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The Misery Machine

April 29, 2010

I love Trader Joe’s as much as the next guy, what with their super-delicious and plentiful candy and cookie selection (Yes. Please.), their dirt-cheap eggs and their charming insistence that Hawaiian shirts are still irreverent. But I’m beginning to question their judgment. Take this whole balloon thing. My kids know and love Trader Joe’s for three things: 1) free samples (which they always think they’re going to want, but which half the time are things like pineapple shrimp kebobs or canned pot roast or something else you can’t believe exists that does anyway), 2) stickers, and 3) balloons. I know TJ’s thinks they’re helping with the fucking balloons, but it’s time to deconstruct the myth that balloons are a good thing, for kids or anyone else.

Let’s think about this: If you absolutely had, for some reason, to make your kids cry, what would you use? How about an item that has the following characteristics:

1) Crazy fragile. Balloons, of course, can’t get near anything faintly sharp or remotely hot or they’re done. You know how many sharp and hot things there are in the world? A lot. And it isn’t enough that a balloon that encounters such a thing is simply ruined, like a favorite T-shirt that gets a stain or an ice cream cone that melts. No, when a balloon pops, it’s as sudden, loud and shocking as a gunshot. There’s a certain psychological concussion that is sure to produce tears.

2) Really, really floaty. Like a rescue dog, all the balloon wants is to get away from you. That’s all it ever tries to do. It doesn’t want to play with you, it wants to escape. Most kids spend their whole time simply trying to focus on not losing the damn thing. There’s no playing involved. It’s pure anxiety.

3) Colorful and fun-looking. Balloons look like everything a kid could want, which makes them so very excited to have the balloon. And of course there’s a direct relationship between the joy and excitement your kid feels about the toy, and the misery and heartbreak they’ll experience when the balloon slips from their hand/bumps into a light bulb.

4) Deadly. Yes, if you’re lucky, all the balloon will do is make your kid cry. If you’re unlucky, and if you have a kid who likes to put things in his or her mouth, you might get to watch  your child choke to death while you’re powerless to dislodge the rubbery little thing. Yay!

They don’t hand out the balloons at TJ’s as a matter of course, but sometimes my kids ask about them, and if a TJ’s employee overhears the request, woe be unto me. I don’t know if it’s part of their training to ignore the parents’ body language and gesturing (gritted teeth, hand making cutting motion across throat), but they seem entirely and consistently to miss what I think are pretty clear signals. A balloon is sort of like a machine, a perfect machine designed to deliver misery to everyone. Thanks, TJ’s.

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