I went to the grocery store

What I did: grocery shopping at DeCicco’s in a nearby town.

What I wore: tall boots, black Pikeur full-seat breeches, turquoise polo shirt, blood-stained gray hoodie that I bought last year when I went to Miami without workout clothes, scowl. I don’t know where the blood stains came from.

What I did beforehand: riding lesson.

Who went with me: rambunctious groups of teens from the local high school.

What I needed to buy: powdered sugar, quart-size Ziploc bags, something for dinner.

Why I chose this store: there is an excellent dry cleaner in the same strip mall. The uninspiring dry cleaner we’ve been using in Bedhead Hills has a dirty, disorganized store.

Where I parked: on the second lane from the south edge of the lot, between a Toyota SUV and a Hyundai that had backed in.

Things that were sad: the grocery store always makes me sad.  Our nation’s last telecommunications bill was passed in 1996, before smartphones. Kids are graduating college under staggering amounts of debt and there aren’t any decent jobs. Our elected officials haven’t the courage to enact legislation to limit man-made greenhouse gases. The gun lobby has made even our elementary schools dangerous. Women in rural areas lack access to reproductive health care. Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy in American households. I am 53 and can’t get anything but a polite rejection when I apply for jobs. I’ve reached the point in my life when sometimes I feel I have no purpose. My parents died in their early 60s and I’m wasting my 50s feeling sorry for myself.

Things that were funny: at least I didn’t cry today.

Things that were not funny: “The glass ceiling is shattered, girls!” is a lie. You still make a lot less than your male peers. Your success is still mostly determined by how wealthy your parents were. Don’t let your patronizing acquaintances tell you how to feel about yourself.

What it is: where limp hopes and forgotten dreams go to die.

Who should see it: are you hungry, because dinner won’t make its fucking self.

What I saw on the way home: the dead bugs and road grit smeared with the first pass of my windshield wipers as it began to rain. But I summoned my energy after putting the groceries away and walked the dogs in the rain. The woods were very quiet. I was thinking about how different the world still is for women, and I heard a rustling. A big deer sprang away, more frightened of us than we had a right to be frightened of it; I was filled with adrenaline, thinking, “It might have been a coyote, or a golfer looking for a ball, or a varsity swimmer from Stanford, who the media should call a rapist.” 

A New Sewing Machine?

