Go On, Take the Money and Run

If you buy e-books through Amazon, you’re familiar with the option “send a free sample”.  Rather than buying the book up front, Amazon sends the first 5% to your e-reader as a teaser.  The sample cuts off abruptly (sometimes mid-sentence), but you get enough of a taste to decide whether you want to commit to the purchase or simply walk away.

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Free samples are a genius sales tactics (think Costco), but I say free samples are saving graces for an often mediocre world.

Mediocre.  It means you experienced something run-of-the-mill or commonplace.  Think about the last food item you purchased.  Would you say it was deliciousLike nothing you’ve ever tasted before?  Would you rush back and buy another one?  Probably not.  Yet you ate the whole thing even though the first bite screamed “meh”.  Why did you do that?

Here’s a better example.  How often are you at the movies and twenty minutes into the film you start to wonder if it’s going to get any better.  You become more interested in your surroundings than what’s up on the screen.  For me, the first red flag is when I suddenly double-check my pockets for my wallet and car keys.

Sometimes you see people get up and leave in the middle of a movie – the bold ones.  Do you leave?  Chances are you don’t.  You finish out the show, turn to the person you came with and say, “ah, it was just okay”.  Again, why did you do that?  You could’ve been gone almost two hours ago and salvaged the evening by doing something better!

I think we should apply Amazon’s “first 5%” to more of life’s experiences.  At the movies, why don’t they flash a little question mark in the corner of the screen fifteen minutes in.  If you’re not into the film you get up and leave at that moment, and the theater refunds you 20% of the ticket price.  Sure they might have to charge a little more to offset the loss, but guess what?  Movie producers would track the “leave” statistics and make better films.

The other night I saw the Harlem Globetrotters, an act I hadn’t seen since childhood.  They’re not as entertaining as they used to be.  The basketball is still impressive, but the slapstick comedy is dated, and the focus seems to be as much about their charity and the products they’re selling as it is about the show itself.  Again, the “first 5%” rule says you decide within the first fifteen minutes whether to stay or go, and you get a 20% refund on your ticket.  And, that ticket could be handed off to another line of patrons, who would then watch your remaining 80% for free (and probably buy enough concessions and products to offset the refund).

We’re in an election year.  You may consider your choices for President mediocre.  No problem.  The “first 5%” rule says the winner has 75 days to make good on those “when I get in office” promises.  If he/she comes up short, the Vice-President (or even more interesting, the runner-up) takes over and also gets a 75-days shot.  Sure, I’m making the early months in office more demanding and the election process more complicated.  But at least the VP would no longer be a figurehead.  And you the voter would no longer feel like your “purchase” of the next four years demands a refund.

Old-World Charming

One of my favorite musicals is “Brigadoon”.  The original production dates a long way back; to 1947.  Brigadoon tells the tale of two Americans traveling in the Scottish Highlands.  A town quietly appears to them through the fog: charming, simple and untouched by time.  It is idyllic.  To protect itself from the changing outside world, “Brigadoon” only appears to outsiders one day every hundred years.  So when one of these travelers falls in love with a Scottish lass from the town, he only has a few hours to decide if that love means remaining in Brigadoon and disappearing into the fog forever.  The ending is fitting (and not so predictable).  I won’t give it away here.

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My own Brigadoon appears to me, once a year for only a week or two.  Just north of San Diego lies the little coastal town of Del Mar.  It is a quiet village by the sea, with pretty little shops and restaurants, a prominent hotel, and a train that whistles its way along the nearby cliffs several times a day.  You can stroll leisurely from the beach to the center of town in a matter of minutes.  You can sit in the park on the bluffs and lose yourself in the horizon.  The flip-flop pace is slow and the carefree inhabitants always seem relaxed and happy.  Like Brigadoon, Del Mar is simple, romantic, and idyllic.

