Thoughts from a Home Improvement Aisle

I have a confession. I absolutely adore home improvement stores. Home Depot, Lowes, Hammond Lumber, Hancock Lumber, it doesn’t matter which, and it’s not just the garden section that draws me. I love wandering around the store, going up and down the rows, looking at all the paints and hardware, the organizational supplies, and tools; imagining all the things that I could make or the improvements that I could make. But mostly I enjoy breathing in the scent of freshly cut lumber; a scent that almost always leaves me feeling simultaneously invigorated and slightly guilty over the idea of all those poor trees not getting the chance to live out a full life.

So earlier last month I was wandering through the closest home improvement store, which just happens to be a Home Depot. It was about 10 a.m. in the morning on a weekday, and this time I really was there for the garden section. It is summer after all. Gardening season is in full bloom (pun intended) and I am one of those who gets bit by the gardening bug as soon as the snow starts melting and doesn’t recover until the very last plant in the garden has died come late autumn. But, as usual, I couldn’t resist making the rounds of the store, only this time it wasn’t the lumber and paints and hardware that caught my attention, but the other customers that I was sharing the store with.

That early in the morning, almost all the customers in the store were men. Almost all of them were late middle aged. Most were dressed in muted colors, either denim or khakis and some sort of chambray or flannel work shirt, and every one of them was so intent on their perusal of their own specific interests that I could have done a striptease right in front of them and they would have shouldered me aside to continue focusing on their shopping. In fact, each of their expressions were so serious I could almost have believed that each one of them was working on saving the world, instead of selecting paint, re-roofing a house, building a new shed or picking just the right shelving system for their workshop. The handful that noticed that I was there at all gave me scowls of annoyance. Maybe it was because I was laughing at the ridiculous names of some of the paint chips instead of seriously contemplating which of four shades of beige is best, or maybe it had something to do with the fact I dress in bright colors that somehow offended their sensibilities, or maybe it was simply because I was intruding on their silent perusal of the products at hand by singing along with and even dancing in place to the canned music on the sound system.

At first, I thought that it must just be a fluke, perhaps I’d come on some unknown contractor appreciation day and they were all working to select items for their specific job projects. But I’ve been back several times since then, and it is always the same. Most of the men who shop there between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays are dead serious. Not a flicker of a smile. No acknowledging nod or return of a smile. Not even an “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” from the guy choosing between three different roller paint brushes that backed up without looking and sent me sideways into a display of exterior paint chip selections as I walked past.

Part of me wants to admire these serious men’s focus on their task at hand. Another part of me is struck dumb by their inability to see anything past whatever it is that they are focused on. While the demographic in your average home improvement store during the weekday may consist mostly of seriously focused men who may very well have a very legitimate purpose in their focus, when you expand your view to our society, it is not just men in general or even daytime home improvement shopping men who become so focused on what they are doing that anything out of the usual causes them annoyance.  

You see it everywhere; cars on the highway that drive as if they are the only ones on the road and will do whatever it takes to get to wherever they are going no matter who is in their way, people in the grocery store who leave their carts in the middle of the aisle while they choose between six brands of spaghetti sauce, not caring about how many people are piling up behind them, people who jump the line at the cashier because they are in a hurry and can’t be bothered to wait their turn, people who grab an item out of the sale bin just as you were reaching for it, friends or family who call you when they know you are eating supper because it is convenient for them, bosses who email you on Sunday looking for answers to questions they just have to have the answer to right now, people who toss trash out of their car windows because they can’t be bothered to stop and deposit it in a garbage can and they need to get rid of it right now. And these are just some of the more obvious examples of those lost in their focus on only what is in front of them at this moment, at what is convenient for them in this moment. At what they want for themselves and those they care about right here and now.

Weirdly (or perhaps not actually weird at all) is the fact that this daily focus on “me” and “mine” also tends to overlap with things like religion and politics. I do not care what flavor of religion or brand of politics you follow, more often than not the attitude is if you are not “for” what we stand for (we being those that think, believe, worship or vote like us) then you are against us.

What has happened to us?

When did we become so polarized? When did we become so focused on what we want right now, on how best to protect ourselves from anything different that we have (as a society) stopped appreciating the diversity of humanity; the wonder and beauty of everything that we are, of everything that we are capable of doing, of our potential for growing and becoming? When did we stop appreciating the new and unusual?

When did we get so concerned over which shade of beige is the right one that we can no longer laugh over the silly stuff or dance to the music?

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