Shopping? Let Me Grab My Laptop!

When I received a gift of money recently, my first impulse was to grab my laptop and shop online. Maybe there are some summer tops on sale. Wait. What? I’m going to shop online despite having a stack of 30% off and $10 off coupons from local department stores? Even though I might have to pay shipping charges? Um, yeah. For me, online clothes shopping is more fun than in-store shopping.

 

It wasn’t always this way. A long time ago, in a land far away, when my sister and I accompanied my mother on shopping trips to department stores, it was a fun excursion (for us, anyway). We all had to change out of our grubby around-the-house clothes and into something more presentable. There was a saleslady and cash register in every department. She’d help you find another color and bring the item to your dressing room—so my mother didn’t have to get completely dressed again or send my sister and me on a mission to fetch another size. Sometimes Mom would treat us to Cokes in the store’s coffee shop, while she had a cup of coffee.

Fast forward to today. On the rare occasion when I shop in-store at places like Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney, or Herberger’s, my chances of finding a sales clerk are slim. Plenty of times, I’ve zigzagged through the store before I spot one several departments away. And this bored underpaid person doesn’t look too happy to see me with my question about another size.

To be fair, I have an uneasy relationship with sales clerks. The ones I remember from my girlhood often looked down their nose at me and my teenaged girlfriends as we flipped through the racks. When I was older and clearly a serious shopper, often a saleslady’s “help” turned into pushy upsell.

Today, if I want a snack to fuel my shopping, I can buy bottled water and a candy bar at the checkout. Not exactly the same as sipping a leisurely Coke while spinning on stools at the counter with my sister and mom.

I do get that customers like me helped change the retail experience. We don’t come because it’s no fun, and it’s no fun because we don’t come.

Nevertheless, if I want to shop for clothes these days, I’m most likely to be sprawled on my bed in my nightgown. There I can happily scroll through several store websites at once, checking for clearance items and considering the possibilities. Maybe the blue patterned one. No wait, what about the green one? And my coffee’s near at hand.

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Thanksgiving Almost Gets Lost in Translation

Tutoring adult immigrants in English invariably leads to explaining American culture. Since it’s November, we have been discussing Thanksgiving. We talk about the pilgrims being hungry because there was a bad harvest. Our textbook includes illustrations of Native Americans introducing the pilgrims to local foods. I describe a traditional Thanksgiving meal. When I ask if they and their families will celebrate Thanksgiving, most of them shrug. They find it hard to relate to pilgrims or our Thanksgiving rituals.

It isn’t because the immigrants aren’t grateful. They are. Grateful to be in the U.S. Grateful for opportunities and the ability to live in relative peace.

Traditional Thanksgiving foods don’t make sense to my students.

It’s hard for my students to understand why roast turkey is the centerpiece of a celebratory meal. They are familiar with chicken seasoned with cinnamon, coriander, and tumeric in a tagine. Or chicken and vegetables made with garam masala. Chicken spiced with hot chilies and added to posole soup. Chicken stir-fried with ginger, pea pods, and bok choi. But slabs of dry, tasteless turkey?

Many native-born Americans aren’t excited about turkey either, as evidenced by endless recipes centered on making it palatable. A whole industry (how-to articles, turkey hotlines, menu planning and recipe articles) has sprung up to help cooks successfully prepare this old-fashioned meal.

It’s hard to connect with a tradition that began almost 400 years ago.

Our lives are very different from those of the pilgrims. For native-born Americans and immigrants alike, the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is just a picture in a book. The pilgrims’ reality that a poor harvest could lead to starvation is only theoretical to most Americans. We associate hunger with running out of money before month-end.

Except for farmers and ranchers, most of us don’t harvest anything. We don’t kill the animals or fish we eat unless we’ve chosen to hunt and fish for sport. Those of us who grow vegetables do so because we enjoy the work. When we do raise the food we eat, it’s a choice, not a necessity.

Going into a bog to gather sour red berries for a side dish is also hard to imagine. The pilgrims must have been pretty hungry to go to the trouble, especially since cranberries require a lot of sugar to be edible, and oranges weren’t readily available.

