Saturday, December 7, 2013

SAD (Seasonal Acquisitive Disorder)

First off, here's a hello to the students who have discovered this blog and, from what I understand, have been doing some critical deconstruction of its contents. I'm flattered that among the many things you could be reading, you choose my work. I hope you enjoy it, and welcome your comments. Please just keep in mind that it's a permissible and, in fact, preferable thing, for a hard-working dean of students to do things other than go to work, and write about things other than work. I hope you all have equally enjoyable diversions and the occasional opportunity to reflect on your lives, whether in a blog, a conversation, a prayer or a research project.

Last week provided an interesting juxtaposition in the context of my shopping sobriety project. It was, of course, the official start of the Christmas/Christmas shopping season (I like to make the distinction), but it was also a week that NPR aired series of shows done by the Planet Money crew in which they attempted to "make" and bring to market common t-shirts. They spent time in the American south where t-shirt cotton is commonly grown, in Bangladesh where that cotton is turned into clothing, and other places as they tried to replicate a process that we take for granted in a big way (how many of you are wearing a t-shirt right now?) They even did a fascinating segment on shipping containers. Who knew?

One of the most provocative features of this week-long series was the photo stream they posted of t-shirts they found for sale in Nairobi--promotional shirts that probably look a lot like a stack in many American drawers: advertising turkey trots and other road races, fundraisers, high school sports teams, a bat mitzvah and an orthodontist. And of course, somewhere right now, someone is unloading the last of the "St. Louis Cardinals 2013 World Champions" t-shirts that never got out of their boxes in October.

I was so grateful to the Planet Money crew for the timing of their work--airing this series during my six-month experiment, that I have to give them a shout out and hope any readers not familiar with their work will get to know them. They appear on the pubic radio show This American Life (where they started) and elsewhere, but you can also subscribe to their twice-weekly podcasts .
I've learned a lot about the American and global economies from these passionate professionals and am constantly quoting them (just the other day, I casually dropped "credit default swaps" into a conversation, thanks to Planet Money). So if you have room in your life for more information, they are worth it.

Anyway, back to making room in our lives...Black Friday came and went much the way it does every year: news stories about its approach, ads from retailers about extended hours and low, low prices, more news stories about the backlash from people who resent having to work on Thanksgiving (and the bosses that support them, like Indiana Pizza Hut manager Tony Rohr) and then the economy-related pieces. Were sales robust or just plain bust? A cycle repeats a few days later with "Cyber-Monday." I didn't partake in either to any great degree. I did find myself in Best Buy the Wednesday before Thanksgiving purchasing a new printer and watched as the staff prepared for the coming deluge of bargain shoppers. And then I went home and gave my credit card the weekend off. I saw in the news that sales were disappointing nationally, but I don't think that's totally my fault. I hear from more people each year that shopping on Black Friday has become so fraught and unenjoyable that they skip it entirely.

There is, of course, a difference of opinion and preference. My friend Kate said her family members were discussing shopping plans over Thanksgiving dinner and several were planning on some late-night/early-morning shopping, reporting that the savings they would enjoy because of the various sales on those days would save them hundreds of dollars on their Christmas shopping. I imagine that's good motivation for a lot of people, which retailers count on. Retailers also count on the obsession we have with Christmas shopping in general, of course, and it seems from news reports of slow Black Friday sales that our economy depends on that obsession as well.

But does our happiness depend on that give/get scheme as well? I recently had a fun night out at a great little restaurant called The Whisky Room in Burlington, VT, in the company of four smart and savvy (and fashionable) women. The conversation turned to this blog/experiment, as it often does (Betsy has clearly missed her calling, which was to be someone's literary agent). Two of the four women at the table, Betsy and Paula, knew about Clothes Down, but the others, Deb and Joanne, were hearing about it for the first time and seemed intrigued and a little puzzled. Joanne observed that fashions change quickly enough that a six-month moratorium could cause you to miss out on the most recent and interesting items I couldn't argue with that. Every season brings us new items or variations on items. Pants are loose and baggy...then super tight...then loose. Remember when pants that hit your leg above your ankle were too short? When shirts that pulled at the buttons were too tight? All of us who have paid even the slightest attention to fashion recognize the cyclical nature of certain trends (Peasant dresses, anyone? Mini-skirts? Platform shoes?). And the expiration date of certain trends seems to arrive more quickly now. Again, retailers count on us buying, and buying into, this pattern of planned obsolescence.

