Archive for March, 2008

A Mirackulous Shopping Experience

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

It’s not easy and it’s not convenient, but I love shopping at Nordstrom Rack stores.

The location, merchandise, and layout of the store make shopping there a challenge but that’s part of the fun; it brings out the warrior spirit in me. Like last week, when my daughters and I left the store with a blue bag stuffed with four hoodies, three pairs of jeans, two t-shirts, and one dress for them and a jacket for me for a total of $225, I felt downright victorious. I came, I shopped, I conquered.

To understand why I feel this way, I have to explain what the Nordstrom Rack shopping experience is like for us. To start with, every Nordstrom Rack store is at least an hour drive away from where we live so a shopping outing there is not just a casual undertaking. If I’m going to spend that kind of time and money in gas to get there, you can be certain I’m not going to just breeze through the store, decide there’s nothing that appeals to me and leave. It’s a “take no prisoners” ““ but definitely a cute top or two ““ kind of attitude.

That brings me to the actual shopping: a Nordstrom Rack store has a lot more in common with Wal-Mart than it does with Nordstrom. Stepping into the store; all you see are jam-packed racks of clothing spreading out in front of you as far as the eye can see. There are no displays, mannequins, or partitions to break up the space.

The merchandise is crammed so tightly onto the racks that you almost need a pry bar to separate the hangers to see the front of a shirt. And because the racks themselves are spaced so tightly together, hangers start hooking onto the shopping cart as you try to pass between them which means a fair amount of clothing gets pulled to the floor making the whole place look like an unmade bed.

Like Ross stores, Nordstrom Rack doesn’t stock a range of sizes in a particular item. Almost every shirt or pair of pants is one-of-a-kind haphazardly grouped according to size. That’s why it takes so long to shop there; you can’t look at a group of shirts and then move on, to really shop there means looking through hundreds of pieces one at a time.

From what I’ve described, you’re probably thinking that the shopping at a Nordstrom Rack store has more in common with the torture device than clothing. So why do I keep going back?

Shopping at there has become a mother-daughter bonding experience for me and my daughters. There is no way I would drive to San Leandro or South San Francisco alone just to bargain shop, but when it’s the three of us sharing the experience, it’s a great outing. It started when Valerie and I happened upon our first Rack store in Los Angeles when we were there for one of her gymnastics meets. Once we got over our intimidation at the chaos and volume of merchandise stuffed into the store, we rolled up our sleeves, spent the next three hours plowing through shoes, tops, and jeans and found some great stuff. Though subsequent shopping trips to other Rack stores ““ we’ve now been to six ““ have not always been as productive, we’ve always enjoyed the time together and the sense of a mission accomplished.

Although pawing through the hundreds of one-of-a-kind pieces means that shopping there is a slow process, it also means that the items that we come home with are unique. I told Jennifer that I guarantee that she’ll be the only one at her sixth grade promotion wearing the dress we bought at the Nordstrom Rack in Colma last week. That’s certainly not a promise I could have made if we had bought her a dress at Kohl’s. And Valerie is always on the lookout for clothes with unusual prints and colors that have an artistic flair. On our last visit, she found some shoes that are covered in gold sequins and turquoise jewels that we have dubbed her “Bollywood sneakers.”

When we go to a Nordstrom Rack we have the attitude that somewhere in the store is buried treasure and that we’re not leaving until we find it. And the surprising thing is that we have always been successful. However, we’ve found that we have to be careful at about the two hour point into our shopping; low blood sugar starts impairing our judgment and we start considering buying really bizarre items just because they had once been sold in a regular Nordstrom store. That’s when I can count on Valerie for the truth that a lime green jacket probably isn’t that useful an addition to my wardrobe.

Another reason I like shopping there is because the shoppers themselves cut across all cultural and economic lines. I’m sure the locations of the stores have a lot to do with it, but I’ve heard more different languages spoken in a Nordstrom Rack store than anywhere else. Whether it’s a polished business woman or a Spanish-speaking mother with a bunch of kids, everybody is there looking for better quality merchandise at great price.

