. After pricking her finger yet again, this time on the chrome spindle of a dreamt spinning wheel, Rose wakes to find the awkward, narcoleptic orderly hovering over her. They kiss.

Technically, it’s not the orderly’s kiss that wakes her. And yet it is. The songs of their love that follow compound the message that it is the prince that makes Rose’s life worth waking to. These numbers serve to convince the king, the true authority in this old-fashioned tale, that their love is legitimate. The lovers labor to gain his blessing. Rose’s apparent struggle for freedom from patriarchy collapses back on itself when Sleeping Beauty, refusing to rise for the lips of so many princes for so many years, wakes only when she finds the right prince. This “modern” Sleeping Beauty wakes 100 years too late to be innovative, since the notion of choosing love over class hasn’t been edgy since around the turn of the century.

The modernization of this musical fairytale lies only in its setting, its time, and its praiseworthy placement of a young woman in the principal role. Rachel Sheinkin, book writer, Brendan Milburn, composer, and Valerie Vigoda, lyricist write the role of Rose to carry the show, and the petite Aspen Vincent does so vibrantly with a powerful voice and a charming stage presence. She is the show’s vanguard and pinnacle, even as she spins this tale of patriarchal submission, billed as a revolution for femininity. The show disappoints in being the same tale it was 900 years ago: the princess is saved by the strapping, white (well, bronze), Mr. Right, a prince in disguise. As a result, Sleeping Beauty Wakes unwittingly works to prolong the nightmare in which a woman must wait for Prince Charming before her life may begin.

Writing Workflow on a Touchscreen Tablet

 

by Roz Foster

“How do you like that workflow?” the guy next to me shot out smiling like an orangutan.  He had a laptop and I noticed he was very, very close to me.  We were sitting on a long cushioned bench at the back of the café, separated only by the idea that the small space between our matching little blonde wooden tables was a ‘partition.’  There were seven of us along the shady back wall, each with our own computing devices and a warm beverage.

I had only just sat down with a hot, white porcelain mug, milk foam steaming from its rim.  I’d perched my touchscreen tablet up like a portrait before me and had set my bluetooth keyboard on my lap.  Wary of the guy, (speaking to others in a wifi café often denotes functional insanity), I only stared at him quizzically.

He was maybe 15 years my junior, mid-twenties.  He wore a new white T-shirt, a pair of crisp bluejeans and some tennis shoes with so much silver and transparent plastic on them that I wondered if they were foot-jets.  I’d been examining him a while like that when his right index finger bounded twice against the surface of his small wooden table.  “The workflow,” he repeated, and then he hit the table twice again with the same finger, this time a little harder.  “How do you like it?”

Was he double-clicking me?  I wasn’t sure, but I did finally understand that he was asking about my touchscreen tablet and the keyboard.  He was baiting me to have one of those weird conversations about consumer products that are actually commercials performed within the fabric of everyday life as if they hadn’t been pre-written by product reviews, marketing copy, and bullet-pointed blog posts geeking about the product’s highs and lows.

I tried to be real.  “Well, it’s a little awkward right now,” I said, making the silver keyboard bobble on my lap.  “Usually, I like to sit over there,” I pointed toward the opposite corner of the café.  “The tables are higher and it’s easier to put the keyboard on them and work without having to stoop.”

The guy’s smile fell a little.  I wasn’t the consumer-techno-head he’d hoped I’d be.

“Because I’m a writer,” he pressed on, “and I have an iPad too,” he said, or he might have said ‘2,’ “and I find that it’s just an expensive electronic reader.  I couldn’t possibly get rid of my MacBook Pro.”  He used the entire name of the computer, which was open before him on his little table, and he pointed to where the name was written at the very bottom of his 17” screen.  (I knew the size of his screen because, if I’m to be honest with you, I have exactly the same laptop.  Fine.  And the same brand mobile phone.)  The guy said more things with product names in them and his words shot out everywhere, loud, sharp and fast, like caffeinated, digital trilling.

I didn’t say anything to him about my own writing, but to you I will say that, even though I have the iCollection, my interest is in the work, not necessarily the workflow.  Yeah, it’s easy to use.  But what’s important to me is capturing human experiences, even little struggles like this, and expressing them authentically with words.

“Workflow?” I said, playing dumb.

