Sunday, March 12, 2006

Hey, every artist needs a creative outlet

It was a glorious day yesterday. One of those early Spring days, beautiful as first love, overwhelming as hope. Hounds of Spring on Winter's traces and all that sort of stuff. The sun was shining, the lake had turned an electric cobalt, it was 65 degrees outside and pleasant enough that you could walk around in shirtsleeves. It was the kind of day that only Emily Dickinson could do justice to.

M celebrated this unexpectedly brilliant weather by wearing a skirt. I celebrated it by getting her to take me to a nice little cafe and gorging myself on Ceasar salad, espresso ice cream with hot fudge and the most sublime espresso tarts I've ever tasted, laced with liberal doses of actual espresso. So far, so good.

M then suggests that we go for a drive, seeing as it's so wonderful outside. I acquiesce happily. Where should we go? she asks. I shrug my shoulders, consider pointing out that we don't actually need a destination to drive to, then say, 'Wherever', visions of leafy lakeside walks or pleasant out of the way arboretum's in my head. "I know!", M says, "we could go to an outlet mall! I need to shop for clothes for my new job anyway!" HUH? Apparently M's idea of relishing the great outdoors is to go into designer stores and check out the Spring collection. I protest. I don't want to be stuck inside some stupid mall on a day like this. And there is NO WAY I am going shopping for women's clothes. Not happening. Nada.

So of course we end up going to the outlet mall. M assures me that she a) just wants to pick up a couple of things b) already knows pretty much what she wants c) is amazingly efficient at buying clothes. This trip isn't about shopping, I'm promised (would she do that to me? her guest?) it's really about the drive - the outlet mall is just an aside, like a really convenient spot to make a U-turn in. We'll spend two hours driving about in this amazing sunshine, M tells me, and maybe an hour, at most, at the mall. Come on, that's not going to kill you.

I should have known better. The fact that M knows exactly what she's looking for and manages to pick it out in some fifteen minutes in the first store we walk into, does not, apparently mean that she does not have to visit every other store and pay due homage, like a devotee making a tour of the minor shrines. Besides, by this point the weather gods have turned against us, and it's all overcast and depressing out, so she might as well shop properly now that we've come all the way. Aarghh!!

Shopping with women is like the Holocaust. Every survivor has a story of his own to tell, and though most of these stories sound very alike, we still go on telling them, writing them down, publishing books about them because of the sheer untrammeled horror that they represent, the extent of one human being's cruelty to another. What moves us, in these stories, is first and foremost the plight of the narrator, his inalienable status as victim. This is writing as catharsis, memory as reconciliation, by putting our worst moments down on a page we cauterize them, distance ourselves from them.

So, shopping for clothes with women. The thing that always puzzles me about these expeditions is the way women want your opinion, but don't value it. Shrug your shoulders and maintain a careful neutrality over everything she picks out / tries on, and you're told that you're no help at all, and she knows she should have come with someone who would have been interested enough to give an opinion. Try giving an opinion (being careful, of course, not be too honest - it's always those pants are too tight, or that jacket isn't cut right - never you're too fat to be wearing something like that) and you'll get the 'what planet are you from / don't you know stuff like this went out of fashion, like three HOURS ago' look. M told me she wanted something simple and classy that she could wear to office and that would make her look professional. But every time I suggested something sober / conservative I got a look that was the equivalent of a rap on the knuckles and was told it was too plain. Go figure.

The second problem shopping for clothes with women is what I call the "I know what the debutante needs, but even she doesn't know what she wants" problem. Spend five minutes explaining to a woman why the purse / shoes / raincoat / suit she's trying on is absolutely impractical / overpriced / inappropriate for anything but dancing about in Geri Halliwell videos and she'll admit the truth of everything you're saying and then say "But I really like it." This, apparently, is an argument. M, unlike other women I've shopped with in the past, is reasonable enough not to actually buy the damn things, but her process for vetoing something that catches her fancy, consists of trying it on and then sashaying in front of the mirror until she's managed to convince herself that she doesn't look good in it (not that this takes long, of course). This works, but it has all the efficiency of sitting under a tree and waiting for the apples to grow rotten and fall to the ground instead of just plucking them.

Then, of course, there's the sheepish husbands club. This is the group of men you'll find standing at the entrance of the changing room in any woman's store, anxiously clutching purses / babies / dresses and trying desperately (but without any real hope) to make themselves invisible. If there is a hell, and the feminists have anything to do with it, this is what it will be like.