Our family is starting to think about where we should go for summer vacation. I’ve heard of families planning their trips around visits to all the major league ballparks ““ except in our case it may be Nordstrom Rack stores. It’s a good thing Steve is happy to drink coffee and draw in his sketchbook while the women in his family shop because we have 43 more stores to tour.

A Gift of Friendship

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

I got jolted last week. And in came in the form of a check.

On Monday night, Steve answered the phone and it was a friend of ours from church asking if he could come over. This struck us as unusual, for one thing it was a weeknight and while we have socialized occasionally with him and his family, we don’t see them outside of church on a regular basis.

Our friend arrived with an envelope in his hand. We sat down in the living room and made small talk but it was obvious that the reason for his visit was in the envelope so we opened it.

Inside was a handwritten note saying that he and his wife knew that our business was struggling and that we had been on their hearts and that they wanted to give us an expression of their love and care. In addition to the note, there was also a check for a significant amount.

Steve and I were speechless as a rush of thoughts flooded our minds. “I can’t believe this”¦this is so unexpected. Oh my gosh, thank you”¦we’re stunned,” was about as articulate as we could be. Our friend jumped in to explain that as they have sensed a need and God has laid it on their hearts, they have helped people around them with financial gifts, whether it is fellow church members, coworkers, or complete strangers. He talked about how God has continued to bless them as they give and that their resources seem to be like the Bible story of Elijah and the widow’s oil ““ they are always replenished.

We talked a little about our situation; 2007 was a tough year for our business (as he obviously already knew) but that our home equity line had provided a cushion during this time. We talked about our fears and frustrations and the lessons we believe God is teaching us through this refining process: dependency on Him and faith in His plan for us. As we’re saying this, we’re both feeling that if this is the case, then why do we feel so uncomfortable about being given this generous gift?

We wanted to say, “Thank you but we can’t accept this,” right then but that would have been completely insensitive. They had not arrived at the decision to give us this gift lightly. Something this significant deserves more consideration so we told our friend we needed some time to pray about it. We each gave him a big hug and he left.

In the days following his visit, I wrestled and prayed with what being given this gift meant to me. Did I think about keeping it? Sure, for a couple of minutes. But arriving at the decision to give it back was easy compared to thinking about why they had given us the gift in the first place.

Out of the many people this generous couple encounters who are struggling financially, why did we seem to be so much in need? We only see them for a few minutes once a week. How did they get a message from us that we are in desperate circumstances? After all, we are healthy, we have a house and cars, we don’t dress too shabbily, and we have a business set up to sell our skills and talents.

The only answer ““ and this is painful to admit ““ is that our faces, attitude, and even posture convey a message that the burden of our financial stress is so heavy that we have lost hope.

That is pretty humbling when I consider myself a Christian. Isn’t it basic to my belief, as our Pastor said in the Easter sermon this morning, that no problem is too big for the same God that raised His son from the dead?

What do I really have to be burdened about? I don’t think anyone would argue that a family’s financial situation shouldn’t be taken seriously. But to put it in health terms, I’m acting like I have terminal cancer when we actually just have the flu.

As the days have passed, the purpose of the gift has become clear. It wasn’t given to us so I could send MasterCard a bigger check this month. It was a very creative way for God to give me a wake-up call to recognize the blessings I do have. To underscore His point, within two days, we got two emails from fellow church members who are truly in need.

We’re getting together with our friend and his wife later this week to return the check and tell them how it blessed our lives in an unexpected way. It truly was a gift.

Honor Thy Mother

Monday, March 17th, 2008

As I wrote in my brief posting last week, Steve and I took the weekend to go see his 84-year-old mother. Although it wasn’t an easy trip, it feels good to have gone.

It had been six months since our last visit and Steve’s sister had recently emailed us that the dementia had gotten worse and there are indications that their mom’s internal systems are beginning to shut down. And though his sister does a great job keeping us up to date on Doris’ condition via emails, there’s no substitute for going in person. We really didn’t know what state we would find her in. I was afraid that she might be like my mother was the last time I saw her before she died ““ unable to speak and incredibly frail.

