Should entering a store to purchase an ordinary item cause an otherwise smart, level-headed  woman to put  her therapist on speed dial? I didn’t think so.  Yet I fear I’m in persistent danger of falling into a retail-induced catatonic state, brought on by daily confrontation with really difficult choices.  This just might be the worst of times.

I became acutely aware of the situation the other day when I was in Grand Central Station with some time to kill before boarding my train.  Needing a new mascara, I entered a trendy cosmetics  store.   Wherever it was that they displayed these magic wands, I couldn’t find them.  So I approached a young saleswoman whose back was to me.  I could see that she was deeply preoccupied with rearranging the little eye shadow cases.  I realized that this could take a while because she was only up to the naturals, and still had the earth, sea, sky, plant life, and heavy metal color palates to organize.  But I had a train to catch.  “Ahem,” I said, followed by “excuse me,” and then a deep cough.   She finally turned and I found myself looking into a face that might have been a display for one of everything they sold in the store, perfectly applied.   “Yes?” she said coolly, “Can I help you?”

I explained that I was looking for a mascara.  Here comes the good part.  She pointed to a small area on the wall that I had missed, and asked in perfect innocence “What would you like it to do?”

What would I like it to do? I surely was not prepared for that one!  What I wanted to say was “how about making me twenty years younger and ten pounds lighter?”  Instead I said deferentially, “What do you mean?”

“Well,” she exhaled.  “Do you want it to make your lashes fuller, to separate, to lengthen, or to curl?  Do you want it to last for twenty-four hours, or only twelve, to be waterproof, tear-proof, or not run when you open the oven door and steam hits your face?”

“Do you have one that does everything?” I timidly asked, aware that the timbre of my voice now resembled that of an eight-year-old.  I could tell she wanted to roll her eyes at me, but to her credit, she refrained, and simply said “No.”  “I’ll have to think about this,” I told her.  I thanked her and fled from the store, completely overwhelmed.  I couldn’t make a decision of this caliber in thirty seconds; I had a train to catch.

After this experience, I suddenly realized with great alarm that everywhere I turned I was being forced to make similar decisions.  For example, have you gone into a drug store lately? Let’s start with the vitamins.  My favorite multi sits on a shelf at the pharmacy as part of a corps of supplements.  There’s a bottle exclusively for men, another one just for women.  At least that choice is easy.  There is a vitamin fortified to help my brain, another to help my heart, and yet another to ensure my bones stay strong.  We’re not done yet.  There’s a bottle that will give me extra energy, and finally, the one to take if I’m pregnant.  (Elimination of that one is easy, too.)  I stand and stare in horror, realizing that I’m being asked to sacrifice body parts.  If I fortify my brain, am I not caring for my heart?  As a result, will I be smart, but dead? What if my heart stays strong but I don’t know it because my brain is shot?  Do I help my bones at the risk of being tired?  What good are strong bones if I’m too tired to do anything? Like the mascara, there is no one vitamin that does everything.  So maybe I buy them all and take them home and cut them into little pieces and paste them into one pill that will solve all my problems.  I reach for my cell phone as I experience the catatonia descending.

Move on over to the toothpaste aisle.  Immediately I must decide if I want to fight cavities or prevent gingivitis.  Am I concerned about sensitivity? What about the one that’s infused with seaweed to provide me with good breath?  (I’m afraid of that one; I think I break out in hives from seaweed.)  Shall I whiten and brighten or reduce plaque? Which one do most dentists recommend?  And yes, I want a winning smile.   Of course I do.  Who wouldn’t? But which one? Why are there so many different tubes of my favorite brand all competing with each other to provide me with oral health and well-being?   My finger is now on the button of my speed dial.

And the drug store is nothing compared to the hellish experience of entering a supermarket.  My last visit was tragically aborted due to delirium brought on by laundry detergent.  I stared at the extended families of liquid soap (not to mention the powders) and they stared back at me, each promising the best possible outcome for all my washday needs.  Each swore that it was gentle enough for my delicates, and strong enough for my husband’s work clothes.  (Well, not my husband, exactly.  Tax lawyers don’t get their suits too dirty.  But you get the concept.)  Do I want whiter whites, colors brighter, bleach or no bleach, scented or non-scented, hypoallergenic, softness, pill prevention, stain-fighting, low suds, high suds?  The words flew at me like the pack of cards in Alice in Wonderland.  Help! Get me out of here!  “Hello, Dr. Mittman?”

And don’t think for one moment that finally making a choice is the end of it. (And I haven’t even discussed breakfast cereals!)  What if we make the wrong choice? What if we fail ourselves, or even worse, our entire family? I shudder to think of the consequences.  I wonder, does Medicare cover treatment for “Buyer’s Remorse?”

Maybe I’m suffering from retail fatigue, but I long for a time when making an everyday purchase did not conjure up images of “Sophie’s Choice.”    Perhaps somewhere there is an old-fashion general store where there is only one type of toothpaste on the shelf, one kind of food supplement, and one, maybe two, laundry soaps.  And if I desire to curl my lashes, a jar of petroleum jelly would have to suffice.   I don’t know about you, but right now it sounds to me like that could be the best of times!

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