Category Archives: class reunions

My Life as a Shopper

I have a new outlook on shopping.  I’m no longer shopping the way I used to.

Why?

I’ll start at the beginning.  My long history of shopping began when I was very young.

My parents were both immersed in retailing.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and, soon after arriving, opened a clothing store on Milwaukee Avenue.  Their enterprise evolved into a modest chain of women’s apparel stores, and throughout her life my mother was intimately involved in the business.  She embedded in me the ethos that shopping for new things, especially clothes, was a good thing.  Under her influence, I gave away countless wearable items of clothing in favor of getting something new, preferably something sold in one of her family’s stores.  (I later regretted departing with some of the perfectly good items I could have continued to wear for many more years.)

Even though my father received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois, and he enjoyed some aspects of his work as a pharmacist, he was himself attracted to retailing.  At a young age, he opened his own drugstore on the South Side of Chicago (I treasure a black-and-white photo of him standing in front of his store’s window).  After marrying my mother, he spent a number of years working in her family’s business, and in the late ‘40s the two of them opened a women’s clothing boutique on Rush Street, a short distance from Oak Street, in a soon-to-be-trendy shopping area.  Ahead of its time, the boutique quickly folded, but Daddy never lost his taste for retailing.

In view of this history, I was fated to become a “shopper.”  After Daddy died when I was 12, our family wasn’t able to spend big wads of money on anything, including clothes.  But my mother’s inclination to buy new clothes never really ceased.

Thanks to generous scholarship and fellowship awards, I made my way through college and grad school on a miniscule budget.  I saved money by spending almost nothing, savoring the 99-cent dinner at Harkness Commons almost every night during law school to save money.  And because I began my legal career with a $6,000 annual salary as a federal judge’s law clerk and, as a lawyer, never pursued a high-paying job (I preferred to work on behalf of the poor, for example), I got by without big-time shopping.

Marriage brought little change at first.  My darling new husband also came from a modest background and was not a big spender, even when our salaries began to move up a bit.

But things eventually changed.  Higher salaries and the arrival of new retail chain stores featuring bargain prices made buying stuff much more tempting.  I needed presentable clothes for my new full-time jobs.  Our daughters needed to be garbed in clothes like those the other kids wore.  Our living room chairs from Sears began to look shabby, propelling us toward somewhat better home décor.

A raft of other changes led me to spend more time shopping.  My boring law-firm jobs were more tolerable if I could escape during my lunch hour and browse at nearby stores.  The rise of outlet malls made bargain shopping easier than ever.  And travels to new cities and countries inspired buying small, easily packable items, like books and jewelry.

After I moved to San Francisco, having jettisoned possessions I’d lived with for years in my former home, I needed to acquire new ones.  So there I was, buying furniture and kitchen equipment for my sunny new apartment.

At the same time, our consumption-driven culture continued to push buying more and more, including the “fast-fashion” that emerged, offering stylish clothes at a temptingly low price.

But this emphasis on acquiring new stuff, even low-priced stuff, has finally lost its appeal.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need it.

My overall goal is to simplify my life.  This means giving away a lot of things I don’t need, like stacks of books I’ll never read and charming bric-a-brac that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Like clothes that a disadvantaged person needs more than I do.

My new focus:  First, use what I already have.  Next, do not buy anything new unless I absolutely need it.

Choosing not to acquire new clothes—in essence, reusing what I already have, adopting the slogan “shop your closet”–is a perfect example of my new outlook.

I’ve previously written about confining one’s new purchases to “reunion-worthy” clothes.  [Please see my blog post of October 12, 2017, advising readers to choose their purchases carefully, making sure that any clothes they buy are flattering enough to wear at a school reunion.]

But that doesn’t go far enough.  New purchases should be necessary.

I find that I’m not alone in adopting this approach.

Many millennials have eschewed buying consumer goods, opting for new experiences instead of new material things.  I guess I agree with the millennials’ outlook on this subject.

Here’s other evidence of this approach.  An article in The Guardian in July 2019 shouted “’Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes.”  Writer Paula Cocozza noted the growing number of people who love clothes but resist buying new ones because of the lack of their sustainability:  Many consumers she interviewed were switching to second-hand shopping so they would not perpetuate this consumption and waste.

Second-hand shopping has even taken off online.  In September, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the “wave of new resale apps and marketplaces” adding to longtime resale giants like eBay.  At the same time, The New York Times, covering Fashion Week in Milan, wrote that there was “a lot of talk about sustainability over the last two weeks of collections, and about fashion’s role in the climate crisis.”  The Times added:  “the idea of creating clothes that last—that people want to buy and actually keep, keep wearing and never throw out, recycle or resell”—had become an important part of that subject.  It quoted Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the high-end clothing firm Prada:  “we need to do less.  There is too much fashion, too much clothes, too much of everything.”

