Category Archives: shopping

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.

 

 

 

Hats Off to…Hats!

 

I grew up in the midst of a hat-wearing era.  If you watch movies from the 1950s, you’ll see what I mean.  In both newsreels and Hollywood films, almost all of the grown-ups–in almost every walk of life–are wearing hats.

Of course, grown-ups occasionally doffed their hats.  On a vacation, at a beach, in a theater.  But when it really counted, and they wanted to be taken seriously, they wore hats.

Although factory and construction workers wore other kinds of hats at their jobs, white-collar men tended to wear fedoras.  Footage of men attending baseball games makes clear that, even at casual events, most men were wearing felt fedoras

Women tended to opt for a variety of stylish hats, many of which look pretty silly today.  Just take a look at photos of Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the wife and later widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she’s frequently seen in headwear that was not only frilly but also far from flattering. (By contrast, photos of her younger self, sans hat, put her in a far more appealing light.)  Images of other women in frilly hats predominate in the photos of the time.

When did things begin to change?  Probably about the time that Senator John F. Kennedy became a popular media focus.  He was almost never photographed wearing a hat.   It wasn’t until his inauguration in January 1961, when he wore a top hat just like Ike’s, that he appeared in a formal grown-up’s hat.  (He notably doffed it when he gave his memorable speech.)

The popular TV series “Mad Men,” which appeared on TV from 2007 to 2015, illustrates this change.  When the series begins in March 1960, Don Draper wears a stylish fedora whenever he leaves the office.  But as the series moves through the ‘60s, he abandons his hat more and more.

The hat-wearing era clearly ended years ago.  Today a celebrity or fashion icon may occasionally be photographed in a trendy hat, but hats are no longer de rigueur.

I’ve never adopted the habit of wearing hats, with two major exceptions:  I wear warm fuzzy ones to cover my ears on chilly days, and I wear big-brimmed ones to shield my face from the sun.

But two years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco put together a brilliant exhibit highlighting the creation and wearing of women’s hats.  “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” focused on the creative artists who worked as milliners in Paris during Degas’s era, as well as on the era’s hats themselves.

The Wall Street Journal described the exhibit as “groundbreaking,” an exhibit that revealed “a compelling and until now less widely known side” of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.

The exhibit brought together exquisite Degas paintings and exquisite French-made hats.  Paris, as the center of the fashion industry during Degas’s era, was also the center of the millinery world.  Around one thousand Parisian milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats.  Many of these milliners worked in a network of independent millinery shops that competed with the nearby grand department stores.

Hat-making, the display and sale of hats, and the wearing of hats in belle époque Paris—all of these fascinated the Impressionist painters who focused on urban life in the City of Light.  Degas had a particular affinity for millinery, and he would often return to the subject—featuring both the creators, who ranged from prestigious designers to the “errand girls” who delivered hats to their new owners, and the elite consumers of these hats.  This exhibit was the first to display all of his millinery paintings in one place.

The exhibit also included display cases filled with French-made hats from the period, noting that they were sculptural art objects in their own right.  This headwear came from museums that collect hats as part of their costume collections.  Museums like the Chicago History Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contributed wonderful examples from this fabulous era of women’s decorative headwear.

When I saw this exhibit, I was thrilled by it.  It also became a powerful reminder of a childhood memory I’d nearly forgotten.  Standing in front of Degas’s paintings of milliners, I suddenly remembered going to a millinery shop in downtown Chicago with my mother when I was about 8 or 10.  Although my mother never had the financial assets to become an affluent consumer of fashion, she was acutely aware of fashion trends.  Within the bounds of my parents’ limited resources, Mom carved out a way to dress as stylishly as their funds allowed.

On this occasion, Mom must have felt financially secure enough to travel downtown and purchase a new hat styled just for her.  I was her lucky companion that day, creating a vivid memory of our shopping trip.

We found the millinery shop somewhere in a building on Randolph Street, a block or two west of the gigantic Marshall Field’s store on State Street.  We rode in an elevator to a floor above ground level and alighted to arrive at the cheerful shop, its big windows letting in a great deal of natural light.  Mom sat in a chair that faced a mirror while the milliner offered her several different styles to choose from.

Mom chose a white straw hat with blue flowers.  It was a delightful style that suited her perfectly.  Today I’d describe it as a cross between a cloche and a very small sunhat:  a straw cloche with a brim.  Not the kind of cloche that fits closely around the face, but one with a small brim that framed Mom’s face and set it off in a charming way.  Mom and the milliner conferred, possibly even turned to me to get my opinion, and made a final decision to select that hat, adding the lovely blue flowers in exactly the right place.

Mom clearly felt pretty when she wore that hat.  She went on to wear it many times, and whenever she did, I was always happy that I’d been with her on the day she chose it.  Even though Mom couldn’t purchase an elegant French-designed hat like those featured at art museums, she had her very own millinery-shop hat designed just for her.

