Sunday, September 09, 2007

In Any Event

Labor Day is recently behind us – and with it, that glorious state of mind called “summer.” People who haven’t seen each other in a while will be asking for another week or so, “How was your summer? Did you get away at all?” or “Did you have a good summer?”

By “good summer,” perhaps we mean “eventful” -- which Encarta defines as “full of important, interesting, or exciting occurrences; or something that had a major effect on your life.” On the other hand, a “good summer” could mean one of long, lazy days, lots of iced coffee, and reading beach books so l-i-t-e they floated away – i.e., a blissfully uneventful summer.

Eventful, uneventful, event … to ancient Romans, evenire, i.e., to come out of, or occur.

I’m thinking about the word “event” these days not just because my second child just went off to college for the first time (THAT was an event) and my first child just went back to college (very important, but less of an event than the first time), and we now have just one child (well, age 16) at home for the first time since 1989 -- there’s probably a name for this new period, but that’s a separate column.

No, what’s getting to me is the commercialization of the word “event,” which is diminishing the real meaning of the word. So what, exactly, is an event? Encarta defines it as 1. “an occurrence, especially one that is particularly significant, interesting, exciting or unusual; 2. An organized occasion, such as social function or sports competition; 3. Any of the races or other competitions that form part of a larger (sports or other) event; and 4. A happening or occurrence.

Now take a look at my Exhibits A, B, and C: I just drove through town and noticed the women’s clothing store, Ann Taylor, is having what they call, a “Shoe Event.” A few weeks ago, they were having a “Sweater Event,” and before that, a “Summer Sale Event.”

(Could the events of my summer even begin to compare to those?!)

Last week, The Body Shop was having a “20% Off Everything Event.”

Even pet shelter organizations like, and the giant Petco pet store chain, have gotten in on the “event” action with “Pet Adoption Events.”

Have these so-called events become a modern sales code word meant to avoid sounding crass or commercial? What Ann Taylor and The Body Shop are really doing, it seems, is “promotion” for one and “a sale” for the other. Has the word “event” become polite society’s expression for the equivalent of “blow-out sale”?

The release of the seventh and final Harry Potter book was commercial but, still, definitely an event, even a worldwide event – with children and grown-ups alike dressing up in Harry Potter character-related costumes, going to parties at bookstores that had book-related games, trivia contests, face-painting, and food – definitely memorable events, as was my own completion of reading the series.

Meanwhile, Ann Taylor’s “Shoe Event” includes no balloons, confetti, or live auction; no face-painting or speeches or anything to make the “event” in any way memorable or once-in-a-lifetime. All it means is that the new fall shoes have arrived, and that we should come in and try them on. The fall sweaters that were the featured “event” in August are still on the table near the door – but now considered a tad dated for the “event” crown. Mind you, those sweaters and shoes are still full price – any reductions will no doubt be announced with the Fall Sale Event.

As for the pet shelters and their Pet Adoption Events: these regular-as-morning-coffee happenings (though an event is supposedly a unique or rare occurrence) give people who want a pet an opportunity to acquire one. The shelter brings animals from their locations to a local pet store or town center. There, the shelter displays cats and dogs in cages, pens, and carriers and waits for hopeful owners to apply for ownership.

The potential owners are then thoroughly screened – they must fill out a lengthy application with many personal questions as to why they want a pet and how and where they intend to keep it, and keep it safe (from falling off balconies, out of windows, etc.); you must also supply references, which are duly checked: If your reference cannot be reached (not at home, cell phone on the blink), too bad -- either wait, or try again at another “event.”

Once potential pet owners have passed the paperwork stage, some shelters require a home-check: they bundle the pet-owner-wannabes into a van, then with a pet professional, go to each wannabe’s house or apartment to check for possible safety hazards.

They call this an “event”?! For those proud pet owners who make it through the entire process, bringing home the puppy or kitten is definitely an event. But the method of acquiring it -- while completely fair and humane for the animals – is more Trial than Event for the humans simply seeking a little love and four-legged companionship. (Perhaps the shelters could call these ordeals, “Attempt to Adopt a Pet Day.”)

Lifetimes are full of events – some are acknowledged with a hug and a surprise under your pillow, or a “How ‘bout that!” (losing your first tooth, not being picked last at gym). Other events are reasons for extravaganzas – bar mitzvahs, Sweet Sixteens, graduations, weddings, births. (And though death is equally dramatic and occurs just once per lifetime, I’ve never heard anyone refer to someone’s death as an “event.”)

County fairs are also full of events: Bingo; the 4H Poultry, Rabbit and Livestock Competitions; the tractor pull, the dessert cook-offs, the greased pig race, the watermelon-eating contest, and much, much more. Swim and track meets have different events within them; our local fire station had a festive little event today for parents and little children, with balloons, a train, face painting, spin art, sticker tattoos, and free food and drink.

Events are usually happy or fun – but not always. There is a tremendously popular children’s book series called, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which describes the bitter and painful experiences, disasters, and awful occurrences that challenge three orphans seemingly every second of their miserable lives.

The biggest use “events” as a negative occurrence is the one attached to to September 11, 2001: the terrible happenings of that day are often referred to as “the events of September 11th”. In this case, the word “events” is fitting – since it’s hard to find a date in American history with more drama or significance.

So my advice to Ann Taylor, The Body Shop, pet shelters, and other entities dressing up their promotions, sales, and rigorous adoption procedures in verbal sheep’s clothing is: delete “event” from your sales language. Unless you come up with something that has us consumers standing in line overnight; that can rival the first day of school in significance; or that can compete in emotional tension with a county fair’s husband-calling contest, it’s best to let our natural idea of events remain as special, happy, or even tragic as they are meant to be.