This is not so much a criticism as an observation. I've watched "The Devil Wears Prada" enough times to have absorbed the great speech Stanley Tucci's character Nigel gives about Vogue being a "shining beacon of light for..oh, say, a boy from Rhode Island..." and to recognize that fashion is an expression of the human aesthetic sense just as much as art and music. But the phrase "a slave to fashion" is part of the English vernacular for a reason.

I'm not proposing that people stop paying attention to fashion and fashionable attire. I think what I've come to realize is the importance of paying attention to the paying attention, if that makes sense--to recognize and operate with some self-agency in the land of retail. There are items that we buy and know we will not wear beyond the season because they are so out there, so edgy. And there are things we buy that we will wear for years and love more as time passes. Retailers like Lands End and LL Bean count on our affection for the latter. But what if, when buying clothes or shoes, we made a more conscious determination that something is "for the moment," and something else is destined to become a worn item (in both senses of the word) in our closet for years? Would we make different choices? Hard to say. The balance of one versus the other might shift a bit, especially as we consider the volumes of clothing that end up in landfills. And unlike t-shirts, which are universal in their practicality, there probably isn't much of a Nairobi market for brightly-colored skinny jeans from last year's Hollister collection.

As I write this, I am testing out the new washing machine that was delivered to my house this morning. It's working well, thank you. It replaced a Whirlpool machine that was four years old. Four years old!! And trust me--I don't do a ton of laundry. The repairman who declared it not worth replacing told me, of course, "They don't make them like they used to." So now I have a new GE Hydrowave with Quiet Agitator Wash Cycle (no, don't envy me--but it actually is pretty quiet and can double as a soothing wave machine should I want to take a nap in the kitchen while it's running), and the Whirlpool is on its way to recycle heaven (one can hope, at least). I did what I had to do--bought into the system of planned obsolescence. My pathetic protest? Slam Whirlpool in this year's Consumer Reports survey that I faithfully complete every year because I want to hold businesses accountable for their products (and laud them when they make great products; I am an equal-opportunity reviewer).

Speaking of accountable, if any students have gotten this far, I hope you'll go back to studying for your exams. I don't want to be implicated in your procrastination. For those of you lucky enough to not have exams, please return to your holiday preparations. I'll do the same...once I figure out what they are. My almost-5-months of a shopping moratorium has rattled me to my retail core. It might be the year those I love get home-baked goods instead of the usual fare. Know that it comes with love nonetheless.

I'll be back with an update after the holidays as I round the turn and head for home, February 1--the end of this experiment but probably the beginning of something else.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Long-term Commitments and Other Relational Approaches

I am embarrassed at how hard it is for me to not buy things.

There. I said it. Two and a half months into retail jail and I am learning things about myself that are not making me feel too good. I thought this experiment was supposed to have the opposite effect--make me feel all empowered and frugal and in control of my life. Instead, I find myself wondering: who am I if I'm not a consumer? Who am I if I'm not wearing that which I have recently purchased? And while I'm on the honesty train, I'll say this: I've thought about cheating. Who would know? Just me, and as I've proven so many times in the past, starting with nursery school, I have a certain...moral flexibility that allows me to bend rules using some odd and contorted rationalization that makes perfect sense to me and anyone who will listen.

I have not cheated. I have, instead, twitched at multiple times. I twitched when I found myself in Macy's with Betsy, who, apparently more confident in my resolve than I am, meandered through the Jones New York racks, commenting on how cute some of the new fall line is. Yes, the fact that we were in Macy's was my fault (I needed some of my preferred moisturizer--see previous blog post about my hard-to-alter personal care item habits). But this seemed to border on cruelty. Interestingly, though, even though I suggested she could try some things on if she wanted, she demurred. And so perhaps by not shopping myself, I saved her from the lure of the dressing room.

