Friday, December 26, 2008

Comfort and Joy

Good writing is good thinking. In order to be a good writer, one must have organized thoughts and an idea of how to traverse those thoughts in order to reach a point that is already predetermined in the mind. Not being able to think well impedes the process. This I believe is the nature of writer's block. It's something I've experienced periodically. I hate it when I can't think straight. It makes me uneasy and frazzled.

At Burning Man there's a camp known as Comfort and Joy. In 2007, a young man who was deeply depressed chose to take his life there by hanging himself from their dome structure. Nobody from the camp knew him, but that didn't make it any less tragic. The message boards after the burn were filled at first with messages from the young man's friends who lost track of him on the playa, and then with messages of support and sympathy from the rest of the community.

This year, "tidings of comfort and joy" have taken on significant meaning. As I see those around me beginning to struggle in this economy, desperately grasping for a sense of security, I can't help but wish tidings of comfort and joy. It's fundamental to what we really need and want. Comfort in knowing that we can make it through this crisis. Joy in the things we do have. Comfort in our own shrewdness and capabilities. Joy in our ability to employ them for the benefit of those we care for. Contrary to one sad soul's demise, Comfort and Joy is not a place to succumb to burdens or adversity. Comfort and Joy is the place we go to confront them; a place to organize ideas in one's mind in such a way that everything makes sense. And even if it doesn't make sense, at least we hope for such a place for others. So, to my friends and whomever else may come across these words, I wish good tidings of Comfort and Joy in the New Year. It's the best wish I can imagine right now.

Monday, December 22, 2008

And the inevitable flip-flop

Yes. I believe that we have largely looked to consumerism as a method of gratification. But I left out a few caveats. As much as I like being frugal, I also very much enjoy nice things. Not that I indulge in such things on a regular basis, but given the opportunity, I love a good meal served in courses, well made shoes and clothing, and even domestic help.

Do I feel I deserve such things? Maybe, to a degree. I must admit there is gratification in knowing that I've been able to purchase a home, have a good car, and a decent computer. The reason I'm considering such things at the moment is a new blog on the Daily Beast, The Bag Lady Papers by Alexandra Penney.

Ms. Penny had made it. She worked, and accomplished, and created a life that I could aspire to. And, it all disappeared in what turned out to be a Ponce Scheme. And I can't help but feel her pain. I don't know if this is empathy, or sympathy, but I know that I've also worked very hard to be where I am today, and I have also been at the brink of losing what I've worked for. Such a loss is a shock at best, and a devastating blow. Ms Penney's blight is a good reminder for me to be thankful for what I have but to still aspire to do and be more.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Some things I just can't make up... . This falls into this category. This is the website for a commercial I saw tonight on cable tv, offering a gadget that gives flat hair an instant Lisa Marie lift a la Sara Palin. As though we have nothing else to worry our little heads about.

Just the utterance of the website name, sent me into a snide cackle. The absurdity of such a product isn't enough. It has to have a website name that accompanies it that implies a body part, that is actually made up of dead cells can feel emotion. This of course begs the question, what happens if our hair is sad? Now, some days, I do have bad hair, which is in fact sad for me, because my hair is short with a lot of wave, so when it's bad I tend to look like a Mexican Q-Tip.

Why would someone need Big Happy Hair? Maybe to hide increasing insecurities we recognize that this is not a drill. The economy really is in trouble. And despite multiple years of being coaxed into a fearful state by alerts in a rainbow of colors, we weren't entirely equipped for a real crisis. Because this is more than a financial crisis. This is a crisis on our national identity. Consumerism is more than an approach to economics, it's our culture. And, compulsive consumerism, which has been allowed to burgeon uninhibited became an accepted path to euphoric gratification. So go ahead and make your hair happy America!

Except, these quick fixes may not work anymore. I honestly hope they don't. I hope that a different norm wins out, that we decide what we do for our community and for others is more important than what we have. I hope we realize that our desire for things hasn't made us any bigger or happier than our hair could be. Because the reality is, that this happy hair devise is simply a ruse, designed to makes something you have look like more than it is. And in the same way, we have looked to the things we have to make us more than we are, or rather more than we choose to be.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Knowing what you don't know...