“Yeah,” he grimaced, annoyed with me.  “Being a writer, workflow is ril important.  Like you can’t drag paragraphs around on the iPad, you gotta cut and paste.  You can’t have two windows open at the same time, you gotta open-close-open, open-close-open.  You can’t hit shortcuts for italics.  You gotta pull down this hulking formatting palette that takes off half your writing screen.  And syncing documents between the iPad and the MacBook is a super pain in the ass.  I always forget how you do it cuz it’s so freakin involved.”

I sipped my latté only to find that the barista had given me a single instead of a double and that the one shot that had managed to make it into the drink had been bitterly burnt.  I huffed. “That’s an interesting analysis,” I humored the guy.

“Thanks.  I been writing a rilly long time.  I’m kind of an expert.  My Web site is iamaninternetcybergodwriter.com.  You could go there right now if you wanna, go ahead, I designed it myself.  Go ahead if you wanna, it’s iamaninternetcybergodwriter, one word, dot com.  You can see what I did with the header.  Just changed it again this morning.  It’s rilly cool.  Go!”

“I’m actually working right now.”  I tried to turn my attention away from him, lifting my coffee to my lips and drinking my bitter hot milk.

“Chh.  Your loss,” the guy said, bristling. “But I just wondered how YOU found the workflow.  Does it work for you, that flow?  Like, does the digital keyboard open all the time when you’re trying to use the external keyboard so that you constantly have to close it?”

“The workflow,” I said, “is fine.  What I really need to do now, though, is work.”

Ignoring my obvious request for him to get lost, he pushed his big face through the invisible ‘partition’ between us, peering at the glowing touchscreen tablet on my table.  “Yeah, but, don’t you find you have to close that digital keyboard all the time?”

And that was all I could take.  I set my mug down hard on the wooden table and I said to the guy, “I wish I could close you.  I wish I could click a button on you somewhere and that you would shrink and be relegated to your place in my neat and silent grid of glowing app icons.”  I felt the veins in my neck straining as I watched him back away from me and my touchscreen.  “If you were an app,” I told him, and I pointed at him sharply with my index finger, “I would click and hold you until you started shaking.  You know how the icons do that when you click and hold them down?  They shake, like they’re terrified, because they know what’s going to happen next.  If you were an app, I would hold you down until you were trembling, practically crying underneath my index finger.  And then I would do it.  I would tap the little black circle with the white X in it attached to one side of your head and—ZAP—you would be deleted.  If you were an app, I would delete you, give you a suckass review and I would never download you again.”

The guy packed up his laptop and sped out of the café on the soles of his foot-jets.

I enjoy my touchscreen tablet for writing.  I use an external keyboard.  When I’m using it, the digital one pops up only when using a dictionary app that was designed for my mobile phone.  It doesn’t stop me from using the dictionary. Both of my index fingers hurt a little from using the Apple bluetooth keyboard.  I don’t know why.  It’s not smaller.  I don’t seem to mind much.  I use a laptop to edit a finished piece of writing because Pages, the iOS word processing software, has formatting limitations.  For example, like the iGuy said, you can’t move paragraphs or words around; you have to cut and paste.  What I do most on the tablet is email, journal and read newspapers.

You can find me here and at rozfoster.com, that’s rozfoster, one word dot com.  You can go there now if like.  Go ahead.  It’s rilly cool.  I designed it myself.

From M-novels to the Death of Paper Publishing: Part 2

From M-novels to the Death of Paper Publishing

by Roz Foster | a Ruelle Electrique Reprint

Part 2: Kindle, nook, Google Editions and Rumors of a Tablet PC

Just after Barnes and Noble’s hand-held book reader, nook, was released, Amazon’s stock skyrocketed. Why? Because the other major American bookseller had decided to participate in the hand-held reader market. It wasn’t just Sony’s failed publishing experiment anymore. Now, Amazon’s Kindle was the market leader in a big, booming, brand new business: digital book publishing.  Even Google is going for the monetized digital book.  Google is emerging with a service called Google Editions, which will let readers buy books and read them on any gadget with an internet browser (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2354272,00.asp).

Yes, it’s really happening. Books made of paper may eventually go the way of Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

From my perspective, Apple’s next device, the unborn Mac tablet is what fans of the paper publishing industry ought to be conducting black ops to thwart.  But first, let’s talk about smart phones for a moment.  Compared to the Kindle or nook, smart phones, like the iPhone, double as very, very small e-readers. However, note that across Japan, China, Taiwan, Europe and now South Africa, hordes of people have already embraced m-novels—which are read on even smaller cell phone screens than, say, iPhone’s 3.5 inch display.

