Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Normal Gift

I did a bad thing yesterday. OK, technically I did a bad thing Saturday. This weekend I slipped and accidentally went jeans shopping. Normally this is an event reserved for extremely skinny-feeling days or when I have something coming up. Like a paycheck. I did, however, receive a gift card to American Eagle for participating in many time-wasting online market research surveys. (To which questions I am not altogether honest. Particularly about how many things I own or have insured. If I "own a laptop" but "do not have it insured" and also enter my zip code, are you going to come steal it from me??)

Anyway, I set out yesterday on a trek to AE with my gift card to look for two things, only one of which would likely be covered by the free $25:

1. A pair of sunglasses. (Because it is snowy and bright here in Chicago and because I typically throw my sunglasses in the bottom of an overlarge hobo pack and crush them within a season. This season I forgot which of the many homeless-man-bags I threw them in until they were covered in gum and lotion.)

2. A super-adorable and flattering shirt to wear out to a bar. Or dinner. Or anywhere other than my couch.

I found a decent pair of sunglasses that do not eat my entire face (or otherwise make me look like I have a tiny head) within 4.7 seconds and with $10 to spare. Naturally I had to use up the full value of the gift card and while picking out some shirts to try on, I realized that I was wearing jeans that do not make their way out to dinners or bars EVER because they are four inches too long, have holes and may land me on What Not to Wear. I needed some model jeans to show me the full potential of the new shirts. And at this point I face-planted off the shopping wagon - something I have been dutifully riding for a full six months. I greedily grabbed up pairs and pairs of jeans and sale tops and did two full turns through the store to check for shelves I missed the first time through.

Arriving in the dressing room with a full wardrobe, I realized the errors of my ways in this process. Error number one was wearing giant giraffe socks over a pair of tie-dyed leg warmers under my jeans. This made trying on skinny jeans nearly impossible. Error number two was wearing a non-bra, or a uni-boob-enabling device. This made me look like I had stepped out of pioneer days and had made a conscious decision to retain my matronly figure, shelf-chest included. Error number three was clearly coming into a clothing store thinking that it would sell clothes made for humans instead of paper dolls.

As someone incapable of sewing, I expect that when I buy a shirt, it will be sewn into shirt-shape. I can cut holes in my pillowcase just fine on my own. I need you to make me look like I am not wearing a pillowcase. I was so confused about the recent trends I even called the dressing-room assistant over to help me.

Me: (Pulling at pillowcase-shirt that extends far beyond waist.) "Is it supposed to look like this?"

Evil Attendant 1: "Yes. It's the Bohemian Look. If you can imagine it, think of it paired with khaki shorts, sort of billowy."

Me: "Oh, ok." (Looking at self in mirror to avoid eye-contact so as not to let on that I have NO IDEA what she is talking about. Also cannot fathom when I would wear khaki shorts. Am I going to summer camp this year?)

Evil Attendant 1: "You could even go up a size."

Up a size? Are you kidding me? The actual shirt I am trying on could swaddle four watermelons with room to spare. Am I supposed to look like I am wearing clothes formerly worn by a large man, save for the fact that it has been bejeweled? While I am pondering whether or not to take her up on this offer, two things happen. One, I try on a pair of jeans in my numeric size that refuse to come up over my hips. Two, while I pull at the belt loops, I hear a woman two doors down ask for a pair of jeans in size double zero, extra long.

So now I am sweating in my leg warmers under the shriveled pants and bed-sheet-inspired top and feeling like a big fat loser. So I did what any normal person would do. I put on the sunglasses. I tried on the rest of the clothes in a brown haze and posed in that Victoria's Secret/impossible-to-do-in-real-life-without-falling way. I gave myself a pep talk via the sunglasses - namely that without stilts implanted in my legs, my bone structure does not allow for me to be a size double zero, extra long. Plus I don't actually want to have the silhouette of  a rubber band. Revived, I tried on the remaining pants. And called the dressing room assistant over again.

Me: "Are these supposed to look like this?" (Standing in a cropped jeans and shirt combo that makes me look like a starving farm boy after a growth spurt.)

I expected her to say, "Yes, but you could go up a size." But instead, 

Evil Attendant 2: "Yes. The jeans are supposed to be loose, but fitted in the waist." 

Hearing effectively that I should NOT be able to pull the waist away far enough to shove a cat in there, I asked for a size smaller. Needless to say, I totally bought those smaller jeans. And the sunglasses. 

The point is that sometimes you just need something that makes you feel normal. Or closer to the idea you have of yourself. (And more attractive than a daily dose of ratty jeans and leg warmers would allow.) Last year, as part of the terrible year my parents have had, my family had some major financial setbacks. By "setbacks," I mean "devastating fiscal earthquakes." They have had to do without a lot and disposable income is obsolete. I know we all think we have it bad, and even though I had to borrow money for groceries after being fired, (yes, it's true, thank you M for buying me food!) even I can now enjoy a dinner out every now and then. At least until the government stops paying me or M breaks up with me for being a freeloading sack of shit. Anyway, my parents' situation was closer to my initial grocery loans than my recent jeans-shopping-free-fall. 

When I was little, my family was in a similar situation. This is how I learned A.) to manage my finances and B.) specific tricks of surviving broke-dom. Like buying cheap liquid hand soap and stretching it to last twice as long by mixing it with water. When I moved into my current apartment, my parents bought me a couple of fancy hand soap pumps that they love. When I went home to visit a few months later, I saw cheapo hand soap in their bathroom. Granted, I'm not sure you can do much better than Black Raspberry anything, let alone Softsoap, but you could tell it wasn't their first choice. It was a symptom of the setbacks -- a constant reminder of how they had been effectively squeezed out of having what they deserved. It wasn't their normal. 

For Christmas last year, since I had three jobs at the time (and since I spend my extra money on sunglasses and gifts, which might explain why I had to mortgage my food,) I bought my parents a couple of their favorite hand soaps. I also got them a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant in town and included a separate envelope with a cash tip. (I'm sure this is common practice to most people, but I learned this from my friend KZ. When we bought a massage gift certificate for one of our other friends, she suggested sending along the cash tip as well. This way your gift sidesteps that whole awkward recipient question of whether or not they just got screwed into spending their own money. Brilliant, KZ.) Anyway, my parents saved this gift certificate and used it to go out to dinner for their anniversary. 

Dinner out is a luxury item in much the same way that designer hand soap is. And if you are in a position to enjoy either or both without thought, then you should consider yourself lucky. But everyone should be able to enjoy both, even with a little thought. Everyone deserves their first choice scents and an evening off. Just like I totally deserve those jeans. For the record though, last night I wore the same shirt I have worn every weekend for the past six months. And I just washed my hands with the lovely combo of Dial and water. 

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