A shoe was thrown at the President during a press conference in Iraq.

To which the President says, "What do I care if someone throws a shoe at me?"

He should care. He should care that Iraqis have taken to the streets by the thousands in support of their new national hero shoe hurler. He should care that gestures such as this are not as casually given as our favorite one finger salute. In fact, usually such a gesture results swords or automatic weapons being drawn. These are the makings of clan warfare not unlike it's cousin gang warfare, because in American gang culture there are similar gang sign gestures that have the same response.

So what does this mean about the stature of our outgoing President? Does it mean that he is now seen to be no more than a common thug in this part of the world. Or does his question reflect a glaring wanton ignorance that not only led to this war, but will prove to be the legacy that the President is desperately trying to fabricate?

A shoe was thrown at the President during a press conference in Iraq.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Yes, the holidays are upon us. Call me sentimental, but there is a familiar feel to this year's season that I haven't felt for a long, long time. I was born in 1971. I can remember the Carter recession, long gas lines, and advertisements in grocery stores that identified them as "inflation fighters." The ad that comes to mind was a huge screen print poster of a woman cracking the word "INFLATION" in half with a rolling pin.

In those days we shopped at K-Mart where the novelty was that everything was made in China. And Christmas then meant maybe one toy we asked for and then a lot of kick-knacks. We always got pajamas, and on a good year slippers too. Stocking-stuffers included hair ribbons, Q-tip swabs, a toothbrush, and my mother's special care package that had an apple, a tangerine, hard ribbon candy and mixed nuts.

As the current financial crisis continues, I can't help but be encourage by an increase in what I consider sanity to holiday purchases. The frenzy seems to be gone, and in it's place thoughtfulness has re-emerged as consumers carefully consider how to spend the money they actually have as opposed to a ridiculous amount of credit used in years past. Gift giving, with the absence of credit just may regain its soul, and in turn so might the holiday season.

Friday, November 28, 2008

And the holidays are upon us...

And we're off. Thanksgiving left overs are smartly stacked in the fridge, and someone has already been killed, literally, in a stampede at a Long Island Walmart. (Sigh)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shopping in a Depressed Economy

The economy is depressed. It's been running around in sweats, leaving the house without socks on, sleeping a lot, and eating ice cream strait out of the carton--no scratch that, ice cream is too expensive.

Shopping in a depressed economy is stressful. I am by nature a frugal shopper. I will often go without or make due with what I have. I don't as a practice buy name brand groceries, and I improvise a lot. This I know has not been the norm in recent years. Most recently, we were encouraged to spend, consume, gratify, pamper, and spoil. But that binge is over and now we have an economic hangover. The American public is hugging the toilet, hurling with much regret and even remorse that we thought living beyond our means was sustainable.

So now we need to transition from that destructive practice and I've seen a palpable change in the market place. The spell is broken and suddenly people are beginning to think in terms of what they need as opposed to what they want. I've seen it in the grocery line most.

I do the bulk of my shopping at a grocery close-out store, where there aren't tabloid headlines to entertain me as I wait in line. So I've become a grocery voyeur. I'm always interested in what other people buy. I've noticed that like me, people are buying more ingredients than prepared food and more staples like potatoes and rice than snacks like chips and cookies. And everyone has a new look of stress. Not the kind of stress that comes from being over committed in social activities, but the kind of stress that comes from fear. People are genuinely scared, despite our recent election of Hope. It's the kind of fear from the realization that maybe we got carried away, and maybe some of us knew better.

There's a point when drinking alcohol between tipsy and drunk, where if you stop right there, and start drinking water, you wont have a hangover, and probably wont embarrass yourself. I think this is what could be called drinking in moderation. And it's this same point that we need to learn to recognize to avoid future economic hangovers. Yes, now, people will be forced to spend less because of the lack of availability of credit, but the important thing is to realize where excess begins.

