Sunday, August 13, 2006

Money, money, money . . .


It's possible I may have set a record for not posting in a really long time. If so, cool - I have just set a record with no effort on my part whatsoever; if not, who the hell cares about fame and fortune, anyway?

In the meantime, I am enduring that periodic unrest that comes from major Reserve Bank policy decisions. Yes, they have, once again, redesigned our currency.

This is not the first time. Long before I was born, they made the momentous decision to go from shillings and pence to a decimal currency. It was a truly tremendous decision, and I'm sure much retail carnage ensued, but I am forever grateful, as my maths is lousy. Counting change in base twelve? No thanks.

When I was a child, (no, I don't remember the exact date,) there was another major change. Our copper one and two cent pieces were removed from circulation. This was a tragedy. It signalled the disappearance of one and two cent lollies from the sweet selection at dairies the nation over. (For those of you who don't speak kiwi, a dairy is your local shop with milk, bread, potato chips, ice creams and chocolate. All those essential things for day-to-day living, and toilet paper, too.)

Suddenly, you could get lollies that were two for five cents - three if you were lucky. But young children with sugar habits across the country found it hard to adjust to the harsh reality of lost currency and rising manufacturing costs that spurred the decision, and it was brutal. Casualties are still found periodically down the back of the chair, in the bottom of drawers, and even in that jacket you haven't worn in years.

Then it was one and two dollar notes. These became coins, forever added to the weight of your change purse.

But this was before my time, so to speak - I hadn't yet ventured into the scary world of retail. That waited until I was 16. I was behind the counter when the next Big Change occurred - paper notes were replaced with plastic.

The reasons for this were listed by the Reserve Bank - cheaper to make, more durable, harder to forge. The new notes were bright and colourful - and they felt funny, too. Again, there was some resistance, as people adjusted to the idea that you could put your money through the wash and it would still survive. If you dared to iron thouse jeans, however, kiss your $20 goodbye. Fortunately for most guys not living with their mothers, they don't know how to work an iron, anyway.

And a few forlorn survivors still linger, after all this time. Somebody actually gave me a paper $20 just last week. It's not really legal tender anymore, but it's bankable, so who cares.

But this time it's more. Our humble five cent piece has just gone the way of the dodo, and the moa. Appropriate, as one side has a picture of the tuatara, NZ's very own still-living dinosaur. I just hope it's not an omen for this endangered species.

But what does this mean? No more five cent lollies, too?

The customers are suspicious. Never mind that previously, half of them would leave that five cents change sitting on the counter, or dump it straight in the charity jar (forget the local preschool, my workplace has the emergency chocolate fund, for those days when you really want to lep the counter and rip the head off that annoying customer). No, they are certain that we are making a fortune off that extra cash when we round from 95 cents to a dollar.

I could soon be rich.

Not.

Never mind that if the purchase is 94 cents, we round down. Electronic purchases are exact, as always. One customer asked me to explain the basis for our 'arbitrary' rounding policy. Apparently she never encountered simple decimal rounding in the course of her education. I'm sure I had by the time I was eight. I felt like suggesting she buy a calculator, but due to her apparent stinginess, gave it up as a waste of breath.

To add to the confusion, the other 'small change' has undergone a facelift. The copper has reappeared, as a 10 cent piece. They're bright and shiny, but that won't last long. Probably only until they get their first trip through the digestive system of a small child, that rite of passage all small copper coins must eventually undertake. It occurs to me now that a whole generation has missed out on this formative experience, and was likely forced to resort to swallowing small parts of plastic toys, instead.

The twenty cent piece is tiny, and the fifty only slightly larger. It's necessary for people to get out their reading glasses to check what they're handing over. The whole lot resembles play money, and a pocketful of change is not what it used to be. For that comfortably heavy feeling, you need a lot more cash.

And the old currency has until November to go out of circulation. Joy. Three months of trying to deal with two lots of currency, one of which can only go one way.

In the more amusing side of things, I sold an old man a permanent marker the day after the new coins arrived. He told me it was so he could mark his coins, and therefore tell what they were - his eyesight wasn't up to the task. As he was eighty if he was a day, I decided not to point out that defacing the currency was illegal.

