In search of Black Friday

I hate shopping.

I don’t even really like Internet shopping.

There is absolutely nothing appealing about Black Friday to me. I don’t believe in its philosophical underpinnings. I don’t understand its attraction. I don’t acknowledge its existence.

But like someone chasing a ghost or questing for grainy 8 millimeter footage of Big Foot, I set out Thanksgiving night in search of a genuine Black Friday experience.

I didn’t have to go far.

Target on Thanksgiving
The line outside Target at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night stretches on into the darkness.

Hearing and reading about the controversy this year of Target opening at midnight on Thanksgiving, I started my epic journey outside the Minneapolis-based retailer’s Snellville location. At 10 p.m., the line stretched 100 yards, and all seemed calm.

I met Gabriel Ortiz, 20, and his brother, who had been at the front of the line since 1:40 p.m., eagerly anticipating the purchase of a 46-inch Westinghouse high-definition television for $298 instead of the usual $600.

Gabriel Ortiz
Line-camper Gabriel Ortiz of Snellville stakes out his spot at the front of the line at Target with dreams of a high definition television.

He told me this was his first time to ever shop on Black Friday, and as a relative brought him some food, he shared what he had learned. He started at Best Buy, but at 1 p.m., the line, containing several tents, was already wrapped around the building. The Target scene was more his speed, and depending how his experience went, he would consider doing this again.  I determined for certain at that very moment that I would never consider doing it.  Ever.

Like Andrew Zimmern in search of exotic cuisine, I continued in my pursuit of the Black Friday experience, and Black Friday, I hear, is not Black Friday until you’ve been to the world’s largest retailer, Walmart.

I knew I was in trouble as I drove up Highway 124 and saw the line of traffic just turn into the parking lot. It was 10:32 p.m., and the parking lot was chaos. In about five minutes I managed to snag a spot at a bank in the out parcel. The walk wasn’t bad, and it gave me time to steel my nerves against what I was about to experience.

As I stepped in through the automatic doors, I could not have entered a more alien scene had I been dropped into the Mos Eisley Cantina. Everywhere I turned, there was a long line, emanating from a Mylar balloon with a product printed on it. Remembering that we were out of pull-up diapers, I spent 20 minutes meandering through the store, avoiding the blocked off aisles and walls of people waiting on everything from HD televisions to video game systems to bicycles.

I found the Huggies pull-ups just above the head of a woman sitting in the floor.

“The line for diapers starts back there,” she quipped.

“Seriously?” I said, an obvious Black Friday novice.

“No, it’s for the laptop,” she said, pointing to the balloon. A 15.6-inch Hewlett Packard laptop to be exact.

Out of luck or ignorance, I ended up in the “10-items or less” line. A woman with a Wii and another with a Xbox Kinect chatted brightly in front of me.

“That’s all you’ve got?” the Wii woman said.

“What are you doing here in this mess?” her friend asked.

“You must be a really good husband,” Mrs. Wii said.

“You should’ve just gone to CVS or Kroger. They’re open today, too, you know,” Mrs. Kinect said with just a slight hint of condescension.

The beleaguered clerk rang me up and laughed.

“Is that all?”

“It’s all I need,” I said, and as she handed me my receipt, I offered “Hang in there. I hope you survive.”

Wallmart check out
A sea of humanity tried to check out Thursday night at Walmart in Snellville.

By this time, it was still an hour until Target was to open. Just for laughs, I drove back by Target. Gabriel and his brother were still at the front of the line wearing hopeful smiles, but now the line stretched at least a quarter mile.

When I got home, I put the diapers on the counter, brushed my teeth and climbed into bed. The clock said 11:30. I thought about the Walmart scene and how it was about to be repeated at Target.

For any other skeptics out there, let me assure you, Black Friday is real, and it is dangerous.

Please shop responsibly.

What’s your view? Do you love or avoid shopping on Black Friday? Are you a line camper? What’s your best deal you’ve ever gotten? Help continue my education by sharing your experiences below.

Thanksgiving grace

You’ve probably already planned every detail of your Thanksgiving meal – at least those of you who subscribe to Southern Living – but have you thought about the one act that gives next week’s holiday its name?

At the risk of sounding preachy, Thanksgiving is supposed to be as advertised.

But often, the last thought on anyone’s mind is the source and content of the blessing of the meal. In many Southern households, the matriarch emerges from the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron, scans the room of football viewing males and selects someone to offer thanks to God for the entire assemblage’s annual blessings.

