Caveat Viator (Let the Traveler Beware)

Posted on August 7, 2010


My wife and I went on a four-day road trip recently. Our destination was less than three hours from home, yet we had never been to this particular part of the country. We set off, armed with the region’s vacation guide, one of those thick books filled with colorful pictures, maps, and dramatic headlines that beckoned us to explore and embrace and celebrate. The landscape would be breathtaking, the people welcoming, and the culinary delights unforgettable. We’re familiar with these publications because we’ve read a lot of them. I also write for one. So we know how they play up the smallest attraction, how they can turn any town with a convenience store and a barber shop into Disneyland. The maps give you the impression there are cartoon characters popping out of the trees, that you could point your finger at any spot and find a week’s worth of excitement.

These books lie. That’s their function, to lure you to the area, get you to check into the hotel and relax a while. Then when you go out in search of the breathtaking and the welcoming and the unforgettable, it’s too late. And so it was for us. The realization rose slowly in our minds, like the tide coming in: there’s nothing here. We drove for miles and saw a lot of trees, but no cartoon characters. The attractions mentioned were there, but not exactly. One was seventy miles north of where we were staying; another was thirty miles southwest. Still another was open only on Friday and Saturday — and we had arrived Sunday afternoon. None of that was clear in the vacation guide. The book had done its job.

We went out for dinner twice. Both nights I was given the wrong meal. So the culinary delights were unforgettable, but not in the way I’d hoped. We took a boat tour over to an island that had been the site of major shipbuilding activity in the 1800s. Today there are pine trees. The island was a few hundred yards offshore, so we could see the pine trees without actually going to the island, but then where’s the exploring and embracing and celebrating in that? Besides, the brochure had suggested there were fascinating things to see: “Look closely for traces of our shipbuilding past.” We did look closely, but all that gave us was a slightly better view of the pine trees.

By the next morning we’d decided to stay just two nights and head to a city closer to home. The vacation guide described this city in the same kind of fuzzy, alluring terms: everything was majestic, historic, and award-winning. But we knew better. We had been there several times, and were aware that there’s only one reason to go: shopping.

Now I’m going to venture into a generalization here. That’s something I don’t like doing, but in this case I think it’ll be more fun than trying to be insightful, even-handed, and fair. Women like to shop and men don’t. When a tourism ad includes shopping as one of the major attractions, men think, “Why stop at shopping? Why not throw in mowing the lawn and replacing ceiling fixture light bulbs?”

I mention this because we spent most of the last day shopping. It had been a while since we did that, and old feelings returned, feelings that represent one of the few attitudes I have in common with most other men. Here’s how I see it:

A man drives to the mall, parks the car, and tells himself that he has to find a new pair of shoes, buy them, and be back on the road in twenty minutes. A woman arrives at the same mall, mentally counts how many shoe stores there are inside, and plots out a course so she can hit every one without backtracking. Now here’s the key. No matter when she finds the perfect pair of shoes, even if it’s in the very first store, she won’t buy them. She’ll put them back and still go to all of the other stores — just in case. When men go shopping, it’s all about getting the task done. When women go shopping, it’s all about doing the task. In other words, men want to be efficient, and women want to savor the experience.

There are three basic steps to my shopping routine. (1) I need a shirt. I’ve already decided on the kind of shirt, the size, and the acceptable colors. (2) When I find what I want, I take it over to the checkout and pay for it. (3) I go home.

When my wife is shopping for a shirt, she begins by searching out the sales, drawn in by clever marketing phrases such as “up to 80% OFF selected items THROUGHOUT THE STORE!” What this means, of course, is that the discount could be ten percent, or one percent. It also means they’re trying to get rid of the stuff nobody seems to want. The realization, again, rises slowly: there’s nothing here. We tramp from store to store, sometimes entering, sometimes relying on my wife’s retail x-ray vision.

“They don’t have anything.”
“How do you know? We didn’t even get both feet in the door.”
“I can tell.”

This little scene is repeated countless times and turns into hours of fruitless searching, dozens of stores visited and peeked into, rising and falling hopes, and many sharp exchanges I have with an imaginary friend who accompanies me on these outings and helps to absorb my fatigue and mounting frustration. My wife, of course, knows nothing of my secret companion and just believes I’m being patient. Eventually, she finds a top she likes. She has something in hand and she’s going into the fitting room. This is a wonderful sight, but I refuse to allow myself even a second of optimism. Sure enough, she emerges moments later, rejected garment in hand and discouraged expression on her face. I ask for an explanation. Does it fit? Is it the right color?

“Well, it’s my size and I like the color.”
“But it doesn’t fall right in the front.”

I don’t know what this means. I try to imagine myself saying this about a shirt, that it doesn’t fall right. Maybe it has something to do with our anatomical differences, and I leave it at that. Next store. She finds another shirt and asks what I think. I have a hard time understanding what this has to do with anything. In fact, I’m reluctant to say I like it because that’s usually the kiss of death. If I point out some article of clothing I think would look good on her, she stares at me as though I’d suggested she try on a pair of hip boots and a fishing vest. At the same time, I know that if I seem to really dislike something, that’s not going to help either. It’s a dance I do, a dance I suppose many men do. Like trying to roll a metal marble along a track by pushing and pulling with two opposing magnets. It’s a skill that comes from years of practice. And it almost never works.

Next step: she finds something else, and this one has staying power. She’s tried it on and seems happy with the fit and the stitching and even the way it falls in the front. Here we enter that phase of the process that stymies most younger, inexperienced husbands, because now is when a man would reach for his wallet and head for the nearest cashier. And so we assume that’s what’s going to happen. But women have an additional step, a mysterious in-between thing they have to do. They’ve tried the item on and they want to buy it, but they stop and go back into the fitting room to check something in the mirror. Important: The decision is not official at this point. The woman is still contemplating. I don’t know if she’s consulting with her deceased ancestors or calculating the feng shui of her transaction, but the process is not yet complete. It may seem that all systems are go, but the launch can still be aborted. This, right here, is the reason women’s clothing stores have those chairs set up. Men must back off at this critical stage and go sit down for a minute. Trying to hurry things along with logic will not help. Plus, when a man says, “It fits, you like the color, it’s on sale, and it looks great on you. So you’re buying this one, right?” the woman hears, “Can we go already? The game starts in ten minutes.” The door of doubt had been all but shut and he just threw it wide open with a few carelessly chosen words. Anything can now come rushing through, including an absolute and final rejection of the garment that sends everyone back to square one.

At some point, my wife will move past the mystery step and take her item to the register and pay for it. If the discount is more than twenty percent, she’ll buy nine or ten of them. I don’t care. This is a joyous time. I’m usually having an out-of-body experience by now, similar, I would imagine, to the feeling mountain climbers enjoy when they reach the summit. It seemed as though it would never happen, but here I am leaving the store with bags in hand. We’ve explored every square inch of the mall, several times. I have bid farewell to my imaginary friend, for now, and my wife and I embrace in the parking lot. I quietly celebrate as we head for the car. And all the way home, I could swear I see cartoon characters popping out of the trees.