Dear DC,

An open letter to the fashionably-challenged.

Dear DC,

I’ve noticed you struggle to dress yourself effectively lately, and I thought rather than cursing the damned darkness, I could light this candle: a weekly blog briefing on some simple steps and guidelines you can use toward making good dressing–and shopping–decisions.

This week’s tip:


A few things men need to accept about shopping for clothes:

1. Not everything is going to look right on you
2. You are a different size at every store
3. Your clothes have a huge impact on how people see you

People who work in retail know that if they can get you into a fitting room to try stuff on, you’re exponentially more likely to leave their store with a bag and a receipt. That is, until they meet me: I am the guy who pulls one of everything off the rack (with some exception, true) and takes it al back to the fitting room. Why? Because if I didn’t:

1. I’d probably buy some really ugly and ill-fitting things
2. I’d never take any risks with color, styles, and fits

Having worked in retail, I can say that one of the great gender divides involves fitting rooms. Frankly, women use them; men don’t. Women take loads of options in; men take 1 or 2. I think this is because men tend to shop for an item, like “I need a pair of jeans, so I’ll go by jeans,” while women may go to the mall with a similar agenda, but are more likely to shop for outfits rather than pieces.

The fitting room is the greatest thing ever. I’ve saved myself countless dollars by not buying the wrong thing, and I’ve taken some calculated risks by trying on ugly things that actually look good with a body inside of them.

If something does not fit in the store, I do not buy it! I do not tell myself it will shrink in the wash/can be stretched out on a rack/can be hemmed or pinned or tacked. I’ve learned from experience it’s better not to buy something than to wind up carting it off to Goodwill after just one or two wearings.

You should try multiple sizes of things on to make sure you’re fitting yourself correctly. In some stores I am an XL shirt, unless it is short sleeved, in which case I am an L or an M. Sometimes I’m a L shirt, sometimes nothing fits me right. I can’t shop at Old Navy–nothing fits me there (I’ve tried; I like being frugal).

No matter what your body looks like, clothes that fit you correctly are the single most important consideration when getting dressed.

As we take this journey together, DC, I’ll return again and again to fit as our touchstone for making good fashion decisions. Until then, your homework: go try something on. Try on something you think looks ugly on the rack! You might just be surprised.

Feeling My Age?

Over the weekend I enjoyed a lovely brunch with a poet friend here in DC (where I got to have aebleskiver–one of the few ethnic treats of my childhood!). Over the course of our meandering conversation, we talked about what it meant to feel old.

“I was just thinking recently about how no matter how old I am, I feel old,” I told her. I expected her to reciprocate the sentiment.

“Not me,” she said. “When I was in my thirties I had so much energy, and it stopped all of a sudden. I do feel like a different person now.”

Since our talk I’ve been thinking about this because

a) I’ve continued to feel old
b) I’ve continued to feel tired

I had to remind myself that I spent seven years living on college campuses, and that for the last three of those years, I lived with 18-year-olds. Hundreds of them. I lived with them, then I taught them in comp and creative writing classes, and then I spent the next four years working on their campus, surrounded by them.

For all intents and purposes, I spent roughly the first 13 of my adult years completely surrounded by 18-year-olds, deprived of adult contact and conversation, except among colleagues.

Although it’s not much time between, say, 18 and 25, the mental distance is vast. I watched young adults make the same mistakes I made, had conversations in which they said to me the exact same crazy/stupid/arrogant things I said in my own youth.

More than that, they saw me as old. They weren’t able to distinguish much between me and some of the regular tenured faculty, for example. I was pretty much a generic “grown-up.” I had a “real life,” whatever that meant. Bills, I suppose–a car payment.

It reminds me of an encounter I had at my Target Greatland. My cashier, a girl in her late teens, had been awkwardly talking to an older man. I took his age to be about 45. As he left, she rolled her eyes. “God!” she complained. “He always flirts with me. It’s so gross–he’s, like, thirty.” She laughed and looked at me. I must have had a shocked look on my face; she dropped her laughter and silently scanned my items.

The Death of Shopping

Well, sort of.

My friend Chad recently invited me to join a service called Shop It To Me. The service is like a personal shopper, allowing you to select various brands of clothing and accessories you like. It generates a weekly (or biweekly) email that collects sale items at various retailers based on your preferences, turning them into clickable links in your email that take you right to the item’s page.

I don’t think it’s an overshare to tell you I’ve already purchase 2 pairs of Calvin Klein underwear because it came right into my inbox. (If you want an invitation to Shop It to Me, let me know, because I get special credit for that!)

