In the realm of shopping experience, nothing beats a good department store. Macy’s is my favorite. There’s something about a department store that screams elegance and sophistication. Except when it screams danger. Most department store experiences are the same, if not similar. We walk in the doors to the smell of clothing dye and perfume spritzes and the leather of the shoes and handbags, all mingling with each other to create that distinct department store aroma. We make our way to the center of the store where the jewelry and cosmetics are located and where the floors are made of shiny white tiles that seem to glitter in under the track lighting. Oh yes. I can hold my own in a Macy’s. But some department stores are different. These are what we would call the high end shopping experiences (Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue). There’s something about these particular stores that is unsettling. Perhaps it’s the smell of the leather handbags that cost more than most people’s monthly mortgage. Perhaps it’s the dye in the $200 t-shirt hanging on the sale rack. Perhaps it’s the expensive perfume worn by the shoppers, who are positively dripping with huge gaudy jewelry that we know cost a fortune. There is an intense potential for danger in the form of overpriced jeans or the “free” gift with purchase, a sense that a person could easily lose track of actual value because of the allure of the store and its merchandise. Whatever the case, it is safe to say that these shopping venues offer a different kind of retail experience, one filled with lust after things we can’t afford and a sense of apprehension as we quickly make our exit out of fear that we will have to pay for the privilege of browsing. These trips never prove fruitful; I leave the store feeling as though I’ve stolen the experience itself. I do, however, have a new appreciation for my own shopping habits. Bring on the Macy’s and the Dillards!
This city is full of incompatible ideas, business combinations that just don’t compute. Take, for example, the strip mall containing both a burrito vendor and a cosmetic surgery facility. I suppose to some logic this seems reasonable. Stop in for a burrito, have a tummy tuck, and be on your way. Personally, I like my guacamole with nachos, not face lifts.
After the brief sojourn often referred to as spring break, I find myself simultaneously refreshed and puzzled with regards to vacation behavior. Why do we forgo our everyday sense of decorum in the name of getting away? What is it about going on vacation that makes people abandon themselves?
We vacate our lives to get away from ourselves. We go away to exotic locations and do things that our every-day selves would never conceive of doing. And we think this is good for us. But the act of vacationing is deceiving. It is replete with inherent problems that we either pretend to overlook or blatantly ignore in the process of going outside our normal selves. For example:
Problem #1: The Spending
What happens to our relationship with our wallet when we go on vacation? Somewhere between the outlet mall and the tiki bar we decide that less is more when it comes to discretion. We buy things we don’t need simply because we would never buy them when we’re home. That shirt that we’ll only wear once? When we are back to our normal lives and back to our normal level of sanity we realize that that shirt will hang pitifully in the back of the closet, a constant reminder of the temporary insanity we experienced all in the name vacating. Those “cute” capris with the anchors embroidered on them? They somehow seem out of place in a city that contains absolutely no recreational water features. And yet we continue to spend money on these things, if only to convince ourselves that we do have the innate capability of being someone other than who we are every other day of our lives.
Problem #2: The Return to Reality
What happens when we return to reality, sunburned, exhausted, and broke? The reconciliation of the fabulous vacation we’ve just had with our ordinary existence is not only time consuming; it is an emotionally painful experience. We realize that not everyday can be fabulous like a vacation, but we find ourselves wondering why. Why can’t we live everyday with the kind of reckless abandon we seem to conjure from within while we are away? These thoughts run through our minds when we are cleaning out the shower drain or patching the hole the dog scratched into the wall. When we are taking out the garbage or sorting the laundry. To pretend that getting back to normal feels anything less than a disappointment would be a blatant lie. And by the time we have managed to assimilate our vacation experience into our memory, it’s time for another vacation again.
Apparently there are certain criteria a place must meet before it can call itself a town. One of these is the strip mall. Every town has them, and we often think of them as a blight on the community, the physical embodiment of capitalist ideals. Anything is possible in a strip mall.
