Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Flashback 1999: "Right choice is in eye of the beholder

Mattress Show Room, W. & J. Sloane (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Decisions are hard. You have to make a choice, then live with it. At least they are for me. I know there are people who breezily acquire tattoos, shed jobs, buy cars, sell homes, without a moment's qualm. I envy those people deeply. They don't know how lucky they are. Even when I make a major decision easily, I can never be sure that a backwash of cold regret won't swamp me the next day. The Mattress Story came up twice in the past few weeks, and I realized I'd never posted it here. That oversight is now corrected.

     Went to buy eyeglasses the other day. I had mangled my current pair roughhousing with the boys, and while the glasses were still wearable, they threatened to snap at some moment of maximum inconvenience. Why not cleverly sidestep the crisis by getting a new pair first?
     But buying glasses is itself a crisis, or at least a tough decision. It's like buying a new nose. They perch on your face for years and years, defining you. And they cost almost as much as a new nose, which only makes the decision more difficult.
     Of course I told myself the Mattress Story, even before I got to the store, for support and inspiration. The Mattress Story is one of those cherished family tales used to define a person, in this case my brother Sam, the decisive executive.
     This was about 10 years ago. He had just moved from Tokyo to Chicago and was living with me on Logan Boulevard, sleeping on the sofa. He needed a bed. We visited a mattress store on North Halsted Street. Sam immediately flopped backward on a mattress/box spring set, closed his eyes, spread his arms, and seemed to doze for a second. Then his eyes snapped open and he popped up.
     "This one is fine," he announced. He moved to the cash register, taking out his wallet. This astounded me, shocked me. "But what about that one?" I said, wedging myself between him and the register, pointing to another, randomly chosen bed. "Or that one." The store offered about two dozen beds.
     "This one is fine," repeated my brother, a little impatiently. I began to protest, agog, but he stayed on his feet, paid for the mattress, and left.
     I could never do that. Never, ever, ever. I would have to carefully lay on each mattress, from the $100 aqua foam pallet destined for a fleabag motel, to the $2,500 deluxe luxury model, all gold and satiny braid, which I could never buy anyway. I would narrow them down to two choices that were completely identical, then agonize, back and forth between them, sweating and mumbling and flopping from one bed to another until a crowd gathered and I just picked one to end the embarrassing ordeal, so I could flee the store, heart palpitating, already regretting my decision.
     So you can imagine how an eyeglass store, with its hundreds of frames of all sizes and varieties, would pose a problem. I tried to coax my wife along to make the decision for me, but she was too savvy. "You can do it," she said.
     And I did, in my fashion. I actually, sincerely liked the first frame I touched. Stylish. Handsome, in my estimation. I thought about buying that one and being done with it. But no. That is not my way. I had to carefully examine every single frame in the store, forcing myself to select a second choice, which I then spent 20 minutes comparing to the first choice, sitting before a mirror, putting on one pair, then the other, then my present pair, again and again and again, polling the clerks, the optometrist in the back, flipping a coin at one point, contemplating running out to get my wife.
     And then I bought the first pair I tried on.
     But life offers compensation. While I agonize over the big-ticket items—I'm sure many people have less anxiety deciding to move abroad than I do choosing a sofa—at least there aren't too many of those decisions. It's not as if you buy a new car every week. And the small, what's-for-lunch questions are a breeze for me.
     I flop open the menu, pick something, usually a club sandwich on wheat toast, snap the menu closed, and am whistling and drumming my fingers, along with the waiter, while my wife silently stares at the menu as if it were written in a foreign language. And am I sympathetic, based on my own difficulties with certain decisions? Of course not.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 13, 1999


  1. I'm like you when it comes to buying a new purse. I could buy a car faster (I actually bought a car faster, now that I think about it). It has to be wider than it is tall. It has to have some compartments, but not too many or too few. It can't be too big or too small. If I find something I like, and it has a snap closure instead of a zipper, it goes back on display. I've literally wandered through the purse department at Carsons for an hour, then walked away with nothing. I find getting old helps; for some reason, I care less than I did when I was 30.

  2. "Of course not." Words of wisdom confirmed daily, if not hourly. My favorite example is a traffic scenario at Oak and Rush Streets. A car or two on Rush Street blocked Oak when the light changed because they moved into the intersection right before they got a red light. A driver trying to go West on Oak went totally ballistic, leaning out of his window, waving his fist and cursing the driver blocking his way. When that driver had the opportunity to move forward, he did so, just in time to block North/South traffic on Rush Street. He seemed unrepentant to me.


  3. I’m definitely not one to obsess over a decision. A new mattress: find the section of mattresses with the firmness you desire, in the price—range you can afford, try three of them, no more, then pick one. When I needed new frames for my eye glasses, the technician picked out a pair she thought would look good on me, I tried them on, loved them. Tried one other pair but decided on the first one.
    Otherwise, I would be second-guessing myself about everything.


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