Because we weren’t even sure that Doris would recognize Steve and know that he had even been there, we were also making the trip to support his sister. She has done an amazing job over the past several years making sure their mother was well cared for ““ from researching the care facilities, moving Doris several times as she became less able to care for herself, managing the finances, keeping track of the diagnoses and numerous medications ““ and doing Doris’ laundry twice a week when she was unhappy with the service at the facility. In my mother’s case, it was my older sister who took on these responsibilities. All I can say to both Steve’s sister and mine, is thank you for the sacrifices you have made to honor our mothers.

We also recently got the news that his sister’s husband was diagnosed with cancer and was going to start radiation treatment the day after our visit. So it definitely seemed like an opportune time to spend some time with them and share some love and support.

When it became apparent from the emails that it was time to make a trip north, I wish I could say that I was eager to do it. But the truth is that I really didn’t want to go, even though I knew it was the right thing to do. After a couple of days whining to myself and sometimes out loud, I got my head wrapped around knowing that I would feel awful when her life comes to an end and we had not made any effort to stay involved.

But though the trip was going to be emotionally draining, there was something about it that I could look forward to: the two hour drive from the airport to the little town of Sequim where his sister and mother live. After numerous visits, we know the way so it’s an easy drive and the scenery on the Olympic peninsula is beautiful. Steve and I get a chance to be together without the distractions of the email and phone of the home office or demands of the household chores and kids.

When we got to Sequim, I really wanted something stronger to buck me up before going to the Alzheimer care facility where Doris lives, but since I don’t drink, a latte was the best we could do. Once we arrived at the facility, the staff led us to sort of a large family room where Doris was dozing in one of the recliners. When she was roused, she immediately recognized Steve but at first thought he was her husband ““ not surprising given Steve’s resemblance to his dad. When she was corrected to tell her that Steve was her son, her face lit up. She was so happy to see him. When she looked at me, she knew she knew me, but she wasn’t sure from where. That wasn’t surprising; she has only known me for the last fourth of her life.

Although she is certainly weaker than when we last visited, we were relieved to find her confused but still alert. She asked where we lived and the ages of our the kids several times and each time she commented that she was amazed they were that old. From the neck up she looks very good; she has far fewer wrinkles and gray hair than I do. She commented over and over what a good looking family she has.

As we chatted with Doris, I watched the other old people at the care facility. I wondered what the old guy who was trying to move the DVD console was like when he was in the prime of his life? And how about the little lady who carried a large purse and came over several times “to make sure we knew she was here.” What place of her life was she stuck in? And watching the range of personality characteristics they exhibited such as agitated, alert, vacant, or worried, I couldn’t help but wonder which type would I be? Would I be angry and swearing and drive the staff crazy or sweet and malleable? I hope I never get to a time in life that I find out.

Later we chatted with Steve’s sister. She commented on how their mother would have wished for the same thing. It’s probably a blessing that Doris isn’t aware of who she is now and what she’s lost in terms of mental and physical abilities; she would be horrified at the amount of care she requires. As it is, she’s very content getting the care she was denied as a little girl.

It was getting close to dinner time for Doris, so a very sweet gal wheeled her to her room, combed her hair, and put some lipstick on her; Doris would have never gone out in public without wearing lipstick.

I’ll Be Back Next Week

Friday, March 7th, 2008

This will just be a quick posting. Steve and I are flying up to the Seattle area to check in on his Mom. She’s been on a downhill slide with dementia and the slope seems to have gotten steeper recently. We’re wondering if she will recognize her son.

We are so blessed to have Steve’s sister there who has become a master at navigating through the medical and financial complexities of caring for their mother.

The trip will also give us an opportunity to show our love and support for Steve’s brother-in-law who was recently diagnosed with throat cancer. So while not a particularly easy trip, it is an important one.

I look forward to posting next week.

Why I’ll Never Be a Girl Scout Leader

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

It’s cookie season again.

