This being that most wonderful time of the year, I was at the shopping mall searching for that perfect gift. A few weeks previously, my wife had informed me of her interest in a new leather handbag and gave me a specific set of criteria for its selection. These criteria included a description of size, style, material, color, shape, and a specific demand that the bag have a shoulder strap in preference to handle. Taking into account our combined income level, she also suggested a budget range that would not break our bank.
Armed with this information I drove down to Macy’s. Inside the accessories department, I met a kindly female sale’s manager with blue business suit, puffed coiffure, tinted glasses, and rouged cheeks. I described my desired handbag to her, and asked if she possessed such a one that I might purchase. She showed me what she had, a few samples of which met all of my requirements, except for the shoulder strap. “But my wife really wants that strap,” I told her. “And I can understand, I’ve witnessed her carrying method, she likes hanging bags over her shoulder.”
“I guess you’ll have to keep looking,” said the kindly sale’s manager. “There are other stores. Maybe you’ll find what you’re after at Nordstrom’s.”
“You’ve got a point there,” I told her, but by now, I was starting to worry. Macy’s had always been my go-to store, and I knew Nordstrom’s was good but usually more expensive. My panic must have been apparent to the sale’s manager. Had she noticed my lower lip beginning to quiver? The season was hard upon me, and I was running out of time.
“Do you want me to come with you?” She offered. “There are many stores with handbags. I could tell you about them, but it might be easier to show you. I knock off here at about 3:30, so if you’re willing to wait, I can help you focus your efforts.”
“Would you really! That would be sooo helpful!”
I waited outside of Macy’s until 3:30 when she got off work, and we walked down to Nordstrom’s first. There I saw exactly the bag I was after, shoulder strap and all. Then I spied the price tag. “Is it just me,” I asked my retail shopping expert, whose name it turned out was Rhonda, “or does $250 sound like a lot to pay for a purse? I had budgeted a generous $150. I might have considered an extra twenty, but an added hundred?!”
“It’s nice to know you’re willing to make compromises,” said Rhonda. “But I also admire you sticking to principles. An extra hundred does seem a stretch.”
“You see,” I said gloomily. “I had also planned on getting a fifty dollar frying pan. I just thought it would be nice if my wife had more than one package to open for Christmas.”
“Yes, it’s always more fun to open two gifts on Christmas morning. You should hold out for that frying pan.”
Rhonda escorted me to other stores, but without much luck. The handbags were either the wrong color, didn’t have the strap, or exceeded my budget. After the fourth store, she was starting to share in my panic. I saw sweat glistening on her scalp. What’s worse, I began to review all of the criteria that my wife had suggested about the purse. Even as I’d been walking through stores and shopping for the past three hours, the well-imagined purse that I had started searching for began to morph into various shades and shapes, a fuzzy tassel might appear here, an alternative insignia there. Like a Namaqua chameleon surfing desert sands, my “abstract” or “ideal” purse kept gaining and losing characteristics. In exasperation, I shouted up to the second story balconies of the mall, “Why does shopping have to be such hard work?!”
Rhonda shook her head, “You’re telling me. You should have seen me yesterday when I was helping a father pick a red bow for his daughter’s hair.”
I wanted to say, “Really!” But I couldn’t help looking around into the farthest reaches of the mall, past the glass elevator and fake birch trees. As I did so, I could spy all of those frantic shoppers rushing from store to store, some with empty hands, no packages. Others bore gifts and packages that were obviously snapped up in haste. For despite their packages, the faces of those shoppers showed no signs of relief. These gentle folk had no doubt settled on anything they could find. Perhaps they were afraid the store would run out of merchandise before they had made a purchase. Among all of those bustling shoppers, and within myself, I began to sense signs of a disturbing condition.
“This is insanity,” I said to Rhonda, wanting to clip on Victoria’s Secret angel wings, fly up through the mall’s skylight, and escape. Instead, I reached down for a bench so I could sit and steady my nerves. “My standards of ‘purse-ness’ will not standardize themselves,” I said, looking about at the other shoppers. “None of our standards will. How can we please others when we can’t even please ourselves?”
Charney’s Codification: “…pursuit of perfection prohibits pleasurable purchase or even pontification.”
“Oh that’s the commercialism talking,” Rhonda said. “The commercials and billboards you see around the holidays are always a hazard. They build up expectations that you can never meet. Try not to think about those distractions. Just purchase what’s in your heart.”