Maybe this is just a cycle that we have to go through, but I actually hope that some of us not only learn this lesson, but pass it along.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remembering Erma Bombeck

Remember Erma Bombeck? She wrote a syndicated column that was eventually turned into a series of books. I came across one of these books in tenth grade, and was immediately enamored. It was the first time I realized that women can be smart and funny. She was the best kind of feminist. She acknowledged the heroism of women but made a woman's struggle humorous. Erma's strength was her humor, and it's only now that I realize that she is probably the source of my belief that as women we should be smart and strong.

I was reminded of Erma today after reading Tina Brown's article about Sarah Palin where she wonders, "Sarah, who does look after the kids?"

I wondered the same thing. I work full time, I have two kids less than Sarah Palin, I have parents and a partner who pitch in, but I'm still exhausted. There are times, when I pull out the Golden Lasso, and for a brief moment believe I'd look great in a bustier on an Invisable Plane but, I've come to realize that doing it all usually means something or someone will suffer. Sometimes it's the house, that hasn't had a proper dusting in a month. Other times it's the dog who looks longingly at her leash. And yes, sometimes it's the kids, who go to school without socks on, not because they don't have clean ones, but because they don't have the time or patience to dig in the communal sock bin for a pair that matches.

As women, we no doubt do amazing heroic things every day. But as women, we also sacrifice more. Some might want me to give up my feminist card for stating this, but it's true. And that ability to sacrifice turns back on our heroism. This makes me wonder what would have happened had Sarah Palin said, "no thanks, my family is stretched enough." Sadly that's not what happened. Thus, I'm reminded of a passage by Erma Bombeck where she ridicules a magazine spread that celebrates the woman that can do it all.

She wrote about how the pictures were absurd with the woman on the job site in a suit reading blue prints, her yellow shoes smartly matching her yellow hard hat, and then in the next picture at home the kids were lovingly setting the's a myth. Bombeck reflected that the pictures failed to show what really happens before dinner, when she was running around trying to defrost pork chops under her armpits. This of course was before microwaves were such a vital part of life.

Yes, as women we have to do so much more, especially when we have a family. And because of this, if we are ambitious, if we put something else first, the family will suffer. Fair? No. Realistic? Sadly, yes.

I kind of like Laura Bennett's approach to this conundrum. If you're family already feels neglected, they won't notice the difference. And it's not that I believe Laura is a neglectful mother, but that she raises her brood to be more independent and not require a doting mother. Doting is fine in spurts, but as I lay in bed, typing this on my laptop, my ten-year-old is dutifully making his own lunch for school. Of course, I'll check to be sure it contains more than a pudding cup and a juice box, but I know when this kid is on his own in 8 years, goddess willing, he'll be fine. He won't screw up his laundry, and will have the good sense to pack a peanut butter sandwich when he leaves the house.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I think there was a world wide moment of disbelief when at 11:00PM the media called the Presidential Election for Barack Obama Tuesday night. And then, the world erupted in tears and jubilation. Most telling to me was a man I saw on TV in Grant Park. His hands were to his mouth, and his expression was pure awe, a combination of fear and amazement.

America had indeed changed. I've spoken to a lot of people. And no one can remember anything that caused so many people to run into the streets and hug each other in spontaneous celebration. The closest, I'm told was V-day.

And Americans it seems are eager for this change. President Elect Obama's words of sacrifice and cohesive work for the next chapter of our history was embraced by a crowd that chanted "Yes We Can!" As it turns out, we want to be challenged. We want to accomplish. We want to be inventive, clever, smart, and the leader of innovation and new ideas of how to do things.

What strikes me the most is that the success of President Elect Obama's campaign, is based largely on empowerment. His volunteers were told they could be a part of change. They were given tools and entrusted to spread that message. And they did. This was a lesson that given the opportunity, the American public is up to what ever challenge is set before them. Given the opportunity, Americans will coalesce in creative ways. They will form alliances and work for a common goal.