Back in October, about six months ago, I was working on a quilt called “Moby Dick,” and my sewing machine broke. I hadn’t had any problems with it in a couple of years at that point, and felt that the need for repair was understandable, given the punishment it was taking.
I do free-motion machine quilting, where you drop the feed dogs and move the quilt in a meandering pattern as the needle sews. It is a challenge to keep the stitches the same length as you make curves, and it’s tricky to get the thread tension right. Mostly, it’s murder on motors. I waited to hear from the shop, but had to call them after about ten days. They claimed they had tried to reach me, maybe on my other number; I don’t have another number. Anyway, said the grumpy woman, my machine needed a new motor. I ok’d the work and chalked it up to being a quilting bad-ass.
And the thing didn’t still seem right after the motor replacement. It sounded different. There were new tension problems. When it seized up in the middle of quilting Sunday night, I struggled to even get the needle to come up out of the work.
I went to call the grumpy woman at the shop where the repair was done, and the number was no longer in service.
I found another place that services Bernina machines, and despite my car’s navigation system losing me in the worst parts of Poughkeepsie, I got it dropped off without incident. The drive home inspired me to think about finding a new sewing machine with a heavy-duty motor, just for tackling the punishment of free-motion quilting.
I did some research online, but mostly was frustrated. You can read advertisements, or blog posts about very specific models people own, but that high-level question of which machine is going to be able to take it? Not really addressed. And then there is the question of feel. One woman raves about the Janome and the next gave hers away. You have to sit down at a machine, put your hands on a quilt sandwich, and move it under the needle to know.
I found a sewing machine shop in New York City about a 15-minute walk from the apartment and gave them a call. I asked if they sold the Juki TL-2010Q. It seemed like the machine I was looking for. The man on the phone said they did. I asked if they had one in the store that I could try.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “He have a used one, and you can try it, and we can sell you a new one, in the box.”
I canceled my plans for the next day, and called the dog-sitter.
Winter is lingering in New York City. The sky persists in a bright gray-white overcast. The smokers on the street smell especially bad; they dally on the narrow sidewalks of Hell’s Kitchen, carelessly pointing their burning embers out towards other people. Greasy puddles linger where the sidewalks dip to meet the crosswalks, drowning cigarette butts, leaves, and disintegrating food wrappers.
My route to the shop has to avoid all the Lincoln Tunnel crap, and the Port Authority. I’ve forgotten to wear gloves. Block long lines of buses spew diesel exhaust. Concrete dust rises from the jackhammers of a constructions site, flimsily encased by a green painted plywood fence. People are stalking to work, collars up.
The shop is smaller than a residential suburban kitchen. It is crammed with sewing notions. A few new machines are out, but they aren’t plugged in or set up. One is still mummified in plastic. A large machine built into a table sits in front of the counter, taking up about half of the available floor space. The young man behind the counter and another man in a coverall with his name on it are conversing in a language I don’t recognize. This is how it is in New York. I can’t tell if the man in the coverall is a customer or another employee, but they aren’t talking to me until they are finished talking to each other. I wait.
Finally, I am noticed. I explain that I called yesterday, that I came down to the city specially to try a Juki TL-2010Q.
“I don’t think we have one of those.”
“I spoke to someone on the phone yesterday,” I say, peeved. “He told me you have a used one that I can try.”
He finds one on the repair shelf. It belongs to someone else, and has a note on it, describing the needed repair.
Back when my husband owned a Saab, I talked him out of getting a turbo model because whenever we went to the shop it was full of turbos. I assumed they broke a lot. Maybe it was really because they were all turbos. Who knows? They don’t even make Saabs anymore.
“We’re a small shop,” says the guy. Like I don’t know. “We don’t keep things like that in stock,” he admits. “Write down your name and number and I’ll have the owner call you about it when he gets in.”
The owner will never call. I don’t know why I bother to write down my actual name and actual number.  They lie on the phone and they lie to your face. This is what it is like in New York City.
Detail: Moby Dick, the quilt
By midday, the shop hasn’t called. I go to City Quilters and get a gentle salespitch about the full line of Berninas. All the Berninas. The latest Berninas. They have computer screens, and hundreds of decorative stitches. I have a Bernina; it is in the shop. It has some decorative stitches; I rarely use them. If you had a platter with a turkey painted on it, you might get it out once a year for Thanksgiving, but if you didn’t have it, you’d use another, plain platter. Those decorative stitches are, to me, like that decorative turkey platter.
I sit with a woman who is going to give me a demo on a top of the line Bernina. She pushes the buttons on the multiple screens of embroidery features. I am quiet. I do not care about embroidery features.
“What kind of sewing do you do?” she asks, as I drift away.
“Mostly quilts. Lots of free-motion quilting,” I say.
I show her a picture of “Moby Dick.”
She offers to show me the Sweet Sixteen, from Handi Quilter, a sit-down, long-arm free-motion quilting machine. Heavy-duty motor. It’s even American made.
Sweet Sixteen from Handi Quilter
There is a sample piece of a quilt sandwich in the machine, black, with variegated thread running through. With some gentle prompting I try it. It’s exactly like the feel of what I have been doing on my Bernina, but because the machine is set in the table facing me, I can put one hand on each side of the needle and move the quilt. I make a meandering pattern, smaller and smaller. It comes out exactly as I intended. I am very quiet.

It will be delivered in about a week.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of Fresh Direct

