In all the chaos of the September 11 attacks — I got the first report of the planes flying into the Twin Towers while I was getting ready to go to the University of Toledo for my classes that morning, my first class actually met like usual before the campus closed for the day, I didn’t get the afternoon off work (but I was able to leave long enough to fill my gas tank before prices spiked), and I spent hours in a “how could this happen” fog that almost seems quaint in comparison to my thoughts of the past few months — one of the things I made sure to do when I got back to my hotel room that afternoon (my family was in the middle of waiting for our house to be rebuilt after the fire that May) was to look through all the cable channels we got there. I knew that I was living through a historical moment, and even though the rush of new developments had slowed down to a trickle at that point, I was deeply curious about how mass media outlets were covering the stories. My interest in media analysis was starting to pick up again there, and once I finally had a chance to develop those skills in my later university courses, they became a powerful tool in my writing arsenal that I still use every day.
A lot of cable networks had stopped airing their regular programming, but instead of offering their own themed analysis of what was going on (“Next on Animal Planet, what does Mittens the Cat think the American response should be?”), they cut to the news broadcasts being offered by other networks in their corporate umbrella; I clearly remember ESPN showing the ABC News broadcast, and I vaguely recall the only evidence of ESPN on the screen being some on-screen graphics, including a ticker that listed the sporting events that had been canceled as a result of the attacks (which was pretty much all of them). We didn’t have that many cable channels at the hotel, but the only one that I recall airing their usual shows like it was just a normal day was Nickelodeon. They were showing seemingly the same shows they’d planned on showing that morning, and all the same commercials between those shows, with nary a mention of what had happened that morning.
Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that Nickelodeon was offering a real public service here, by providing young children (and their families) a small oasis in the wake of all the horrors that had happened to our country. It reminded me of stories I’d heard about children my age and younger being traumatized by watching the explosion of the Challenger live on television in their classrooms some fifteen years earlier. (I was home sick that day, so I first heard the news on a special report that broke in on the game show I was watching at the time, probably at least a few minutes after the explosion, so I didn’t even get a chance to be traumatized by it. I also remember that I was counting the pennies in my parents’ penny jar when that special report came on. In case it isn’t obvious yet, I have a very weird memory.) I knew that it was far better for parents and other guardians to be able to tell young people what had happened when they were ready for it, as opposed to exposing them to the news broadcasts that were clearly intended for much more developed minds.
This has been on my mind lately because one of the stores that I get daily promotional emails from is a national chain of party supply stores. I bought a couple of props for my classes from one of their locations several years ago, and as cheesy as I find their usual fare, reading their emails these past few months has become increasingly harder for me. On the one hand, I understand that life events continue to happen for everyone in the midst of this pandemic, and particularly for young children, it’s important to get as much of a feeling of normalcy that is possible under the current conditions. Even for those of us who are older, there can be comfort in keeping some kind of ritual from pre-pandemic times, especially when we have something we can authentically celebrate in the middle of all the tragedies around us.
At the same time, though, with as horrible as the news has been for the past six months now — not just with the pandemic, but all the other bad stuff that’s also been happening across America and around the world — it feels like there has to come a point where all those promotional photos of colourful balloons and smiling faces become inappropriate. I’m not questioning the company’s rights to send these advertisements in any way; this is more a matter of what should be done at a time like this, especially when it’s clear that a lot of the horrors we’re living through right now aren’t going away for a long time to come, if ever. Then again, it’s easy for me to suggest what a store that I may never shop at again for the rest of my life should do to promote their wares.
The news stories from this past week may be playing a part in how I’m feeling right now, but maybe the biggest thing that’s soured me to this company’s emails is that they just started including “get these great deals at our location here” text blurbs in them, and since I was still living in Toledo when I last shopped at this chain, they’re now sending me a daily reminder of my life back there, including the exact street address of that store, which I can still navigate to in my head. For that matter, I’m fairly certain that Mom was still alive the last time I went to that store, so remembering that fact hurts as well. I can’t blame this store for touching my sore spots right now because they have no way of knowing so many particulars of my life, but I still can’t help feeling like beyond my personal revulsion to this store’s emails, there’s still something fundamentally wrong about them, even if I can rationalize the emails (and how they’ll actually help many more people) so easily in my head.
These emails are kind of spammy; whenever I checked out at the store, I was always asked if I wanted a paper receipt or an email receipt, and of course I went with the email option. I never said that they could start sending me daily emails about their promotional offers, and nothing I saw at their registers made me think that this could happen. This is a small thing, but I’ve got enough stuff in my head right now as it is (join my Patreon to get exclusive details on what I’ve been reading while I research my next book, hint hint) without being served a daily barrage of special sale prices on paper plates and children’s Halloween costumes that I have absolutely zero use for.
The thing is, as difficult as reading these emails has been for me, I can already tell that unsubscribing from them would hurt me as well. Those reminders of their location in Toledo (which is very close to the hotel where my family stayed after the house fire) aren’t entirely painful, and there is a small measure of comfort to be derived from that momentary “oh yeah, I remember that place” recognition when I see that Toledo address on my screen here. Ultimately, I don’t think this chain of stores really has much of anything to do with why things hurt so much for me right now. They just hurt, and they’re probably going to keep hurting for a very long time to come. I already have the feeling that if I survive through all these trials, I’ll still be too deeply saddened by the tragedies that have happened to feel more than a slight sense of relief at the end. I certainly won’t want to celebrate anything.