Shopping is one of those rare endeavors that I enjoy equally both with others and on my own. Golf is like this as well, I've found. A round of golf played solo is time spent in my head, thinking through both the immediate (how am I supposed to make a shot from this god-awful lie?) and the long-term (maybe it's time to get serious about buying a small lake cabin). The answers, by the way, are: 1) move the ball, because you're out here alone and no one cares and you want to have a chance at just hitting it at all, and 2) no, it's not. When I'm shopping on my own, there are these more immediate questions (Brown? Black? Both?) and the long-term (no, it's still not time to buy real estate). But doing either of these things with other people changes the dynamic completely. Suddenly the immediate issues are shared concerns and instant feedback is available (use your wedge and hit down on the ball, brown is a better color for you, and it's probably better to just rent a lake cabin for a month and put the rest of your money in a CD).

All of this is to say that solo shopping with no intention of buying anything is a pretty lonely thing to do, leaving me with way too much time to ponder serious, long-term matters that are best figured out in the company of those who keep me in check. Realizing this, and thus skipping the solo shopping adventures of my recent past has freed up some time in my schedule. I'd like to report that I'm using it to exercise, or volunteer, or learn Arabic. But not yet. Like the money I assume I'm saving by not shopping, this benefit has not been accruing in the most positive ways. I still find plenty of excuses to avoid doing healthy and useful things. Some habits, I have found, are much harder to break.

My friend Sandra recently sent me a link to an article about a fascinating blog kept by a woman named Christina Dean, the founder of ReDress, an "eco-friendly, fashion-focused organization" (I did not know such things existed). Dean spent 365 days finding and wearing "100 percent dumped and donated" clothes. Her concern is less about personal frugality and more about bringing attention to the incredible waste in first-world countries--clothing that ends up in landfills when it is still perfectly good, but perhaps out of date and in need of a wash and iron. Here's the link to the article, which is worth a read:
Recycled clothes

I read this and found myself almost immediately thinking about "the bag," the clothes I decide I don't want and so put in the Goodwill box down the road. How many of those items end up being used again, and how many ultimately end up in a landfill taking up space on a finite planet? And how did the manufacturing of my clothes impact the places they were made? Did the dyes end up in rivers? What happened to the rest of the animal this leather came from?

Quite suddenly, my closet...okay, closets...have become a source of the kind of consumer guilt I probably should have developed decades ago. I find myself looking at each item and pondering its origins. Not that I am about to become an anti-sweatshop activist. Or maybe this is how it starts--with a growing realization that no matter how the clothes and shoes I own were created, if I just throw them out when I'm tired of them, or they don't fit well, then maybe I am causing problems for others on both ends--being a ready buyer of clothing made in poor conditions and a ready disposer of those clothes into an environment that doesn't have room for them.

That's what I was puzzling over a couple of weeks ago when the weather started to get cooler and I went into the closet and pulled out the bin o' boots. Autumn! Normally, I'm pretty happy to see my boots, and I look forward to adding to the collection. And so very many catalogs show up in my mailbox that tempt the heck out of me. One of my favorite catalogs, Acacia, had the coolest pair of red boots on the back cover, staring out at me for the ten minutes it took me to put the catalog in the recycling bin.

But also that day, another catalog arrived, one I haven't seen before: Hotter Shoes. It's a British company that looks poised to break into the American market, possibly because of women like me who prefer comfort (albeit stylish comfort) to Jimmy Choos that look more like a medieval blacksmith's tool than a shoe. I browsed the catalog. I pondered. I puzzled (black? brown? really cute red boots, even).

And then it followed the Acacia temptress into the recycling bin. I'm not sure what might ultimately tempt me into cheating, but apparently it's not red boots.

I did, though, make a purchase some might consider frivolous. I somehow lost my very cool and comfortable Kate Spade sunglasses on the drive between Norton and Burlington last month, leaving me wearing an old pair of Ray-Bans that have the annoying habit of constantly fogging up because of their fit (too close to my face, I think). I did dig up another old pair, but they didn't fit well and weren't polarized and yes this sentence ends with a rationalization: I bought some new sunglasses because I sort of needed them. There. "Sort of." I will not say I needed them, but I don't think they were completely a "want" thing. I wear them every sunny day. I will keep them for years (the Kate Spades were purchased right before a trip to Bonaire four years ago, so I certainly got my money's worth) because, in spite of what this paragraph might indicate, I don't lose sunglasses (in this way, I am completely unlike Betsy, who has made a habit of leaving her sunglasses on store counters and seats of taxis). I keep them for years, motivated in large part by just how difficult it is for me to select a pair. I will wear them with scratches, with arm hinges that are on their eighth screw. I wear them till I wear them out, which is what made the inexplicable disappearance of the aforementioned pair so distressing.

