Can Shopping Make You Crazy?

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Christmas is coming soon and that reminds me of Boxing Day. Boxing Day in turn, reminds me of shopping bargains, which brings me to Black Friday and that makes me depressed. The local news carried live footage of Black Friday in the US and watching it, I was simultaneously mesmerized and horrified. Hordes of presumably sane individuals were wrestling, shoving and even pulling hair to get a full nelson on a flat screen TV. As I peeked between my fingers trying to look away, yet transfixed by the carnage, some of the shoppers were identified as Canadian. For me, that was the lowest point of all.

Black Friday happens every year and every year I cannot believe my eyes. What complex set of psychological conditions turn a department store into a gladiatorial arena and middle class people into combatants? Social scientists like Ravi Dahr at Yale University have studied the phenomena of Black Friday and the consumer behaviors it precipitates. Such events are carefully orchestrated to pry open the shopper’s wallet and induce them to spend money. The stores open early so that customers are sleep deprived, excited or irritable and vulnerable. Opening bell bargains are irresistible and set the stage for a decrease in customer discernment and resistance once inside. The first purchase is usually the most deliberate and thoughtful but once executed, “shopping angst” is overcome and the internal accounting that leads one to evaluate the pros and cons of the next purchase weakens. As a result, customers start to shop less discriminately and at accelerated speed. Worrisome as it is, crowd mentality can fundamentally change people and allows them to behave irrationally. When an individual behaves badly, this provides an excuse for their neighbor to do the same, or worse. . If all of these conditions occur at the same time, as they do on Black Friday or Boxing Day, social scientists have shown that shoppers can behave aggressively, irrationally and even become deranged. Apparently, these responses are more common than we appreciate and, given the right circumstances, any of us could exhibit similar behaviors.

If this is what a North American consumer is capable of, what if the desired object was not a luxury item, a toaster or electronics but a necessity, say, clean drinking water? Will there be legions of armed Californians, their water supply gone, massing at the border demanding entry into Canada to quench their thirst? After all, when a population 10 times your own needs something to survive, eventually they will take it, and, if the situation was reversed, would we be any different?

I realize that these are hypothetical questions but they do require sober analysis. I have never shopped Boxing Day and knowing what I know now, I am unlikely to start. If these bad behaviors are ingrained in our genetic makeup, as academics suggest, I will stay home and not risk finding out that beneath my civilized veneer, a moron is lurking.

 

Photo from Tumblr

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The Brothers

On the way to Everest I met two remarkable brothers. We were all part of an international group of climbers destined for the big Himalayan mountains and trekkers whose goal was to make it to Everest Base Camp. The trek itself is not to be underestimated. It is no small matter to get to Base Camp and most who tackle it train beforehand to withstand the physical burden of an upward climb in thin air.

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The eldest brother, in his early 60s, was at an age compatible with Everest trekking, if you are fit. If you are overweight, out of shape and usually frequent five star hotels, it might be fair to ask whether your destination was Everett, WA and somehow you got on the wrong plane. Younger brother, at 57, had been a mountaineer in his 30s but since had a stressful and busy career managing a company. As life is prone to do, it had left him with a CPAP machine for sleep apnea, a significant waist circumference and an arthritic back. Never before outside the USA, younger brother was travelling on his first passport, and so, the first logical place to go must be Everest. For them, seeing Everest was a trip of a lifetime and a chance to bond following the death of their mother, but at our first meeting, I had my doubts whether they would ever reach their goal.

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As is often the case, looks deceive and it is the heart and will that counts, qualities the brothers had in spades. Each day we would set off as a group and every day the group would decompose into a fast group, a slow group and the brothers. Every day the brothers arrived late, exhausted but euphoric, surprising themselves and us with their physical accomplishment. Higher and higher we went and when it seemed impossible they could go on, they showed up. Their enjoyment and wonder at the surrounding vistas was infectious and younger brother’s first view of Everest encapsulated the combined joy of a child at Disneyland on his birthday. I was moved by the realization that for him, the trek was as much spiritual journey as it was a physical one.

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Somehow, the brothers made it to Everest basecamp. For one, the nights required supplemental oxygen and after two days at the foot of the highest mountain in the world, they decided to return by helicopter, as making it to this point, they had given everything that they had to give. What had been a warm up for some had been a peak experience for them and it was time to go home. I was sad to see them go. What they had given of themselves to get there, and what they had given us in inspiration, was everything that they had and in doing so, had gained my admiration.

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Climbing in the Himalaya was exhausting and it will be a while before I return, but not so for the brothers. They recently emailed to say that they will to do it all again in 2015!

Remembering Jack

I might say I lost Jack, and lead you to believe that I somehow misplaced him, like I do my car keys. The fact is, Jack died, and lost is a euphemism, a soft, proxy word for death, to cushion the pain of its reality. I don’t like euphemisms. They detach my grief, and so, where I could say I Lost Jack, I prefer to say Jack died. He was important to me and when I write about him now, I want to feel as connected to him as I did when he was here. He was my friend, my best friend, and he is dead. That is a statement that I can feel.

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Back in the late 1970s, in spite of a 30-year age difference, Jack and I commenced a close and active friendship. Thirty-seven years ago, when I was young and vulnerable, he probably sensed that I needed a father figure and without hesitation, he and his family took me in. At the time I was a fledgling teacher and he was my Science Department Head. For me, he exemplified everything I admired in a man: intelligent and wise; patient and kind; principled yet non- judgmental. (It is no surprise that years later, I married such a man). Jack was a role model for me professionally, but more importantly, in life. Backpacking, hiking and skiing were passions he, his wife and I shared and together we spent many weekends exploring the Kootenay backcountry.

tumblr_m8ffogaq3p1rdod86o1_1280 In 1993, after I had moved away, changed careers and married, our friendship remained. Then, just as my step dad was dying from a protracted, and for him, humiliating illness with prostate cancer, Jack was diagnosed with the same disease. While I grieved the future loss of yet another father figure, Jack carried on until one day, at Kokanee Glacier on a great powder day, Jack breathed in the cold mountain air, carved a turn and was swept forever away.

After 30 years in medicine I have witnessed many ways to die and some are better than others. Early in my medical career, I felt a special grief for those who succumbed to sudden death, their goodbyes stolen away, but over the years, as I witnessed many more undergo the protracted, painful deaths of chronic disease and cancer, sudden death seemed less tragic than it used to,especially when juxtaposed with the prolonged suffering of so many.

 

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As I have aged, I have resolved the bulk of my grief over Jack’s death by recognizing that he died as he lived: fully engaged in the moment, before it became the last moment he ever had. I miss his solid presence but his spirit is very much with me skiing the back country and in the mountains.. It makes me smile to think how happy he would be to share these adventures.

 

Photos off Tumblr of Kokanee Glacier

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