I keep returning to Del Mar, just as I did when I was a boy.  Growing up in the bustle of Los Angeles, Del Mar was only a two-hour drive south by car or an effortless journey by train; yet always seemed a world away.  My family spent the summers at our house on the beach, including countless hours in the sand and surf.  In those days – a half-century ago or more (gulp) – Del Mar was as modest a burg as you can imagine.  The beachhouses were drab single-story wood-sided bungalows.  A walk on the shore encountered a lot of seaweed and rocks and only an occasional shell.  The town was unremarkable; more practical than boutique.  My child’s eye recalls the 7-Eleven as a highlight; the only place a kid cared about thanks to its Slurpees and pinball machines.  Del Mar’s drugstore was almost forgettable, except you could buy chocolate malt tablets (meant for indigestion but candy to us kids).  The park contained a snack shack where you couldn’t get much more than a grilled cheese and a Coke.  And my friends and I used to sneak under the highway through a culvert, giving us a back door entrance to the nearby horse-racing grounds.  I can still picture the jockeys, exercising their thoroughbreds in the ocean waves.

Del Mar is a wholly different animal today.  The draw of the coast, the consistently good weather, and the summer horse-racing season has transformed a modest locale into quite the tony address.  The beach is groomed daily and the sand is marked into areas for swimming and other areas for games and still other areas for dogs.  The hotel commands a nightly rate of $350.  The park on the bluffs is all spruced up – no more snack bar – and used for concerts and festivals.  A sunset wedding/reception sets you back $4k just for the use of the park.  The local Starbucks sells enough coffee and tea to rank among the most successful locations in the country.  The racetrack patrons hit the town in their Sunday best the first day of the season (think Kentucky Derby).  And most notably, a house on the beach – with a very narrow slot of property abutting the ocean – cannot be had for less than $10 million.  Yes, Del Mar is all dressed up these days and hardly simple.

But it’s still my Brigadoon.

My family and I make our annual pilgrimage to Del Mar every July.  We leave behind landlocked Colorado for yet another taste of the sun and surf and salty air.  And as soon as I arrive, the little town I remember reveals itself to me from the fog that has enveloped it over the years.  The fancy shops, restaurants, and patrons step aside in favor of the simpler and more idyllic memories of the Del Mar I first fell in love with.  If it were possible, I might just choose to take a leap – forever – into the Brigadoon of my yesteryear.

wistful

The church we belong to has an interesting element in its design; something I have not seen since my childhood.  It’s called a “cry room”.  A cry room is a small, enclosed, soundproofed space adjacent to a more public space – like a church sanctuary – with a few chairs (or pews) behind a large pane of glass.  Parents can take their unhappy infants into the cry room and still see and hear the church service without disturbing the congregation.  Parents can enter from the sanctuary or they can enter from the church foyer; in fact, you hardly notice them.

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Our pastor enjoys telling new visitors the cry room is actually for adults as well – the ones who are upset with what he has to say in his sermons.

I was first introduced to cry rooms at a movie theater of my youth.  It was a small seaside venue with only one or two screens.  The cry room was situated at the back of the theater, soundproofed and elevated.  They put a few theater-style seats behind the glass, with speakers so you could still hear the movie.  As a teenager, my friends and I thought the cry room was the cool place to watch the movie from, as if we had our very own private theater.  In hindsight, it would have been a great place for a first date.

Cry rooms are clearly a throwback to times gone by, like those big velvet curtains that would pull aside before the movie began.  They bring back memories of the simpler, more refined eras that I sometimes yearn for.  They make me wistful.  I did a little research and learned that cry rooms were always included in early theater design.  The nicer ones included electric bottle warmers, complimentary formula, and often a nurse on duty.  Different times, no?

A hotel in Japan takes a different spin on the concept of a cry room.  They’ve set aside several rooms specifically for women to de-stress from the apparently demanding lifestyle of the Japanese culture.  Check into a cry room, select from one of several Hollywood tear-jerker DVD’s, and let the tears flow and the stress melt away.  They supply you with a healthy stock of tissues and a warm eye mask, so you can emerge a few hours later with no evidence on your face.  Would you pay $85 for that?