But it made me wonder: what is it about me that enables a long-term commitment to sunglasses and not to so many items of clothing? Maybe the answer is in what I just wrote: the time and mental energy it takes me to buy a relatively pricey pair of sunglasses. I found myself thinking about this as I dropped off two pairs of well-loved but worn shoes at Miguel's Shoe Repair in Mansfield. In the past, I probably would have relegated these to the bag, but knowing I couldn't replace them this season, I brought them to the man who has re-soled and re-heeled several pairs of boots I didn't want to give up. "Can you make these look...newer?" I asked him. He nodded solemnly, turning each of them over in his calloused hands. "One week." And seven days later, I had them back, looking close to new, good for at least another winter.

Every item that could possibly be jettisoned from my wardrobe is now the object of careful consideration. I find myself digging further into my closet to wear something I haven't worn in a while, maybe longer than a while. I rifle through my too-big collection of scarves to find some new combination of colors and textures. And then I put on a pair of three- or four-year old shoes that have been polished and buffed into a fresh shine by Miguel and head out to work. Sunglasses on, of course. The weather's been pretty nice. By my next entry, I suspect I will be far enough into cold weather to have had some come-to-Jesus conversations with myself about sweaters and, of course, boots. See you around December 1st.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

One Month of Shopping Sobriety*

It's September 1, which marks a month since I began my self-imposed clothes/shoes/accessories ban. Thus far, I have not fallen off the wagon, despite a couple of temptations I carelessly put in my path. I can report, though, that I have learned a few things about myself during this short stretch.

But first, the carelessness. One Saturday a couple of weeks ago, I was bored here in Norton (not an unusual state, if you've ever been to Norton). Students had not returned yet, it was a beautiful day, and I was by myself, not able to come up with a single interesting local thing to do. In the past, I might have headed off to do some "errands" (which can sometimes be a euphemism for casual shopping, in which I only need to do some practical purchasing like mousetraps or water filters--again, have you been to Norton?--in order to justify the impractical purchases). But I decided to go further afield. I wanted to walk, enjoy the beautiful weather, see people and things I don't usually see. So I decided to head to Boston to walk along the Esplanade. About 90 minutes later (whatever we tell students about the ease of access to Boston, it is not a quick trip if you use public transportation), I arrived at the T stop at the Museum of Science (drove to Quincy, hopped on the Red Line, switched to the Green, thinking, about 40 minutes into the trip that any travel involving the Green Line is a dumb idea).

It was a great walk, though--just what I wanted. Tons of people out there as well, sailing, kayaking, biking, sitting on benches and blankets. I walked from the Museum stop all the way down to the BU boathouse, then back a ways when I decided to cut across BU's campus and over to Newbury Street where I could find a nice restaurant and have an urban dinner before getting back on the T to Quincy.

Newbury Street. The heart of Boston boutique shopping. There's a Frye Boot store, for God's sake. I walked along the sidewalk, glancing into windows with below-average interest. I stopped on the corner across from the Frye store, and wondered what was new in bootwear for this season. And then I kept walking. Found a nice restaurant (Sonsie, for anyone interested) where I watched the Sox game on the TV (the game going on down the street at Fenway, actually, which made for a more-crowded-than-usual Newbury Street) and enjoyed some pasta, and then treated myself to a cone at Emack and Bolio's, passing up a Pinkberry yogurt because, geez, I had just walked a few miles along the river AND had walked past a Frye Boot store, and if I didn't do something extravagant for myself, I was afraid I was going to sizzle to a crisp from self-denial and blow away into the Boston night. Not that anything like that has ever happened, or come close, in my lifetime of justifying to myself any self-indulgent behavior that crossed my mind.

The other temptation I put in my path was spending some time with Betsy, my partner-in-shopping, as we searched for a small, inexpensive backpack for me (a temporary alternative to my heavier briefcase to stave off some back issues; see? I feel the need to justify any purchases I make these days! Which is not necessarily a bad thing) and some sneakers for her. This led us to EMS at Patriot Place, a store where I can always find an article of clothing I "need" and then--what was I thinking?--the Wrentham outlet mall. I'm happy--no, relieved--to report that I found a $20 backpack and Betsy got her new Nikes, and no other c/s/a purchases happened. There was one other purchase, which I'll explain (not justify) only because in thinking about it, I did learn something about myself, or at least reinforce something I've known, to some degree or another, for decades.

