By REG HENRY
In this dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying, as the poet T.S. Eliot described life, we need something to do to fill in the time. Many Americans have solved that existential problem by going shopping.
What I have to report today is that I am not one of them and I was wondering if anyone out there might know of a support group for pathetic cases like me.
This confession of a non-shopper comes without any sense of moral superiority. Indeed, I am a bit shame-faced. I came to this country as an immigrant and have a great desire to fit in. I want to be able to go to the ballgame, buy a hotdog and yell to the umpire that his parents weren’t married, just like any regular American guy does.
The same goes for shopping. When I saw tens of thousands of people crowding the malls and causing traffic jams in order to get bargains on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, some in the middle of the night, I could not criticize, even when some shoppers got into fistfights.
Why, I felt like I should be punching someone in the nose in order to do my part. After all, wars have been started for less than who first got their mitts on the Argyle socks or the PlayStation 3.
For as John Mellencamp, who is sometimes a little more to the point than T.S. Eliot, said so acutely: “Ain’t that America?”
It is true that materialism and mass consumption lead to waste and greed, as well as other social ills such as bad fashion sense. I will be the first to raise such fine moralistic objections to consumerism in the unlikely event that I take holy orders. In the meantime, I recognize that abundance, while wasteful and often stupid, is much superior to scarcity.
What was it that brought down the Soviet Union? Was it the great arms race sparked by Ronald Reagan that forced the Soviet military to spend more and more of their rubles on those absurdly large officers’ caps? Or was it because Russian department stores sold only canvas underwear and the occasional tractor? The truth is that the Soviet people threw off their shackles because they desperately wanted to go to shopping outlets.
This is entirely understandable. Over millenniums, the human species suffered many privations, including the lack of proper food, clothing and a cable TV shopping channel, and the accumulation of stuff became hard-wired into our genes. We have evolved into a species of shopper-hunter-gatherers who walk on two legs and use credit cards.
But why am I such a non-shopping throwback? Perhaps it’s because I am a traditional man of the type who believes that some things — shopping, cookie-making and childbirth among them — are best done by women.
But other men go shopping and seem to enjoy it, and I can only explain their strange behavior by thinking that in this new era of equality they developed sensitivity and feelings that have only sapped their natural masculine inclinations. I should have warned them.
Still, I realize that shopping is now a major duty of citizenship and I am not doing my part for Team America.
Since the decline of manufacturing in this country, what economists call making actual stuff, the U.S. prosperity appears to depend largely on shopping and buying real estate, which is just specialty shopping with open houses thrown in. In short, we must shop or we will drop.
But there I was in the wee hours after Thanksgiving fast asleep in bed, just being a total ingrate and not doing my part for commerce. There was I on Cyber Monday, again asleep but this time at the office, as duty required.
I can’t help it. It’s just that I don’t want to go to the mall or dial up an online store. I have everything I need. I don’t need new clothes — that would be like putting drapes on a crumbling ruin. I don’t need a Nintendo Wii. At my age, I could get more fun out a case of beer at a fraction of the cost.
In my bewilderment before this shopping excess, I feel left out and inadequate. I would like to make amends with a suggestion to help out the White House:
Americans who like to shop should buy the insurgents in Iraq blue and gray uniforms, so that the White House can finally be persuaded in its own terms that a civil war is going on there, and perhaps it’s a good idea to get out. It’s the only way we’ll ever bring our boys and girls home so that they too may enjoy the fruits of American freedom (i.e., shopping).
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)