People like to say that you can get anything delivered in Manhattan. I think they say this to avoid saying something more important: getting stuff into your apartment is a huge pan in the ass.
My car (beloved replacement of a previous car) lives in a near-ish garage, rides up an elevator to a grubby and cramped parking spot, and costs as much to keep in the city as anyone might pay for an apartment in someplace less ridiculous. Driving anywhere around here is almost always unnecessary, and almost always fraught with peril, so I see my car once a week or less, when I go to the country to ride horses. For the purposes of running errands, I schlepp like other New Yorkers and I buy things and have them delivered.
I can carry four very full bags of groceries if I can pack them myself in canvas bags and use my folding luggage cart. Grocery checkers in New York City realize that those of us who come with bags and carts of our own expect to pack ourselves, so the smart ones stand back and let us do it. The walk home is tricky, though, since there are so many kinds of pavement in my neighborhood (cracked, smooth, asphalt, granite, old granite, cobblestones) and then there are all the manholes. Finally there is a high curb on my block that must be navigated. Usually, I have the whole thing tip over at some point.
One expensive grocery store will deliver everything except the frozen food for a minor fee, though they often have a five hour backlog, which requires planning ahead by half a day. If I can plan ahead by a bit more, I can order my groceries from FreshDirect.com, and they will be delivered to the counter of my kitchen for the same fee and will arrive within a pre-arranged window of my choosing, about 1 ½ hours long.
The good things about Fresh Direct are centered on the convenience of it.  You can work from a list; you can search on an item by name from the comfort of your chair.  They remember that you like Newman’s Own Pink Lemonade and show it to you whenever you ask for lemonade. When eggs arrive broken, you send an email and they give you credit immediately. They have most of the staples you might need, and many of the cleaning supplies.
The bad things about Fresh Direct are many little things.  Because you do not choose your produce, your eight yams may range in size and shape making them hard to peel and handle.  A couple of your pears will be misshapen and unappealing. They choose huge bananas, and you can’t ask for smaller ones.  Since you do not actually see the items you are buying, the packages of bacon may be just the sort of all-white, fatty, broken slices that you would set aside while you looked for pink ones.  Quantities are sometimes not apparent, so when you casually click on four non-fat vanilla yogurts, they might be 32 ounce containers instead of the expected 8 ounce containers.  How many jalapenos is ¼ pound? Fragile things like bananas come carefully wrapped in a layer of plastic foam packing material which was probably never intended for use on food and certainly doesn’t protect from bruising. Once you’ve bought something a couple of times, the site calls it your “fave” and highlights it with a star, even if it really isn’t your “fave.” Eggs are more expensive and often arrive broken.  FreshDirect doesn’t have everything I want (rooibos tea, Shout Color-Catching sheets, organic buttermilk), and while I can request as many items as I want with their handy form, I feel like I’m shouting into a well. Everything comes in cardboard boxes that must be broken down and recycled. 
Things get downright ugly when items are suddenly not available and so are not delivered, leaving you without any Italian sausage when you are making marinara. You do get an email telling you that you will receive credit for the missing items, but at that point you might be so peeved that you have to go out and buy a replacement that you come close to sending an all-caps reply. One night I got an email saying that “due to a power outage your order was cancelled,” and went on to describe the simple steps for placing the same order. As it was, I was leaving town the next day and could not get a new delivery window, so I did fire off an angry email. For my trouble I got a hefty discount.
My biggest problem with shopping for groceries online is that there is no store to walk through, so I consistently forget things I would ordinarily not miss. I want a 3D store, with a tiny 3D shopping-me who can walk the aisles, see the cauliflower and the Rice Chex, and hold the orange juice carton in her hand. 


Despite the mounted NYPD officers who house their horses at a facility in Chelsea and the carriage horses in Central Park, there are no horses in Manhattan. As a horse owner, this meant that moving to New York City was a compromise for me. I drive a long way upstate to ride these days, so I ride less, and this is yet another reason to add to my growing list of things I hate about New York.
No doubt the first humans to ride horses did so without much tack, if any at all. I envision a clever tribe of hunter-gatherers realizing that the nearby horse herd had a few slightly more docile individuals, and though delicious to eat, those slightly more docile individuals made suitable mounts, opening up wondrous new hunting possibilities for the primitive people. Once enlisted to carry home huge carcasses, the domesticated horse made the great leap forward from food to engine. Today, modern America has few true working horses, but not none. Most American horses are kept (at great expense) for the pleasure of their owners.
To ride even casually requires an initial investment in a helmet and boots, so many new riders, like me, go to a tack store before they even take their first horseback riding lesson. What this means is that before even going to the barn the new rider goes shopping. In rural areas, you can find a helmet and riding boots at a feed store. But in a fancy suburb, you can go to a real, fancy tack store.
Back in Seattle, this was Olson’s. You walk in and are immersed in the whole horsey lifestyle. They have all the stuff for horse care (from hoof picks and vet-wrap to pitchforks), but also everything for the rider (attire, boots, and saddles).
Olson’s sold us our first helmets and boots.    Within a few weeks we had also bought breeches (riding pants) and half chaps there.   Even before we were known regulars we were greeted enthusiastically. Eventually we found ourselves treated like very important customers.   Everyone knew our names.
When I bought my first horse, I went with my trainer to Olson’s and she showed me everything I needed to buy; it was a long list.  Later, I would go there for a bottle of hoof oil and leave with a bottle of hoof oil and new clogs.  When a store cultivates a relationship with the customer, you go back for little things, and you order special things from them when you could just as easily go online.
One of the surprising things about moving to North Dreadful last year was discovering a large fancy tack store there. Today, on my way back from the barn, I stopped in for a couple of things. I have been to this tack store a few times; I have made major purchases there. I am never greeted by name.  I don’t think they even notice when I walk in; I always have to ask for help. I usually leave without everything I was looking for, and I never, ever buy anything on impulse.  This store makes me very sad, because it isn’t Olson’s. I miss Olson’s.
Because I had stopped at the tack store, I hit rush hour traffic coming into Manhattan and added another hour to my commute. Next time, I’ll buy whatever I need online.