I'm kind of a creature of habit about certain items. If I like an item of clothing, something that's sort of a wardrobe "staple" like a good tank top that fits well and feels good, I'll buy it in another color (or two). If I like a pair of boots, practical and heavily-used ones like dressy-but-comfortable, I'll get them in black and in brown. I don't like change all that much because if I make a change and I'm unhappy with it, I will spend way too much time regretting making that change, or worse, comparing what I now have to the near-perfect thing I had in the past. This has led me to stick with the same shampoo(s), the same undergarments, the same breakfast, for years. I think it's also made me risk-averse and boring, but that's probably another blog.

And one thing that hasn't changed in decades? Literally, since I bought my first bottle in 1985 (I remember this because I was rooming with my college friend Heidi Shott, and though I can't remember the specifics, I think she's implicated in what was then an extravagant purchase). Alfred Sung perfume. I liked it, though I was not particularly sophisticated about scents, and still am not. A bottle lasts a couple of years if all you do is one squirt in the morning. Over the years, I have occasionally used other perfumes, but usually only if I had a sample, or got a gift. The change was never permanent. I went back to Alfred Sung. It was indeed extravagant back when I was a poorly-paid social worker and then bottom-of-the-food chain student affairs professional--$40-$50 a bottle. But again--it lasted a couple of years. After a decade or so, it became hard to find. The department stores where it had been available stopped carrying it, but I was always able to find it at an outlet mall fragrance store. I suspect there are a lot of women like me who simply cannot abide a change in such a fundamentally personal product, and we keep those outlet stores in business because we are uninterested in new fragrances being touted and sprayed by the overly-made-up women at the Macy's fragrance and make-up counters.

So that was the purchase--two bottles, actually. A small one for travel and a large one for everyday use. I mention all this not because it's all that fascinating (a perfume purchase). I mention it because of what preceded the purchase. A few years ago, when I was in Ireland, I purchased a bottle of a very nice fragrance, but have never really used it because, well, see above. So when the last of my Alfred Sung was gone, I decided that rather than buy something I didn't need, I would try the Irish fragrance. I lasted about three weeks. In the past, I would have lasted a day and then been out to search for Alfred. But this whole shopping thing has made me realize this: I am a totally reflexive shopper. I shop without thinking about it. I know I shop without needing things, but I never realized how I shop in such a mindless and unconsidered way. Every day I got dressed during those three weeks sans-Alfred, I had a quick exchange with myself about the wisdom and practicality of using what I had, not leaving it on the dresser and buying something else. In the end, my decision to purchase a $45 bottle of fragrance was actually not as easy as it has been since 1985. (It was made easier by Betsy's quick offer to take the Irish fragrance off my hands, as it's her "winter fragrance," she said, and it will not go to waste).

I have had a lot of moments like that in this past month--realizing how often I purchase things I don't really need, and then not purchasing something because of that. It's happened in the grocery store, where I have made a commitment not to buy things unless I'm sure I'm going to eat them (too many fresh vegetables that don't stay fresh long enough). Even the backpack, which to some degree felt like a health-related necessity, took weeks of consideration, of trying other solutions, before I felt like I had worked through the options.

I'm doing this with clothes, too, which gets harder as the school year begins and I reflexively consider new items of clothing that appear in favorite catalogs. But this 6-month deal with myself has given me a framework and some necessary incentive to just walk away, to toss the catalog in the recycling bin, to walk past the Frye Boot store. I have only my own commitment and this blog to motivate me, but so far that seems to be enough. The blog is, I have to admit, pretty darn effective as a motivator in part because some of its readers are people I interact with and who now seem to have a vested interest in keeping tabs on my wardrobe. I actually get asked, on campus, if something I'm wearing is new. I have to explain that it isn't, that I've had it for years but haven't worn it, or purchased it before my shopping moratorium began.