She treasured that hat.  So did I.

 

 

Happy Holidays! Well, maybe…

 

As the greeting “Happy Holidays” hits your ears over and over during the holiday season, doesn’t it raise a question or two?

At a time when greed and acquisitiveness appear to be boundless, at least among certain segments of the American population, the most relevant questions seem to be:

  • Does money buy happiness?
  • If not, what does?

These questions have been the subject of countless studies.  Let’s review a few of the answers they’ve come up with.

To begin, exactly what is it that makes us “happy”?

A couple of articles published in the past two years in The Wall Street Journal—a publication certainly focused on the acquisition of money—summarized some results.

Wealth alone doesn’t guarantee a good life.  According to the Journal, what matters a lot more than a big income is how people spend it.  For instance, giving money away makes people much happier than spending it on themselves.  But when they do spend it on themselves, they’re a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel rather than material goods.

The Journal looked at a study by Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, which found that people may at first think material purchases offer better value for their money because they’re tangible and they last longer, while experiences are fleeting.  But Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realized that experiences actually provided better value.  We even get more pleasure out of anticipating experiences than we do from anticipating the acquisition of material things.

Another psychology professor, Thomas Gilovich at Cornell, reached similar conclusions.  He found that people make a rational calculation:  “I can either go there, or I can have this.  Going there may be great, but it’ll be over fast.  But if I buy something, I’ll always have it.”  According to Gilovich, that’s factually true, but not psychologically true, because we “adapt to our material goods.”

We “adapt” to our material goods?  How?  Psychologists like Gilovich talk about “hedonic adaptation.”  Buying a new coat or a new car may provide a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.  Experiences, on the other hand, meet more of our “underlying psychological needs.”

Why?  Because they’re often shared with others, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity.  You also don’t feel that you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses quite so much.  While it may bother you when you compare your material things to others’ things, comparing your vacation to someone else’s won’t bug you as much because “you still have your own experiences and your own memories.”

Another article in the Journal, published in 2015, focused on the findings of economists rather than psychologists.  A group of economists like John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia, concluded that happiness—overall well-being–should not be measured by how much money we have by using metrics like per-capita income and gross domestic product (GDP).  “GDP is not even a very good measure of economic well-being,” he said.

Instead, the World Happiness Report, which Helliwell co-authored, ranked countries based on how people viewed the quality of their lives. It noted that six factors account for 75 percent of the differences between countries.  The six factors:  GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.  Although GDP and life expectancy relate directly to income, the other four factors reflect a sense of security, trust, and autonomy.  So although the U.S. ranked first in overall GDP, it ranked only 15th in happiness because it was weaker in the other five variables.

According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia and co-author of the World Happiness Report, incomes in the U.S. have risen, but the country’s sense of “social cohesion” has declined.  The biggest factor contributing to this result is “distrust.”  Although the U.S. is very rich, we’re not getting the benefits of all this affluence.

If you ask people whether they can trust other people, Sachs said, “the American answer has been in significant decline.”   Forward to 2017.  Today, when many of our political leaders shamelessly lie to us, our trust in others has no doubt eroded even further.

Even life expectancy is going downhill in the U.S.  According to the AP, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing for decades, but 2016 marked the first time in more than a half-century that it fell in two consecutive years.

Let’s return to our original question:  whether money can buy happiness.  The most recent research I’ve come across is a study done at Harvard Business School, noted in the November-December 2017 issue of Harvard Magazine.  Led by assistant professor of business administration Ashley Whillans, it found that, in developed countries, people who trade money for time—by choosing to live closer to work, or to hire a housecleaner, for example–are happier. This was true across the socioeconomic spectrum.

According to Whillans, extensive research elsewhere has confirmed the positive emotional effects of taking vacations and going to the movies.  But the Harvard researchers wanted to explore a new ideawhether buying ourselves out of negative experiences was another pathway to happiness.

Guess what:  it was.  One thing researchers focused on was “time stress” and how it affects happiness.  They knew that higher-earners feel that every hour of their time is financially valuable.  Like most things viewed as valuable, time is also perceived as scarce, and that scarcity translates into time stress, which can easily contribute to unhappiness.

The Harvard team surveyed U.S., Canadian, Danish, and Dutch residents, ranging from those who earned $30,000 a year to middle-class earners and millionaires. Canadian participants were given a sum of money—half to spend on a service that would save one to two hours, and half to spend on a material purchase like clothing or jewelry.  Participants who made a time-saving purchase (like buying take-out food) were more likely to report positive feelings, and less likely to report feelings of time stress, than they did after their shopping sprees.

