I’m the Anti Target Market

In general, I hold no loyalty toward any particular brand of consumer product. Anything in the store that answers my need will do.

Exceptions to this rule have proven to be unhappy ones, for whenever I discover that I am partial to a specific product, it is immediately discontinued. Some years ago, I realized I could not do without Suave dandruff control shampoo, for its low price and effectiveness in stemming not only dandruff but hair loss. I would accept no substitute; until, that is, it abruptly vanished from the supermarket shelves and never reappeared (though later there was an improved version that wasn’t as good). Saddened, I sought refuge with Suave humectant, but that’s gone now, as well.

As a sufferer of chronic allergies, I would be awakened almost nightly by an itchy nose. I tried various cold and allergy medicines, to no avail, but soon found that Contac 12-hour cold medicine did the trick. In fact, it radically improved the quality of my life, granting me a full night’s sleep and leaving me feeling magically refreshed in the morning. However, as soon as I became aware of its miraculous effect, Contact 12-hour cold medicine became extinct. I looked everywhere for it and even investigated online to learn what had happened. Apparently it was banned by the FDA for one of its ingredients.

My breakfast toast was a subject of indifference to me, although for fun I would buy whichever artisanal bread had the most artisanal-sounding name. At one point, though, the loaf of the week chanced to be Ezekiel bread, and I’d never tasted anything better. With a little butter, it was like the manna served to weary travelers in some elven sanctuary in The Lord of the Rings. I savored every slice of that loaf and enjoyed another one the following week, but on the third week, it was absent from the bread table at the _______ Market. I assumed it was sold out and went back a few days later, but again, no dice. Was Ezekiel bread a seasonal thing? I asked the staff.

“Excuse, me. You used to carry a craft bread called Ezekiel. What happened to it?”

“We still carry it. It’s in the freezer section.”

“No, I’ve seen that. That’s a national brand. It’s not the same thing, and it’s frozen. You used to bake it right here in the store. It was my favorite, and…”

“Right this way to the freezer section, sir. I’ll show you.”

“But what happened to the kind you used to bake here in the store? It was right on this table.”

“Freezer section.”

I asked the bakery manager. “Didn’t you used to carry homemade Ezekiel –”

“Freezer section.”

They deny all knowledge of Ezekiel bread, as does the staff of every other grocery store in town.

Now, the Sensor 2 razor I’ve been using for twenty years is broken, and I can’t find a suitable replacement. I’ve bought five razors in as many weeks, and their cartridges are all too broad to shave my upper lip.

Sometimes I feel that I’m the Anti Target Market. There’s a marketing manager following me around, and whenever I buy something, he determines that there can’t be much of a market for it and recommends that it be withdrawn.

It is not only in the field of consumer goods that my kiss means death. Since childhood, I have loved a certain kind of common tree that bursts forth in white blossoms in the early spring. After the invention of the internet, I thought enough about what was, I decided, my favorite tree to conduct a little research; and accordingly, I finally learned its name: the Bradford Pear. I was so pleased to know the name of something I loved that I told my friend Mark about it, as we were driving around downtown Baltimore in early spring, Bradfords blooming on either side. “You see this tree blooming all over the place, the kind I keep talking about? I finally found out what it’s called: the Bradford Pear.”

My friend Mark, to whom I’d confided my paranoid fantasy about being the Anti Target Market, turned to me with an ironic smile. “Yes,” he said. “I just read something about the Bradford Pear; and I hate to tell you this, buddy: They’re not making them anymore.”

“What! They discontinued my favorite tree?”

“I’m afraid so. The Bradford Pear is an artificial hybrid, introduced in the sixties as an urban shade tree. The problem is, it’s top-heavy. It collapses under its own weight in twenty years. So no one’s planting them anymore.”

What’s next? Calico cats?

What a lonely feeling.

 

Taiwan Journal: Beginning to See the Light

This entry is from my third trip to Taiwan, the loneliest and saddest, for, this time, I had left a family behind. I was trying as best I could to do academic research, but, as the following account reveals, I was mostly just making a fool of myself. The only bright side was that I gradually came to realize what was important to me and to act my age.

Wednesday, March 30, 2010 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

Yesterday, I got super mad at [a certain academic institution], because I’d asked them to write me a letter of introduction [for use during an upcoming side trip to mainland China], and they never did.

I had rushed, by taxi, to [said academic institution], and then I rushed to Taiwan University to meet [scholar] Peter Wang. We chatted on the terrace of the Starbucks overlooking Roosevelt Road.

He left at around five. I wasn’t ready to go home yet, being in need of female conversation. I just can’t stand being alone.

There was a girl to my left with a short, untucked shirt and red panties. She had an English language reader, and I considered asking her if I could help with it, but that would have been too much, so I just sat there, waiting for someone to come to me.

Someone did: a Taiwanese-Canadian and her Siberian friend. They wanted to interview me for a documentary they were doing about temporary expats. They didn’t say they wanted to talk to me, but something about my aura convinced them that I would be a willing subject.

The ensuing conversation was very intense and exhausting, though not very articulate. I just spewed and spewed my life story and felt very accomplished and important.

As to importance, I said that my time living in Taiwan [1988-92] was “absolutely the most important thing I’ve ever done.” At this declaration, my interlocutors, instead of beaming at me with awe, seemed to roll their eyes. Maybe they were wondering why I didn’t say that marrying my wife and raising my daughter were the most important things.

I sure thought that living in Taiwan was the most important thing I’d ever done, but that was when I was a youth, when marriage and having children seemed contemptibly ordinary, and when crafting an extraordinary life was the do-or-die objective.

Now I just feel like a schmuck.