In a related observation, iTunes has totally stripped me of my desire to enter a music store. Not only can I directly download about 99% of what I’d want to buy, iTunes will be kind enough to alert me when artists I like or have previously purchased release something new. I use that all the time. iTunes also lets me “pre-order” new albums coming out–in actuality this is a dubious service because I generally get no tangible benefit by doing so (occasionally a pre-order only track, but rarely), except that iTunes will automatically download that album on its day of release so I don’t have to try to remember to click it.

But I’m in the iTunes store every Tuesday anyway to flip through the new releases. To go a step further, the iTunes program itself now features the “Genius” app, which will generate playlists for me when I select just one song, picking and choosing other tracks that are “compatible” with my selection. It’s a neat trick. Genius will also tell me (surprise, surprise) what other tracks I can buy by that artist in the iTunes store or (again) identify music I might like based on liking that one track or artist.

Amazon’s been doing this with books for a long time, which I’m sure you all know. It’s seeping into our culture all over the place–providing the highest levels of service that most retail workers are loathe to provide on a person-to-person basis. And let’s face it: I’m a service-oriented person. I drive 6 miles out of my way to go to a grocery store where the employees look me in the eye and say hello, or answer my questions with words instead of gestures.

Shopping as we know it will radically change. I don’t think this will ever replace the mall, but it will change how we think about the mall. As an oddly-shaped person (I prefer to think of myself a “unconventional”: my lower chest is “medium” in width and “large” in length, while my shoulders, arms, and neck are “extra-large,”–or “unbelievably huge,” as one of my friends called my neck recently), I’ll always have to try things on before I buy. My waist is “medium” but my butt is “large.” I’m also too cheap to tailor, so I grin and bear, or buy a whole bunch of stuff in every color when it fits.

All of this serves me, though, since I’m not a huge fan of leaving my house. Unless I’m pointed at the mall. In which case, heaven.

Success in the Barter Economy

My poet readers will agree that the barter system is one of our primary business transactions: we publish a poem, we get a copy of the journal; we publish a book, we get some free copies in lieu of an advance; we want to buy someone else’s book, we offer to trade our own.

Although I do plunk down a good chunk of coin on book purchases, I prefer to barter for them for two reasons: first, my books do no good sitting on a shelf in my living room. I’d rather they be out in the world, in someone’s hands–even if that means they’re likely to end up on the shelf in a second-hand bookstore. Secondly, I know that the majority of my readers are other poets, and the best way to get to know other poets, as well as to stay current with what’s happening, is to get and read as many books as possible.

I’m grateful to all the writers who’ve swapped books with me over the years. My library has steadily grown and I’ve grown too, courtesy of their work, the worlds they’ve evoked, their turns of phrase.

Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to trade some consulting work for free physical training. OMG! I jumped at it. I’ve always wanted a trainer but I am too cheap to part with the money for it. But it’s easy for my workout routine to pleateau, so I’m eager to get someone else’s expertise into my life in a way that’s meaningful for both of us.

My boyfriend also uses the barter system in his own work, trading haircuts and product for Mona Via, airline tickets, “gourmet” candles, discounts at all sort of places and events. One of his clients even gave him her huge flat screen TV when she had to move out of state. Gave. In thanks for all his great work.

Are you drifting toward the barter system? How’s it working for you? Please do not answer if you are a character from Requiem for a Dream.

An Open Letter to Giant Foods

Dear Giant,

When I first moved to Maryland, there you were, right across the street from my apartment building, hulking among the Caribou Coffee and 24-hour CVS. I thought, what luck to have found you there, and so close. I dreamed of walking to you, my arms empty, and returning home with an abundance of individually-wrapped snack foods, ice cream cakes, and other novelties. I imagined fresh celery at any time.

But the reality was different, Giant. You were cold, distant, unresponsive. When I first shopped you, your staff were reticent. When I once asked where the pepperoni was, I was asked to wait there for a moment. While the meat department man went to look, I glanced around, hoping to see a little pepperoni somewhere. A little pepperoni in a logical place isn’t too much to ask, Giant. It really isn’t. And then, looking back, I saw the man I’d asked talking and laughing with another employee and another customer. He was clearly not on the pepperoni case. And that was the tip of the iceberg.

You were under construction and things were messy. You asked me to pardon your dust while you got ready to serve me better, but my expectations were already low and still unmet. Your produce was sad, wilted. Your V-8 aisle was consistently bare. And where was the pepperoni? I still don’t know, even after these three months.

