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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Aimless shopping helps buy us much-needed mental privacy

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

We live in a commodified world where every deficit gets addressed by some new consumer product.

Ads promise beauty, popularity, success through messages blatant and covert to which no one proves immune. Aspirations to fulfillment of any deeper kind end up crushed beneath the competitive drive to acquire the most, best impressive toys.

But that's not why I go shopping.

Sure, there's an element of dissatisfaction with my life that sucks me into the mall. There's the thrill of some silly purchase that offers the fleeting potential of self-improvement.

But something else happens when I step into that windowless world. Aimless shopping hits the pause button in the endless rush to accomplish some gainful purpose.

You know what I mean. You rush into Longs with a will to acquire some vital, forgotten item, like nail clippers or blank tapes. But once the fluorescent lighting bathes your weary eyes, you sink into the meditative bliss of modern-day samadhi.

What was it I needed again?

Other shoppers block the aisles, momentarily dazed by oven cleaner, erasers, birthday cards. Wordly concerns fall away as nothing looms larger than ... what was it again? Post-it notes? Package tape?

I had a friend a few years ago, a Harvard grad who got a law degree from Stanford and went on to become a reporter. She was then in a midcareer stall, and confessed to spending the entire summer "spacing out in Safeway reading food labels."

I knew exactly what she meant. Sometimes life becomes so frenetic, confusing or dull that you have to flip your mental TV screen to snow.

If you're a woman, the short answer is to go shopping. It's such a bland, universally female trait that it buys you a little mental privacy, like shutting the bathroom door.

I first noticed it while traveling in Argentina, where lone women tend to be catcalled and followed by men on the streets.

I would window-shop. Pause to connect with a mannikin or a pair of shoes, and the pursuer would quickly wander off. A woman shopping is a contest men know they cannot win, a fascination they do not care to understand.

Of course, sometimes it is about fantasy, escape, spending too much on junk you'll never use to soothe a want of self-esteem — the kind of shopping that leaves you feeling dirty, as after a one-night stand.

That's why I find shopping most therapeutic when it starts with no real goal and ends in questionable results, like at garage sales. You can't go in search of the right item; it has to come as a revelation.

Unlike the cynical pickup, this is love at first sight, carrying all the destiny of romance. Weary of life, you plumb the poignant object: Who bought it and why? Where is it from? And suddenly you are overcome with a rush of desperate love.

This is what I needed all along.

The day suddenly glows with unseen purpose. I am no longer the woman driven from the house by a sense of something missing in her life.

Because here it is: a Spyderco knife-sharpening system with alumina ceramic stones, guaranteed to last a lifetime, $1.

It's just as easy to fall in love with a cheap object as a costly one, I always say, and a girl with a buck in her purse doesn't ever need to suffer a dull moment.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.