It's all good, I think. I am buying less, not just clothes/shoes/accessories, but food, household items and other non-necessary stuff. And I've actually begun to redefine, for myself, what "necessary" means. Some benefits are obvious (my checking account, for instance, doesn't get emptied as quickly), but others are unexpected, like looking at people and enjoying the warm night air on Newbury Street instead of being focused on boots. Feeling completely justified in treating myself to a tasty and leisurely dinner because I was denying myself something else, which turned out to be a pleasant experience I wouldn't have otherwise had, if my time and money had gone instead to the many boutiques on Newbury Street.

So that's what I've figured out, one month in. I'll let you know, of course, if this gets easier or harder as boots-and-sweater season approaches. I'll also let you know if my friend Linda is successful at convincing me that I deserve a new car, which I totally don't need...or deserve, really...but I might want. And distinguishing between those three things--need, deserve, want--is one of the most valuable byproducts of this experiment, one that will benefit my life, I think, even more than freeing up closet and drawer space.

*Again, I am not making light of other, more insidious addictions. I just like alliteration in titles.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

These Boots Were Made for...Me

About the boot thing: it's been a lifelong problem. I think it started in 1964 when my father was working in Tuscon, AZ, while his family remained in New Jersey (he was an up-and-coming electrical contractor and somehow managed to win a bid to help built the Titan Missile bases, so off he went, leaving mom with four children still at home (and I was the equivalent of three myself). So for the summer, he suggested we all come out and spend June, July and August traipsing around the southwest.

Let me repeat that: June, July and August. The southwest. And my mother agreed to this? Clearly, she was sick of managing her two teen-age sons, whiny pre-adolescent daughter and 3-year old future Catholic school terror, me. We boarded a plane and landed in Phoenix where we lived in a long-term motel kind of place that had a pool, which was, understandably, where we spent most of our time other than when Dad took us on road trips. I remember several things from that summer, aside from the cell-sucking heat: large Gila monsters on the side of the road were cool-looking up close. Roadrunners looked NOTHING like the cartoon version, nor did they go "beep-beep!" as they ran across the highway.

And boots. I remember boots. Cowboy boots for men and women, boys and girls. I got my first pair, along with my first cowboy hat, at a boot shop somewhere along a dusty highway, and it was a revelation. I have never since felt as cool as I did when I first pulled a pair of boots on and walked with a new-found authority around the boot shop. I can imagine the salesman probably called me "little cowgirl" or something equally cliche, but I was three and was not yet offended by sexist remarks (though cliches were starting to bother me at that point). I just knew I had found my defining fashion feature.

Upon returning to NJ (my father followed not long after and launched his business, called Titan Electric in honor of his first big contract), it appeared my mother was not going to feed my new-found hunger for tooled leather, heels, pointed toes and cowboy swagger. I began nursery school (that didn't work out too well, but that will have to wait for another blog) wearing stupid freaking maryjanes that said nothing--NOTHING--about the southwest heart beating in my chest. No wonder I was out of place at the Little Red House Nursery School in Caldwell, NJ (yes, it was called that). I was meant to live a life on a horse, tumbleweeds blowing by me as I galloped across the mesa. There were no mesas in New Jersey, unless you count the long, flat stretches of the Garden State Parkway, and I never once saw a cool girl on a horse trotting down the median. My dreams were drying up and blowing away.

And then, in 1966, Nancy Sinatra entered my consciousness with the song that became the closest thing to an anthem I've ever had (Jimmy Buffet's "I'm Growing Older But Not Up" and, of course, "Day-O" are up there too). It's my karaoke go-to, my party-pleasin' guitar solo choice. It's that rare song that delivers an anti-authority, mid-60s feminist message, has a good beat, and you can dance to it (American Bandstand: another '60s icon). Somehow, that song got me over the hump--the bootless, horseless hump of life in a Jersey suburb.

One fall, right around that time, the Sears catalog arrived. Remember those? The Christmas version? Huge books full of everything from table saws to lingerie, toys to tires. And a large section of children's clothing. Like many children, I pored over that catalog, making crisp lists in pencil on yellow paper: all the things I wanted. Needed. And that one year, I wanted an outfit worn by a girl in the catalog, a girl I envied for her incredible good fashion fortune: red cowboy hat and boots, red skirt with fringe (I would have preferred jeans, but those were not available for girls). Red vest (with fringe). It was the boots I coveted most.