Barcelona #5: Barcelona 3, Me 0

Finding the zoo was pretty easy. A change of train lines, from the L3 (green) to the L5 (yellow) was required. Emerging from the station we located the Parc de la Ciutadella, where the zoo lives. We found a sign and followed the arrow…to another sign, with an arrow pointing back to the first sign. It was funny. We distracted ourselves by exploring the gorgeous neo-baroque Cascada fountain and laughing at the fact that we could see the fence enclosing the zoo but not the entrance. Settling upon a direction, we circumnavigated the walls of the zoo, emerging at the entrance roughly 100 meters from where we entered the park. When we attempted to buy tickets, we were informed that the “animals are closed at 5,” by a woman who blinked at me furiously, as if to remind me how stupid I am.
My Traveling Companion announced that we needed to go back to the hotel. I insisted on Plan B: we could go to the MUSEU MARÍTIMDE BARCELONA.  One of my books calls it “the most fascinating museum in town.”  Another says, “These royal dry docks are the largest and most complete surviving medieval complex of their kind in the world.”  The third book describes it as “excellent…well worth the visit.”  The fourth, “one of Barcelona’s finest Gothic structures.” Nowhere did it even hint at what we were told when we entered the building, which is that it is closed for renovation for two years.
At this point I had lost all credibility with my Traveling Companion, to the degree that he wanted to take a taxi back to the hotel. I insisted on the subway (having at my advantage the view of the subway station and knowing it was on the L3 (green) line).
I dropped my Traveling Companion at our hotel and told him I was “going shopping” before dinner. Shopping is something I find difficult in all circumstances, and I am no better at it with the anonymity of being a foreigner. I did manage to buy some tights (which I badly need back home but have little need for here), and a pretty lilac linen scarf. I asked clumsily to wear the scarf out of the store despite the fact that linen season is still months away. I had not traveled much more than another block when I realized my mother would have liked it, and it made me sad.
My Traveling Companion suggested dinner in the hotel: a fine idea after a day of failures.  The restaurant is on the roof, with a limited menu and one charming staff member in attendance. I drank local beer and we stuffed ourselves on ham, followed by sandwiches and ice cream. At the end of the meal I asked my Traveling Companion what he thought we should do tomorrow, our second to last day. He suggested the zoo, but with a different Plan B.

Letter to a CEO #2

Ron Johnson, CEO
J.C. Penney
6501 Legacy Drive
Plano, TX 75024
Dear Mr. Johnson,

Congratulations! I understand you were brought on as CEO at J.C. Penney to provide the kind of leadership they need to achieve a transformation from being a drab also-ran in retail to a fun and stand-out shopping destination.

Like founder James Cash Penney, I believe in treating other people the way that I want to be treated.  I also believe in seeking out the most thoughtfully produced goods for my family: locally sourced and organic, made by workers paid a living wage and in safe conditions.

With this in mind, I want to stand up and applaud your company’s taking on Ellen DeGeneres as a spokeswoman. She is funny, appealing, accessible and warm, and she has worked hard to get where she is today. She has a unique sense of casual style that easily stands for J.C. Penney’s brand. Ellen demonstrates daily that she knows what’s going on with people both in her TV show’s audience and with those of us who follow her on Twitter.
The announcement was met with some anti-gay backlash from the very vocal hate-filled minority of Americans who believe that open homosexuality is something to be feared. I admire your commitment to retaining Ellen as your spokeswoman.  I wish you the best of luck in creating a store where someone like me might shop.

Maggie Russell Berkes
P.O. Box XXX
North Salem NY 10560

Packing Redux

How do you pack for three months of temporary housing? 
I know how to pack a single change of clothes for an overnight trip.  I know what to take for a weekend horse show. I did a pretty good job of packing for four weeks in Italy, even though I needed hiking clothes and things appropriate for touring Italian businesses. 
Bring too much to a temporary apartment means you might not have room for it, and you will certainly get to move it again.  Bring too little and you’ll be dependent on doing laundry.  
If you are going to suggest that I could just go shopping, you have mistakenly started reading this blog and should stop now and go read some other blog about a different person, who likes shopping. 

