Danger: Wal-Mart Customer!

How ugly can retail get? There are uglier chain stores out there than Wal-Mart, but not a whole lot. Perhaps a Marshalls. Or a Dollar General. Wal-Mart is likely to remain forever the epitome of the gargantuan box store. It comes replete with lots of garish florescent lighting, narrow aisles and overflowing merchandise.

As far as us shoppers, apparently, I am not the only one to notice a certain lack of standards among many of Wal-Mart customers. Way back in 2003 I wrote about Wal-Mart:

I don’t hate its customers, but they don’t appeal to me a whole lot. They make me itchy. I know I paint with a wide brush here (and I’m certainly not saying that all their customers are this way) but they seem to me to be a lot of overweight and over-hassled looking people. They seem to disproportionately represent the lower middle class. I don’t hold it against them for shopping there. If I were living from paycheck to paycheck I might be shopping there too.

It’s not that finding stylish customers is impossible at a Wal-Mart, it’s just unlikely to be someone other than Sarah Palin. Of course, most of us avoid dressing stylishly unless the occasion commands it, which Wal-Mart certainly does not. Still, a certain amount of decorum is expected anywhere you shop, isn’t it? It’s hard to find a store, except perhaps along a beach, that does not require you wear shoes and a shirt. Apparently, it was not my imagination. We really do need to add the ubiquitous Wal-Mart to this list. In pursuit of the almighty dollar, it appears that Wal-Mart will let virtually anyone in the store. I guess I have to give the company an A for being egalitarian, but frankly part of the reason I avoid Wal-Mart is because some of their customers frighten me (and I’m 6’2”). When I see some of these types on the street, I hurriedly cross over to the other sidewalk to avoid them. In a Wal-Mart, they tend to be in your face whether you like it or not.

Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer
Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer

The theme of PeopleofWalmart.com seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of these eccentrics; celebrate them.” Wal-Mart customers much braver than me are apparently snapping unflattering and amazing pictures of other Wal-Mart customers and putting them on this web site for us to gawk at. While I am unlikely to ever shop again at a Wal-Mart unless they start paying their employees a living wage, I can at least observe the Wal-Mart customer spectacle from the safety of my computer.

Frankly, I spend much of my time on PeopleofWalmart.com guiltily laughing. The site is hilarious as a nadir of bad fashion. I say this as someone who has almost no sense of fashion. I frequently end up wearing clothes that, in the opinion of my spouse, are mismatched or uncoordinated. So when someone with as little fashion sense as me finds himself appalled by someone else’s dress that truly says something.

On PeopleofWalmart.com you can see many examples of horrendous fashion every day. Just a couple of these photos would make Robin Givhan (the Washington Post fashion editor) go blind. Truly, in your wildest imagination, you could never dream up some of the combinations of clothes that actual people are wearing at your local Wal-Marts. Some of their clothes are so bizarre, so Technicolor and so haplessly uncoordinated that even a hippie would recoil.

See the same person wear too much clothing on one part of their body and too little on another. View guys and ladies with plumbers’ cracks big enough to insert your local telephone book.  See people wearing animal skins mixed with garish polyesters. See people wearing florescent colored clothes with pastels. See bare feet. G strings. View ladies in swimsuits that leave nothing to the imagination. See people wearing what I hope are bizarre costumes rather than their regular clothes. See people who look like five minutes earlier they were cleaning shit out of a public sewer. See people who make Swamp Thing look fashionable. How I wish I were making this stuff up, but I am not. Go see for yourself. These kinds of pictures leave me wide eyed with my mouth hung open somewhere near the floor. It is often followed shortly thereafter by bombastic laughter and tears coming out of the corner of my eyes. Could it really be that we share the same forty-six chromosomes? Just the idea is frightening.

At the same time, I feel sad by the overwhelming number of beyond morbidly obese people in these pictures, many of whom are completely happy to let it all hang out. Huge rolls of fat bulge out from jeans five sizes too small for them. See women with fat on their backs so enormous that it dwarfs their already ample bosoms and puffs out around their narrow halter-tops as if they were the Pillsbury Dough Boy. You wonder how some of these people can even walk.

Doubtless, they are disproportionately captured on digital film but the fact that they exist at all, let alone in these numbers, is appalling. The site does suggest something that may now be the norm in Wal-Mart: the obese make up a plurality, if not a majority of their customers. Granted with the majority of Americans now either overweight or obese, they may well be characteristic of the average American in the 21st century. If so, you have to ask, what are we doing to ourselves? The evidence on PeopleofWalmart.com suggests we have been actively engaged in mass gluttony of the most egregious kind.

Perhaps this is also why I cannot be found in the aisles of Wal-Mart. If I can avoid it, I don’t want to face this unpleasant truth about my fellow Americans. Wal-Mart in general and the many examples of its customers captured on PeopleofWalmart.com make me scared for my country’s future. I hope I am wrong, but America has never seemed so infirmed, so fat, so bizarre and so dysfunctional. Everything I see in and around the Wal-Marts of America tell me that America is not just off the right track, but our locomotive has careened into the river and the water is rapidly rising up to our necks. Only most of us cannot see it.