I suppose at this point my hope is that that spirit of cohesion will not be lost but will continue and perhaps even become a new norm of unity, where we work together, accepting the best everyone has to offer in order to seek out that Perfect Union.

Monday, November 3, 2008

NO ON 8!!!!

This is just an FYI. I was horrified today to see that my Adsense ad was a Yes on Prop 8, which is the ban againsts gay marriage in California. So I removed my adsense until after the election.

I am vehemently against Prop 8. The state should not be able to dictate who one loves and how one wishes to live. The will and desire to be united with someone should be open to every person regardless of race, creed, religion, or orientation. If you are a California voter, please vote NO on Prop 8

Sunday, November 2, 2008

And speaking of souls...

I've found that as an adult child of aging parents, I have a number of duties that are expected of me. These range from dealing with my parent's rental properties, to finding a trustworthy cleaning lady to driving them anytime they need to go out of town. The last one I imposed myself. I'm just not comfortable with my 73-year-old mother driving anyplace more than 5 miles away.

So, because of this self imposed duty, it falls to me to drive my folks to see their closest relatives. In my mother's case, this means the grave of her grandmother who raised her. We go to her cemetery usually twice a year. As a kid, I can only remember going there once. We were there for another funeral, and I remember we had a hard time finding the grave because at the time of her death, my parents couldn't afford a headstone. At some point after I was well into adulthood, this was rectified, and she now as an adequate marker with an engraving of the Virgin of Guadeloupe and a picture of her from my mothers wedding. My mother used that picture because she said it was the only one she had of my great grandmother smiling.
We drive about 60 minutes so we can stand and admire the headstone and leave some flowers. Since my mother has developed arthritis in her knees, it falls to me to get down on my hands and knees to clean things up and arrange the flowers. I don't mind doing it. All I've ever known of this woman is from the stories my mother has told me. It's feels good to have a connection to Soledad, which was her name, but she was called Chula.

Over the years I've learned a lot about Chula. She was married at a young age to man in Mexico, but then abandoned for her lack of ability to produce a child. As an abandoned woman she "did what abandoned women do," is what my mother said. She had affairs, and was a quereida, or mistress of a Mexican General. This was apparently how my grandmother was conceived. She was Chula's only child, and her name was Cuca.

I don't know if Cuca was born on this side or that side of the boarder. Apparently in those days the idea of the Mexican boarder was kind of ambiguous. What I do know is that Chula and Cuca remained with the larger family clan. Chula had multiple siblings and they all traveled and worked together in agriculture. And this is how Cuca met my grandfather, working in the spinach fields of Chrystal City, Texas. The best I can tell, in those days, my grandfather was kind of a slacker. He was prone to "headaches" and would leave the field before the workday ended, but then would be well enough in the evening to serenade my grandmother outside her window. Apparently he was very handsome, but known as a ne're do well. My mother said that among the worst of his transgressions was the knowledge that he regularly smoked pot.

But love is love I suppose, and Cuca married him. It wasn't long before my mother was born in a migrant worker barrio. I don't know what Cuca's marriage was like, if she was happy, or really what kind of mother she was. She died of Tuberculosis when my mother was only two. What I do know is that after Cuca's death, she was buried in Chrystal City. I've been to her grave once. Cuca's grave marker is worn and nolonger bears her name, but is recognizable by a heart that is part of its design.

After Cuca died, my grandfather took my mother to live with his family. But, Chula, who had been abandoned as a wife and only had but one illegitimate child was not going to lose her only grandchild as well. Through a family member, she threatened to have my grandfather deported for being a pot smoker. He gave up his child to her and fled back to Mexico. And that's how it came to be that my mother was raised by her grandmother.

Chula's grave is in an older part of one of the California Mission cemetaries. Many of the graves that surround her are long forgotten. And, it occurred to me today, that when that time comes for my own mother, her grave will likely be many miles away from this graveyard. Chula's children will be scattered from here to Texas and likely beyond. But despite this, I know that Chula's spirit and strength are not lost. My boys who are the descendants of this abandoned woman who never gave up, have her shrewdness. And this, I know is her legacy. I'm sure of it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hijacked Halloween

I like Halloween. I like the idea of being creative, embracing an alter ego and giving out candy. In my house we have a strict rule about Halloween candy. My kids are allowed to eat it till they get sick. The same rule applies for Christmas and Easter.