What a rebel.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Zen of Christmas

It is the season to be jolly, deck the halls and spend lots of money, before gorging yourself on food that is bad for you, but you don't have to worry about it: it's tradition. Yes, it's Christmas.

And nobody has more fun at this time than us happy little retailers, who rack up the big bucks. Of course, we also deal with more stupid questions per hour than any other time of the year, have to deal with morons who cannot manage to find the sticky tape to go with their gift wrap (the look on their faces when you point to the shelf along the front of the counter - in other words, right in front of them - can be so amusing), and people who don't think that they should be required to put some consideration into their purchase before they put several hundred dollars down on the counter, and now want a refund.

We have a pool going on which of our staff is going to crack up first.

But despite the huge crowds, the squealing kids in the playground by the food court, the corny mall music christmas carols, and the growing credit card bills, there is something very soothing about christmas shopping: it's guilt free.

After my many years of working in retail, I have developed a theory about shopping. It applies even to me, with my experience on the other side of the counter. It is very simple.

Shopping makes you stupid.

Any time you go shopping, your IQ immediately drops. Drastically. Don't panic, it's only temporary. But this shopping-induced impairment is what allows you to spend without stopping to read the sign and realise that it's not the leatherbound edition with the gold detailing thats only $24.99, but the omnibus paperback sitting beside it. Now, if you choose to nut out at the counter when you get to the total, that is your own fault, and you don't really want to enlighten the rest of the store to your stupidity, do you? Because when you raise your voice while complaining that the sign said it was much cheaper than that so that everybody turns to look at you, and we point you to the sign in question, we will smile apologetically, but only because we are polite enough to wait until you leave before laughing.

Yet this dreadful stupidity is nothing more than your mind protecting itself. It allows you to wallow in a shopping euphoria, the joy of buying, without having the capacity to do math and realise just how much you have spent.

But Christmas is different. Christmas is guilt-free. Christmas only comes once a year (poor thing) and you aren't buying it for yourself, after all. Well, mostly. All that hard shopping deserves something. But you get to enjoy all the delights of shopping (crowds, screaming children and mall music aside) without feeling bad about spending money. Whereas during the rest of the year, people hesitate before handing over thirty dollars - (do I really need this?) - now they hand over three hundred and smile, secure in the knowledge that they are Being Good.

It's wonderful.

It's why, even though I have been good, and organised (relatively speaking) and finished all my Christmas shopping, I am sure that I can still find one or two small things to buy in the coming week. After all, anyone working retail at this time of year deserves a little therapy.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The simple beauty of Zen is very appealing. The Japanese will often bring a little piece of wilderness into their homes with exquisite, but tiny gardens. And of course, there is the famous Zen Garden, which consists of sand artistically raked around a few rocks. No weeding to take care of, no plants to water - my kind of garden.

And the contemplation of this simplicity calms the mind.

Another feature of the Japanese garden is the koi pond. Yes, these are a type of goldfish. Several years ago, while feeling stressed out, I decided I had a great need for my own goldfish. Of course, koi are a hideous pest which pollute and kill waterways, so we will stick with the ordinary goldfish, and I don't have a pond, so the tank will have to do.

Equipped with a small fishtank, and two comets (small, cold-water goldfish-type fish) I am now ready to relieve stress.

Why do you think all those office buildings have huge fishtanks? It is to stop the executives from going insane. Staring at goldfish is, after all, sure-fire stress relief.

The cats clearly know this. I am not sure why cats should be stressed - all they do is lie around the house all day, eat and sleep - but they feel the need to stare at these goldfish all day long.

The answer is suddenly clear: I know how goldfish relieve stress.

It is an act of transference - in staring at the goldfish, all your stress suddenly becomes theirs.

As for a large part of the day, they are being stared at by very attentive and apparently stressed-out felines, my goldfish are now suffering from stress.