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
You can do worse than the first Thanksgiving prayer, which Linus recites for the Peanuts gang in "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."

This is a key moment in the day’s celebration. Pick wrong, and everyone can be squirming during an awkward recitation of a childhood prayer. Or worse, you must endure a rank amateur fumbling his or her way through an indelicate and unintelligible monologue.

No, you need to put as much as thought and preparation into the actual Thanksgiving prayer as you do the menu. Before you get anxious, there are unwritten guidelines for this decision.

The first choice is obvious: anyone who is a minister or otherwise prays professionally. Preachers rate highest on this scale, although a missionary would be a bonus if you actually have one around. Most of the time, though, missionaries are on the other side of the world, having Thanksgiving ostrich or dried fish or rice or something.

The second option is anyone who does religious work other than preaching. Even if you sort the mail in the church office, you could be called upon to offer thanks if the hostess happens to be in a particularly desperate situation.

Third would be to select the most obviously spiritual person in the family. Perhaps this person is a Gideon or carries a large Bible to church or maybe even has a track record for “making a beautiful grace,” as we say down South.

The fourth option is the DP, or “Designated Pray-er.” Some families erase all the suspense by having that one person they go to every year. The prayers may not be fancy, but they are consistent and the family feels good about letting them voice the collective gratitude for the group.

The fifth and final option is the riskiest but can often be the most meaningful: one of the kids. As the oft-quoted W.C. Fields once said, “Never work with children or animals.” It’s unpredictable to turn the family’s annual Thanksgiving blessing over to a child.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want"
Our Thanksgivings aren't always Rockwellian, but we can be thankful that we have "freedom from want."

You can get the literalist prayer in which the child thanks God for literally everything he or she knows or sees. This can take a while. Or perhaps the child starts strong but then gets self-conscious and just quits midway. Then you’re left with a half-blessed meal.

My personal favorite is the sung prayer. All three of our boys have come through Smoke Rise Baptist Church’s preschool where they have learned this little prayer to the tune of “Frère Jacques:”

(Preamble, spoken) Hands in the air, bring them down for prayer.

(Chorus, sung) Thank you Father, Thank you Father, for our food, for our food, and our many blessings, and our many blessings, A-men. A-men.

As you make your Thanksgiving preparations this week, don’t leave out the blessing of the meal. You’ll find that by planning for it, you may actually tap into the true meaning of the day and what may have been a perfunctory moment in your family tradition can become a holy one.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Now it’s your turn: Who says Thanksgiving grace at your celebration? What is your favorite Thanksgiving blessing or the childhood grace you learned to say, musical or otherwise? Leave a comment below, and New South Essays promises to be thankful.

Bake me a cake as fast as you can

Cub Scout Dad and Lad Cake Bake off
Barron's last and Harris' first Cub scout Dad & Lad Cake Bake off

I pulled Harris’ overflowing train molded cake pan out of the oven precisely at 3:30 p.m. and put the bowl containing Barron’s yellow cake mix in at 350 degrees for 42 minutes.
Then I left.

As I drove to Alpharetta for yet another weekend work commitment, guilt pursued me like a Lilburn cop after someone who entered the turn lane too soon (not that I would know anything about that.) For the third weekend in a row, I had to leave my family to do my job.

Perspective can be illusive when guilt surfaces. I really don’t have to work on the weekend that much. I enjoy my job. Each of the last three weeks has offered enjoyable engagement with good people and meaningful times of worship. I am extremely involved in my children’s lives and show up most every time there is something to show up for.
So why did I feel so guilty?

Christmas Train Cake
All aboard Harris' Christmas Train Cake express. Next stop... first place!

I was bailing mid-cake bake on what was supposed to be our father-son bonding time as we prepared our entries for the annual Cub Scout pack Dad & Lad Cake Bakeoff.
The competition is designed to get boys and their “non-cooking” parents to spend time together in the kitchen. Cake Boss I am not, but whipping up the batter from the box and putting it into the oven I can handle. That’s all I was able to do Sunday, and when I got home at nearly 11 p.m. that night, I studied Harris’ fully-decorated Christmas train cake with a mix of emotions.