So I broke up with you Giant. Maybe you didn’t notice, so wrapped up were you in your makeover and facelift and new logo. I snuck behind your back and drove the ten extra blocks to the Safeway, which was dirtier and in a scarier neighborhood, but the people there were slightly kinder to me, which is saying very little, but in this case is saying something. And there I found the special items I was yearning for, like bottled minced garlic and V-8 and bread with extra protein and yes, they even had pepperoni there, Giant, right where I could see it.

But then I could see that you had changed, Giant. You had adopted new brand colors–yellow, purple, green. Bright, festive hues. I thought, this new wardrobe might be the start of something. So, tentatively, I went back to you. I went back to you and stayed to the shadows; I knocked on the melons ever so quietly. I even bought a ready-made quiche one night when I needed a quick meal, and you were there for me, Giant, just like I needed. You were stocked in V-8, you had fat free yogurt on special.

But tonight, Giant, things went south again. I went to you for cilantro–citrusy, tangy cilantro–and there was none. No fresh cilantro, no cilantro paste in the convenient tubes (my preference for the turkey chili with cilantro cream recipe). When I asked your produce man if you had cilantro, he was walking away from me. He didn’t. He barely looked at me as he shook his head, No. I said, “NO CILANTRO?” And perhaps I sounded a bit like a crazy person then, Giant, but honestly! Who doesn’t carry cilantro! It’s an important ingredient in many kinds of cooking, not just Mexican and Tex-Mex but other kinds as well. He didn’t respond and kept his back to me as he walked off. Fuming, I wanted to yell out to my fellow customers, “Who doesn’t carry f—ing cilantro?!” but I stayed quiet, Giant. I held my tongue.

Continuing to shop, I tried to find pinto beans. They were not in the “American” bean aisle where we keep all of the “American” canned vegetables and “traditional” beans. There were canned carrots, canned peas, canned asparagus, god—even canned artichoke hearts and canned beets—but no pinto beans. Yet, you had plenty of collard greens and “southern style” pinto beans on hand, didn’t you, Giant? Didn’t you?

So I did the only thing I could think of. I went to the “Hispanic Foods” aisle, which shares shelf space with “Asian Foods” and “Rice dishes” that come in a box. Giant, I want you to know something. First, the Mexican diet consist of more than just tortillas, horchata, brightly-colored sodas in bottles, and seventy-five different varieties of bean. But you wouldn’t know that. And there are more producers of Mexican food than Goya.

There are many other options. You have no Herdez salsa. I mean, really! But, it’s a specialty item and I can get over it. I mean, it’s actually Mexican and everything.

And then the true offense occurred. What did I see among the bottled spices, by the cardamom, the cinnamon, and the caraway seeds? Dried Cilantro Leaves. DRIED CILANTRO LEAVES. While it’s an absolute travesty to cook with them, it proved something. It proved that you were lying to me, Giant!

I was ready to give up on you forever, Giant. I was thinking of even driving the six miles out to the Superfresh that’s right by the Chipotle and the PetSmart and the Target Greatland, which is my preferred Target anyway, and I was ready to forget about you, even when I’m drunk and needing a frozen pizza, I wasn’t even going to go back to you. That’s how very serious I was.

But I want you to know something, Giant. I let you win. At the checkouts, I saw this woman working. I’ve seen her before. She always smiles, works quickly, chit chats. I wanted her to be the way I said good bye to you. I wanted to give you the chance to make it right.

And Christina–that’s her name–Christina really did. She erased all of my bad experiences with you in under three minutes. She was pleasant, she was kind. She scanned a stray coupon she had on her counter that matched something I bought, saving me 50 cents. She asked me about Arizona. When I said I’d only lived here for three months, she said, “Welcome!” And she meant it.

I may not spend a lot of money each week, Giant—I’m only one man—but tonight, my $80 was for Christina. My Weight Watchers yogurt, my ground turkey, my frozen peas, my bread, my sugar-free dark chocolate Jell-O pudding snacks—all of it, all of that profit you made off of me, that belongs to Christina.

Hold on to her, Giant. She’s just about the only good thing you’ve got going for you.

Charlie Jensen

Update on Boo

Also, I got these books, which I tucked into my carryon and read on the plane:

Now You’re the Enemy, James Hall
BLOOM, last winter’s issue.

The first place I went when I had free time in Manhattan: H&M.
Why? Because I’m a frugal Scandinavian!
I bought jeans.