China Journal: The Hunan Condition

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 – Beijing

Recently, I found myself in Hunan Province for a Ming dynasty history conference. I believe the conference took place in the otherwise insignificant Shimen County because of its proximity to the reputed final resting place of Li Zicheng [the rebel who destroyed the Ming dynasty].

In any case, the event was hovered over by a cohort of culture cadres anxious to soak up some gravitas from the luminous personages now gracing their satrapy. It was also swarming with reporters trying to do the same thing, although the latter group had special plans for me, the sole gringo, namely: making me appear to be some kind of benighted barbarian seeking Chinese wisdom. I did not comply with their request for an interview, nor did I confirm the rumor that I’d been seen carrying a loaf of bread to my hotel room because I couldn’t eat Chinese food. It intrigues me how opposite assumptions operate on the same plane: Foreigners are expected to be attracted to Chinese culture, but they are not expected to be able to absorb it (not in the form of Chinese food, anyway), due to congenital differences.

The conference proper was inspiring if a little overly formal. All the intellectuals participating identified with their Ming dynasty antecedents. They railed against arbitrary rule and implied that, if only government would recognize true talent, then all under heaven would be pacified. Their class allegiance prompted me to spout off a little about historical objectivity (I remarked that righteous scholars failed to save the Ming dynasty and even had the effrontery to suggest that they might have killed it). I also ventured to observe that their brand of opposition to the government was based on elitism, not democracy. As I pontificated to someone later (boy, was I getting full of myself), democracy, by giving everyone the ballot, neutralizes the power of the Ph.D.

The academic portion of the retreat completed, touring commenced. We visited what was said to be the Peach Blossom Spring immortalized by Tao Yuanming, and I soon found myself having a perfect experience. It was a relatively unspoiled place, and the weather was cool and misty, calling up various Daoist feelings of being one with nature and making me seek to emulate Tao’s fisherman by doing a little enthusiastic exploring. At what was represented to be the actual spring, a pool under a waterfall, I quickly disrobed and took a little dip with the stone turtle they have there. I felt greatly refreshed, and I admit I also enjoyed the notoriety I earned as the crazy young American. It started to rain, which made me even happier, and I got my fortune told at a nearby Daoist temple, which seemed to provide a certain religious meaning to the whole thing.

The next day, our group of scholars moved to Zhangjiajie. We toured the Chinese version of Luray Caverns. This time, I was not quite as alone as I’d been: In standard eunuch fashion, I fell in with a group of four young ladies from Taiwan, hovering on the periphery of their approach-avoidance gravitational pull; and I actually had a pretty good time with the impressive cave and the lovely company. When the ladies slowed down in the shopping area outside the cave, though, I became aware that I was reverting to the role of hungry dog, hanging around, waiting for whatever table scraps of attention they might throw down to me; and so I took my leave of them, bought a dress for Yuka [then my fiancée, now my wife], and escorted [senior scholar] Wei Qingyuan back to the waiting bus.

That night at the hotel, after dinner, I developed a headache and began asking females for aspirin. One of the Taiwanese ladies said she had some in her room. On the way thither, we passed the hotel’s massage parlor, where the pubescent hostesses were scantily clad and the light chaser framing the doorway had already been turned on. Upon reaching the Taiwanese ladies’ room (where the other three waited; it seemed they always stuck together for protection), I received the promised pills, and an awkward moment ensued, as my canine tendency began to reassert itself; but they sent me on my way rather decisively, with a final “Goodnight,” while closing and locking the door behind me.

In spite of the less than voluntary mode of my departure, I was still glad on the whole to be away from their debilitating presence. The problem now, as I returned to my room, was how to spend the rest of the evening in the very uncomfortable hotel. I decided to write a letter to Yuka.

The phone rang. It was one of the young hostesses from the massage parlor, asking if I required any servicing. I demurred. I said I had a girlfriend. She said it didn’t matter. I twisted in the wind for another minute or so, the tenacious young lady refusing to let me off the hook. Finally, I blurted one last “Sorry” and hung up the phone over her protests. Then, I sat down on the bed and repeated, as a mantra, the phrase “Nerves of steel.”

The phone rang every fifteen minutes or so, until around eleven. I didn’t answer.

The following day, we took a nature walk, along a path following a river in the woods. I was very impressed with the park, though the lack of any literary or religious significance kept my happiness from overflowing into euphoria. Also, I made it a point to escape from the group, especially the four Formosan ladies, and to enjoy the place with the peace of mind enabled by solitude. I did bump into the Formosan Four upon emerging from the woods at the end of the trail, and they said they missed my company. Whether they were trying to be polite or cruel, I really can’t say.

China Journal: A Barren Source of Amusement

This diary entry is from my second excursion to Asia, in 1998-1999, for the purpose of conducting research for my dissertation. Unlike my first visit, this time, the internet was available, and I sometimes used it to combat loneliness, with mixed results.

Sunday, August 29, 1999 – Beijing

The computer has been a barren source of amusement lately. I’d been frequenting the chat rooms and had actually managed to have a friendly chat once in a while. Very recently, though, the chat rooms were transformed by avatars, little pictures designed to represent each chatter in a glitzy environment; and now all anyone ever talks about are the stupid I.D. pictures. I began to fear that nobody would notice me at all without an avatar; so I dutifully downloaded the new software. I find the chat room’s revised look to be as conformist as it is distracting, the women having all chosen similar “naughty” representations of themselves, and the men, likewise, having selected boilerplate, shirtless hunks.

I spent the entire morning in an unsuccessful attempt to download a photo of Richard Nixon (the Norman Rockwell painting from the Portrait Gallery) to use as my avatar, before I decided that I’d passed an invisible line separating passing the time and wasting time. I went out on my bike all day.

1968 - Pres. Nixon - by Norman Rockwell by x-ray delta one, via Flickr