Or possibly they are just frustrated that they spend all day swimming around and never get anywhere.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Roadblocks on the Path to Enlightenment

Yes, becoming enlightened is not an easy thing. Many obstacles will appear before you - and I am not simply talking about the fat man in the line ahead of you when you are waiting to order lunch, with that emergency chocolate sundae to follow.

Surely one thing guaranteed to immediately focus your mind on the here and now, and kill any chance you have at enlightenment (along with many brain cells) is paperwork. I work in a bookshop - constantly surrounded by books; it is a great temptation, but I persevere - where I am in charge of the stationery department. And this week, some six months before it actually happens, I had to place the order for the Back to School stock.

Children here start their school year in February. So, Head Office demands that we place our order before mid-August. Well, they are really slow there. They could seriously use some enlightenment. Possibly by way of my foot to their ass. For the slow ones, the simplest way is best.

See what I mean? Paperwork instantly kills any and all charitable impulses, and drops the mind into a state of homicidal focus that is as far from enlightenment as you can get.

So, I spend six hours hunched over a computer in our back room, wearing my jacket, as it is cold out there, and slowly working my way, line by line, product by product, through a twenty page list. And that is only the non-advertised stock. There is another twenty pages of advertised products, but thankfully, that gets dumped on the store manager, as we are on a deadline.

So, to my list of things to remember while seeking enlightenment, I add: Avoid Paperwork.

Easier said than done. If I can, in fact, eliminate paperwork (a feat many have tried, and failed) I will have surpassed enlightenment and gone straight to the rank of miracle worker.

But then, why let mere impossibility stop you?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Now, as already explained, in Zen Buddhism, you do not study the sutras to seek enlightenment. Instead, you find yourself a teacher, who tells you stories, or sayings or whatever, and you have to come to an understanding of these.

But, currently lacking a teacher, I have, out of necessity, resorted to books. A stopgap measure, but one that has already achieved results. Of a sort.

I have been reading the koans of The Gateless Gate.

Once again, I am reassured that this is the right path for me. Witness the seventh koan:

Once a monk made a request of Joshu. "I have just entered the monastery," he said. "Please give me instructions, Master." Joshu said, "Have you had your breakfast?" "Yes I have," replied the monk. "Then," said Joshu, "wash your bowls." The monk had an insight.


From this, we learn two things.

One: Enlightenment really is funny.

Possibly, if I achieve enlightenment (satori), I will always get the punchline. A worthy goal, especially as I am still trying, years later, to understand what it is that you do with the three seashells. (Ah, yes, the questions that are left by action movies.)

Two: Even monks and Zen Masters don't like washing the dishes.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Well, okay, so the Japanese got there first. But, like many people, I have struggled in this hectic and seemingly cruel world to find a meangful purpose to my life.

At first I tried curing cancer. The purpose of saving millions of lives could never be trivial, after all. This might have been more successful if I were scientifically inclined. And I didn't get faint-headed and dizzy at the sight of a mere drop of blood.

Then I thought, perhaps my purpose was to create great works of art! Like Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, and whoever the other guy was, my genius would live on amongst the future generations, inspiring awe and wonder among those who viewed it!

Margarine, it seems, is not a suitable medium for creating enduring works of art. And it is not easy to sculpt, either, even if the advertising does claim its spreadable.

Perhaps I would become one of those motivational speakers? It didn't seem that hard - write a book, record a series of tapes, create an infomercial, and wait for the money to roll in.

Sadly, my audition for Home Shopping Network did not go well. Not only did they feel that my oratory skills were far from inspiring, 'How to succeed without trying' was not a terribly motivating title, or so one of their executives informed me. I think I offended him.

Finally, I turned, as so many do, to religion. But which one? Every time I turn around, a new one has appeared. Its all very confusing.

Then I discovered Zen Buddhism. It believes that you can discover enlightenment not by studying the sutras of others, but by meditating on the meaning of the obscure, seemingly nonsenical koans (lessons or sayings) of your teacher.

Unfortunately, I have no teacher, so must find my own nonsense on which to meditate.

Fortunately, there is plenty of nonsense about.

And, being a generous soul (except for where chocolate is concerned) I have decided to share my journey along the path to enlightenment with all of you, through this blog.