I bought two chocolate bars last week as part of a school fundraiser. The money was going to pay for band equipment, or hockey gear, or a new flagpole. I don’t really know. The important thing was that I could buy candy and feel good about myself at the same time. Even better, it was the “world’s finest chocolate.” I knew that because it said so right on the wrapper. But halfway through the second bar, I realized there was nothing special about it. In fact, had I closed my eyes I might have thought I was eating one of those chocolate bunnies they sell at the dollar store, the kind that doesn’t seem to have a place of origin, but is purely the product of some global distribution system. Upon closer examination, I noticed that “World’s Finest Chocolate” was the name of the company. They’d skipped the unnecessary process of glowing reviews, word-of-mouth advertising, or industry awards. They had simply selected the reputation they wanted and decided to identify themselves accordingly. I was, at once, appalled and impressed. Maybe I should write a book and title it: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
The little chocolate adventure got me thinking. Are there rules for making promotional claims? How many brands insist they’re America’s Favorite or Europe’s Best? I went to a show last year that billed itself as The World’s Most Successful Musical. What does that mean? Longest running? Highest sales? Fewest sleeping audience members? Is it just a marketing ploy disguised as a self-fulfilling prophecy? If enough people believe it’s the world’s most successful musical, they’ll assume it must be pretty great and will purchase a ticket, and soon the claim becomes a fact.
By the way, the term self-fulfilling prophecy was coined by a sociologist named Robert Merton, who also created the term role model. This is useful information, in case you didn’t know.
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There are things that go on in life, things that happen every day and everywhere, and yet to me they still don’t seem possible. The car radio. Not only can I hear people talking and singing while I’m driving, but I can turn a dial or push a button and hear different people talking and singing. I almost always despise what they’re saying and usually hate the music even more, but still, it’s pretty incredible. The zipper. Interlocking teeth smoothly joined or separated by a simple sliding piece of metal. Look closely the next time you zip up your jacket. Not so closely that you snag your face, but just enough to be amazed. Pickpockets. I have no experience with them, but I know they exist. I’ve read about them in every travel guide I’ve ever opened. Apparently, cities all over the world are crawling with skilled thieves who can locate and remove your wallet while you go on licking your ice cream cone or lining up another photograph of Aunt Louise in front of that cathedral. How can this be? It takes me five minutes to get my wallet out of my own pocket, and that’s only after I manage to find it. Talented pickpockets can acquire your watch, necktie, belt, and jewelry, all while you continue to gawk at the architecture or study the street map. They’re criminals, to be sure, but artistic ones.
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What goes through the minds of factory workers in China as they crank out more junk for us to buy? Motorized back scratchers and scalp massagers. Robotic floor sweepers and trick birthday candles. Gadgets that help us crack eggs, slice fruit, brew coffee, and light a fire from the next county. Bigfoot lawn ornaments. Inflatable fruitcakes. Anatomical coffee mugs. Singing fish. The underpaid employees who make this stuff no doubt assume we’re all millionaires. And I guess, in a sense, we must be.
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Sometimes when I’m going to sleep, I imagine that I’m in the car and trying to parallel park. I don’t intentionally think about this. It’s just my brain wandering off on its own. In real life, I rarely have trouble parallel parking, even if the space is tiny. But in my mind, things are different. The drivers of the vehicles I’m maneuvering between didn’t leave much room. As I back in, I can’t tell exactly how far I can go, and I usually end up gently tapping the car behind me. As I pull forward into the space, I have the same problem, because I can’t see how close I am to the car in front. You don’t always know until you make contact. And that’s how I developed part of my philosophy of driving: They’re called bumpers for a reason.
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The planet Mercury is in retrograde. This means that it appears to be moving backward across the sky, an optical illusion that occurs several times each year. In truth, all of the planets are always orbiting in the same direction. But because Mercury is extremely close to the sun, it has to move faster in order to avoid being devoured and incinerated. That’s what produces the illusion. Imagine you’re running around an oval track and there’s a person directly across from you who’s moving at exactly your speed. Every time you looked over at the other runner, your relative positions would remain unchanged. But if he were running faster he’d eventually pass you, and at some point would be so far ahead that he’d seem to be going the other way. That’s what Mercury does as we look at it from Earth. If you could observe from outside the solar system, you’d notice that all of the planets are actually moving at constant speeds and in the same direction. And yet, we insist on assigning a universal meaning to our local perception. Very specific meaning, according to astrologers. This is typical:
“What happens when Mercury retrogrades? You miss appointments, your computer equipment crashes, checks get lost, you find the car you just purchased is a lemon. …You hate your haircut, the lamp you bought shorts out… There will be countless delays, cancellations and postponements — but know these will benefit you in the long run. Don’t fight them, although your frustration level and feeling of restlessness will be hard to cope with at times.”
Mercury will be in retrograde until April 4th, and will appear to fall into a backward path twice more this year, in July and November. Keep that in mind when your car radio goes silent, the zipper on your favorite pair of pants gets jammed, and you discover your wallet’s been stolen and you’ve gone to the dentist when you actually had an appointment with the chiropractor. In that case, I hope you have a chocolate bar within reach, and that it’s the world’s finest. Or, at the very least, America’s Favorite.