In THIS ECONOMY even the clothes are getting smaller

Andy and I are in the car on our way home from an unsuccessful shopping trip at the mall.  We are both irritated because we’ve just wasted an hour trying on clothes in our favorite stores (mine Nordstrom, his Abercrombie & Fitch) only to find nothing that fit.  We are attending a special event next week and we were both looking forward to having new outfits to wear to it.  Instead, we are returning home empty-handed.  As we drive home in stony silence, the tape that has played in my head since I was twelve years old kicks in.  It goes something like this: “If you could just lose 10 more pounds then you could shop in any department you want to.  If you could just drop 15 pounds, then you could find the perfect dress for this occasion.  If you could only lose 20 pounds, then you would never have to feel bad about yourself or your body again.”  I sigh – loudly – and cross my arms.  I jut out my chin in defiance and gear up for full-on pouting. 

The next segment of the tape begins.  This is the part where I make a mental laundry list of every indulgence, every culinary indiscretion I’ve made over the last four months:  the 3 glasses of wine I drank at my book club meeting, that yummy blue cheese appetizer at my birthday dinner, the lovely caramel cookies at Andina… and on and on it goes.  Every lick of every ice cream cone, every bite of cheese quesadilla stolen from my child’s plate, every cookie, every coffee drink that was made with whole milk and real sugar, yes, even the donuts that I brought in last week are dutifully recorded.  I tick them each off on my list – growing sourer by the minute and feeling worse and worse about myself.  Just as I am gearing up for the old “that’s-it-I’ve-had-it-I’m-going-a-diet-starting-right-this-second” speech, Andy says something that interrupts my thoughts.

“I’m sorry, what was that honey?” I ask

“I was just saying how weird it is that nothing fit me today,” he replies.  I nod sympathetically, thinking the poor dear must be berating himself just like I am.  I reach across the seat to pat his thigh affectionately, when he continues, “A&F must have changed the way they are cutting their clothes this year because everything I tried on in my size was too small.”

I am too stunned to respond to this revelation.  I’m gob smacked actually.  How is it that – faced with exactly the same situation- we could have such diametrically opposed reactions? Why is my instinct to immediately launch into a mental self-flagellation over my presumed weight gain and why is his is to assume that the store has started cutting EVERY single garment they sell in his size smaller than normal?  This is astounding, really.  And who’s to say which of us is right?  The only thing I can say for sure is that both of us went into the mall with set preconceptions about ourselves and the clothes we would try on.  I wonder what Deborah Tannen would say about all this…

Posted in IN THIS ECONOMY | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Syntax of Starbucks

For years after moving to the Pacific Northwest I avoided Starbucks, and not for any altruistic anti-big corporation reasons either; no, what kept me away for so long was a strong aversion to the humiliation of being unable to order my coffee.  The conundrum of Starbucks is that, by its very nature, it is filled with impatient people who are in a hurry and haven’t had the soothing elixir of their morning coffee to get them through the experience of… waiting for their morning coffee.  So, we all stand there in line, going over in our heads what to order, only to fail miserably in the end and to be corrected – loudly – by a hipster in an apron who is doodling on a disposable coffee cup. 

The whole experience is like everything I hate about the DMV combined with one of those dreams where you show up somewhere in public without your clothes on.  You stand there, jangling your change, shuffling your feet to keep the line moving, mentally rehearsing your order so that when you get to the front of the line you’ll be ready for the perky Barista or Baristo… or is it Baristbro? (What is the male version of a barista anyway?) then they undermine you by coming out from behind the counter to do a jump-in-the-line surprise attack, where some well-meaning, overly efficient baristperson offers to “get your drink started” and you- flustered by this cunning pre-emptive strike- sputter out your drink order, all the while praying that you haven’t forgotten something. 

I am a graduate student interested in language development and in my studies I came across a quote attributed to Max Weinreich, a prominent linguist, who said that the only difference between a dialect and a language is that “a language has an army and a navy”.  It got me thinking that Starbucks, with its lexicon of nonsensical words and complicated syntax, its military precision, its ever expanding global presence and its legions of followers, might just qualify as the birthplace of the world’s newest language.  Let me take you back 20 years, to the year 1990.  I know that this is hard to believe, but as of 1990, there was no such thing as a Starbucks anywhere in New Mexico (where I grew up).  Nobody in my community had ever uttered the phrase “I’ll have an iced-tall-caramel-macchiato.” And yet now, in 2010, my four year old daughter knows how to speak Starbucks- even if her mother still struggles with the vernacular. 

So today, my mind swimming with all I’ve been learning about linguistics and language acquisition, I popped into Starbucks to pick up a drink for myself and a friend. I’d jotted my friend’s order down on an envelope so that I wouldn’t forget anything.  The place was all but deserted at 2pm – which made me feel a bit too comfortable – cavalier even, when I sashayed up to the cash register and exchanged pleasantries with the guy behind the counter.  I completely missed the fact that he was wearing a black apron – indicating that he was a ninja among mere mortal baristpeople, or, as Starbucks describes it on their website, a “Coffee Master”.  I pulled the envelope from my pocket and began the delicate dance of ordering.  “I’ll take a venti white chocolate…” I notice a slight, almost imperceptible tightening of his shoulders, and I realize I’ve already screwed this up, but it’s too late to stop… “iced non-fat with extra whip” I spit out, defeated.  There is a slight pause where- I SWEAR – he sighed, and then shouted, “Okay, That’s an ICED VENTI WHITE MOCHA NON-FAT EXTRA WHIP.”  Touché.

Now, normally at this point in the exchange I would slink off to the high counter where the drinks magically appear (looking like orphaned children waiting on a deserted train platform) and where I am forced to repeat my shame by asking “Uhm, hey, is this one my Large White Chocolate Ice Drink?” Well, Not Today.  Emboldened by my recent research of language, I say to the coffee ninja, “I am amazed at the way you guys do that – I never seem to be able to order right – even when I write it down!”  He chuckles politely, then leans in conspiratorially and says, “When I was hired 7 years ago they trained us how to call back orders, but nowadays (here he waves his hand dismissively), they are so lax about it– they don’t train the new people to do it anymore,” he ends with an eye roll.

I shake my head sympathetically, indicating that I, too, am incensed by this lackadaisical attitude.  But the truth is, I can’t help but wonder why this bothers him so much.  So I press: “Why do you still do it?”  Here he pauses thoughtfully before replying, “I don’t know, I guess it’s just that I learned the right way to do it and now I can’t do it just any old way.”   Then he cheerfully tells me about a new iPhone app that is designed to help people like me order their Starbucks drink properly.  I thank him for the information, grab my coffee – I mean, my iced-tall-no-foam-latte – and am on my way.

Posted in Words and how we use them | Tagged , , | 6 Comments