Squash may be the only part of the meal that my students can relate to. Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and some Central Americans eat squash. They don’t usually cook it until it’s mushy, flavor it with sugar, nutmeg, and cloves and bake it into a pie, though. Aside from foodies, most native-born Americans wouldn’t bother harvesting and processing pumpkin for pie either. Pumpkin is something that comes in a can and costs less than $2.00. Why work that hard?

Although the connection to pilgrims and the foods they ate is tenuous, native-born Americans are willing to eat roast turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie, because we grew up with them and they’re traditional. However, that menu is unfamiliar and unappealing to my students.

I reduce Thanksgiving to the basics to help my students identify with it.

I tell them that the pilgrims were immigrants, too. Life in America was harder than they expected. They were hungry. The people who lived here—Native Americans—helped the pilgrims. The pilgrims learned to eat odd foods so they wouldn’t starve. It’s good to gather with family and friends, eat good food (whatever that may be), and give thanks for what you have.

We all agree that we have many things in our lives to be grateful for.

The WordSisters are grateful for you.

Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

How much longer will bookcases be prized as places where knowledge and inspiration reside? For hundreds of years people have built everything from simple pine shelves to the finest mahogany and oak bookcases to house their treasured books. But ebooks are replacing paper books. Instead of paging through a book, more of us turn to the Internet for information and open iPads or Kindles for the stories we love. I began pondering this cultural shift when I emptied my bookcases before moving to a smaller home last year.

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Deciding what to discard was difficult. I love my books. No, really. I love my books. When I picked up each one, I felt a tug of recognition and pleasure that quickly turned into a pang of sadness. As the afternoon wore on, I was knee-deep in books and accumulated nostalgia.

My books represented my intellectual history, and therefore, my own history. The philosophy textbooks and literary classics came from my undergraduate days. During graduate school I added feminist poetry, stories, essays, and novels. Because they were scarce in the late 1970s, my friends and I shared them like contraband. The ideas I found in those pages challenged me to reconsider many of my beliefs.

Some of my books are novels by authors I just love (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Simon Mawer, Aravind Adiga—I could go on and on). Their stories transported me to other times and cultures and enriched me with insights that I wouldn’t have had any other way. How could I let go of these old friends?

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At least a dozen of the books are by authors I know personally. Pamela Gemin. Cynthia Kraack. George Rabasa. Sherry Roberts. The anthologies that published my essays are also stored there.

Essay collections by Marion Winik, Ellen Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White and others mark my ongoing effort to learn the craft of writing personal essays.

I have shelves of books on writing—from the grammar handbook I used in my first teaching job to books about the craft of writing memoir. I have books about how to get published and how to promote a book. P1040205

After a while, discarding the physical books became easier. I thought about how long it had been since I opened some of them and realized they meant something once, but no longer. I reminded myself that if I needed to reread a certain Wilfred Owen poem, I could find it online.

I needed to let go of the intellectual fantasy that one day a visiting friend would look at my books and say, “So what do you think of Kant’s The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics?” or ask “How has Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence? influenced you?” When friends visit, we hang out in the kitchen—no one but family ever sees my office. And really? I know who I am and what ideas formed me—without these emblems to remind me.

Besides, there are plenty of books that I love but don’t own. Long ago I realized that I couldn’t possibly own every book I wanted to read. Many of my favorite books belong to the public library or to friends.

These days, I keep many of my books on my iPad—my own personal and very portable bookcase. So many books in such a small space! I can take them anywhere. I never have to be without a good book.

At Christmas, when I received hardcover books from my sons I was surprised—I assumed they would give me e-books. I’m delighted with their gifts, but I was startled to realize that my paradigm has shifted.

Today, I have one foot in the paper world and one foot in the digital world. I’ve pared down my collection of books, and it makes me happy to think of someone else enjoying the ones I gave away. There still are plenty of books I’m not prepared to part with. But going forward, I will have fewer paper books. My future grandchildren may view paper books and wooden bookcases as quaint artifacts and that’s OK.

I’ve come to realize that what I really love are stories and ideas. They can reside on the page or on the screen.