PAPER CUTS: Pie in the Sky

Imagine what would happen if Latrell Sprewell woke up one morning to find that the NBA had been replaced by Nerf basketball. If Bill Parcells were suddenly demoted to coaching Foosball. Or if Tiger Woods went out to the golf course one day, and found that the fairways and greens had been transformed into nothing more than a video game.Consider the tragic consequences of a lifetime spent in honing exceptional skills, only to find that the event has been reduced to child's play, a bout for featherweights, a diversion strictly for amateurs. This is the woeful situation in which I find myself, a world class competitor in a sport which has become a pathetic triviality, a pale shadow of itself.The game I speak of is a brutal one, requiring both strength, and dexterity, one in which only the fittest survive. A contest as mentally rigorous as chess, as teeth jarring as ice hockey, and as demanding of fortitude as the Iron Man Triathalon. The sport I refer to is shopping. Its zenith, its Olympian heights, the rigorous and demanding Christmas shopping marathon, has been brought to its very knees by the dastardly dot coms.My childhood years were devoted to an arduous apprenticeship. I was introduced to the vicissitudes of the marketplace by my grandmother, who never met an item of food that could not be poked and prodded, nor an article of clothing that could not be deconstructed, the better to examine its innards. Dragged behind her into the malodorous live poultry market, I hung back in wonder, as she painstakingly examined every single bird, the better to select the freshest, plumpest chicken in the place. If hens had teeth, I have no doubt she would have checked them for age.Neither she, nor her sisters or daughters, ever bought so much as a skirt without meticulously inspecting the fabric, holding it up to the light to look for pulled threads, then turning the garment inside out to look for full linings, french seams, bound buttonholes, and tiny even stitching. No synthetic fibers, no ravelled threads, no stamped out plastic buttons for them. I can only imagine what mincemeat they would have made of The Gap.They shopped the way Michael Jordan played basketball, with consummate finesse, yet never forgetting that this was, ultimately, blood sport. With thundrous tread and battle ready mien, they terrified salespeople and fellow shoppers alike, elbowing aside anyone who chanced to be in their way, in pursuit of whatever feathered hat, Harris tweed suit, or alligator handbag happened to draw their eye.Those skills, inculcated at a tender age, have lately become as vestigial as the ability to operate a mimeograph machine. With technology moving at the speed of light, becoming obsolete is the very quintessence of life at the close of the millenium.The arenas in which I played out those duels to the death for a cashmere twinset at 60 percent off, have gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Little shops with owners on the premises, and salespeople who knew you by name, have been tossed aside in the service of our voracious appetite for convenience. The concept of supporting local merchants has been sacrificed to saving a little time, and e-commerce is its grateful beneficiary.When Al Gore "invented the Internet," it was envisioned as a superhighway, bringing information from all over the planet directly to your home computer. In actual point of fact, this notion of a global educational resource, operating as a not-for-profit, is startlingly naive. What the Internet has created instead, is every advertiser's fantasy, the largest captive audience in history.Dot coms that didn't exist five minutes ago, and the venture capitalists who bankroll them, babyfaced entrepreneurs with no more business experience than a gnat, are all counting on this holiday season to justify their inflated worth on paper. They have mounted a formidable advertising assault, predicated on creating a conduit that travels straight from your wallet to that great pie in the sky.With shoes off, in the comfort of your own living room, you can buy anything on the planet with just a few keystrokes, from "Perfume of the 1st Century" direct from Bethlehem, to the 1945 vendors available under Indulgence, including Indulgence on Sale, The Indulgence Electrolysis Spa in Las Vegas, and the hopelessly miscategorized Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Or my own personal favorite, www.mindlessselfindulgence.com.Restful and relaxing as that may be, I won't be doing my shopping anywhere that has www. in its address. It is essentially disjunctive, several steps removed from the human experience. I want the thrill of victory of finding the Armani suit at 90 percent off, and I don't need a search engine to do the legwork for me. On Christmas Eve, I may battered, I may be bloodied, and I am fairly certain that my feet will hurt, but I will have the satisfaction of knowing that my hardearned dollars will be recirculated within my community. Not going to some disembodied pie in the sky.

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