Greetings, fellow grouches. This week, I welcome my very first guest curmudgeon, author Thomas H. Keels, who has a bone to pick. I wholeheartedly support his umbrage.
Recently, my husband Larry enrolled us in a local food cooperative that has opened a new branch in our neighborhood. It’s a typical co-op arrangement where everyone pays an upfront membership fee. After that, the more sweat equity one contributes (e.g., stacking crates of organic kale), the bigger the discount one receives on purchases. Given our busy schedules, I assumed Larry had signed up at the “Slacker” level, where we would lift no crates and pay higher prices. It seemed like a reasonable premium to enjoy wholesome foods and support a worthwhile cause.
Then I received the following email from the co-op’s Membership Manager (only the name of the organization has been changed to protect the pushy):
Dear Thomas Keels,
Welcome to Neighborhood Naturals. We are looking forward to seeing you at the next
scheduled New Member Orientation on Thursday, November 9th, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.!
If that date is not convenient for you, take a look at our Events Calendar, select a date that
better suits your needs, and let me know!
All members can benefit from a New Member Orientation. The Orientation offers a
comprehensive overview of:
· The cooperative movement
· The history of Neighborhood Naturals
· The scope of present-day operations
· Member benefits
· Working membership
· The on-line Member Center
We'll show you how Neighborhood Naturals is so much more than a grocery store!
Many thoughts floated through my mind upon reading this missive. After deleting the obscene ones, the following questions remain:
Why did my normally perceptive husband confuse a Unification Church-type cult with a food co-op?
Have the good folks at Neighborhood Naturals ever heard of the word “please”? This reads more like a summons than an invitation.
I’m sure that Neighborhood Naturals is “so much more than a grocery store,” but what if a grocery store is all that I want?
Why do I have to endure a comprehensive overview of the Cooperative movement or the history of Neighborhood Naturals to be a member?
Will there be a test afterwards?
If I score well on the test, will I place out of Kale Crate Stacking 101?
I decided not to respond. A few days later came this:
Neighborhood Naturals New Member RSVP
You have been auto-assigned to the New Member Orientation on Thursday November 9th at 6:30pm.
Please let us know if you're planning to come, so that we can have a large enough space and bring enough snacks to accommodate everyone.
◯ Yes, I'm planning to attend this Thursday from 6:30pm to 8pm.
◯ No, I'd like to reschedule. I can attend on Saturday, December 9th from 1pm-2:30.
◯ No, I'd like to reschedule. I can attend on Thursday December 20th from 6:30pm-8pm.
◯ I can't make the above dates but would still like to attend. (We'll be posting 2018 dates soon, stay tuned!)
◯ No, I'm not planning to attend the orientation.
Sadly, the options did not include "I am never coming within half a mile of your store, unless you contact me again, in which case I am going to firebomb you!" so I had to settle for option #5.
Even my husband is beginning to realize he has sold our souls to the Forces of Darkness.
The emails from Neighborhood Naturals are simply the latest examples of “orientation overload” (OO for short) to hit my inbox. Orientation overload is the art of taking a mundane activity and slapping on a veneer of bogus significance through the aggressive communication of extraneous information. OO provides an illusion of value-added service that enables retailers to jack up prices without actually adding anything of value. In particular, orientation overloaders labor to convince people like you and me that we require special training to accomplish basic functions—like food shopping—that we have performed quite successfully for years.
Orientation overload has spread across the globe on a scale worthy of the Solanum virus in World War Z. The daughter of a friend recently completed an exhaustive three-day orientation at a local university which assumed that, even as an honors graduate of a leading high school, she needed training in basic hygiene. My local bank offers me podcasts about SPDR ETFs (Standard & Poor’s depositary receipt exchange traded funds, a rather esoteric alternative to mutual funds), when I just want a safe place to park my checking account.
I recently joined a new gym—except it’s a “healthy-way-of-life company.” I have an orientation class there later this week—except they call it an “onboarding session,” which sounds even more ominous than “orientation.” Will I have to sit through a comprehensive overview of the life of Joseph Pilates?
Perhaps because of the ascendance of foodie culture, orientation overload is also rife among restaurants. If I dine at any eatery above the greasy spoon level, I am inevitably confronted by the Server, a lithe yet well-toned young person in priestly garb of black and white. The Server has an air of unassailable authority and seems convinced that I could not differentiate between a cup and a fork if my life depended on it. I’m surprised the restaurant hasn’t given the Server a cubicle and business cards identifying him as a Culinary Consumption Consultant.
Before so much as taking a drink order, the Server launches into his spiel:
“Hello, my name is Fillippé with an F, two Ls, two Ps, and an accent aigu. I’m going to take care of you tonight. Let me explain our chef’s unique vision and how it informs the iconoclastic central concept of our establishment.”
Oh, how I long, nay, how I dream of cutting the Server off with a spiel of my own:
“Cool your jets, Fill. First of all, you’re not taking care of me tonight, unless you’re either a Mafia hitman or working a side hustle. If it’s the former, please make it quick and painless. If it’s the latter . . . then we’ll talk later. Now let’s parse your next statement. Unless your chef’s unique vision involves paying me to eat your food, I already grok the iconoclastic concept of this hash house: You present me with a list of foodstuffs. I select the ones I want and specify how I want them prepared. You bring them out in a timely manner and clear away the empty plates once everyone at the table has finished eating. (And boy, will you lose points if you screw up that last step, Fill.) In your spare moments, you may keep the bread basket full and my glass topped off. Once I indicate that satiety has been achieved, you will provide me with a summary of my expenditures. I will pay the amount shown, and if you have fulfilled your duties properly and avoided discourses on hyperlocal sourcing, I might tack on a couple of bucks just for you. Do we have a deal, Fill?”
Of course, I would never say anything like this. Not only is it rude, but Fillippé would probably retaliate by lacing my dishes with all sorts of innovative, off-the-menu substances. But the experience almost makes me nostalgic for the grimy corner diner of yesteryear, where the surly, soup-stained waiter would snarl “Whatchawant?” before I’d even seen a menu.
Is there any safe haven from the orientation overload epidemic? Probably not. Thanks to the relentless juggernaut of corporate marketing, OO has oozed throughout the matrix of consumer life cycles until it has become a lowest common denominator. Any day now, I expect the counterman at my local 7-Eleven to recommend a “naïve domestic Slurpee without any breeding, though you may be amused by its presumption.”
THOMAS H. KEELS is a Philadelphia-area curmudgeon who has authored or co-authored seven books on the sleazier aspects of local history. His latest book, Sesqui! Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926, was published earlier this year. For further orientation, visit his web site at www.thomaskeels.com.