A while back, I devoted a column to a crash program in supermarket skills thrust upon me by my wife, who congratulated me on my retirement and then let me know that unless I did something about it, on alternate weeks there would be no food to eat in the house. ("The year of shopping dangerously," Jan. 4, 2013).
It was an old-fashioned trial by ordeal. I came through with enough basic skills to survive. Now I've had a year of biweekly face-offs with Shop-Rite to consolidate my gains and absorb hard-earned lessons. My training is far from complete, but I want to share what I've learned over the year with those souls who see supermarket doors as the Gates of Hell.
Attitude: You must walk up to the shopping carts with a certain swagger, reusable grocery bags on lock and load. No Fear. The Eye of the Tiger. "Whistle a Happy Tune" on steroids. A little over the top? Perhaps, but I still need adrenaline coursing through my veins to get me through those automatic doors. Advanced shoppers (The Enlightened Ones) have evolved beyond the combat model, but that's because they draw power from handfuls of mysterious scraps of paper called Coupons.
Preparation: Attitude alone will not get you to the checkout lanes in one piece. You must enlist the higher centers of your brain, which means you have to have a plan. That plan is your shopping list, your treasure map. Study it carefully before you dare enter.
Adaptability: No plan is perfect; conditions on the ground will require you to improvise. Right off the bat, you face a crucial decision. On your right inside the door is the deli counter; on your left, the produce. If the deli is deserted, pounce. If there's a crowd, grab a number and head for the produce, gathering up as much on your list as you can while you keep your eye on the number board. What's a great day? When you get all your produce just before your number is called.
Self-reflection: I have learned that my ability to guess the weight of newborn babies does not translate to potatoes. If I don't use a scale, I can be wildly wrong in either direction.
Focus: Do not be tempted to go down an aisle you have no business being in. As a rule I ignore the frozen food aisle, but once I wandered in there without a parka. A half hour later I staggered out the other end, disoriented and hypothermic, with a cartful of fish sticks and Cool Whip.
Self-reliance: If you're looking for the raisins that come in the zip-lock crinkly bag rather than the cardboard cylinders, don't give up just because they aren't where the raisins are. You have to think outside the box. Clear your mind. You know more than you think. Where else have you seen zip-lock crinkly bags? Yes ... yes ... on a low shelf near the baked goods! Voilà.
Acceptance: The time will come when you are stumped. There is no shame in this. Your lifeline is the Oracle at the Aisle 8 Desk. The Oracle people know everything. The problem is, I suspect that there's a lifetime limit on questions. I can't afford to run out yet, so I use Self-reliance whenever I can.
Embracing change: Having a granddaughter opened up whole new areas of the store to me and brought new opportunities for growth. On my shopping list is Annie's Bunny Cookies. Are they in the cookie aisle? No. The baby food aisle? No. Annie's Bunny Cookies, being "organic," are to be found in the Organic aisle. Duh.
Managing choice: This is huge. Our nation is gripped by a pathological obsession with choice, nowhere more in evidence than in the food industry. Your job is not over once you find a product. You have to read the fine print, or you will get burned. Annie's Bunny Cookies, for example, come as cheddar, honey graham, whole wheat, cocoa vanilla, and Friends, as well as gluten-free cookies for toddlers who will go through their lives thinking they have problems with wheat.
And what's with English muffins? Each package still says that we will get the nooks and crannies, but the classic "original" muffins, that everyone seemed to be perfectly happy with, are tucked in among almost identical packages of whole grain, 100 percent whole wheat, multi-grain, double fiber, cinnamon-raisin, and corn varieties, let alone the sandwich-size options. By the way, the Thomas's people have also taken an ill-advised crack at bagels. One squeeze of the package will tell you that the squishy frauds inside are BINOs -- Bagels in Name Only.
Cottage cheese used to be cottage cheese. Now it varies by milkfat (0, 1, 2, or 4 percent), by curd size (large, small), by salt content (yes or no) and by flavor (added fruit or plain).
Recognizing the unknowable: It is not for you to understand why you can buy motor oil or transmission fluid in the supermarket. The store manager tells me that he sells no more than one or two quarts a month, but there they are, ever present as milk. When I ask why he still carries them, he merely shrugs, but the twinkle in his eye tells me there is another level of reality I am not yet worthy to glimpse.
On the other hand, why can you buy milk at the gas station?
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.