One of the abiding delusions of the male mind is the belief it is actually possible to put off critical Christmas shopping until late on the 23rd of December. I am the apostle of this delusion. I take comfort in this false belief every year. No amount of actual experience ever shakes my conviction that it is not only possible to shop like this but economically prudent too. And every year this faith is tested and found wanting. Whatever I may save in last minute markdowns I pay for in this evening’s glowing and gut-wrenching angst.
So there I was waiting at the “Information” counter in the local Barnes & Noble in search of, well, “information.” I simply wanted to know if this gigantic repository of games, gags, cards, calendars, coffee, and, oh yes, books had a certain title and where it might be located. I was one of a small cloud of befuddled customers hovering about the source of “Information” and the service in the store at this hour of the evening on this last day was not exactly “crisp.”
Bluntly stated, the “information” staff of 2.5 employees had had it. Burnt out, tired, tried to the breaking point, they were still going through the corporate mandated methods of “helping” customers locate what they were looking for. At Barnes and Noble these days that means, as it means at so many other stores, a quick look-up and then a guided tour to the book the customer has requested, a hang-out until the clerk is sure they’ve found it, and then an inquiry of that person whether or not they need anything else. People have gotten married on flimsier relationships.
This mandated hand holding means that those needing a simple data-base query run and simply to be told “That’s under the author’s name in Philosophy over there,” tend to build up at the desk in hordes. And in these hordes on this night nobody’s happy. Add to this stituation people actually calling on the phone with “information” requests and you can see the slow steam beginning to rise off the assembled.
Your real need to know means nothing to the “information” clerks of Barnes and Noble. They must, MUST, comply with corporate protocol lest some corporate quality control spy find they are doing things efficiently according to the situation and fire them. They know they could make things run smoother, but they also know they can’t. I understand this and, most of the time, I try to hobble my impatience and irritability out of empathy for their plight. Working retail on this day is not a stroll through a heaven of angels wings, babies bottoms, and hot chocolate with teeny tiny marshmallows on top.
However, this was the witching hour of Christmas shopping for me and I was getting ticked off as my, MY!, evening ticked away. The store was crowded and shabby by this point. The lines of my fellow sufferers (90% fellow male procrastinators) were long and growing longer. You could feel their nerve tissues fray and almost see the sparks glinting where the nerves were touching each other and sizzling.
Just when I thought it would be my turn at last to get my measly little question answered and get my own personal guided tour to the book I needed the phone rang at the “Information” desk and the woman, who should have been MY GUIDE THIS INSTANT!, took the call. She listened and said, “I’ll see.” Then she turned and disappeared into the bowels of the store.
Finally peeved I couldn’t help saying out loud in a scathing tone as she departed, “Jesus CHRIST!”
Without missing a beat the man waiting next to me turned and said, “Well, that’s Who we’re here for, isn’t it?”
In the serious practice of Zen meditation, the jikijitsu walks behind the meditators in the hall with a keisaku, a flat stick. If you are having a problem with the depth of your meditation, your focus, you bow slightly in your Zazen posture as the jikijitsu walks by and he gives you a quick and solid rap on the shoulders with the stick. This snaps you into it.
In this case, this man’s observation snapped me out of it like a sharp whack on the shoulders from a keisaku. Snapped me out of my bitter mood and back into the reality of the Christmas season instead of the illusion of the bookstore.
“Thanks. Thank you,” I said. “You’re absolutely right. He is the reason we’re here. I needed that.”
We both laughed. I shook his hand and left the store and my remaining little needs behind. I’d just gotten what I needed.
Outside in the parking lot you could see the getting and spending still going on in the dark. Beyond the parking lot were the roads and the woods and the streams and the mountains all under a white shawl of snow. Driving back through the whiteness I realized I didn’t need to buy any more gifts for anybody. We all already have more gifts than we need or know how to use.
What we all need for Christmas is often the last thing we want — a sharp whack from a keisaku wielding jikijitsu focusing us to simply accept, at the very last minute, His gift.