Why I buy things I shouldn't

It started with that wool scarf in Paris and now has escalated to buying a lifetime national parks pass and dining on sea slugs.

In a purchase as surprising as Jefferson buying the Louisiana Territory for a $1.29 (plus Napoleon's recipe for croque-madame), I now own a lifetime pass to every square mile of every US national park.

While this purchase might seem reasonable to all those travelers who enjoy showing off their knees in wooded regions, people who know me are shocked. Because, once again, I have fallen victim to the delusion of "I can...."

So, when I walked into Zion National Park and the helpful ranger asked me if I wanted the pass of a lifetime instead of a onetime admission, I thought, "I can do that!" And when he said I would also get a 50 percent discount on camping, I was certain I had just gotten a spectacular deal, even though, until now, my idea of camping was staying at a four- instead of a five-star hotel.

The belief that I, too, would soon be accosting wild beasts as I tramped up, and, one would hope, down, trails all across America, is typical of the convoluted thinking that leads me to absurdly rash decisions. Like the time I purchased an authentic, hand-woven Panama hat.

"I can wear that," I thought, forgetting that the likelihood of there being a tropical heat wave in San Francisco was only slightly less than there being a ban on organic sprouts at my local supermarket. So, along with my national parks pass, I have that very nice chapeau, which somehow doesn't work with my polo shirt and jeans.

This often expensive "I can wear that" trait surfaced the first time I went to Paris. I came back convinced I could tie a wool scarf in a knot around my neck just like all those intensely brooding Frenchmen.

Yet the scarf, which led to nary a brood, was a lot cheaper than the small checked sports jacket I purchased to replicate those somewhat nonbrooding Parisians who stroll along the boulevard with assured insouciance.

I, too, wanted to be insouciant. But by the time I found a reason to slip on the coat, I had moved on to my Panama hat phase and was deep into South American rakishness, which would have required an absurdly expensive white suit to make it all work together. (My incredibly tolerant wife nixed the white suit idea, along with hiring a brooding Frenchman to give me scarf tying lessons.)

Food, of course, is a constant "I can" problem. After reading a review of a restaurant in New York's Chinatown, I was salivating as the critic praised a dish with sea slugs. "I can eat that," I declared and the next day prepared to devour what I believed was going to be the porterhouse of Chinese food. Unfortunately, it was more like the Goodyear Tire of Chinese food. "You don't like it?" the waiter asked. "I don't either," he continued. "Old men in China eat it to restore their manliness."

I'm not sure what is going to be next on my "I can" adventures. Maybe buying a pair of running shoes to let me pretend I can run a marathon. Or purchasing a sailboat to get me over my fear of being in any waterborne vehicle other than an ocean liner the size of Nevada. Either way, I will be certain that, once again, "I can."

• Chuck Cohen writes from Mill Valley, Calif.

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