“No, no,” I said. “I can’t blame the advertisers this time. It’s not the commercials. It’s me. I know it’s me. Nothing will ever be adequate to my taste. My taste isn’t even adequate to my taste.”
Rhonda’s eyes met mine and grew wide, her face became drawn in terror, and she shrunk within her blue business suit. I knew that she knew: I was right.
Here I would like to say that I am a great fan of eponymous laws, especially those built upon social and psychological observations but which have very little purpose outside of seeming clever. I have always loved hearing about such laws. One personal favorite is Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Another would be The Peter Principle: “Managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” And who, after a bad morning in which the hot water does not come on, the bread does not rise, and the dog refuses to poop in the backyard before you lock him in the house and drive off to work, hasn’t invoked Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
The truth is, my life’s long pursuit has been to name a law after myself. Sitting on that bench at the shopping mall, watching the crowd of shoppers, I felt as though I had been offered a moment of clarity. Under the glittering plastic snowflakes that spun overhead, the eponymous law that had eluded my naming all of my life was well within reach. I had been saving the title for some time, but now I had hit upon the actual law. “Charney’s Codification,” I said aloud.
“What’s that?” asked Rhonda.
“Charney’s Codification,” I repeated. “My eponymous law: The idea that pursuit of perfection prohibits pleasurable purchase or even pontification.”
“Explain further,” said my companion, adjusting her reindeer brooch.
“It’s the thought about the thought that counts…” [are] the compassionate bywords of all gift recipients.”
“You see,” I continued, “we humans struggle constantly not only to acquire what is perfect but to idealize it, and this struggle leaves us stricken, often paralyzed, unable to settle, even on an idea, and unable to enjoy something as simple as Christmas, a time meant for merriment.
“Oh,” said my companion retailer, “You must think I didn’t go to college. Wasn’t it Plato who foretold that we can never achieve perfection. He figured this out without even knowing about Madison Avenue.”
“Yes,” I said somewhat hesitantly, still working through my formulation. “But I am not so sure that Plato didn’t find the contemplation of perfection perfectly satisfactory. My codification amends his idealism. In Charney’s Codification, there can be no contemplation of perfection without torment and probable paralysis.”
“Wow, you are a total downer kiddo,” Rhonda said. “Besides I’m sure that someone else has thought of this, I just haven’t read enough books to know who it is yet.”
“You might be right.” I agreed. “I don’t read either, and I might be restating another thinker’s idea, but who would deny that philosophies and laws cannot use an occasional update. Dressing up ancient Platonic-like principles and applying them to a shopping mall experience is more likely to have resonance for modern folk than an anecdote set in a Lyceum, Madrasa, or Gurukula. I have also made my codification attractively alliterative for English speakers: ‘pursuit of perfection prohibits pleasurable purchase, etc. etc.’ And consider this: many old laws rely on foreign languages that Americans don’t speak. Mine does not. So do me a favor, grant me my imperfect Christmas wish, let me have my “Charney’s Codification,” and I’ll buy you a biscotti for your trouble.
“It’s still a downer,” Rhonda insisted.
“Well, not necessarily,” I said, thinking very hard. “I believe Charney’s Codification paves the way for empathy and compassion. Imagine if you will, a world in which all people understand that perfection, even in the realm of personal thought, is not possible, a world in which no criteria can be fixed, and no manifestation of an idea can be adequate. In such a world, presentation of even the well intentioned Christmas wish, let alone gift, should be recognized as falling far short of what the bearer had hoped to offer. In such a world, “It’s the thought about the thought that counts” would be the compassionate bywords of all gift recipients.”
As I filled out the ramifications of my codification, my companion checked her watch and yawned, telling me it was way past time for picking her grandkids up from school. I could not let her go however. “And here I am willing to take a step back!” I shouted after Rhonda as she took her leave. “My projected compassionate outcome should only be considered an afterthought to my codification! Real world application is of little concern when presenting a new theory! As with all purely scientific discoveries, rediscoveries, or let’s say, even verifications, the scientist’s job is not to project how others will ultimately react to his or her formulation but to simply describe the phenomenon! The outcomes may vary depending upon the level of the listener’s understanding of the term perfection!”
By then I was much winded and had lost her in the crowd. She’d been enveloped by shoppers, and I was left only with my strained voice and personal thoughts. Those thoughts settled gently on my wife and how I hoped that she, at least, would consider Charney’s Codification carefully and use it as means to understand, when the moment came, why she had received neither purse nor frying pan for Christmas.