Monday, April 19, 2010

Buying Shampoo

I'm not as indecisive as I used to be. Really, I'm not. But I am apparently capable of standing motionless in a supermarket for a very long time, staring blankly at the colorful rows of consumables, feeling something I'd be at a loss to describe if I were to exclude the word "indecisive." Today the catalyst of my "hesitancy" was shampoo. Same thing happened during my last shampoo trip: just stood there, weighing the options, entranced by the pretty labels, trying to gauge what the heck "laureth sulfate" might be and whether it was worth avoiding for 5 dollars more, trying to step back from the marketing schemes and decide what I would do, what I would do.

Even when ignoring the problem of what "I" means, being an informed and conscientious consumer is like conducting an orchestra with a blindfold on: there is a vague sense that the music wants your directing, that the trumpet section is staring at you expectantly. So you stand there in the aisle holding two bottles, gaping at ingredient labels, wondering what sorts of chemicals leech out of bottle-plastic and whether you could get away with using bar soap and olive oil.

You might say that I'm crazy to care -- and I wouldn't disagree -- or you might be crazy yourself, and eager to do the homework to find out what sorts of criteria we should use to make our supermarket choices. Ah, yes, the homework. I thought about "homework" awhile as I stared at Burt's Bees Moisturizing Shampoo, now with Aloe Vera, and came to this: how the heck am I supposed to do the homework? There are two kinds of information: 1.) the biased information provided by various Multinational Shampoo Conglomerates, or by federal entities, whose advisory boards are primarily composed of former Shampoo Conglomerate CEO's, and 2.) the other more-difficult-to-find, unbiased information... the kind that will all be outdated in five years. And it inevitably will be: in five years they'll tell me that the alternative to laureth sulfate was actually a leading cause of my ear herpes.

Most people choose not to think about it. And yet they walk through life, feeling like they are actively making their own decisions. They feel that not only is it music that the orchestra is producing, but that it is their music. Being one of the unlucky few who can't ever stop thinking about it, I'm skeptical about such empowered views of our role in decision making. To me it seems as though at every turn we submit to convention, that we make "choices" based on what presents itself immediately as an option, because of the community we live in. We "choose" as much as a child chooses when presented with the option of chocolate or vanilla pudding snack-- what about strawberry? What about a cigarette? Or in musical terms: we have about as much role in composing our music as does one who chooses a radio station-- we choose one of 15 stations, and then play along with whatever comes.

And yet I can't escape the feeling that if I'm lucid enough, I can choose better, I can make choices that are the right choices. I had this conversation with a good friend recently-- about what makes "rightness," about what standard I can use to responsibly judge my actions. A religious standard? What God says? I've stopped believing people who claim to know what God says, or claim to have the key to interpreting various inspired texts. That info is like the shampoo info: full of bias, pretense, and misguided surety. Then... what? Do I decide according to what I think is right?

We piece together two-dimensional sense in a four-dimensional world, like kids obsessed with little table-top puzzles. They tell me that wisdom comes when I finally stop thinking about what to do, and just do something. But action, which inevitably occurs, is where the problem lies-- action based on clearly confused and limited information will always lead to a confused and half-perceived destination. Where then is enlightenment? If truth does not reside in language, in convention, then where does it reside?

Where else, but in presence? In those moments of lucidity, when I'm standing in the grocery store, feeling absurd, holding two bottles, laughing a little. If you walk up to me and tell me I'm being indecisive, I'll nod stupidly, and then, once the sense hits, I'll disagree.

I'll tell you that I'm being present, and that although I'm about to knowingly plunge headlong into folly, I'll be damned if it isn't thoughtful folly.

We can take the station-skipper approach, flipping to a new station, a new convention, every time something comes along that we've learned to dislike, or we can take the station-faithful approach, where we whole-heartedly submit to a single convention or dogma, letting it be the rule by which we judge the confines and articles of our decisions. I think I'm somewhere in between the two, right about now. One bottle in one hand, one in the other. Under fluorescent lights. I'd like to think that it's not irony that turns upward the corners of my supermarket smile, but instead, that it's some sort of gentle affection for the strange, misguided little creature that I am.

1 comment:

Marisa said...

I'm glad you went with the raspberry scented one, it makes the "hallway" smell good...that is the factor of decision making right there! ;^)