This year we decided to be one of the cool houses. Not only did we give out regular sized Reece's Peanut Butter Cups, but we also gave glowing bracelets and necklaces. The ooo's and wow's we got out of that were totally worth it.

In the morning, as my kids were treating their sugar hangovers with more candy, they came across what looked like a novelty fake $1,000,000 bill. Upon further inspection though, we found that this was in fact a religious tract. Normally I don't have a problem with this. A church on a street I use to Trick or Treat on as a kid gave out miniature versions of the book of John. I always felt that to be more of a gesture than the iniquitous swag that found it's way to my kid's bag of treats. What my kid got was far more nefarious. One doesn't expect a treat to include the words, "[G]od sees you as a lying, thieving, blasphemous, adulterer at heart. The Bible warns that if you are guilty you will end up in Hell. That's not God's will." As my husband read this out loud, in his best scary political ad voice, my boys collapsed in giggles.

On the one hand, Trick or Treating by it's nature is a gamble. You're always gonna end up with at least one granola bar or worse, raisins. But I'm almost sure that if I threw in literature about my heathenish ways, or even just something about the Guiding Principles of Burning Man, I would no doubt be the object of much disdain.

I suppose in some ways, since Halloween is All Souls Eve, in theory, saving souls is part of the celebration. But, stern warnings about adultery are not quite what I had in mind. In our house moral guidance is more along the lines of do unto others, leave no trace and don't be evil. I wasn't aware that Halloween had become the repent or go to Hell holiday. Maybe I need to keep up. Then again, maybe not.

I believe, for this instance my family acts as good Americans. We consider Halloween to be a chance for kids of all ages to be silly, imagine themselves in another way, play tricks, watch tacky and gory B flicks and get free candy. We'll pick another day to worry about the kid's souls.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On taxes

So lets be clear about taxes. Why is paying taxes so wrong? We have a crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, disenfranchised youth who become criminals and eat up more tax money as criminals, and bankrupt cities. Personally I'm willing to go without and pay a little more to have a better quality of life. I'm willing to pay for children to get a top notch education so that they become great contributors and innovators in society. I think it's a good idea to fund public transportation, specifically high speed rail. And health care, I believe should be a right.

If we all prosper together won't we prosper as a nation? Does capitalism require that we live in a land of haves and have nots? Does wanting people to have what they deserve as humans, make me a bad person...a socialist?

One of the things I actually like about elections is that we get to see the naked insecurity rot by political philosophy, through disingenuous prose and media. A lot can be learned by paying attention to how a political campaign plays on emotions. This is especially true in the current election cycle. And unfortunately for them, it seems that the Republican Party has drastically underestimated the American voter's ability to free themselves from a knee-jerk emotional response to that of thoughtful consideration.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Keep up with the class!

I read today, that Senator John McCain is just now learning how to send email and use the internet. I can't begin to express how disturbing this is. Yes, I realize that this reeks of ageism, but it seems to me if you are going for the top job in the land, you should have the required skills. And in this generation the skills are not in stasis but a constant state of change.

We email on our computers, our phones, we keep digital diaries, we cross reference news articles with video feeds, and look each other up on Google. Accessing information is now a way of life. And while the value of much of the information that is being exchanged is in debate, it is considered a basic necessity to know how to do these things.

There is much to be learned from our senior citizens. We should value their knowledge and experience. But participating in society is increasingly dependent on technology. Considering someone for leadership who is not up to this now most basic task is simply tragic.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why I'm voting for Obama

Two years ago, I went to my state Democratic Convention. This was when there were still 8 candidates in the primary and they all wanted to make an impression, and most of them did.

