Thursday, August 28, 2008

State Fair

The best thing about Minnesota may be the State Fair. It is the Fair Archetype… nothing fairer. Witness its glory:























I didn't get my entry form in early enough for crop art this year, but next year... watch out.
More pictures on Flickr.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dog & Pony

A sea of red polo shirts and khaki pants, wending its way from downtown hotels and Big Redquarters to the Target Center. Today was the National Sales Meeting. Big Red flies in all the store team leads for a pep rally, but this is no high school gym-styled affair. It has very high production values, falling somewhere between a Poison concert and the Oscars. It lasts approximately five hours, and all the chief execs address the faithful.

To keep everyone awake, they give out awards and intersperse big-name entertainment between the speeches. This year, we got Josh Groban, John Legend, The Jonas Brothers, and Christina Aguilera. I feel so dirty now… I’ve seen the Jonas Brothers play live. One Jonas (I couldn’t tell you which) was playing what might be the dumbest guitar ever. Actually, it was a mandolin – a mandolin shaped like a tiny Gibson Explorer. F***ing hell. Last year was better, when we got Elvis Costello, kd lang and Tony Bennett.

There are other diversions. Free snacks at the breaks, goody bags stuffed with swag in each seat, and the Target X Games team. One guy did freestyle motorcycle jumps off a huge ramp and Shaun White skated a half-pipe. The whole thing smacks of bread-and-circuses. The speakers keep it upbeat, and the red polo shirts cheer in response, but the economy provides a bleak backdrop.

Still, we are doing better than most in retail and it does get the store team revved up, which keeps me in a job. HQ people like me are not what it’s about, anyway… it’s for the people wearing the red polo shirts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hong Kong Lite

July 30-31
We’re traveling light this time: a lean team of three, whittled down from January’s ponderous seven. It’s me, Kay and Tom, and we’re going to work through the line reviews in only five days as a result. Leaving on the 30th, we arrive 16 hours later on the 31st, feeling shortchanged by the dateline as usual. The car is waiting, as is the room at the Intercontinental Kowloon, with its blessed shower and comfy bed.

August 1-2
It’s morning and I’m realizing something kinda cool... a bit of the morning TV news in Mandarin makes sense! I’m still hopeless with Cantonese, though.
Everything in the media is all about the Olympics. All the news graphics are Olympics-related, and there are public service announcements on TV and radio celebrating the event and reminding people to be on their best behavior for guests. There’s a video with Jackie Chan and three HK popstars singing a ballad celebrating Beijing 2008. This is one of many celebratory songs that play incessantly on all the Chinese networks. The biggest song is called “We Are Ready”. The Chinese are most definitely ready… you can’t escape Olympic hype.
We are having all our line reviews in Hong Kong due to the tightening of the borders to the mainland for the Olympics. We go to the office in Tsim Sha Tsui, where we enjoy a nice reunion with our Chinese colleagues. We see baby pictures, vacation pictures, news about the Shenzhen office’s recent move, into a better neighborhood and a new building. Meetings go off without a hitch as usual.

August 3
Sunday is our only day off. We sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast and arrange to go shopping later. It’s hot and sunny, but not as hot as I’d thought, since an impending typhoon is keeping it relatively cool. When I call Eric, I find it’s actually hotter and more humid in Minneapolis.
I take the camera and hit the waterfront. The Hong Kong cinema industry’s Walk of Fame runs right in front of the hotel along the harbor, and it’s much more picturesque than the hardscrabble one in Hollywood. It’s also much cleaner. Ladies walk past Jet Li’s handprints with iridescent pastel umbrellas, shading themselves from the sun. Kids pose in lame kung-fu postures for their parents in front of the Bruce Lee statue. A jogger with an unmet desire for attention (and apparently some acrobatic training) goes by with a water bottle perfectly balanced on her head.
We go shopping in Kowloon for a while, and hit my favorite HK store, G.O.D. (Goods of Desire). G.O.D. is a cool department store with a heavy focus on home. It has a uniquely Hong Kongese viewpoint, and its style is a mixture of traditional Chinese, vintage Hong Kong kitsch, and international contemporary design. It’s really smart, affordable and fun.
The tourists from the mainland are in town, and Hong Kong’s florid brand culture is eager to serve them. There’s a line outside the Gucci boutique, which is filled to capacity with shoppers. The guard lets a few people in whenever a few exit. The hunger for luxury brands on the mainland is so fierce that some shoppers buy not one designer bag but a wardrobe of them, spending millions of HK$ in one trip. This doesn’t mean the guys selling fakes are suffering. You can’t walk down the street without some guy muttering “copy watches, copy handbags” out of a doorway at you. If you ignore them, they might up the ante: “good copy watches.” As if the guy in the next doorway’s Patek Phillipe knockoffs are somehow inferior to his ‘good’ ones. Other Hong Kong streetside salesmen, perhaps a more legit variety, hawk cheap custom suits, acupressure foot massages and traditional medicines.

August 4-5
More good line reviews; it’s a great day when you can make it through a half-dozen meetings without anything angst-worthy coming up.
Last night in HK and we have free time -- no obligations. Tom is out with a friend. Kay decides she’s in the mood for fries. The Intercontinental has fries, but they’re swanky ones, probably anointed with black truffle fairy dust that cost $39 US, so we go over to the Sheraton for cheap American comfort food. After dinner, Kay retires to pack, and I go take some pictures. The storm is coming, but it’s still clear and the air is cooling; a nice night to be out. I get some great shots of Kowloon neon, including the big sign at the traditional medicine shop touting a sale on dried caterpillars.
By the time I get back to the hotel, the wind’s picked up and the rain has tentatively started. By the time I get to the room, the storm has started in earnest, but I can see from my window that it has not kept some people out of the pool. The trees whip around, and the doves that have been hanging out poolside all week retreat under a chaise in a cabana. It’s getting very dark, and the light of the pool bar is a beacon in the storm. Through the whipping palm fronds, the barman continues his work unperturbed as the storm ramps up. The people in the pool head for cover.

August 6
The huge glass front doors of the Intercontinental are locked and barricaded, and the palms outside are whipping wildly. I’ve checked out and am waiting for Kay and Tom to do the same. A concierge sidles up to me while I’m waiting in the lobby and tells me we may not be able to leave as planned, because travel may be limited. This time, it’s a real typhoon: a category 8. Two trips ago, we flew out during a typhoon, but it was a lightweight one, only a 3. There are only three categorizations: 1, 3, and 8. Low, medium, high, like the settings on a cheap hairdryer. Nobody changes plans for a category 3 typhoon in HK, but a category 8 elicits the equivalent of a Minnesota snow day. No school, no work. The concierge strides back, saying we will be able to take the car to the airport after all, and that the airport is still operating. He directs us through the bellman’s door (which is OK to use, since it’s metal and not glass like the front doors), and out to the waiting car.
Later, on the tarmac at the airport, the pilot comes on the intercom. He sounds like Slim Pickens in “Dr Strangelove”, but he’s clearly no cowboy. He’s saying we’re going to be waiting for a while until we get a report back on conditions in the air: in other words, he’s going to let some other sucker in a cargo jet risk bucking the typhoon before he ventures out. It could be 5 minutes or 5 hours before we leave. We all groan. I put on my iPod to drown out the intolerable lite jazz played on NWA planes before takeoff. Eventually the flight attendant gestures for me to turn it off. It ends up being only about 20 minutes before we’re on our way home, back over the dateline, arriving back on the same day we left

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