Santa was good to me that year, starting me down a long, dusty trail of boot-wearing. I know I have too many, but you know how it is. One pair of black (or brown) boots is not like every other pair. Different heel heights, different lines, different comfort levels. Some are ankle-high, some are calf-high, some are knee-high. But all make me feel cooler and more confident when I wear them. When I pull on a pair of boots in the morning, I got me some shwaggah. Pumps do not do that for me. Who DO they do that for?

About two years ago, I found myself at the NCAA convention in San Antonio, Texas, and came upon a boot shop. I went back three days in a row, debating the merits of purchasing a genuine pair of Texas cowboy boots (as opposed to the East Coast girl collection in my closet). With the support of my patient colleague Rebecca, I tried on about ten different pairs before settling on a pair of black and tan beauties made of leather and...python. Seriously. Snakeskin boots. If I had been able to wear these while attending the Little Red House Nursery School, my entire life might have been different.

I write all this to explain just how challenging it will be for me when boot season comes 'round (and it is just around the corner). I will get twitchy in that way I did poring over the Sears Wish Book. I will be filled with envy of some cute girl in a red fringe vest, cool hat and...then I will remember that in my closet, yes, I have my very own trip down memory lane. And that lane is a trail, a dusty trail. And that trail? Maybe it ends in Phoenix, where I will pull these on, give a steely-eyed look and order myself a glass of Chardonnay. Straight up, pardner.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

And So It Begins...

It's August 1, the first day of my self-imposed regalia retreat...garment getaway...retail jail. [Okay--I think "retail jail" is a bit much, having watched the first season of "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix, which I highly recommend. I don't want to make light of even a minimum security prison experience. Ironically, though, at "Litchfield Prison," an other-corner-of-Connecticut stand-in for Danbury, known for being Martha Stewart's temporary abode, solitary confinement is known as "the shoe," which is actually "SHU," which stands for "Secure Housing Unit," and given that my retail jail experience involves divesting myself of shoes and avoiding shoe purchases, well, it's hard not to make that particular idiomatic connection. Anyway...]

What did I do during the last few days leading up to August 1? I didn't make it easy on myself. I spent time in two cities, Burlington and Montreal, that have some nice boutiques and shoe stores. I managed to avoid them all. My last purchase prior to the boutique banishment? I made a trip to the Jockey store in the outlet mall in Essex, VT. I won't go into details. Let's just say that I do own certain items of clothing that eventually wear out and need to be replaced, and like a lot of us, I stick with what I know.

I have to be honest, though. There is something oddly liberating about having made this deal with myself (and publicized it to the world; that is, the portion of the world that might read this blog). I have now given myself a built-in excuse for walking past those boutiques, for recycling those catalogs, for ignoring those really cute boots in the window at Dear Lucy, a most excellent Church St., Burlington, shoe store. "I can't buy anything." That's what I find myself saying. As though some external force has been imposed on me. Huh. Imagine you have a real passion for a particular food--say, chocolate. But one day, you develop an allergy to it. And so when you see that nice chunk of Cadbury, or even Hershey's, it's not even an option. You simply can't eat it. Do you miss it? Sure. But you don't have a choice. I have taken choice away from myself. Again: huh. I mean, I made the choice to do so, right?

I am now caught in a complete existential pretzel knot.

I was talking with one of Betsy's friends about this (after Betsy brought it up over dinner. I'm not planning to make a habit of sharing this adventure with everyone I meet). I was telling her about an anti-hero hero of mine, Eustace Conway. Eustace was the subject of a wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert ("Eat, Pray, Love") book that came out in 2002, "The Last American Man." He is the owner of a beautiful 100 or so acres in North Carolina's High Country, where I used to live. His land, which is called Turtle Island, is carefully preserved, a pristine stretch in the midst of ridiculous gated communities that dot the Blue Ridge Mountains and separate holler from holler. Eustace is a staunch conservationist of sorts who uses his land as a classroom to teach sustainable living. Eustace says that the politically correct mantra of "Reduce, reuse, recyle" doesn't go far enough, that we need to add two more R's: "refuse and reconsider." If we don't have the object to begin with, we don't have to reduce, reuse or recycle it. Of course, this doesn't work for all objects, but geez-it sure does for clothes. And various household items like Tupperware and bookcases. And the pretty things I see in a craft gallery that might look nice in my living room...except I like supporting artists. Hutch! Shari! Can you, my downsizing heroes, help me out here?

