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Moving Forward, Looking Back / The year of shopping dangerously

Updated 7:01 pm, Saturday, January 5, 2013
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Spaceship Earth, having just completed the latest of its four billion laps around the sun, kept right on going into the next. Good thing, because if it took even a little break, the Mayans would have looked like geniuses, and that 2013 calendar with the cute kittens you got from your aunt would be totally useless.

One of the benefits of being just a passenger on Earth is being able to take that break, with no cosmic consequences, for a personal status check. After traveling 600 million miles around the sun since last New Year, I asked myself, what have I accomplished? Have I at least made as much progress as the United States House of Representatives?

OK, a matchup against Congress is setting a low bar. Nevertheless, this year I lay claim to a personal breakthrough: a solid working knowledge of my supermarket. This might not seem like a big deal to you, but it would be if you knew how far I've come. I can now, with no supervision, push a shopping cart through those gaping automatic doors without being overcome with dread. I can gather food without getting blurry vision or experiencing drops in blood pressure. In fact, people have commented on my improved self-confidence in other areas of life, and I haven't had a cold in over a year.

No, this is not some kind of "guy thing." Supermarkets strike fear into the hearts women and men alike, and I have seen them suffer in silence from up close. Maybe you are one of these people. I feel your pain as my own, and my story is your beacon of hope.

My retirement was the occasion for New Rules in our house. After 37 orbits of career work, the domestic division of labor underwent a tectonic shift. Shopping for food, and then cooking it, became my responsibility every other week. I could always handle small-gauge specialty food stores, but the supermarket was where I drew the line. Until I stopped working, I averaged one supermarket appearance per year, or less if I could swing it. Too overwhelmed to be useful, I was led around like a child. I may as well have climbed into the shopping cart with a sippy cup.

Those days were over for good last year. After one orientation session, I was on my own. Here are my hard-earned lessons.

1. Do not go to the supermarket if you have any other plans that day. If your list includes specific configurations of garbage bags and obscure mushrooms from foreign countries, you won't be heading for the checkout lanes any time soon.

2. If you cannot find your shopping list immediately upon entry, leave. Do not under any circumstances trust your memory. Do not call home to get bailed out; this fosters dependency, not progress.

3. Do not go to the supermarket hungry. The story about raking all the Oreos into your cart because you're hungry is bunk. It's about avoiding a hunger-induced panic attack.

4. The parking lot is a killing field. Many of your fellow shoppers believe that the parking lot speed limit is 40 mph. Remember that you are invisible to drivers on cell phones, even though it appears they are looking at you. You can get disemboweled over a spot in the front row, so if you want rock-star parking, get it in front of the dry cleaners.

5. At the deli counter, to end up with the amount of cold cuts you really want, ask for less. Oh, and the store-roasted turkey is cheaper for a reason.

6. Never take the packages of salad greens from the front of the rack. The fresher bags are presumably in the back, so reach way in there up to your elbow and wrestle one out, crushing all the bags in front of it. The ones in front are for the suckers.

7. The shelf placement of a breakfast cereal is inversely proportional to its sugar content. A toddler can easily locate and grab a box of Cocoa Pebbles. Getting a box of Wheat Chex requires an adult to have a 40-inch vertical leap.

8. The canned tomato aisle is designed for confusion. It turns out that tomatoes can be whole, diced, crushed, peeled, stewed, or pureed, even though the cans look exactly alike. Pastes and sauces are cleverly mixed in to trip you up. Stay focused.

9. Do not pause to wonder why you can buy flowers and motor oil in the supermarket. There are 19 aisles in there, not counting the walls. Keep moving.

10. Use the express checkout lane even if you have more than 10 items. You'll get away with it if you mumble to yourself and make no eye contact.

11. Do not get in line behind a person with a fistful of coupons or a checkbook.

12. One of those little keychain barcode tags is a must-have. It saves you some money, but that's not the point. Nothing says "I'm not a rookie" more than flashing your tag.

In the supermarket, I conquered my fears and expanded my possibilities. So can you! As a matter of fact, so could certain congressmen.

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at rblumen2@gmail.com.