Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Politicization of Christmas Trees

I’m not planning to buy a Christmas tree this year.  I didn’t buy one last year either.  But as a consumer who’s interested in American retailing, I was disturbed to learn what happened in the Christmas tree industry in 2011.

According to a report that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Christmas tree farmers were (and undoubtedly still are) struggling to compete with artificial-tree producers, who spend millions of dollars each year persuading shoppers to buy fake trees instead of real ones.  In an effort to improve their own sales, tree farmers united behind a program that promised to be helpful.  They petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to administer a fund they would pay for themselves, and the USDA agreed to do it.

The growers wanted to contribute 15 cents—15 cents—from the sale of each real tree.  This tiny amount would have created a Christmas Tree Promotion Board that would remind shoppers of the delights of a real tree.

What happened?  The politicization that has infected so much of our public life suddenly spread to the very non-political world of Christmas trees.  Although the USDA has overseen at least 20 of these kinds of programs for many different types of farmers during the past 45 years (including the popular “Got Milk?” program for the dairy industry), some conservative commentators got wind of the tree farmers’ plan and decided to make it a political football.

Suddenly critics became incensed by the idea that shoppers would have to pay an additional 15 cents for each tree purchased.  They decided to dub this miniscule amount as a “tax,” even though it was nothing of the kind.  The 15 cents was to be paid by the farmers, who hoped the new Board would persuade shoppers to return to putting real trees in their living rooms.

But instead, these critics seized on the fact that the USDA, as part of the Obama administration, would administer this program.  President Obama became the target.  He was described by one U.S. Senator as the Grinch who stole Christmas and likened to Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”   A member of the U.S. House called the 15-cent amount a “new tax” that was “a smack in the face to each and every American who celebrates Christmas.”  Huh?

As criticism became more heated, the Obama administration backed off and pulled its support for the program.  The whole scenario baffled the tree farmers.  They were disillusioned by the critics on the right, who described the farmers’ contribution as a tax and skewered the President for supporting it.  But they were also disheartened by the President’s staff, which buckled under what one farmer called “misinformed pressure.”

This farmer noted that “unlike artificial trees exported from foreign countries, ours are from America and create jobs for Americans.”  Unfortunately, knee-jerk politics got in the way and stopped a valuable program in its tracks.

As Christmas nears, tree buyers are once again considering their options. But whether or not we plan to buy a Christmas tree this year, all of us should reflect on what happened last year.  Should we allow American farmers to spend their own money to promote their products?  Or should we let dysfunctional political leaders shut them down in order to gain a cheap political advantage?

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]


Sharing Old Clothes in Panama City

The term “old clothes” has a brand new meaning for me.   In Panama City, I recently shared not just one but two different kinds of old clothes.

A culinary standby in Panama is “ropa vieja,” a traditional dish of spicy shredded beef and rice.   “Ropa vieja” translates as “old clothes.”   The name stems from a cook’s inclination to use up whatever is left over in the kitchen, just as all of us grab our old clothes whenever we’re at a loss for something to wear.  Somehow Panamanian cooks got in the habit of throwing together shredded beef (often leftover steak) with rice and tomato sauce, plus some spices to perk it all up.

When I read a description of this spicy bit of local cuisine in a couple of guidebooks, it sounded like a dish I’d relish.  So, from the moment I landed in Panama City, I couldn’t wait to try it.  When I discovered El Trapiche, a restaurant featuring local dishes like ropa vieja, I wasn’t disappointed.  The dish came steaming hot, and the meat tasted a lot like juicy brisket to me.  Along with a hearty portion of rice, it was both filling and delicioso.

El Trapiche sits on Calle Argentina, not far from a number of other restaurants in the area called El Cangrejo.   The décor is basic, and our fellow patrons were mostly city residents who’d come to indulge in local specialties like ropa vieja, sancocho (a traditional soup made from chicken and the popular yucca plant), tamales, arroz con pollo, and mondongo (tripe).  The price was right:  $6 for a large helping of ropa vieja, $4.50 for my companion’s order of arroz con pollo, and $4 for a large bowl of sancocho.  We shared all three dishes, thereby sampling three different kinds of local cuisine.  (A “tipico” platter featuring samples of a variety of things was available for $11.)  A scoop of ice cream for dessert added a minimal $2.

After this hearty, totally satisfying meal, we walked to a nearby corner, flagged one of the city’s ubiquitous yellow taxis, and secured a ride back to our hotel for $3 (no tip required).

Sharing old clothes turned out to have a whole other meaning for me in Panama.  As a frugal and immensely practical traveler, I like to pack well-worn clothes that I’m prepared to jettison either during or at the end of my trip.  All year long, I look through my closet for things that no longer fit well or are somewhat out of date.  I put these into my “jettison pile.”  Then, when I pack for a trip, I peruse the pile and select those items that strike me as both appropriate and acceptable for the destinations I’m heading to.

For a trip to a location where most travelers wear casual garb, I’ll choose old t-shirts and pants that are now a bit baggy but will do just fine at my destination.            For a trip to colder climes, I dig through my pile for sweaters and warm slacks I rarely wear now (I still harbor a collection of these items from my years in Chicago).