I think I am allergic to shopping. I understand that a certain amount of shopping is necessary for feeding oneself, and not going around naked.  When I go shopping, it’s because I am missing something, and it’s a specific something and I can tell you exactly what I am looking to buy. The kind of shopping where I go to a store (or even several stores) to look at what they have and see if anything is interesting to me feels like going to a bunch of medical specialists so they can describe the painful procedures they might be able to do to improve me.  My mother loved shopping, and while I love her very much, I have never shared her zeal for “finds,” or for bargains.  
I often catch myself settling for things that are not what I really wanted, like a floral sundress when I wanted black capris, and rushing out of the store with a purchase like it represented a triumph when it really represented a failure. My very specific ideas about exactly what I want are always subverted by my inability to anticipate wardrobe needs, my being oblivious to current fashion trends, and my impatience with not finding exactly what I want in the very first place I looked for it. Even when a shopping trip “goes well,” and my efforts to find “something to wear out to dinner with my husband’s new boss and his wife” yield an appropriate floral sundress (for which I even have a perfectly matching pair of ironic high-heeled shoes and a fancy-buttoned cardigan), I feel like I have betrayed my true nature (and a record of perfect failure). Something must be wrong with the whole outfit. Maybe shoes are no longer ironic when they match. I fret over the expense of a single garment, amortizing the cost over the expected life or anticipated number of uses. If I could arrange to be haunted by my mother, I could put her in charge of my shopping.  I might need to tell her to only buy me black clothes because the other clothes hang unworn (or once-worn) in my closets until such time as I bag them up and give them away.   
So, how do you pack for three months when you do not know what you will be doing every day? Should I assume I’ll do more than walk the dogs on any given day? Will I want to be hip and charming wherever I go so no one knows I’m not really a New Yorker?  
For the dogs and cat I packed their medical records and most of their possessions: toys, t-shirts, jackets, collars, leashes, beds. For the maintenance of household affairs, I brought a batch of the recent bills, school records, immunization records. I brought a few books I thought I might want to read soon.  I packed a suitcase of my riding clothes and stuck them in the tack room of the horse trailer. I brought the unexpired contents of my medicine cabinet.  (My husband carefully collected and brought the expired contents of the medicine cabinet.) 
You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that New York in July would be hotter than Seattle in July.  August may be hotter still. But there is a trick to this, because hot-summer places like New York have something that milder-summer places like Seattle don’t have: ubiquitous, ice-cold air-conditioning. So, as it turns out, you do need some of the Seattle-summer wardrobe (sweaters and jeans) to carry over your arm to the frozen subterranean 
depths of New York restaurants, where the diners are chilled alongside the shrimp cocktails. And you don’t have to worry about forgetting your sweater or leaving it behind, because you sweat so much from the humidity that the sweater will self-adhere to the forearm upon which it has been draped.
Coming from many years in Seattle and hating shopping as much as I do, my summer clothes (pre-move clean-out apocalypse) could be sorted into three categories: 1) tee-shirts and other slob-wear of an unknown age; 2) unflattering and unfashionable clothes that no longer fit; 3) clothes I bought 14 years ago to wear in Hawaii.  
For people who live in a climate that has summer weather, the advent of warm weather would necessitate shopping for new summer clothes. For people like me who live in Seattle and are bad at shopping, this means wearing the slob-wear of an unknown age.
So while a thoughtful and careful person packed for the pets and the household, that same person transformed into the impatient, impulsive I-hate-to-shop person. And then, she packed eight suitcases. 
Eight suitcases were made available to her, and she filled them. One contained shoes. Another contained toiletries.  Two were filled exclusively with clothes on hangers, like skirts and dresses and shirts with buttons. One was fancifully packed with jeans, slob-wear t-shirts, socks and underwear in anticipation of a driving journey of exactly five days.  As it was, we took six days, and I only needed one clean pair of jeans, after the first day, when I got cat diarrhea on my pants.  Better than the full, mid-sized wheelie bag would have been a single empty plastic bag and another with a couple of clean shirts and too many socks and underwear.
When we arrived at the temporary housing, a two-bedroom apartment within walking distance of my husband’s new job, I discovered that he and I had two closets to share, and he had already filled both halfway.  His reasonable assumption was that we would share them both. Unfortunately, an unreasonable person had packed eight suitcases, and half of two closets would not suffice. I audibly derided his choice until he moved out of one closet, which I 
promptly stuffed with clothes from front to back. 
Now I have no room to buy anything new for New York, which is great, because that means I should not go shopping.