The Five Million Dollar Home

How do people make decisions?

There is a widespread belief that decisions are logical and mathematical. Just jot down the pros and the cons in two columns.

But try dissecting a date into two columns, for instance. The bad column might have: grows marijuana, hates her father, does not give his seat up for pregnant women on the subway. The good column has only one item: last night. In the end, the good column always wins. Because within an hour, the clock will strike midnight and the mind will think reasonable thoughts, yet the feet will make you cross two rivers to get to New Jersey where the logical Pythagoras will yield to the Trojans many times over.

Others seek advice. But everyone’s got an advice to give. In the end, on top of the original dilemma, a new one arises: whom to listen to?

Then, there are those who listen to the inner voice, that fuzzy inkling in the pit of our stomachs that tells us what’s what. Listen to your inner voice and you’ll know the truth, some say, enunciating truth with a special sort of secrecy. But what if you’ve got many inner voices going off simultaneously? Or none at all? You’re doing it all wrong, the enlightened folks say. Just listen to it. The truth.

Inner voice may be great, but its impulsiveness is hard to trust. It leads to ruined careers, storage fees and heartbreak. And if you’ve ever woken up one morning in a remote Irish village and screamed, “Where am I and what the hell am I doing here?” – you know what this means. It sounded right at the time. It wasn’t. Too late. Thanks, inner voice, pal.

Suzy Welch, in her 10-10-10 theory, asks readers to imagine the effect of their decision in ten minutes, ten months and ten years. This lends a person control. But she overlooks the fact that we are emotional beings. In the end, panic will trump the keenest logician.

Maybe, then, the best way to decide is not to decide? Wait for better days when a partner drinks your salary away? Practice non-judgment of a leaky gas pipe? Passive resignation, too, is dangerous. Neither fate, nor Ekhart Tolle nor a Buddhist monk is going to wipe away your tears. Something must be done. And, back to the original question, what?

It was easy for members of the Germanic tribes two millennia ago, Roman historian Tacitus writes. Whenever they contemplated raiding the village of their third cousin or forming marriage alliances, the Germans did what any self-respecting northern man would do: they drank. The chieftains imbibed until things seemed funny; they would “disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity.” The morning after, the decision was revisited, and, voila, the law of the land.

The Russians recognize the difficulty of decision-making. “Rushing is only good when you’re catching fleas,” goes a famous proverb. Better yet, “If you rush, you’ll make the community laugh at your sorry ass,” says another one. Slow down.

All this drama over making choices is actually pretty new. Just think about the thousands of ads, telling you every day that your life sucks and there’s something out there that will fix it.

In the Soviet Union, if you saw a line cuing up for several blocks, you elbowed your way into the crowd and waited for three hours until you got to “it.” “It” could have been anything – a fur hat, watered-down sour cream, globs of brown bananas. The details didn’t matter. There were no kitten heels or stilettos, slingbacks or pumps. That’s what your mother said when she initiated you into womanhood by giving you her old pair of shoes, the same way her mother gave her hers.

Having spent nearly half my life in USSR I often rely on advice and authority figures.

It always starts out the same.

Rapid pulse. Sweaty palms. A flurry of cause and effect possibilities. The coin is flipped. Friends read a book somewhere nearby. They know it will take a while.

So here I was, standing on 34th Street that spring afternoon, paralyzed.

Everything was going so well. I had just bought my first digital SRL camera and took it on a trip to New York. I immediately headed to B&H, an audio, video and photo store run by Hasidic Jews, to buy a camera bag.

B&H, inflated up to a city block in one of the busiest parts of Manhattan, is like an orthodox synagogue. Men, young and old, scurry around precious objects in glass cases and debate each other. Sidelocks stream from under their kippas, manhood is sublimated into aperture openings. It’s a world where I not only fit in with my “east coast anxieties,” but also a place where saying things like “schmuck, “schlep” and “shtick” make me seem more knowledgeable as a photographer and more attractive as a female. Welcome to the Disneyland of your Yiddishe dreams.