I was yet to make up my mind at that time, so I tried to be somewhat objective. Bill Richardson was smart and obviously qualified, but I knew he had little chance. Hillary commanded the room and the moment she walked it. She was a force and I was impressed. And Barrack Obama was charismatic and eloquent, but I didn't get the same feeling I got with Hillary. So, I made my choice. I proudly wore my Hillary T-shirt, and put her name on my bumper. I'll admit, I was bitter when she didn't get the nomination. I really wanted her to be president.

I'll also admit that I did not immediately jump on the Obama band wagon. He had my vote, but I had no excitement for him as a candidate until the debates. What Barrack Obama failed to do for me during the primaries, he more than made up for in the debates and the campaign after. I saw a candidate who is thoughtful, methodical, and smart...real smart. And then I learned a little more about him as a person. Despite the Republican's every (wo)man approach, I feel much more of a connection with Barrack Obama's determined rise via an unpriviledged life. Despite his time as an Academic, he does not appear to be so far removed from the modest life that led him to this point.
As a writer, I've never cared for the phrase, a picture is worth a thousand words. In truth I prefer the words. But this picture says it all for me. The caption from this picture stated that Senator Obama said he had already had these shoes resoled once on this campaign, and that was all I needed to know; that despite his education, and experience, he is still sensible enough to know that problems have sensible solutions. It might be inconvenient to resole shoes, but it's sensible. And, beyond that it shows a sense of value that we seem to have lost in recent years. I believe we are more likely to replace things than to fix and reuse them as though we are a country of spoiled brats. Having a leader who will resole his shoes is a sober reminder that maybe we shouldn't want to be like Paris Hilton. Maybe we should want to be more like our grandparents who lived through the Depression, and WWII and learned to tap cleverness and ingenuity from those experiences. Personally, I would be very proud if my grand kids were amazed at what my generation accomplishes. I hope I can tell them, "we elected one of our nation's greatest presidents."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Distracted and enthralled at the same time...

I have expanded my information regime. I am a self described NPR junkie. I can generally tell time by what is playing on NPR. I have subconsciously memorized their format. I know when the music will play, when it's time for a promo, and I can identify the reporters by their voices. It use to be that NPR and a perusal of internet news would satisfy me, but no more. I have new information flirtations.

Perhaps I'll begin with my new favorite website, The Daily Beast. This website is the brain child of Tina Brown, former editor of the New Yorker. She has assembled the a brilliantly snarky staff who sifts through the news to create a daily Cheat Sheet of noteworthy news stories. Her contributors thus far have included Scott McClellan, with his take on W. the movie, former Project Runway super mom Laura Bennett, and host of literati and intelligentsia. It takes a bit of discipline to not spend most of my work day on this site.

My second new infatuation is The Rachael Maddow show. I knew of Rachael from Air America, and always appreciated her even tone and methodical approach to political news. On camera she represents everything that I believe women should be: smart, strong, clever and wise. Perhaps I connect with her show because she's the same age as I am and I appreciate the shared perspective. So little of what is on television geared towards women celebrates that we are actually intelligent creatures. So because of this, Rachael is now a daily necessity on my tube.

It's election season, and for the first time in a long time I am not a participant. In years past, I have worked on campaigns, registered voters, and helped to establish political party headquarters. But this year is different. This year I'm purposely on the sidelines, and surprisingly not utterly sick of hearing the blow by blow commentary. This is in fact a defining election of my lifetime, and for the moment I am cautiously optimistic that something amazing is about to happen. I think part of this optimism is perhaps the reinforcement I've gleaned from leaning media. And even though I know there is a pitfall in being told what one wants to hear, it still is nice to know that there are scores of people who think as I do and appreciate an informed perspective.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Not so gross Turkey Chili

My mom has a knack for really gross stories. She was a nurse for 30 years, and has no qualms about graphic descriptions of things one would rather not know about. Among these descriptions was her story about Chili.

