Friday, July 23, 2010

Periodical Discomfort

No one gets into the supermarket checkout line expecting an uplifting experience. Then again, except for me, no one expects to be reduced to a cowering, simpering, drooling fool while waiting to pay for his groceries.

Supermarkets, for the most part, are pleasant places. But when I approach the checkout line, my stomach churns, my hands get clammy and my brow spews beads of sweat. I move slowly in the line, forcing myself forward and hoping I don’t break down and run screaming from the store. The cash register has nothing to do with this. The problem is the magazine racks, that canyon of frightening, emotionally paralyzing memories I must pass through on my way to the cashier.

We – Debbie, Russ, Beth and I – were a typical young family of the late seventies and early eighties. Fridays, after reclaiming the kids from day care, we’d dine on fast food and go to the grocery store. Every week, the final item in the cart was a women’s magazine Debbie snagged from the rack as we waited to checkout.

Some of the women’s magazines looked interesting. They were the ones with pictures of cleavage on the cover and blurbs for articles such as “What your man really wants: 26 sure-fire ways to please him in bed.” But Debbie preferred the magazines for aspiring frumps.

Their publications were terribly dull, but the editors and publishers of the hausfrau magazines were marketing geniuses. Every issue was packed with articles on food and diets. The woman depressed and frustrated by her inability to drop either inches or pounds on the “Lose a pound a day watching TV” diet featured in the April issue was an easy target for the picture of a seven-layer cake and the promise of “A month’s worth of sinfully rich desserts” on the May cover.

On a more practical level, the magazines offered ideas on how a working mother could be more efficient in the kitchen. The theory was, a big meal on Sunday would provide quick, easy-to-prepare meals the rest of the week through the judicious use of leftovers. All the necessary information, from the shopping list to the recipes for the feast on Sunday, the casserole on Wednesday, the cold sandwiches on Saturday, and all the dinners in between, was there.

Although they looked good on glossy paper, the suggestions for saving time never worked in our kitchen. When the Sunday meal was as delicious as the hype, there weren’t any leftovers. But if the Sunday meal fell short of expectations, the leftovers cluttered the refrigerator until the life forms that sprouted from them had evolved to the point where they complained if we didn’t knock before opening the refrigerator.

Between the stories on what to eat and how to take off the resulting tonnage, the editors inserted medical articles designed to keep mothers in perpetual fear. Statistics available elsewhere indicated a child born in the United States had a life expectancy approaching eighty years. The truth according to the magazines, however, was that a child could expect to live until his next sneeze. “Just a cold or deadly medical mystery?” the blurb on the cover asked. Quickly turning to Page 34, the young mother found the answer. And it wasn’t hopeful.

Had the magazines stopped there, I would have merely snickered at them. But somewhere in the middle of every issue lurked a compatibility test. The test, developed by a psychologist of questionable repute and in dire need of money, took the young mother’s mind off her child’s imminent demise by warning her that her marriage, no matter how perfect it seemed, was rushing toward a bitter, ugly end.

Any time I was happily engaged in doing nothing, Debbie would say, “Take this test with me.” Lacking a reasonable excuse not to, I did. Most of the tests were multiple-choice, and calling on my experience from a psychology class I’d taken in college, I selected what I deemed the most nonsensical answer to each question. The result was, I ranked among the great husbands of all time.

One day, however, I agreed to take a test, which, unbeknownst to me until it was too late, asked more open-ended questions. I held my own at first. Using a variation of my multiple-choice technique, I gave answers that were the opposite of the responses a reasonably intelligent person not corrupted by psychology would give. But it was hard work and I had difficulty maintaining my concentration.

“OK, this is question 20. Only five more to go,” she said. “What is your greatest sexual fantasy?’

“To make love to a woman who weighs less than I do,” I said.

Oh, the rage, the anger, the fury that hell hath none like. The marriage eventually ended. My fear of the magazine rack by the checkout line has not.

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