Truly, what Kindle and nook have going for them (against cell and smart-phones as e-readers) are their easy-to-tote slimness and their highly readable, six-inch matte-screens. Those relatively sizable matte screens are pretty tough to beat. And the fact that digital readers are smaller than your standard magazine makes them very appealing.

Yet, e-book readers are one-trick ponies. All you can do is read books on them. Plus, the majority of the e-reading market already has a cell or smart phone. This makes the Kindle or nook just one more device to carry around and to manage.  Although, if Apple comes out with a tablet, my bet is many will opt for both an iPhone and a phone-ready tablet—because answering a tablet PC on the go isn’t terribly feasible.

A pair like an iPhone and an Apple-made tablet may be very well-integrated, making frequent transitions between the interfaces a cinch.  Kindle or nook will not have the same integration.  So, if digital readers are non-PC-integrated, one-trick ponies that are just another hand-held for consumers to manage and tote, then this may greatly diminish their appeal in a market that also contains an iPhone and an integrated tablet PC…. READ MORE.

This was a Ruelle Electrique Reprint and was originally published at Glopilot.

From M-novels to the Death of Paper Publishing: Part 1

by Roz Foster | A Ruelle Electrique Reprint

Part 1: The South African M-Novel Kontax

The m-novel. The mobile novel: a novel written and delivered on a cell phone.

The m-novel is typically associated with the confessional thumbs of emotionally distraught Japanese girls.  Although, the first m-novel, Deep Love (posted online in 2000), was written by a Japanese man, a tutor in his mid-thirties, who self-published his book and sold one hundred thousand copies (Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker, December 2008).

Smartly, Japanese publishers now scoop up popular m-novels and routinely sell them by the tens of thousands. The m-novel has spread into China, Taiwan, South Korea and Europe, and now it’s reached South Africa. The latest news on m-novels swirls around Kontax, an m-novel about South African youths written in English and isiXhosa (a Bantu tonal language spoken by 7.9 million people).

Behind the project is Steve Vosloo, Communications and Analytical Skills Fellow for the Shuttleworth Foundation, a South African organization interested in open source learning. Vosloo writes, “In [South Africa] there is about 10% PC-based internet connectivity, while the number of people with access to cell phones ranges from 60% to 90% (depending on which community you look at). Of those phones, a high number are WAP-enabled and can access the internet.”

With high saturation levels of internet-ready phones (and not so much personal computer saturation), the hand-held is the premiere vehicle for delivering media in South Africa. Thus, Vosloo sees the cell-phone as the perfect device with which to improve South African literacy.

Promoting literacy in developing regions using cell phones and open source technology isn’t the only scoop here. What this South African success story hints at is wide-scale transformation in the publishing industry. The success of Kontax with newly literate South African teens is a harbinger of doom for those near relics: paper books…. READ MORE.

This was a Ruelle Electrique Reprint and was originally published at Glopilot.

The Beginning of Immersive Interactive Experience: Myst

by Roz Foster | a Ruelle Electrique Reprint

286forREbIn 1984, when I was twelve and my dad bought us an IBM 286 (Zowie!), I was a little peeved that he refused to get us an accompanying game to play on it.  Clearly bored to death, I got curious about some BASIC and BASICA programming language tutorials that were strewn about near that big, pale, beige pile of plastic and glass.  With them, I got the whirring beast to do some neat color tricks and to generate an oddly fulfilling cascade of repeating text.  But that kind of kid/computer interaction couldn’t really compete with Zork’s interactive text-based knife fight with a thief….

So, I went back to reading for fun—even majored in Lit.

The next time I was truly dazzled by a video game was a decade later in 1994.  The 286 (which I’d taken with me to college—yes, the computer really did last ten years) didn’t have a CD-ROM drive.  It couldn’t handle Mosaic or Netscape Navigator.  My copy of Wordstar (word processing software) didn’t even have italics!  (Guffaw.)  Seriously, my computer might as well have been constructed with squirrel bones and wood.

It was at this low moment in my digital life that fate intervened…. Read more.

This was a Ruelle Electrique Reprint and was originally published at Glopilot.