Back in the pretzel knot. Damn.

I do just want to say that there is no truth to the rumor that Zappos stock has plummeted since my first post on this blog. There are still plenty of good folks out there who are shopping for perfectly good reasons. I, however, will not be one of them until February 2. And who knows? Maybe my boot jones will have disappeared. Till then, I'll keep on this particular adventure. Adventure? As a character in "Orange is the New Black" says, "'Adventure' is just hardship with an inflated sense of self-importance." And this isn't really 'hardship,' is it? It's just, to paraphrase Julia Roberts in "Notting Hill", "A girl, standing in front of her closet, asking it to forgive her."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Plan: Closing off the Closet

I will be the first to admit: this is a first-world problem. I have a lot of stuff. To be more specific, I have a lot of clothes. While I don't think of myself as particularly over-the-top in this regard (like the colleague I once had who bragged that she never wore the same outfit twice in an academic year, and had the stuffed closets throughout her townhouse to prove it), I do find it a little disconcerting to have more than a couple of closets...and dressers...full of clothing, and then, to buy something new just because I feel like it. I'm not a couture shopper--never spend a ridiculous amount on an item like the ones sold in the boutique section of Nordstrom. I appreciate the beauty and quality of that $600 twinset, but harbor no desire for it. And I'm not really a bargain shopper. I've been in one TJ Maxx in my whole life and didn't much like it (it was disorganized. I like being able to find things in a store). I don't like outlet shopping and believe outlet malls are the retail equivalent of Keystone Beer, the cheap stuff my students drink because they don't care about quality when they're 19. I'm a middle-of-the-road kind of girl who likes interesting, good quality clothing that fits well.

But lately, I've grown uncomfortable with the volume of things in my closet(s). I shop as a social experience (hmm; that does make the online thing hard to explain) and as a distraction. The result is that I end up with way more than I need, and now, at this point in my life, way more than I want. I suspect I am not alone in this. I buy something new, feel a little remorse, and try and alleviate both the remorse and the closet pressure by putting something in "the bag." "The bag" is the always-present shopping bag into which my ill-fitting, boring, or recently-replaced items go, which then goes to the the Goodwill box down the street. Some of those items performed well for me, but others? I never should have bought them in the first place. In fact, I would venture to guess that I could say that about almost everything I've bought in the last six months: I never should have bought it in the first place. Not to say I haven't really liked, and worn, some things, but really? Did I need another pair of black pants? Another dressy top for work? Another pair of boots (my boot collection is, I will admit, a bit out of control)?

So I decided I needed an intervention, and that I could provide it myself in the form of a commitment made public. That's what I'm doing here on this blog. I am committing to six months of purchasing nothing in the clothing/shoe category. Between August 1, 2013 and February 1, 2014, I pledge to not buy a single item of clothing, a single shoe, a single piece of outerwear. I am not doing this out of any desire to save the world or chasten anyone other than myself. I just want to know if I have the wherewithal to not purchase things just because I like them. The timing is intentional: we are, all of us, conditioned at the cellular level to buy back-to-school clothes when the first cool nights of autumn approach. And when you work on a campus, as I do, that conditioning is reinforced by one's immediate surroundings in a serious way. And by going through January, I will also have to pass up the great post-Christmas sales that are often all the justification I need to get a new sweater, or new coat. So August to February should provide a fair window of testing my willpower.

What's in it for me? Less stuff, obviously. More money in my savings account. And hopefully a greater awareness of how ridiculously lucky I am to do this as an exercise in self-restraint and not as a survival strategy: how fortunate I am to not have to make a choice between clothes and food, or shoes and rent. To seal the deal I'm making with myself, I will give some of that savings to Goodwill in the form of cash ($100 per month of clothes-shopping celibacy).

All you have to do is help hold me accountable by reading my occasional posts as I muse on the acquisitive, materialistic culture we live in, and just how steeped in it I am. Knowing you're reading, and that I have to 'fess up should I backslide, will help me say no to the new boots that will start showing up in shoe stores in a couple of months. Boots. mmmm. I love boots. But I don't need them! So off I go. Stay tuned.