The trouble is that there's absolutely nothing to do in this situation. You don't want to look at the clothes because you're a MAN and can't possibly be seen browsing through flimsy pink dresses, fingering the fabric to see what it feels like. You don't want to look at the other women who are coming out of the dressing room and modelling the clothes they've tried on in front of their husband / the mirror because it's rude and you're not a pervert and they're bound to get the wrong idea. You can't look the other men waiting with you in the eye because the last thing you want is for other men to know that you would do this, it would be like chatting about your viagra prescription, you're embarassed enough as it is. So what you have is basically a ten minute period (fifteen, if the person you're shopping with didn't bother to wear a top that she could try on formal jackets with, so now has to pick out a shirt in each store and change into that just to see what the suit looks like) where all you're doing is looking away.

Plus there's the imminent sense of doom hanging over you. It's like waiting for an interview. Or a sheep shearing. Any minute now she's going to walk out of that door and you're going to have to make up something to say about the outfit and what if she looks really hideous in it, what do you say then? and what happened to all that stuff about not objectifying women, how am I supposed to judge how a woman looks if I don't objectify her, and what would Betty Friedan do if she were in this position, and why is it taking so long, could she have fainted in there trying to wrestle herself into that tight top and what do I do if she never comes out of there at all, if it's like some Hitchcock movie where she simply vanishes, do I call 911, do they have a special fashion victims unit, is that her, no, but I wish it was, I'm hungry, oh crap, is that the time, what the hell is she doing in there anyway?

The other frustrating thing, especially if, like me, you're not married to / dating the person you're shopping with, is other women. It's one of nature's great Catch-22s. Here are all these women, who usually wouldn't give me the time of day if I laid down my cloak to help them cross a patch of mud on the street, who are suddenly smiling sweetly at me, simply because, by dint of actually agreeing to help a woman shop, I have magically transformed into Super-supportive Sensitive Man. All this warmth and approval is edifying, until you remember that it's all based on the assumption that you're not single. It dawns on you that the only women you're ever going to be attractive to are the ones who think you're not available, that you are, in fact, 'safe'. You wonder how long it would take to swim to Geneva.

The worst part is that after a while you can't help getting involved. I mean you're in the damn stores, putting in the time anyway and it's clothing for god's sake, not rocket science, you're analytical enough to handle something that basic. Stockholm syndrome takes over. Next thing you know you're getting a full update on her entire wardrobe and helping her think through which pieces in it would help accentuate the understated tone of the suit she currently has on. You're talking blithely about the cut of the suit, the fall of the fabric and how this or that silheoutte isn't appropriate for her. You find she's hanging on to your every word, doing exactly what you tell her. The salesgirls in the store bring up outfit after outfit, offering it to you hesitatingly, in awe of your judgement. Other women are turning around to listen to what you're saying, and wondering whether it would, technically, be infidelity if they came over and took your advice over their husband's. You listen to yourself talking about the inappropriateness of the stitch, and realise you're actually good at this. You also realise how entirely gay you sound. You might as well move to Wyoming and tend cattle.

At any rate, four hours later and clutching enough polythene bags to destroy the groundwater balance of a small planet, we were done. All I felt at the time was relief, of course, but thinking about it later, over dinner with Veena and BM at a snazzy indian fusion place (tamarind shrimp, tandoori portobello and some heavenly lamb) it began to occur to me that I might actually be on to a good thing here. Okay, so it was an excruciatingly painful way to spend an afternoon, but if I'd bargained properly, just how many delicious meals could I have got M to pay for in exchange for it? Do I really need to be doing a PhD? Could I make enough just taking women shopping on the weekends, to spend the rest of the week writing and relaxing at home?

The reason the male prostitution / gigolo industry has never quite taken off, it seems to me, is because they're providing the wrong service. Women don't need to pay men to sleep with them, they can get men to do that anyway. The fundamental principle of prostitution is that you pay for something you really want but can't get otherwise. How many women would love to have a guy to go shopping with? How many of them can actually get a guy to do this? Is there a huge untapped market here?

I have a vision of myself dressed in luridly coloured tight pants, waiting outside a outlet mall, peering into the windows of the cars at all the single women driving in, saying "hey there! big spender! you feeling lonely this afternoon? You lookin' to do some shopping?" I could have my regular rate for a one hour quickie and a special price if you wanted me for the whole day. Plus additional charges if you wanted something extra - like if you wanted help choosing lingerie, for instance, or you wanted me to wait outside the salon and comment on your hairstyle when you came out. What? You want to bring your husband along? Sure, why not, I'm cool with threesomes. I'll even help him pick out ties while you're in the ladies room. No extra charge. Hell, for a little extra dough I'll bring a friend of mine along and you can listen to us argue over whether mauve is right or wrong for your complexion.