So perhaps I laugh not only because of some personal character defect but because it is the safer alternative. What I really want to do: scream in shock, horror and pain at this daily evidence of a national problem that seems too big to solve. We appear to be destroying ourselves, our country and our national character. There is plenty of evidence available at your local Wal-Mart.

The Power of the Shirt

I am one of the least fashion conscious people on the planet. While I am unlikely to look someday like an “I don’t give a damn” senior citizen (you know, the type that plays shuffleboard, wears knee high socks, shorts and a badly mismatched Hawaiian shirt) I am not too far removed from this sad fashion state. One of the most terrifying things I have to do is try to match a tie with my shirt. Does it match? I cannot tell. That is one of the reasons that I got myself a wife. She earns her keep by keeping me out of hot fashion waters. To her it is obvious what goes with what. To me it is a big mystery. I feel the same way about wine. There are plenty of wine snobs in my neighborhood. However, I cannot tell the difference between a $5 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle of wine.

So clearly, I am missing a few critical genes. Fortunately, this seems to be a general problem with men, so I do not necessarily stand out in a crowd. No matter how far our beer bellies extend over our abdomen; no matter whether we think our hair is tousled when it is in fact dirty, cowlicky and flecked with dandruff; no matter even if you can fit a bowling ball down the crack in the back of our jeans, we still assume we are stud muffins. All those other men are the ones who look ugly. We look in the mirror, smile, see ourselves and are content. Here’s looking at you, kid.

I do not require fancy clothing, and I am fortunate to have a job where it is normally not required. Jeans, a t-shirt, and some sneakers or sandals suit me fine. I dress for comfort, not for professional impact. The other day I slipped on a pair of blue shorts and then put on a t-shirt that was virtually the same color. For hours, I did not notice anything. Then I caught my reflection in the mirror. Hmm. There was something wrong with the way I was dressed, but I could not put my finger on it.

Recently, in preparation for a vacation in France that starts in two weeks, I went clothes shopping. Clothes shopping is for me an activity that comes way behind cleaning out the cat’s litter box. It is something I generally do when I have no other choice. I wear underwear until it has holes through it and its elasticity is gone. I have shirts in my closet as old as my sixteen-year-old daughter. If it looked good in 1989, I figure, it still must be fashionable today. I have wide ties from the 1970s I stole from my father that I think are starting to become fashionable again. It is hard for me to say; I do not keep up on tie fashion. I just notice fewer narrower ties than I did in the 1990s. When that day comes, I will be ready and retro! I knew that whatever I wore in Paris, I would likely still stand out as the badly dressed American. Still, the peer pressure got to me. My wife and daughter had no problem spending $200 or so to pick up a few odd pieces of clothing just to wear in France. So off I went to the neighborhood Kohls. I gingerly approached the men’s department. Fortunately, it was summertime. There was a plethora of cheap and tacky clothes from which a fashion-impaired man like me could choose.

About six months ago, I made a clothing discovery. It may have taken 49 years, but I finally decided that a light olive green was my color. I looked good in olive green, or at least I preferred it to the other colors of shirts that I have. I do not think I came to this judgment by myself. I think I picked it up from stray coworkers, since I kept hearing the same complement about the same shirt. With enough repetition from disparate parties, it entered my stream of thought. Since that time, I have sought out more clothing in this color. Therefore, I started hunting the Kohl’s for my “favorite” color.

I came upon an olive green knit polyester shirt that cost maybe $16 or so. It is a pullover. That was about the extent of my analysis at the time. I picked up a couple more in that color, others in other colors, and a pair of new shorts, since holes were peaking through the pockets on the old one. The next day I put on the green shirt and looked in the mirror.

Whoa! Just who was that handsome man in the mirror? He looked vaguely familiar, but he had never looked quite so trim before. This knit shirt has subtle vertical lines going down it. I thought for a moment that I must have lost some weight, and then I realized I weighed pretty much the same as I did last week. What had happened? Most women would have no problem understanding what slowly dawned on me: vertical stripes make you look thinner. Horizontal stripes make you look fatter. Yet for me this was a revelation. It was a real “Ah ha!” moment. Moreover, because the stripes were subtle but close together, and the shirt hung so evenly across my body, I realized that a simple shirt could make me something of a minor babe magnet. My wife complemented me on it. At work, I got many complements, all of them from women. Yes!

It is unlikely that I will be taking up a subscription to G.Q. Still, I was impressed. Moreover, having watched The Learning Channel I think I know why this is. The shirt spoke to the power of symmetry. My nose is long, bony, and not terribly symmetric. If the truth were told, it looks more like a boxer’s nose. Symmetry is what women look for in a man. The better the symmetry, the more attractive they find you. Why do women swoon over Tom Cruise even though he is just an attractive dork? Because his face and his whole body are so symmetrical. You can say pretty much the same thing about all our current pop idols. Now, through the power of a shirt, I realized that it could show a symmetry that was probably unearned. Nevertheless, it did not matter. I was perceived as more symmetric, and thus more attractive and interesting in general. For a brief period anyhow, I was more than an ordinary man, I was a symmetrical man. I was a man of some substance.