Whillans noted that in both Canada and the U.S., where busyness is “often flaunted as a status symbol,” opting for outsourcing jobs like cooking and cleaning can be culturally challenging.  Why?  Because people like to pretend they can do it all.  Women in particular find themselves stuck in this situation.  They have more educational opportunities and are likely to be making more money and holding more high-powered jobs, but their happiness is not increasing commensurately.

The Harvard team wants to explore this in the future.  According to Whillans, the initial evidence shows that among couples who buy time, “both men and women feel less pulled between the demands of work and home life,” and that has a positive effect on their relationship.  She hopes that her research will ameliorate some of the guilt both women and men may feel about paying a housekeeper or hiring someone to mow the law—or ordering Chinese take-out on Thursday nights.

Gee, Ashley, I’ve never felt guilty about doing any of that.  Maybe that’s one reason why I’m a pretty happy person.

How about you?

Whatever your answer may be, I’ll join the throng and wish you HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

 

 

 

 

Declare Your Independence: Those High Heels Are Killers

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

A few years ago, however, high heels proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press reported that two women, ages 18 and 23, were killed in Riverside, California, as they struggled in high heels to get away from a train.  With their car stuck on the tracks, the women attempted to flee as the train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly.”

Like those young women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whichever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave me cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were encased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself around the store.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride with pride to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I’d made.  When the event was over, I found myself stranded in a distant location with no ride home, and I started walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned three-inch high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing lower ones.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.

Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully and happily fended off the back pain, foot pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters suffer in spades.

The recent trend toward higher and higher heels is disturbing.  I’m baffled by women, especially young women, who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy” by wearing extremely high heels.

When I watch TV, I see too many women wearing stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  I can’t help noticing the women on late-night TV shows who are otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wear ridiculously high heels that force them to greet their hosts with that same ungainly walk.  Some appear on the verge of toppling over.  And at a recent Oscar awards telecast, women tottered to the stage in ultra-high heels, often accompanied by escorts who kindly held onto them to prevent their embarrassing descent into the orchestra pit.

The women who, like me, have adopted lower-heeled shoes strike me as much smarter and much less likely to fall on their attractive (and sometimes surgically-enhanced) faces.

Here’s another example.  When I sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for math students a few years ago, I was astonished that many if not most of the women graduates hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had earned.  (Fortunately, none of them tripped, but I could nevertheless imagine the foot-pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

Foot-care professionals soundly support my view.   According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a heel that’s more than 2 or 3 inches makes comfort just about impossible.  Why?  Because a 3-inch heel creates seven times more stress than a 1-inch heel.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently questioned Dr. Amol Saxena, a podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon who practices in Palo Alto (and assists Nike’s running team).  He explained that after 1.5 inches, the pressure increases on the ball of the foot and can lead to “ball-of-the-foot numbness.”  (Yikes!)  He doesn’t endorse 3-inch heels and points out that celebrities wear them for only a short time (for example, on the red carpet), not all day.  To ensure a truly comfortable shoe, he adds, don’t go above a 1.5 inch heel.  If you insist on wearing higher heels, limit how much time you spend in them.

Some encouraging changes may be afoot.  The latest catalog from Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, features a large number of lower-heeled styles along with higher-heeled numbers.  Because Nordstrom is a bellwether in the fashion world, its choices can influence shoe-seekers.  Or is Nordstrom reflecting what its shoppers have already told the stores’ decision-makers?  The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers are choosing to spend their money–probably plays a big role here.

Beyond the issue of comfort, let’s remember that high heels present a far more urgent problem.  As the deaths in Riverside demonstrate, women who wear high heels can be putting their lives at risk.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, it’s pretty obvious that high heels can handicap their ability to escape.

How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

The Fourth of July is fast approaching.  As we celebrate the holiday this year, I urge the women of America to declare their independence from high-heeled shoes.

If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely throw those shoes away, or at the very least, toss them into the back of your closet.   Shod yourself instead in shoes that allow you to walk—and if need be, run—in comfort.

Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

 

[Earlier versions of this commentary appeared on Susan Just Writes and the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Punting on the Cam

The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986.  It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012).  They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.

During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995.  I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.

Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings.  But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986.  There it was, in all of its splendor:  Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.

I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading.  But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.

My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters.  But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.

Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel.  Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.”  Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.

When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.

We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.

Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre.  We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric.  Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.

But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week.  On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour.  We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River.  Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge.  The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two.  The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.

Our next must-see site was King’s College.  During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge.  So we headed right for it.  (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)

Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence.  Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass.  (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)

As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam.  The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful.  We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.

The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river.  He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole.  His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.

The boat wasn’t crowded.  An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.

The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect.  Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.

What’s punting like?  Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam.  Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity.  Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past.  According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.

But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986.  Not at all.  Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.

I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring.  Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge.  But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.

 

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.]