Enter Tatiana Schlossberg and her new book, Inconspicuous consumption:  the environmental impact you don’t know you have (2019).  In the middle of an absorbing chapter titled Fashion, she notes that “There’s something appealing about being able to buy really cheap, fashionable clothing [..,] but it has given us a false sense of inexpensiveness.  It’s not only that the clothes are cheap; it’s that no one is paying for the long-term costs of the waste we create just from buying as much as we can afford….”

Some scholars have specifically focused on this issue, the “overabundance of fast fashion—readily available, inexpensively made new clothing,” because it has created “an environmental and social justice crisis.”  Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored a paper focused on the “global environmental injustice of fast fashion,” asserting that the fast-fashion supply chain has created a dilemma.  While consumers can buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile-manufacturing bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards.  Further, millions of tons of textile waste sit in landfills and other settings, hurting low-income countries that produce many of these clothes.  In the U.S., about 85 percent of the clothing Americans consume–nearly 80 pounds per American per year–is sent to landfills as solid waste.  [See “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion” in the journal Environmental Health.]

A high-profile public figure had an epiphany along the same lines that should influence all of us.  The late Doug Tompkins was one of the founders of The North Face and later moved on to help establish the apparel chain Esprit.  At the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for about $150 million and moved to Chile, where he embraced a whole new outlook on life and adopted an important new emphasis on ecology.  He bought up properties for conservation purposes, in this way “paying my rent for living on the planet.”  Most tellingly, he said, “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the [environmental] crisis, the mother of all crises.”  [Sierra magazine, September/October 2019.]

Author Marie Kondo fits in here.  She has earned fame as a de-cluttering expert, helping people who feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to tidy up their homes.  Her focus is on reducing clutter that’s already there, so she doesn’t zero in on new purchases.  But I applaud her overall outlook.  As part of de-cluttering, she advises:  As you consider keeping or letting go of an item, hold it in your hands and ask:  “Does this item bring me joy?”  This concept of ensuring that an item brings you joy could apply to new purchases as well, so long as the item bringing you joy is also one you really need.

What should those of us enmeshed in our consumer culture do?  In The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, April Lane Benson, a “shopping-addiction-focused psychologist and the author of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy:  Why We Overshop and How to Stop’,” suggested that if a consumer is contemplating a purchase, she should ask herself six simple questions:  “Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?”

Benson’s list of questions is a good one.  Answering them could go a long way toward helping someone avoid making a compulsive purchase.  But let’s remember:  Benson is talking about a shopper already in a store, considering whether to buy something she’s already selected in her search for something new.  How many shoppers will interrupt a shopping trip like that to answer Benson’s questions?

I suggest a much more ambitious scheme:  Simply resolve not to buy anything you don’t need!

My 11-year-old granddaughter has the right idea:  She’s a minimalist who has rejected any number of gifts from me, including some fetching new clothes, telling me she doesn’t need them.

When I reflect on my life as a shopper, I now understand why and how I became the shopper I did.  Perhaps, in light of my family history and the increasingly consumption-driven culture I’ve lived through, I didn’t really have an option.

But I have regrets:  I’ve wasted countless hours browsing in stores, looking through racks and poring over shelves for things to buy, much of which I didn’t need, then spending additional hours returning some of the things I had just purchased.

These are hours I could have spent far more wisely.  Pursuing my creative work, exercising more often and more vigorously, doing more to help those in need.

Readers:  Please don’t make the mistakes I have.  Adopt my new philosophy.  You’ll have many more hours in your life to pursue far more rewarding goals than acquiring consumer goods you don’t really need.

 

 

 

Who the Heck Knows?

I have a new catch phrase:  “Who the heck knows?”

I started using it last fall, and ever since then I’ve found that it applies to almost everything that might arise in the future.

I don’t claim originality, but here’s how I came up with it:

At a class reunion in October, I was asked to be part of a panel of law school classmates who had veered off the usual lawyer-track and now worked in a totally different area.

Specifically, I was asked to address a simple question:  Why did I leave my work as a lawyer/law professor and decide to focus primarily on writing?

First, I explained that I’d always loved writing, continued to write even while I worked as a lawyer, and left my law-related jobs when they no longer seemed meaningful.  I added that my move to San Francisco led to launching my blog and publishing my first two novels.

I concluded:

“If I stay healthy and my brain keeps functioning, I want to continue to write, with an increasing focus on memoirs….  I’ll keep putting a lot of this kind of stuff on my blog.  And maybe it will turn into a book or books someday.

“Who the heck knows?”

 

After I said all that, I realized that my final sentence was the perfect way to respond to almost any question about the future.