“Can I help you,” the Hasidic clerks ask in short, declarative sentences. “You want a camera, I see.” No sweet-talking, no apologies. Just straight-up answers, which often take an out-of-towner in an oversized t-shirt – by surprise. This is the right lens for you, Florida Harry. Trust me, I been a photographer thirty years. What, you want a twenty dollar lens? Then go to a twenty dollar store! Oy va voy. Next!

So it seemed reasonable to expect someone to tell me what camera bag to buy, and fast.

Three salesmen lurched in my direction. “How about this beauty? It goes for five million, but you can buy it from us for eighty,” one said. His buddies chuckled.

And there it was. The perfect camera bag. Its interior was a neon green, with Velcro closures. The exterior channeled urban chic. I dug into a bowl of kosher candy, paid and left.

The subway entrances, the perfume knockoff salesmen, the jaywalkers suddenly shared my jubilation. My camera, too, seemed to sing: “My five million dollar home is so dope, it should be on MTV’s Cribs.” We were going to make beautiful pictures together.

But that’s until I got an idea. What if…it was not the perfect bag? What if this was a bad decision?

Could the bag fit an extra lens? A reporter’s notebook? Was it big enough? Was it good enough?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I called a friend.

“What do people carry inside a camera bag?”

“Um, a camera?”

“But what else?”

He had some urgent work meeting and hung up.

I began calling everyone I could think of, to ask them what someone with a sense of style and wanderlust needs in a camera bag. Everyone was busy.

“Can you help me choose?” I poured my heart out to the salesman back at B&H. “If I carry a water bottle, my makeup case won’t fit. And with this makeup case, the water bottle won’t fit. Did I make the right choice?”

“Why are you stressing?” he rolled his R’s. “It’s just a bag, alright?”

“But this makeup case…”

“Why you keep talking about your makeup case?”

“Look, I know you’re not into makeup, but…”

“Hey, I may not be a metrosexual, but I know what makeup is!” He threw his arms up, beard twitching in anger.

The salesman wasn’t about to decide for me. Fine. I grabbed a bigger bag, called the Six Million Dollar Home. Grow up, woman. This will do.

“See you in an hour,” he called out. But I’d made the decision. Now I was going to stick with it.

Outside, it became apparent the new bag wasn’t right, either. It dangled off my shoulder like something they’d tie to witches’ necks so they didn’t float up after drowning in the Middle Ages.

Entering a women’s clothing store, I felt it banging against the racks. The saleslady welcomed the bag with a look. Clearly, she also sensed it wasn’t right.

“Excuse me, but I noticed you looking at my bag when I walked in,” I said.


“Do you think this bag unfashionable? I’m not too sure.”

“It looks great!” the saleslady kept nodding. Her supervisor approached and smiled.

They weren’t going to decide for me either. I was stuck with yet another something that didn’t work.

The next day, the photographic enthusiasm gave way to unresolved matters, like a relationship that was falling apart back home, the thankless job, the home on the other side of the continent that didn’t feel like one. This was the time to make important decisions, and I was agonizing over accessories. But if life had to come with baggage, couldn’t it at least look good?

A few days and trips to B&H later, this time with a friend, I had finally made the decision. It was the same bag I’d purchased the first time around.

Obviously, it didn’t resolve the problems back on the West Coast. The Five Million Dollar Home ended up gathering dust for some time after.

It’s no use pretending that material objects don’t make people happy. They do. But instead of hiding our demons inside snazzy-looking bags, underneath makeup that conceals insomnia, or behind sunglasses that expertly mask anxiety in our eyes, it’s comforting to know that there is no prescription for making choices. That there’s no shame in not knowing. That sometimes even the fanciest luggage cannot organize chaos.

The right solution will turn up if we just keep on searching. It can take weeks, months or even years, squandered energy and embarrassment. But in the end, the decision will seem all the better, if not, as they say in Yiddish, beshert, “the destined one.”

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