The recent trend in church design is to remove the cry room from the sanctuary.  I think that’s a shame, as infants are showing up in the pews in greater numbers these days.  Speaking of infants, a few months ago I watched a woman video the pastor’s sermon on her iPhone with no regard for the people sitting around her.  She was in the pew directly in front of me.  Try concentrating on the message as you look past an iPhone held up high.  Forget the wailing babies; I’ve found an even better reason to bring back cry rooms.

irk

Watch out.  I’m about to ruin your theater-going experience.  If you want to enjoy your movies without the nagging of my detail-oriented world, do not read any further.  You have been warned.

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I am one of those who can’t help but notice the little things.  When I enter a theater I am immediately aware of my surroundings.  How big is the screen?  How comfortable are the chairs?  Is the sound too loud or just right?  Did I get freshly-made popcorn or the slightly stale stuff from the bottom of the bin?  Yet these are minor distractions when I consider my recent experiences at the movies. Drum roll please; I give you the twelve items that irk me most when I’m at the theater.  No matter how intense the action scene or how enrapturing the love scene, one or more of these dozen offenses are sure to get up in my face and say “hello”:

1) The sounds of snacks.  At the movies I demand the silence that Simon & Garfunkel made famous (get it?) but instead I’m surrounded by crunches, slurps, wrappers, pours, gulps, and chews.  Is this a vote for early-onset hearing loss?

2) Cell phones.  To the credit of my fellow movie-goers, I can’t recall the last time I heard a cell phone bleep during a movie.  But they still buzz.  And they light up.  And I notice.  My peripheral vision gets high marks at the eye doctor but makes me pay dearly at the movies.

3) Ushers with flashlights.  Here’s a new one.  Ushers pass through the theater once during the movie to check things out.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good idea with some of the crazies out there.  But I see them.  I know why they’re there.  And my movie gets a “time-out” until they leave.

4) People movement.  This one is trending upward.  Why are people going in and out of the theater during the movie?  Did they not take care of business earlier?  Are there lottery winnings distributed in the lobby that I’m not aware of?  And what about missing those couple of minutes while you’re gone?  Don’t you want your money’s worth?  Sit still people!

5) Commercials.  I include movie previews in the value of my ticket purchase.  But not commercials.  Nor previews that are really just commercials in disguise.  Nor ads for television shows.  Not what I came for.

6) Seat kicks.  Which begs the question, are they intentional or is the person behind you overly-aggressive with their response to a given scene?  No matter; you never see them coming and once you get one you’re on edge wondering when number two will hit.

7) The louder movie next door.  Beware the lure of a soft romance or poignant drama.  Hollywood has produced an action-packed blockbuster that just happens to be playing in the adjacent theater.  There are no words to describe the moment when a bomb goes off in the middle of a love scene.

8) Ticket/concession costs.  Okay maybe this is just me, but it takes time to get over the fact that I just paid more for my concessions than I did for my movie ticket.  I know, I know – concessions equal profit margin.  But I’m already well into my movie before I can make peace with that.

9) “People” sounds.  In addition to the sounds of snacks, I give you loud breathing, distinctive laughs (otherwise known as cackles, whoops, snickers, and howls), coughs, sniffles, and those other sounds better left to the imagination than described here.

10) The wrong movie.  I kid you not.  At a theater a few months ago our romantic comedy opened with a towering image of Will Ferrell’s face.  I knew instantly they’d queued up the wrong movie.  Will Ferrell and romantic comedy do not belong in the same sentence.  Or movie theater.

11) The person sitting next to you.  Admit it, you arrive early and choose your seats hoping no one will sit next to you.  And when they do, you wonder who gets the arm rest.  Or the drink holder.  And what’s that funny smell?

12) Talkers.  Sorry ladies, but women who go to the movies together like to talk ABOUT the movie DURING the movie for EVERYONE to hear.  They also seem drawn to the seats directly behind me.  One time I actually confronted them about it and promptly learned the meaning of the phrase “dagger eyes”.

So there you have it.  Life used to be so simple.  My gauge of a good movie was getting to the closing credits without wondering where I put my car keys.  But those days are gone.  The movies are officially a gamble, but only with respect to which (or how many) of the above distractions will be included.  I hope you’re enlightened.  I’m irked.  Enjoy the show.