Wearing Mittens (written 2016)

10/03/2016 08:27

I don't remember hearing the term “The Experience Economy” before, so guess I'm a little behind the times. What caught my attention in an article I ran across on this phenomenon, was the simple claim that contemporary consumers are “clearly chasing moments”.* The author went on to describe some pretty elaborate scenarios.


In its most familiar form, as I understand it, the “experience economy” makes itself known in the difference between grabbing a cup of coffee in the food court at West Ed and sipping a tall Americano in Starbucks while perusing possible purchases from Chapters. It's not essential that there be any qualitative difference in the coffee itself. It's the ambiance of the bookstore/cafe, the relative seclusion from jostling crowds, and even the laptops on tables vs. MacDonalds bags, the urban professionals instead of frazzled families that share the space.


The article, however, describes something far more extreme: Diners bundled in winter gear, fumbling with forks and wine glasses in mittened hands, during a six course dinner served in a hay bale enclosed area in a farmer's winter field near Viking, Alberta. Chasing moments, indeed.


OK. As someone committed to living mindfully, I have to ask what's really going on here. Something odd, strange, unexpected, yes. Not good or bad in any obvious way. Who cares, really, where someone eats her dinner or what conditions make that pleasant for her? But is this pleasant? I couldn't help imagining tongues frozen to the prongs of forks, and gravy solidifying in gelatinous, chilled pools. A general spattering of tablecloths and clothing as cutlery and food bits are dropped from numbed bare hands. Or fuzzy bits of woolen mittens consumed with bread.


Thinking about this a little further I was reminded of a silly game once played (does this still happen?) at baby showers attended by female family and friends of the mom to-be. Diapering dolls, in the days of cloth and pins, while wearing oven mitts. Good for a few laughs. Camaraderie. But no one was paying big bucks for the “experience”.


What's happening, I wonder, that we need to dress up moments in this way? Sated by plenty, with expectations driven by movies and games. It seems there's a kind of desperation here. We can't be with ourselves in ordinary moments. Can't stay there long enough to find the texture and the depth. Instead, we strive to make life into a kind of roller-coaster ride, with sudden dips and hairpin turns, and shrieks of fear and laughter.


But this artificial intensification is unnecessary. Life is already like that. The flux of pleasant and unpleasant, the ride of aversion and craving that we see when we look closely, is a crazy ride. Nothing lingers long. When we don't see this it's because we're not really here. We might be off exploring memories, the making of which is one of the functions of the experience economy. Memories with bright crayon colors and not too much nuance or ambivalence. Or we might be planning and yearning for the next moment we're chasing, whether it's a dinner in a farmer's frozen field or the beach vacation a month away.


Maybe the problem is that we're already wearing mittens, we're muffled up in layers of insulation that separate us from our experience of the moment. Inattentiveness allows this to happen. Until the only way to have an experience that catches us, that engages our senses, is to go for overload.


It's just me speculating. But the mental pictures I had of these diners went quickly from amusing to melancholy. Count the moments of a life. Then think how many are wasted, unnoticed because they are lost beneath the muffling of habit.


* “Three Ring Meal” by Jennifer Cockrall-King in Eighteen Bridges, Winter 2015