October 9th was a fine day indeed, strolling as I was through the crammed Walgreens near my yoga studio in the Castro on a balmy, Indian summer afternoon, picking up some deodorant and a cranberry Kombucha and a solar-powered garden gnome, some tennis balls and nine boxes of marshmallow peeps and maybe a dozen of those miniature, New Age sculpture-garden waterfall things with the spinning crystal ball and the LED lights and the gurgling sound, and also a massaging foot bath and a bucket of sidewalk chalk and some Astroglide and three pounds of beef jerky and an eight-foot tall, screaming animatronic zombie (for Halloween) because, well, this is just how you roll in Walgreens, the world's most random and astonishing store in which to feel completely weird about humanity.
Halfway through my excursion (just the Kombucha and the deodorant, in truth), I noticed it. Just up there, near the wall of Halloween candy, next to the stuffed animals and the dried soup, right across from the Hello Kitty lamps and the cartons of adult diapers, a huge pile, a row, a stack of shiny boxes three feet high and ready to tumble down onto your innocent and unsuspecting worldview.
It was 81 degrees outside. It was still early October, not even yet time to set clocks back an hour or pay way too much for a pumpkin in the city. Nearly three months stood like a lump of crushed hopes between that particular moment and Christmas -- and yet, there they were, rows of holiday fare awaiting their rotation in the cycle of commercial life, because, well, why the hell not? Does anyone even notice or care anymore? Drug stores churn through this sort of prefab holiday crap like crack anyway, and candy canes have the shelf life of nuclear fuel rods. Might as well just leave them out all year long.
It's the same everywhere, is it not? Costco puts out fake Christmas trees and yard-sized nativity scenes well before you break out your fall sweaters. Department stores began prepping their holiday decor in August. And of course there's Walmart, the evilest of evil empires, which waited all the way until the day after Halloween to launch its online holiday "steals," because they hate you, and also because they really need to dump eight container ships full of pre-broken $19 Chinese-made Blu-Ray players by Thanksgiving.
I am not all that naïve. I well know that capitalism's creed is always the same, no matter what time of year it is: Profit rules, and who the hell cares about anything resembling a real holiday, real reverence, real devotion to something greater or deeper anymore? Fact is, America hasn't been in touch with authentic spirit or true reverence since John Lennon shot JFK in Elvis' bathtub.
I wasn't even sad. I was, rather, perversely amused at the sight of the canes; what a bizarre culture we've become, and how surreal that we think this kind of thing is completely (if grudgingly) normal, all of us sharing the tacit understanding that every major holiday is somehow supposed to be co-opted and beaten to a pulp by rampant commercialism and Black Friday lunacy.
It's now November: Do you know what kind of story will shortly be dominating the media? Do you know the single greatest barometer of America's overall health, happiness and growth? Not low crime rates. Not easy access to health care for the poor. Not higher college graduation rates, fewer idiots with guns or Ted Cruz and Antonin Scalia caught in a gay brothel in Texas, smoking crack with the mayor of Toronto and posting inappropriate tweets about it (you wish).
It's the retail sector. How well online sales and the department stores are doing, as exclaimed by numerous panicky headlines the days just before/after Thanksgiving. "Consumer confidence" they call it, adoringly, even though it's just another term for a dejected citizenry sufficiently numbed and bullied into buying more stuff they don't actually need. U-S-A!
Two days after Halloween, I stood, surrounded by walking skulls and candles, ritual and death, corrected.
It was Dia de los Muertos, of course, swarming through SF's Mission district like a breath of fresh, funky, coffin-like air, a quirky, morbid, wonderful slap in the face to every American holiday ritual in existence, along with the ruthless machinery of capitalism that define them.
Talk about everything bland, oversold American culture is not -- giddy, weird, moribund, playful, creepy, home-spun, solemn, completely noncommercial, no marketing and no major advertising and no noxious commercial jingles, no smarmy Coca Cola ads featuring diabetic polar bears sucking down toxic sugar water and not dying from global warming...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...