It began innocently enough many Saturdays ago during the carefree days of my childhood. I still experience it as though it was yesterday.
I was sound asleep, dreaming the dreams of preadolescent boys when I was rudely awakened.
"Get up Barry, we'll be going shopping in a little while."
My mother couldn't have picked a worse time to wake me. I had finally worked up the courage to walk up to Ellen Greenfield. I was carrying my lunch tray, thinking of what to say as my heart was about to come flying out of my chest. I remember hoping beyond hope that I could pick up the dream where I left off later that evening.
"Alexander's is having one of their spectacular holiday sport coat sales with prices slashed up to 50 percent and we have to go. You really need a new sports jacket and matching pair of pants."
I tried to explain that I was happy with the clothes in my closet and wasn't in the mood to make a new fashion statement. I preferred jeans and Chuck Taylor's, as I still do, and felt that it was stupid to waste money on clothes I would only wear once in a while. She just smiled and said breakfast was ready.
I knew that shopping with one's mother was not a particularly cool or manly thing to do. However, when my mom shopped for me on her own, the results had been less than desirable -- prime example: the beige turtleneck -- so I went along, figuring at least I could buy something that wasn't too hideous.
When we arrived at Alexander's, we discovered the store was surrounded by a horde of wild-eyed, sale crazed consumers. I was reminded of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic with a cast of thousands and I was positive I saw some cudgels and armor-plated handbags in the crowd.
Soon a cheer went up, the doors swung open and the unruly crowd rampaged in. My mom quickly grabbed my hand and dragged me along behind her.
She was on a mission and there was no turning back. I could tell by the resolute look in her eyes that no matter what else happened we would not leave the store empty handed.
It was every shopper for themselves with racks of discounted sport coats as the booty. To this day I vividly remember the stocky woman in the lime-green dress and cardigan barreling past me. She was wearing a maniacal grin, which grew increasingly wider as she got closer to her target -- a rack of blazers.
Her hand darted out and grabbed a blue blazer with gold buttons that was also in the grip of tall thin woman in jeans and T-shirt. It was a no holds barred tug-of-war reminiscent of WrestleMania, with the stocky woman the eventual winner.
Two hours and many visits to the dressing room later, I finally found a jacket and pair of pants that both my mother and I could live with. However, the experience left its psychological scars and to this day I cannot go shopping -- except at the Gap -- or enter a mall without breaking out in a cold sweat. I get chills up and down my spine when my wife says, "Honey, don't you think it's about time you went out and bought yourself a new ... ."
I am reminded of what an anthropologist friend once told me. "Barry, I have a theory, albeit unpopular in academic circles, that humans began to walk upright so that the female of the species could have her hands free to pull clothing off racks, and there lies the seed of our modern-day consumer-oriented society."
We're not as comfortable as women when we shop; our styles are markedly different. My wife will walk into a store confidently and go on a search-and-destroy mission until she finds the items she wants at the prices she is willing to pay. She is the proverbial savvy shopper and she has passed that trait on to our daughters.
In contrast, I shuffle in, head down, trying to keep my emotions in check, all the while hoping it will soon be over. I wander about aimlessly, lackadaisically checking out the merchandise with absolutely no shopping plan of action. I and other males can also be seen regularly holding up items of clothing for our wives', girlfriends' or mothers' approval.
When my wife drags me along with her on one of her shopping expeditions, I'm thankful for the stores that provide seats near the front, far away from the shopping action. It's a wonderful place for males to congregate and share sighs, glances and horror stories.
Is there any hope for me and my resistance towards shopping? Will the scars born on that fateful Saturday ever truly heal? Who knows.
What I do know is that if the first Neanderthal man who ever stood upright paid a visit to one of our malls and saw what our hands have been freed for, he would have himself a good laugh. And, of course, he would be sitting with me, nursing a Starbucks in a quiet corner at the front of the store, far away from the shopping mania.
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in New Canaan and Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. Check out his blog at http://blog.ctnews.com/halpin/ or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.