Sunday, March 26, 2006

Womens' dressing rooms are not happy places

I guess this is not terribly surprising, given the sadistic cultural emphasis on women's bodies and the fact that dressing rooms are dominated by mirrors and indescribably bad lighting, the kind that highlights the worst of your bodily features. Even your feet look bad. Frankly, it's a wonder we ever buy clothes, given how awful we look in dressing room mirrors. More often than not, I leave empty handed. If the lighting were flattering, I might have been convinced that in certain positions, what I'm trying on looks good. Kind of the way broken clocks are correct twice a day. Why don't stores hire lighting design specialists? It's a mystery.

Today at Macy's the aura of angst hung in the air like deoderizing bathroom spray. The place was mobbed. The clerks weren't even trying to limit the number of pieces we took in, they simply pleaded with us to bring it back out.

So today, I picked out about 10 items and wandered over to the dressing room area. It was crowded and the first thing I saw was a guy standing near the waiting area holding women's clothes. I asked him if he was waiting to try on; fortunately he assumed correctly that I was kidding. He was not alone, just the only one standing; the rest -- husbands, boyfriends, sons -- were sitting on the pink curved couch that has been placed in the alcove near the dressing room especially for the "waiters." It's nice to have a place for the waiters, but the fact is they are waiting to see you in the clothes you are trying on. Honestly, the pressure it puts on you to know you are expected to walk from the circus mirror in the DR to the alcove and expose yourself to multiple curious eyes, the worst of which are the ones of your own waiter, who is expecting lamb when you're serving mutton.

I've learned though experiences personal and vicarious that the only thing worse than bringing a waiter is bringing, in order of awfulness: your mother, daughter, or sister. Close family friends such as honorary aunts can also be a problem. Nothing brings out family strife like trying on clothes in the dressing room. I am reminded of this as I head into the DR, pick a stall and hang up my hopefuls. Another digression: when one is trying on more than 3-4 things, one needs a system. Usually it is based on the available hanging doo-dads. Today, there are three, so I hang everything on one. "Nos" will go on the second bar, "Yeses" will go on the third bar (I'm optimistic), and "Maybes" get hung over the door frame. It's good to have a system.

So, I walk into the shower stall-like cubicle, look in the mirror, and think: What am I wearing?! Dear god, I've been walking around like this all day!? It's not an auspicious beginning. But, I have a job to do, so off come the clothes, and the resulting sight causes me to hastily put on the first pair of pants. Seconds stretch into minutes, and I continue to turn and twist in front of the mirror as if to catch myself in an unguarded moment looking good. I am confronted with the sad truth: There is a 7 minute rule. If it's been more than 7 minutes and you still can't decide, cut bait.

While I'm twisting in the wind, trying on shirts that are clearly mismarked, I tune into the conversations around me. A mother is trying on dressy dresses with 'tween daughter in tow and a waiter on the curved sofa. She's a two-fer, and her tone is strained. Tween says, "That looks nice Mom, let's go show Dad." Mom snaps, "I can't breathe, I'm not going out there. I don't care how it looks, I can't breathe."

In another stall, a middle aged woman has wheeled her chair-bound mother into the extra-large stall. Their voices are quieter but the strain is the same. The daughter says, "It's a good thing the dinner isn't until May, mom, we have time," and her mother says, "I'm not doing this again, if we don't find it today, I'm not going."

I'm remembering my own recent shopping spree with my teenage daughter. Few are the stores in which we can both shop. The two of us share a single stall, four elbows akimbo, kvetching in unison. I'm proud and confused: are we bonding or am I perpetuating cultural bondage?

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Profiles in Squirrelage

One of the things I do at work is track down quirky, interesting people and write profiles of them for the company newsletter, which I manage. I got a tip that one of the employees is an animal rescuer. With visions of abandoned family pets being wooed into skiffs along flooded New Orleans streets, I e-mailed her of my interest in profiling her and wrote that I was imagining the scene described above. She wrote back and said, "Actually, I rescue squirrels."

Well, hell. How goofy is that? I had very un-Buddha like thoughts about the relative value of squirrels. But that bell couldn't be unrung, so I assigned the story to a young freelancer who sent the woman some questions about her avocation. Meanwhile, I e-mailed her asking for a photo of herself with squirrels and she writes back, delighted, and commits to getting me great photos. And she does. She sends two. The first is of her with an adolescent squirrel perched on her back, looking very Babe the pig: la-la-la-la-la! She's gazing over her shoulder at the squirrel. I feel a shock of recognition, because this is exactly what Ido when my cat perches on my shoulder. The second photo is a closeup of the woman's cupped hands, in which, curled up and nested together, are 4 tiny squirrels, no bigger than a minute. I am undone.

In practically the same minute, her replies to the questions come in, and her story wins me over. She started out trying to feed birds, was innundated with squirrels, couldn't shoo them away and set up squirrel feeders to distract them. The squirrels turned out to be much more interesting than the birds, and over time, she started recognizing them as individuals, then actually approaching them and eventually they were feeding from her hand. She started noticing ones that were injured or sick, and -- in an effort to repay the trust they extended to her, a predator -- starting studying animal rehabilitation and years later, received her license to care for and rehabilitate injured eastern gray squirrels.

People bring her squirrels that have been orphaned, fallen out of nests, hit by cars. She nurses them, mends them, releases them and when necessary, euthanizes them. She doesn't do the medical stuff herself -- she has a network of vets who do those things. She and I were talking today about people all over the world who do animal rescue and rehabilitation. She mentioned that in Africa, rescuers inevitably work with primates -- something that could be supremely rewarding but with the most devastating down side: having to euthanize a chimp or an ape. That was a stunning thought, and it occurred to me that few people would have a stronger point of view on human euthanasia than the individuals who work with primates. She instantly agreed, noting that some of the vets she worked with had expressed the wish that it was legal to help humans end their suffering the way we can for animals. It was one of those conversations that went from zero to intense in minutes because we were on the same brainwave.

Once again, I felt the power of an individual to open a new vista of thinking and awareness. Don't you love when that happens? I came home and hugged my cats (much to their annoyance). And I'll tell you, I will never look at squirrels the same way again.

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