Since I now have a power shirt, I am afraid I might lose it. Perhaps I should hand wash it only, treat it gingerly, and lay it flat to dry. I should eat carefully with it on; I do not want to get stains on this baby! Perhaps I should go back to Kohls and find more like it. Apparently, I am not so wrapped up in introversion that I cannot appreciate the sincere complements when I wear it. Thank goodness.

Change others by changing yourself

It’s all their fault. I’m as guilty of this predisposition as many people. The government is such a mess because the Republicans are in charge. If only my child would listen to me about schooling. If only my wife would fold the laundry right away instead of letting it accumulate in baskets to be done later. If only my mother would get her daily exercise instead of sleeping so much. If only my father would stop this passive-aggressive thing with my mother.

I bet most of you have thoughts like this every day. I often wonder where these thoughts come from. I do know I have spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time analyzing people around me and saying in essence “If they would only do things my way things would be so much better.” And perhaps they would. All they would need to do it make a copy of my brain, implant it in their skull and throw out the old one. They would then think like me and at least that aspect of their behavior would change. Too bad that whatever unique personality they had that attracted them to me in the first place would be gone.

I have looked at myself. Much to my surprise and chagrin I have discovered that I have a lot of character deficiencies. Even by my own standards, which I hope are pretty high, I probably eat too much and exercise too little. I tend toward procrastination. I know my dress appalls my wife. If there was one thing she could change about me it would probably be to give me some fashion sense. Never wear a dress shirt with your blue jeans. You look stupid when you do that. I strongly suspect though that I will continue to dress like a dork. Even if I could get an appreciation for fashion I’m not sure I could find the motivation to dress fashionably. I seem to be missing that chromosome.

I am starting to figure out though that all this projection of my values and my ways of doing things on other people is unhealthy to both me and them. Step one in this self improvement process was to button my lip. I decided it was okay to think these things just not okay to actually express them. There was only one problem to this approach. These feelings still have a way of manifesting themselves. I might not say anything about my wife for not folding the laundry right away but I was still projecting this bad vibe and she was picking it up. Every time I projected myself onto others, either directly or indirectly, it created a poisoned atmosphere. Rather than helping the situation it seemed to make the situation worse. People I allegedly care about, rather than addressing my perceived problems, put up their defenses instead. This inhibited communications and simply entrenched the very things I would like to change about them.

I’m trying to understand how I broke away from this mindset. I would like to think that some part of it came from paying $130 for 45 minute sessions with psychologists every couple weeks or so. But I don’t recall him ever connecting the dots for me. Rather he went through boring cognitive therapy. He asked questions like “What can you do about this problem?” In most cases I couldn’t do much. But what I could do was turn down my own defenses and find opportunities to talk about issues with, say, my wife when her guard was down too and we were both in a mellow space. Part of the solution for me was not to tell intimates like my wife what I wanted them to change, but simply to express how I was feeling on a particular issue.

And it turned out those simple non-defensive conversations with people I cared about worked very well. (I learned to express things differently. “I feel upset when you do XYZ” not “What you are doing about XYZ annoys me.”) In most cases it didn’t change the underlying behaviors in other people that annoyed me. But the act of expressing them was very therapeutic for me. Over time I found that I cared less and less that the laundry wasn’t getting folded immediately or that my daughter wasn’t bringing home straight A’s. Instead I found other more pleasant things to fill up the time I spent needlessly dwelling on behaviors of other people that I could not really change.

It turns out, at least in my case, that the more I stopped projecting my expectations on the rest of the universe the happier I became. My marriage improved. My relationship with my daughter deepened. Toxic coworkers became less toxic and more like human beings. I found myself enjoying life more. I found that the cloud of doom that seemed to either be above me or close by had receded. Now it’s gone pretty much all the time.

What an irony. It seems that sometimes I can demonstrate caring by appearing not to care at all about people I love the most. Rather than be overbearing I have found it is far better to be supportive, positive and nurturing.

I hesitate to say that I am all cured and I will now live happily ever after. I still nitpick about things that shouldn’t matter too much, such as having my daughter do her chores twice a week by 9 PM so I can take the trash out. But I am improving. And so are the people around me. In most cases they are still engaging in the same annoying or potentially self destructive behaviors that irritated me to begin with. But in other cases now that the pressure is off they too are finding ways to improve their behaviors. And sometimes they choose ways that please me. But more often I find that even if they choose ways that don’t please me, it doesn’t bother me.

So I’ll keep my little self improvement project going. Understanding myself should be a big enough challenge for me in one lifetime. Letting go can be healthy, liberating, and best for all involved. And maybe it is the best way of all to change people. From now on I vow to do my best to be supportive and not domineering of my friends and intimates. It’s the best I can do for them and it’s the best I can do for myself.