It's Girls Night Out, and we're supposed to be talking about hair, men, bad TV, the big and small dramas of one another's lives. But there are no new men in the picture, and only one of us has new hair, and we've already been through Beth's trip to Italy and her boyfriend's embarrassing karaoke routine.

So maybe we've run out of stuff to talk about. I don't know. It's hard to track how we-the-girls have turned into we-the-people, engaged in a socioeconomic political debate, with me, of all people, sitting here defending Wal-Mart.

"Can we go back to Nancy's hair?" I say. Her new Kelly Ripa look is fantastic, and I'd like to hear about the magic iron that can make hair go that straight.

"There's no sense hiding," B.K. says with a gentle smirk. "We all know you go to Wal-Mart." Well, of course I do, as do millions of Americans. And I already know that the girls (who, since they live in the city, have many more shopping options) take issue with Wal-Mart. Beth, who volunteers for a group committed to saving urban retail corridors, sees Wal-Mart as the big, bad wolf gobbling up business from the mom and pop stores that once made Main Street America a glorious place to be, and B.K. and Nancy tend to agree, and in principle so do I.

"All I'm saying is, you're preaching to the choir," I say. I've said this 15 times already. "Everyone in your little world agrees with you." I was going for something larger. I was saying how interesting it was that Beth sees herself as the champion of the little guy, the mom and pop shop owner, whereas I, along with probably many of my fellow Wal-Mart shoppers, feel that we are the little guy. Regular people looking for a bargain on paper towels. Why would we drive out of our way to support a store that charges more?

I was saying the idea of socially conscious shopping was interesting to talk about. Is it moral high ground or just elitist claptrap? Both? I was trying to defend the discussion, not any one position. I was saying that we-the-people never seem to have discussions anymore; we all just rant to our like-minded friends with our like-minded rhetoric, and more and more I feel like I'm living in a world populated by people with lopsided brains.

I was getting worked up. I was thinking about all of this talk you hear nowadays about how divided the country is becoming -- the blue states are getting bluer and the red redder. I was thinking how squeezed I've been feeling. How is it that nearly every friend I have is a registered Democrat, whereas nearly every blood relative is a registered Republican? Listening to either of these groups talk, I often feel like a spy for the other side.

See, I wish Wendy were still here. She had to leave right after dessert. I think she started this whole thing when she horrified B.K. and Beth with her announcement that, for a while there, she was so disgusted with American politics that she had decided she would not be voting in this year's presidential election. Never mind her point -- that watching John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention got her back on track to enter the voting booth this November -- the fact that she'd even considered not voting was intolerable, according to B.K., and to Beth it was as loathsome as shopping at Wal-Mart.

They were starting to sound like my family, increasingly rigid in their views and closed to discussion. I'm sure it hasn't always been this way. I can remember a time not so long ago when we could talk about the right to vote and the right not to vote. Just as I can remember hearing my parents, when I was a kid, actually debating which candidate to support. Now, with the folks back home, it's all agree, agree, agree. And with my friends here, it's all agree, agree, agree, in the opposite direction. Where are all these so-called undecided voters? I don't know a single person, nor have I heard one speak, who doesn't have his or her feet cemented in place. Wendy, in that way, offered a kind of hope. Someone thinking. Someone wondering. Someone considering this and that.

So, ho-hum, Wal-Mart shoppers are like those dag-blasted Republicans: They simply don't care about anyone but themselves and their wallets. That's where this Girls Night Out conversation is surely headed. To suggest another point of view would be to horrify, same as with my family. To be interested in a discussion of all sides these days is to expose a kind of craziness, a failure to embrace brand loyalty.

"Let's just go back to Nancy's hair," I say, surrendering again. "Or, hey, did anyone see the exciting season finale of 'Who Wants to Marry My Dad?' "

No, in fact, none of them did. What is happening to the world?

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is