An Anthropology of Male-Pattern Shopping
(It's not procrastination. It's destiny.)
A thin blue haze outlines the distant dark horizon. Already, a band of hunters has broken camp, preparing for the challenges of today's trek. Late yesterday afternoon a column of dust many miles away had given away the location of a small herd of buffalo migrating across the plane. A hyena cackles in the distance as it finishes razing the carcass of a Zebra, felled by a lioness just as dusk fell.
The group winds its way across the barren grasslands, being careful to remain downwind of the predators still charged by the nights activities. The sun climbs almost to the zenith by the time the men approach the water hole and catch their first glimpse of the migrating herd. Most of the animals reveal the effects of the devastating drought that has plagued the land for three years now.
Quickly the herd is assessed. A healthy young bull is selected. With stealth bred of generations at risk of demise the herd is divided, the chosen beast expertly felled. There's no time for celebration. The kill must be carried three days journey to the waiting village. What now seems a feast will barely stave off the starvation lurking just outside the village walls.
A lone fisherman stands, still as stone, balanced on a small rock on the edge of a pool. In his upraised left hand is a stick, sharpened to a needle's point. Not a muscle flexes to give away his intent. A small fish enters the pool. Without a moment's hesitation the spear is propelled forward, slicing the surface of the pool, penetrating the body of the fish just forward of the dorsal fin.
The farmer surveys his field, the dusty brown soil turned by a crude plow pulled by an aging ox. Broadcasting seed across the parched earth the farmer anticipates the coming harvest. The rain falls, the seed sprouts. Wind, heat, insects all assault the small plot of primitive wheat. Harvested too soon, the kernels rot; too late, and they drop to the ground to be devoured by mice.
For millennia, man has survived by carefully refining the methods by which he provides for his family and community. Food must be taken fresh and preserved carefully to stave off disease. It must be from healthy stock to provide adequate nourishment. Hunger follows only hours after the last meal has been eaten.
Young hunters prove their worthiness for the rites of manhood. A successful hunter, more able to provide for the needs of his family, is a more desirable mate. The hunter or gatherer must plan ahead for his family's requirements for nourishment. Food on demand, collected through wit, intelligence, brawn and might. Skills honed and refined for generations innumerable.
Today is January 10, 2000. The family is well provided for. There's food in the cupboard. The refrigerator is bulging with leftovers from dinner yesterday. But, the CD player skips. The car needs brakes. The roof needs to be re-roofed. The water heater leaks. A phone call and a few bucks, and they're taken care of. Gone is the pulse quickening energy of the hunt. Stand back, push the buttons, make it happen. Children no longer cry for food. It's video games, telephones, airplanes, cameras. Yet the genetic material that makes him what he is, is only a couple of hundred years removed from the thousands of years of engineering that built him into master of the hunt.
There's a special event coming - a birthday, Valentine's day, Christmas... It's an event of significance to his mate. The One he cares about. The One his genetic coding instructs him to provide for. This is really special. The gift must be of equal significance. Above all, it must be fresh and of good stock. Acquired too soon, it could spoil or, worse, be discovered and looted by scavengers. Timing is everything. The plan formulates and ferments for weeks. Strategy is outlined. The plan is re-examined and re-designed.
Then the test run. The car starts, traffic moves left and right like a well rehearsed ballet. Everything performs perfectly. Too bad it took 10 more minutes than planned to execute that first step. Another week is required to refine the route and trim off the extra minutes.
The big day is tomorrow. The hunter knows exactly what he wants. It's soft, or shiny, and fabulously expensive. But, exactly where is it? It's getting late, stores close in exactly 1.37 hours. Traffic isn't bad, so he reach the mall 3.2 minutes sooner than planned. Now the juices are starting to flow. Every store holds endless possibilities, but the gift has to be just right, selected at the peak of perfection. His eye scans the first bank of shops, his senses alert for the slightest hint of the quarry. There are hopeful signs in that direction...
Quickly the hunter mounts the stairs (escalators and elevators are slow and could hold dangerous predators, you know...) and surveys a larger selection of shopping venues. Again, telltale signs of the elusive prize are everywhere. Now every sense is keenly focused on the hunt. The quick visual scan reveals the most promising locations to begin. Walking quickly and directly, each venue is scrutinized with keen senses. Using eyesight born of centuries of self-reliance it is possible to examine 90% of the contents of the average shop in eight to ten seconds. Allowing a few seconds to transition to the next position of interest, it's possible to view virtually the entire contents of nearly 200 stores in an hour.
Time passes. The hunter, using an air of nonchalance as cover, quickly and quietly moves from shop to shop. Occasionally a decoy will catch his eye and delay his progress. Items are rejected based on a number of criteria - inferior quality, too big, too practical. Several items are mentally tagged for possible re-evaluation. Rarely will he speak with the myriad of clerks and sales people vying for his attention. This is no time for unnecessary small talk. "How much is it?" and "Do you gift wrap?" are really the only two questions pertinent to the process.
In slightly more than an hour a hundred individual shops have been visited, thousands of items have been screened, dozens examined in detail. Now the selection has narrowed to two or three items. The hunt has been successful. All the primary criteria have been satisfied. It's not procrastination. It's destiny.
Now, the most dangerous and difficult part of the entire experience. The urban hunter is faced with a decision far beyond his innate, instinctive abilities. So far, the civilized hunt through the concrete canyons of Main Street have been devoid of much threat of injury or bodily harm, so much a part of his ancestors daily existence. He must now choose the object with the greatest significance or satisfaction to his mate.
The store has now closed. The clerk by the door, key in hand, releases him to the elements, the precious package wrapped and held close. He probably made the wrong choice. Give him another 10,000 years. By then, maybe, that skill will evolve...