Anchored on one end by a Subway and on the other by one of many cell phone carriers (generally Sprint or Cricket), the strip mall has made a reputation for itself, superseding even that of Wal-Mart. While we openly criticize the monster chain store for all but decimating small business, we seem to view the strip mall as a necessary evil. Where else can we drop off our dry-cleaning, pick up lunch, and figure out why our voicemail box has been reset without having to leave our cars more than once?
The number of strip malls a town may have is directly proportionate to its population. It’s sort of like seats in the Senate: one strip mall for every X number of people. In ritzier parts of town, they may be camouflaged behind a brick exterior, but a strip mall is a strip mall. And there is something to be said for the honesty of letting the aluminum siding speak for itself.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen that much of the world. Various family members in various cities, while earning me vague familiarity with those cities, have hardly earned stamps in my passport. I can claim brief interludes in their airports, but our acquaintance is only passing, a temporary sojourn. This is reality. I am not well-traveled.
So why do I feel like I am? Why do I feel like I know cities and their problems when I’ve never been to them?
People often claim familiarity with places based on the books they read. If you read enough books about a certain place, you begin to feel like you know it just as well as the people who call it home. Reading about these places creates the illusion of a connection, and we claim that illusion for better or for worse.
This isn’t necessarily a problem. Except that it is. It’s no secret that reality is often disappointing. When we go to these wonderful places with our high expectations and lofty ideals, we are, in a way, setting ourselves up for great disappointment. Cities are often dirtier in person than they are in our imaginations. Imagine that. And being in a remote location away from the “hustle and bustle of it all” can sometimes seem lonely instead of restorative.
The grass is always greener on the other side, so the saying goes. Perhaps this is why the place always seems to more appealing when presented in black and white on the pages of a book.
People often speak of routine in terms of monotony. Routine is boring. The daily grind. It’s too predictable. There’s no spontaneity. I am a creature of routine.
Every morning I do the same things. I get up, have coffee, read the news. I check the DVR for shows that I might have missed because I go to bed at the same time every night. I know exactly where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing at almost any time of day. I like the control. Having a routine gives me the ability to live my life on my terms. I authorize any and all changes to my standard operating procedure. Except when I don’t.
Funny how routine just sort of happens. I didn’t make a conscious effort to plan out exactly what my days were going to be like. Routine is what happens when we are trying to figure out what to do with our daily lives. We slip into patterns of behavior that feel comfortable to us, and they become our norm without our realizing it. We don’t start to notice until we feel that we’ve been living the same day over and over again. But if that day is by all measures a good day, why do we feel like we’re doing something wrong? Where did the stigma come from?
Control. I hate to be out of it. Life takes so much of it away that I sometimes feel remiss in not reclaiming it when and where I can, even if it’s just deciding when to have coffee or read the news or catch up on old television shows.
I carry a notebook with me everywhere. It’s a habit I adopted long ago that I just can’t seem to break. The things I write in these books often don’t make sense. No matter how hard I try I will never remember when I saw the turkey in the tree. Even more difficult will be trying to remember why I wondered if that turkey liked jazz. Maybe I was listening to jazz and sitting on the patio. Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe there was no turkey at all; maybe it was just a mindless ramble.
Every now and then that happens. I am struck by a thought that seems so counterintuitive, so random that it has to be put down on paper. My favorite books to revisit are the ones that are written in pencil. A pencil is so much more forgiving than an ink pen. With ink, you cross out the mistakes you make, but they are still there. And their powerful glare still reminds me of a failed attempt at something every time I see them. A pencil allows for change. A pencil lets you change your mind when you decide that what you’ve written is not at all what you meant to say. The sharpening of a pencil indicates progress.
In some ways the writing I’ve done with a pencil reminds me more of my actual life than any other writing I’ve ever done. So many changes. So many times I’ve said things only to realize that they only made sense to me. Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly explaining myself only to re-explain myself a few brief moments later. A pencil allows for mistakes. And corrections.
After looking at old notebooks, I can’t help being struck by how many things have changed since they were written, and the thought occurs to me: maybe there is nothing in life permanent enough to be written in ink.