So last week, when the leader of Jennifer’s Girl Scout troop called to ask if I could spare an hour to help her sort the girls’ cookie orders, I was happy to say yes. After all, she’s a close friend and she is the glue that has kept Jennifer’s troop together. This mom feels passionately about the opportunities Girl Scouting provides and is willing to bear the burden of an enormous amount of paperwork, preparation for meetings, and sometimes even abuse by other moms ““ not to mention picking up and warehousing literally a truckload of Thin Mints and Samoas ““ in order to see the girls continue in Girl Scouts and advance in the ranks.

I want to support her, but when I think about doing more than just lending a hand and really investing my time and energy in Girl Scouts, I can’t get very motivated; the truth is I just don’t understand the appeal of Girl Scouting.

I know that statement may seem sacrilegious; how can I have a negative attitude about an organization that promotes inclusiveness, diversity, and symbolizes wholesomeness?

It comes from my experience with my daughters in Scouting. My older daughter, Valerie, was in Girl Scouts from kindergarten through fifth grade at which time the girls and moms lost interest in it and Scouting died a natural death for her and her classmates. Jennifer, our sixth grade daughter, also started as a Daisy Girl Scout and her troop is still hanging together ““ thanks to the mom I mentioned above.

Nonetheless, Girls Scouts just doesn’t make sense to me. One of my biggest frustrations with the program is that it seems very shallow. I believe their hope is that if you expose the girls to many different interests ““ whether it’s astronomy, cartooning, or nature ““ that it will ignite a spark in one of them and they will want to pursue that interest further.

But what ends up happening is that the girls get such a small tidbit of information that the exposure is meaningless. Girl Scout meetings are more like birthday parties than an educational experience. The troop leader does a lot of work preparing an activity and snack. The girls show up, eat the food, do the craft or whatever is put in front of them, and then once they are outside of the room, the whole experience is quickly forgotten.

And the badge they received for trying the chosen activity isn’t really a symbol of accomplishment; it is like those “Participant” ribbons the kids often bring home. Or like a party favor. You got it because you showed up. I believe that’s why Jennifer has a drawer full of badges that she hasn’t cared about having me put on her vest. In fact, when she received a badge for going to High School Musical on Ice she almost felt insulted. It took away any illusion she had that the badges signified doing something of value.

I don’t think you can have your cookies and eat them too. Programs are most successful when they really have a strong focus and I think in the case of Girl Scouts, it either needs to be about fun or about education. If the girls were really going to learn anything about a particular topic, it would require hard work and time”¦like school.

Or to say it in a more positive way, Girl Scouting has become too ambitious. Its basis was in scouting, but now it tries to be all things to all girls. No organization can achieve that broad a goal ““ something is going to suffer, and in the case of Girls Scouts, I believe it is depth.

I could enjoy Girl Scouts if we dropped the pretense that the girls were there to learn and just called it what it really is, which is a play date. It is an opportunity for the girls to interact outside of school and the moms to socialize.

I do want to interject that I know that as the girls get older, there are a lot of Girl Scout camps that concentrate on a particular area of interest and I’m sure the girls come away with some real knowledge and skills. I’m really talking about my experience with the younger girls and the programs we participate in during the year.

Girl Scouts seems like an anachronism. Back when it was started in 1912, it made sense to create an organization that provided a social outlet for girls in isolated rural home environments while giving them an expanded sense of the world.

But in 2008, this notion is downright quaint. Between the internet and all the media that our children are exposed to, their world is global. Girl Scouts doesn’t seem to meet a need for socializing or activities that isn’t already available to girls.

I’m making that heretical statement knowing that, according to their website, there are four million members of Girl Scouts of the USA. There are stories of female CEOs who trace their love of business back to selling cookies when they were a Brownie. So obviously there are a lot of girls and women out there who really get something out of participating in Girl Scouts.

For me though, participating in Girls Scouts is like eating a Thin Mint now that they’ve taken out the trans fat. It’s not very satisfying.