I was sincerely impressed at his handiwork. He had unwrapped Halloween candy to adorn the train cars which sat on tracks made of pretzels. He included big marshmallows in the shape of a Christmas tree, snow man and Santa Claus to add flair. But I was disappointed that I hadn’t been there to see his smiles of pride or help steady his hand as he poured on the glaze. It was a moment we hadn’t shared. His cake had been more “lad” than “dad.”

Stone Mountain Campout Cake
Not all components of the Stone Mountain Campout Cake are edible, but the mountain itself was mighty tasty!

Monday night was my chance at redemption. Barron’s cake was still unadorned, so together we mixed up batches of icing in appetizing colors like granite gray and grass green to re-create our recent campout at Stone Mountain Park. We printed off a picture of the carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and while Barron carefully applied it to the big gray-covered, bowl-cooked cake, we discussed what he was learning about the Civil War.

Those were the moments the competition was designed to induce.
Tuesday night as Barron collected his second place ribbon for the scouting category and then the overall “Cubmaster’s Choice” award, I watched him suppress a smile as he stood on the platform. I was more anxious than an Oscar-nominee waiting for the envelope to be opened when the Cubmaster got to the holiday category. Harris wasn’t called for third place or second, and not having seen the competition, I was worried that Harris might go home empty handed.

But sure enough, Harris won first place.

As I tucked them into bed that night, I was grateful that my times away are infrequent, my boys are creative, we enjoy spending time together and success as a parent isn’t measured in blue ribbons.

A 10-minute conversation

When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do?

Think about it.

Let’s take it one step further: When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do and you did nothing?

Umm-hmm. That’s what I thought.

I’ve been doing a lot of weekend travel for my day job recently, so my boss forced me to take Tuesday off. It’s a sad commentary on my mental status that he had to twist my arm. Seriously, I argued with him about taking the day off. He finally just told me not to come in on Tuesday and muttered something about “gift horses.”

My off day began with sleep – something I get very little of most nights because I’m an early riser. Carla believes I am perpetually sleep deprived, but how else am I going to fit everything in that I need to keep me sane: spiritual disciplines, running and working out and writing.

So when I slept until 8:30 Tuesday morning, it was the latest I had slept in months, including vacations. Rest. What a concept.

Carlton reads "Pete the Cat."
Carlton "reads" his current favorite book, "Pete the Cat."

The morning was great. Carlton and I spent time together before he went to preschool, reading his favorite book “Pete the Cat,” which he basically recited to me. Then it was off to the gym before volunteering in Harris’ first grade class with Carla.

When I entered the classroom, the kids were all in groups working on math centers. Not waiting for an orientation or instructions, I dived in, helping kids with math facts, counting dimes and reading clocks. It was a whirlwind 30 minutes, but every time Harris looked my way, a big smile took over his face. We even stayed for his lunch, preferring not to partake in the cafeteria food but still enjoying Harris’ company.

Lunch was a rare treat. Carla and I enjoyed the special at Always Fresh, the place to go in Lilburn when you have a hankerin’ for some traditional Southern meat and three. We talked about plans for her birthday over baked chicken, pork loin, sweet potato casserole, field peas, mashed potatoes and gravy and cornbread muffins. We skipped dessert on account of the sweet potato casserole.

And that’s when it happened.

We were 10 minutes early to pick Carlton up from preschool. We just sat in our minivan in the parking lot. I turned off the radio. I resisted the urge to pick up my smart phone and allow my burgeoning inbox to rob me of serenity. I looked at my watch. I looked at Carla. We sat still. It was quiet.

“When was the last time we didn’t do anything?” I asked.

Carla then proceeded to give me a summary of a book or something she had read online
about white space and filling our lives up with too much activity.

She held out about another two minutes before her ever-present iPhone was back at her face. She put it down when I mocked her for only being able to be still and converse for five minutes.

Ten-Minute-Pillowcase-Apron
And you thought I was making this up. Go ahead, you can "pin it."

The rest of the day was just as restful, but what stuck out to me was how rare those 10 minutes were. We didn’t have any relational breakthroughs or resolve any of life’s big quandaries. We were warmed by sunshine. We noticed the changing colors of the leaves. We sat still and talked.

More was accomplished in that 10 minutes than in a thousand “to-do” list-filled hours.

In a world where everything from ab workouts to manicures to turning a pillowcase into an apron is advertised as taking “just 10 minutes,” sometimes the best use of that time is to do nothing.

So go ahead. Do nothing. You have 10 minutes. Starting… now.