And maybe, if I'm lucky, some day a super-rich, over-achieving CEO type woman will pick me up off the streets and take me to back to her hotel room and we'll spend the whole night in the novelty shops in the hotel basement and one week later she'll show up at the door of my run-down little apartment in a white limousine clutching a bouquet of new credit cards in her hand, and I'll discover I'm really Julia Roberts and we'll all live happily ever after.

I just hope she doesn't look like Richard Gere.

P.S. For those of you who are wondering what happened to the erudite, cultured Falstaff you know and errr...vaguely like, though you wouldn't admit to as much in public - not to worry. I'm just getting over my fashion hangover (you know, the feeling you get when you open your eyes in the morning and see orange spots and an elephant dressed in a pink Ann Taylor dress?) and will be back to my regular self asap. Forthcoming attractions include: A long, long post about the Chicago Art Institute, and a discussion of how poetry can actually help you deal with being stuck in noisy, smoke filled lounges filled with the beautiful people.

UPDATE: Just a quick clarification. The elephant in a pink Ann Taylor dress referred to in the post script above is an entirely fictional being and bears no resemblance whatsoever to any persons living or wearing clothes from Walmart. Specifically, it does NOT refer to M (honey, will you please put that knife down now). No, not even if the dress fits....

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dazedandconfused said...

My condolences. There's a funny post on this male nightmare which you read here

Heh Heh said...

Oh my goodness that was priceless.

Tabula Rasa said...

So *so* true!

How much would you charge to feel my pain?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

You now have something in common with Amit Chaudhuri. I hate you too for writing something that I wanted to write. And for doing it better.

As for your cultured erudite persona, I'm a Philistine. Guess which avtaar I prefer?


Accidental Fame Junkie said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the irreverent Falstaff! Though, I did find a vague chick-lit-ish odour about the post, the digression into alien territory is welcome!

rumplestiltskin said...

hey women might go through the same feelings while helping their men'nt it? all that you have to say vice versa .why no comments from shoe fiend?

Falstaff said...

d&c: Thanks. And yes, I had read Sidin's post before - though thanks for reminding me.

heh: ya, well. Just wait till you have to help her find an apartment in NYC

tabula: :-). Pain? Pain I don't do. Only stuff you can find in Brooks Brothers.

JAP: Thanks. Though I'm not sure Mr. Chaudhuri would appreciate the comparison.

AFJ: No! No! Not chick lit! Not that! At least helping women shop requires some talent.

Rumple: Can't help you there - you'll have to ask shoefiend why she hasn't commented yet. I doubt that women feel the same way though. Certainly anyone who comes shopping with me can't feel annoyed for the same reasons - I'm generally accused of taking too little interest in the proceedings, not too much.

the One said...

One knew this lady who would actually strike a proper America's-Next-Top-Model pose when she emerged from the fitting-room. Sometimes she'd even go ta-daa. Extremely disturbing it was.

P.S. Categories, Falstaff, you seem to forget categories these days.

Anonymous said...

Surprise..surprise..women DONT LIKE taking their men along when they go shopping. Sorry to bust your business idea..they are actually happiest when they are alone or with their close girlfriends and no hovering, bored male behind them.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Ooh! My presence has been missed! What can I say Falstaff except that I feel sorry for you. After years of dragging The Sherpa around shopping and having to listen to him grumble/look bored and basically go through all the crap you went through we came to an amicable agreement. I go clothes/shoes/bag shopping and he disappears in to the nearest b&o showroom/virgin megastore/hmv. The only kind of shop we can co-exist in peacefully is a book shop. I realised how boring shopping for clothes must be for him after I was taken to a Sony showroom and expected to go in to raptures over 10 different Home Theatre systems that all seemed exactly the same to me.

Also this is the kind of advice and help I get from the sherpa

Neha said...

awesome post! everytime i come here, i can't help but say this.. u write amazingly well!

noone cud hv described the 'torture' better :)

Falstaff said...

The One: Shudder! Scary that. Categories are back, btw. My apologies for tardiness - but it's just a lot easier to add categories from my home computer than from someone else's.

Anon: Ah, well. i guess it's back to the chicken farm then. btw, can I quote you on that the next time some woman asks me to go shopping with her?

Shoe-fiend: :-). Thanks for the sympathy. I don't get electronics shopping either - I see the difference between systems, but can never manage to imagine a situation where being able to feed CDs into my stereo in batches of 3 / 5 / 7 could be of value to me. More generally, though the goose / gander principle certainly operates - I know of at least a couple of friends who have considered complaining to Amnesty about the amount of time I spend in bookshops. Interesting post as well. Shades of Stendhal? :-).

Neha: Thanks

small talk said...

yet another funny post on the stereotype (women love shopping, men dont). there are so many of them in blogosphere, each time i see one, i have to let out a small groan. please...get back to the erudition and the poetry. there is something to be said for core competencies.

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