Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off Target

The highlight of my 2010 was the four-day camping trip to Big Sur I took with my husband and daughters. For those few days I felt rooted to myself in a way I don't normally feel. Even though I was still cooking, mothering and cleaning, being in that beautiful place among the redwoods made it easier to just be rather than do. It wasn't just being on vacation: it was being outside. It was walking instead of driving. It was not being anywhere near any kind of retail establishment. It was being surrounded by nature with my feet on the ground.

When we came home, we arrived into a flurry of suburban business: my daughter started school, the pantry needed stocking and our camping supplies needed replenishing before they went back up into the attic. Within two days, I found myself shopping in Target three different times, in three different Targets.

On the third visit, I had an existential experience in the main aisle. I suddenly had no idea which Target I was in. I felt like a disembodied head, a lost soul. I could have been in any Target in America. The sensation was startling in contrast to the sense of being rooted I'd had just 48 hours earlier on the bank of the Big Sur river.

Within 10 miles of my house, there are five Targets. It used to be that each one was slightly different: one had a pharmacy, another a larger grocery section. In the last two years, each one has remodeled. Now they are all the same, at least in the sense that they all have the same services, and the shelf heights have all been modified for reasons known only to someone in corporate development. But the layouts are just different enough to completely disorient me. As soon as I get inside I forget where I am. It's like being in a Vegas casino, a labyrinth made up of shiny, desirable objects that distracts me and makes me forget where the exit is.

As a stay-at-home mom, a part of me loves Target. Everything I need under one roof, for cheap. But invariably, I go in, and I leave with something I didn't plan on buying, and without something I really, really needed: like batteries for the smoke detector, or milk, or granola bars. This is partly my own fault. But it is also because of the labyrinthine layout, and illogical distribution of goods that makes me traverse the whole store to get five related items.

For example, if I go in for groceries, I can get juice, bread and Diet Coke in Marketplace, but if I want Cliff Bars, I have to find them somewhere in Health and Beauty, because apparently they are too nutritious to be with regular food. Then while I'm in Health and Beauty buying soap for myself, I can't find soap for my children; I have to go to Baby to find tear-free body wash and shampoo. I do save money on aspirin and toilet bowl cleaner, but somewhere in this journey I end up buying my daughter an outfit she doesn't need and a bag of seasonal candy I really shouldn't eat.

So in a way, though Target seems like the answer to all my problems, over this last year I see it more as a metaphor for what is demoralizing, cyclical and soulless in suburban living. It represents the errands that never get done. The constant struggling to stretch my dollar for essentials, and then the illogical practice of turning around and buying things I don't need. Target represents the myth that I can make a list, check it twice, and finally create order and a sense of completion if I just buy the right things. The pull of this myth is so strong, that my mommy group made a pact that we wouldn't go to Target at the end of our Girl's Nights Out anymore; then one of us broke the pact the next time we got together.

At Christmas time, my existential angst in Target increases. Now added to all the usual things I need and am tempted by are the Christmas version of these same things. Christmas Kleenex. Christmas door mats. Christmas toothbrush holders. Every object in my house, useful or otherwise, could be swapped out for one twelfth of the year and be replaced by something with a snowman on it that was made in China by someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas. My children's dolls can be dressed in Christmas clothes, their teddy bears put in the closet for the month and replaced by polar bears in Santa hats. Half of these things won't be purchased; they'll be 60% off on the day after Christmas. Then half of those will be bought. And then half of those that will be bought will be thrown into the landfill three years from now because lime green and red for Christmas are so 2010. (This is just based on my own estimates, no actual research. But I do a good deal of garage sale shopping and a great deal of the items for sale are seasonal, and have "Target" stamped on their porcelain bottoms.)

So, I'm off Target, boys and girls. Truly, I've got to cut back. My goal for the rest of December is no more than one trip to Target a week. Starting next week. Because though I was just there on Monday, I'm out of Kleenex. I wonder if they have it in red and lime green.


  1. The stores are designed that way on purpose - to make you spend more! Be strong and vow that if it is not on the list, just don't buy it!

  2. Oh my, yes, with the TARGET and the STUFF and the whole thing. I want to disengage from it all and just go live on a farm with a cow and two chickens.