Another item I jettison is shoes that have seen better days.  They tend to be a bit scuffed but still wearable.

One goal of this process is to carve out room in my suitcase for new purchases, like clothes or souvenirs that might otherwise require  another bag.

If I need more items to wear and later jettison (to make room for new purchases), I scour local charity shops and frequently hit pay dirt.  Before leaving for Panama City, I headed to a local shop that perennially features a $1 rack.  I found a treasure trove of men’s white dress shirts and bought several to wear over my t-shirts to protect me from the hot sun while hiking or taking a boat trip.  I happily left these behind, knowing I can always find more.

Who’s on the receiving end of my jettisoned items?  I generally leave them behind in hotel rooms, hoping that the cleaning staff will make good use of them.  I always leave a note (in the local language if I can manage it) specifically stating that I no longer want these items and the staff is welcome to them.  (For example, in basic Spanish I’ve written:  “Usted puede tener estas cosas.  No quiero estas.”)   Even if my Spanish or French isn’t perfect, I think I get my message across.  I don’t want anyone at the hotel to think I left these things behind by mistake and send them back to me!

Of course, when my travels include seeing people I know or attending an event like a wedding, I eschew my jettison pile and instead pack flattering, current clothes and shoes.  The jettison pile is reserved for trips, like my recent trip to Panama, when most of my encounters will be with total strangers–or close friends who already know my predilection for sharing old clothes.

But Is It Reunion-Worthy?

“Belt-tightening” is the word on everyone’s lips these days.  We’ve all become uber-cautious purchasers of everything from laundry detergent to pancake syrup.

This new ethos fits in perfectly with my lifelong approach to shopping.  I’ve never been a big spender. Au contraire. My chief indulgence has always been to hunt for earth-shattering bargains.

But now I have another reason to watch my pennies when I consider buying something new. With a class reunion looming, the prospect of seeing my former classmates has led me to rethink how I shop for clothes.

After scrutinizing a closetful of things I wouldn’t dream of wearing to my reunion, I’m launching a whole new wardrobe strategy.

The new standard for my purchases? Are they reunion-worthy?

I’m a bargain-hunter from way back, and one of my favorite pursuits has always been scouring the reduced racks at stores ranging from Loehmann’s and Macy’s to Nordstrom and my neighborhood boutiques.  Not to mention bopping into stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls now and then.  The result?  Although some of my choices have served me well, my closet is crammed with bargains that I never wear.

OK, I’ll admit that some of them don’t fit.  They were impulse purchases during those giddy moments when I actually thought I was going to wear a size 4 again.

But even those that fit me perfectly well often hang there along with the others.  Yes, they looked good in the dressing room.  Was it the soft lighting that sucked me in?  Or was it the “skinny mirrors”?  (Remember how Elaine on “Seinfeld” accused Barney’s of having skinny mirrors?)

I happily toted my bargains home.  But by the time I appraised them in my bedroom mirror and realized that they didn’t look so great on me after all, the deadline for returning them had too often expired.  I was permanently and unalterably stuck with them.

Fast forward to now.  Before I hand over my cash for another purchase, I’m going to ask myself:  “Is it reunion-worthy?”

We all understand what that means.  We want to look absolutely smashing at a class reunion.  Everything we wear has to be fabulous.  Now translate that to your everyday wardrobe.

Here’s how the new approach will work.  Remember those classmates who were slim and sleek when you were kind of puffy?  Thanks to your fitness regime and a healthier diet, you’ve pared down your poundage and tightened up your tummy.  If you were going to a class reunion, you’d want everyone to know it, wouldn’t you?  So view every dress with that in mind.  Ask yourself, “Do I look as slender in this dress as I really am?”  If not, don’t buy it!  It’s not reunion-worthy.

Or suppose that you’ve slowly, painfully, come to realize that you look awful in pale pink and that navy blue suits you much better.  You wouldn’t buy a pale pink pantsuit to wear to your reunion, would you?  So…don’t buy it for any other occasion, no matter how gigantic a bargain it may be.

I’m frequently tempted to buy jackets in bold bright patterns with large colorful designs.  But after I bought one the other day, I took another look at it in my bedroom mirror.  It overpowered my petite size and shape.  Would I wear it to my reunion?  Not on your life!  Back to the store it went.

Thanks to my awakening, we can all begin to view everything we buy through this new lens.   So what if an outfit’s been reduced from $200 to a rock-bottom 39 bucks.  Don’t buy it unless it’s reunion-worthy.  That designer dress may be terribly chic, but let’s face it:  it’s styled for someone with a totally different shape.  Forget it.  It’s not reunion-worthy.

As you hunt for clothes in your favorite stores, keep thinking this way, and spend your hard-earned dollars on only those duds that make you look terrific.  You’ll save money, and your closets will no longer be clogged with unwearable clothes.

Happy shopping!  You can thank me (and my class reunion) for a splendid result.

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]