Here’s why it seems to me to apply to almost everything:

None of us knows what the next day will bring.  Still, we think about it.

In “Men Explain Things to Me,” the author Rebecca Solnit notes “that we don’t know what will happen next, and the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”  She finds uncertainty hopeful, while viewing despair as “a form of certainty,” certainty that that “the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it.”

Let’s cast certainty aside and agree, with Solnit, that uncertainty is hopeful.  Let’s go on to question what might happen in the uncertain future.

For example:

We wonder whether the midterm elections will change anything.

We wonder whether our kids will choose to follow our career choices or do something totally different.

We wonder whether our family history of a deadly disease will lead to having it ourselves.

We wonder whether to plan a trip to Peru.

We wonder whether we’re saving enough money for retirement.

We wonder how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in an upcoming case.

We wonder what our hair will look like ten years from now.

We wonder what the weather will be like next week.

And we wonder what the current occupant of the White House will say or do regarding just about anything.

 

You may have an answer in mind, one that’s based on reason or knowledge or probability.   But if you’re uncertain…in almost every case, the best response is:  Who the heck knows?

If you’re stating this response to others, I suggest using “heck” instead of a word that might offend anyone.  It also lends a less serious tone to all of the unknowns out there, some of which are undoubtedly scary.

If you prefer to use a more serious tone, you can of course phrase things differently.

But I think I’ll stick with “Who the heck knows?”

Warning:  If you spend any time with me, you’ll probably hear me say it, again and again.

But then, who the heck knows?

But Is It Reunion-Worthy? (updated for 2017)

 

I’m fed up with closets stuffed with unwearable clothes.  Before I make another purchase, I’m asking myself:  “Is it reunion-worthy?”

Let me explain.

I’ve never been a big spender.  Au contraire.  I’ve always relished hunting for earth-shattering bargains.

But things have changed.  When I go shopping, I have a compelling new reason to think carefully before I buy.

My class reunion.

With a class reunion looming, the prospect of seeing my classmates has led me to rethink how I shop for clothes.

That’s led me to scrutinize my entire wardrobe.  After browsing through 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 lifelong bargain-hunter, and a favorite pursuit was scouring the racks of reduced apparel at stores ranging from Macy’s and Nordstrom to small local boutiques.  The result?  My closets are filled with bargains that I never wear.

Not that they don’t fit me.  Okay, I’ll admit that a few of them don’t.  I bought some of them in those giddy moments when I actually thought I was going to wear a size 4 again.  (I can dream, can’t I?)

But even those that fit me perfectly tend to inhabit my closet, unworn.  They looked terrific in the dressing room.  Was it the soft lighting?  Was it the “skinny mirrors”?  (Remember how Elaine on the ‘90s sitcom “Seinfeld” accused Barney’s of having skinny mirrors?)

I happily toted my bargains home.  Then came the moment of truth.  I emptied my shopping bags and tried everything on again.

Sadly, by the time I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and concluded that some items didn’t flatter me, the time for returning them had expired, and I was permanently and unalterably stuck with them.

Now with my class reunion coming up, and with closets full of things I wouldn’t dream of wearing when I get there, I’ve launched my new wardrobe strategy.

Here how it works:  I’ll view each potential purchase as something I’d actually wear to my class reunion.

We all know how we want to look at a class reunion.  Whether it’s high school, college, or any other reunion, we want to look fabulous.  Every item has to show us off to our best advantage.

Remember those classmates who were slim and sleek when you were kind of puffy?  Mercifully, thanks to your fitness regime and a healthier diet, you’ve pared down your poundage, and you want everyone to know it.  Is there any question you’ll view every possible purchase with that in mind?  Just ask yourself, “Does this make me look as slim as possible?”  If not, don’t buy it.  It’s simply not reunion-worthy.

Then there’s the question of style.  Take a good look at those clothes that haven’t been stylish for a while.  Do you really want to wear them at the reunion?  Doubtful.  They’re not reunion-worthy.

This awakening has taught me a lesson, and you might benefit from it as well.  Just start taking this approach to everything you buy.  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 sweater or jacket you fell in love with at the store?  Even though it’s terribly chic, it’s styled for someone with a totally different shape.  Forget it.  It’s not reunion-worthy.

Shopping online might present a challenge.  You have to take a chance that something will look great…and willing to send it back if it doesn’t.

It’s probably easier to hunt for clothes in your favorite brick-and-mortar stores.  But when you do, try to remember our newly-minted wardrobe strategy.  You’ll finally have closets no longer stuffed with unwearable clothes.  They’ll be filled instead with only those clothes that make you look terrific.

I hope to have a great time at my reunion.  Just in case you’re wondering, I plan to look smashing–garbed in my reunion-worthy duds!

 

[Earlier versions of this post appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on this blog.]

 

 

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.]