According to my mom, chili came from the meat scraps left on the floor after cows were carved up. They added the chili to disguise the taste to the rotting meat, and the beans were used to make it stretch. It was primarily fed to prisoners or ranch hands. Appetizing no? Maybe not, but in keeping with the need to be frugal and efficient, here's a cheap recipe for turkey chili:

1 lb navy beans
1/2 lb pork or turkey bacon
1 lb ground turkey meat
3 table spoons California Chili
3 table spoons Chili
4 cloves garlic (minced)
1-1/2 table spoons Ground Cumin
1 -1/2 cups white wine
1 cup /can stewed tomatoes (optional)

Night Before slow cook navy beans. Be sure to rinse beans first, and sort out any bad beans. Be sure there is enough water for the beans to expand. Check the package for recommendations.

Cook chopped bacon, set aside. In a separate pan, brown turkey, add bacon and fat in the pan. Salt to taste. In a soup pot, combine meat, chili, garlic, and cumin until meat is coated. Add wine and allow it to reduce.
After wine has reduced by half add tomatoes and beans with all of the liquid. Combine, and taste for salt. Add additional wine and/or chicken stalk if additional liquid is required. Allow to simmer 20-45 minutes. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Total cost: About $9 (depending of the price of the wine)

Combine leftovers with white rice, lime and cilantro and Parmesan cheese in a tortilla for a great lunch burrito. If you wrap it with wax paper it heats up really well in a microwave.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bling For a New Economy

In light of our country's economic woes, I've noticed an increase in articles on frugality. Many of them site depression era home remedies, such as egg wash conditioners for those who no longer find it prudent to pay $20 for a salon conditioning. Another article I saw recommended shopping at consignment stores, or sample sales for fall fashions. And yet another offered restaurant recommendations with entrees under $12. To me, all this information begs the question: Why did we have to wait for an economic crisis to be encouraged to do these things?

As the financial crisis continues, stock and credit markets struggle, and politicians fail to pacify an increasingly concerned public, I wonder how will this historic era change our culture. Will we learn to be less decadent, and seek less gratification from the purchase of things? Will we decide to be defined by what we do as opposed to what we have? Will Americans realize that we were probably a richer country before we had all the bling?

To me, bling is the badge of our economy problems. Yes, I realize that this is largely about the sub-prime mortgage market that has disrupted the flow of credit that banks can offer to businesses and individuals that helps our economy run, but hear me out.

If one were to do a careful reconstruction of this financial disaster, it might be realized that this problem began with revolving credit. It use to be you lived within your means, but with the advent of predatory credit card companies, living within means was redefined as living within your credit limit. I realized this a few years ago when I heard one of my interns explain to his friend that the purpose of a credit card is to get things you can't afford. So now, after a few decades of such conditioning, it's only natural that a large swath of Americans thought it was a norm to have things that are not affordable. This includes televisions, vehicles, electronics, trophy homes and yes, bling.

Bling is worn as a testament to personal wealth. Whether or not it is a true testament is argumentative. But it seems that we all have a bling issue in one way or another, be it extravagant jewelry, designer shoes and bags, the latest mobile phone, or largest HDTV. We have systematically substituted things for substance, and that gratification which is never satiated, is part of what has fueled our combined misjudgment in the use of easy credit for things we can't afford, namely mortgages.

The theme at Burning Man this year was American Dream. A writer doing a story for an LA style magazine asked my son if thought there was such a thing as an American Dream. His answer was a poignant "No, dreams aren't real, that's why they are called dreams." The idea of having it all, is appealing, and it's understandable how so many would jump at the chance to have it all. But like most things that seem to good to be true, buying the American Dream on easy credit turned out to be wishful thinking.

So now, I have to wonder if we have learned our lesson. Will we see the error of our excessive ways and know better or will this drama simply be replayed in the next century as well?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Saving Money and being cheap... I mean frugal

Although some might call me cheap, I prefer the term frugal. Cheap implies a sense of negligence, that I absolutely refuse to embrace. Frugal to me, sounds clever.

So here are some of the clever things I do to save money:

1) Loser Cereal - What!?! No, that's right: Loser Cereal. Loser Cereal is the kind that comes in bags not boxes, and has names such as Marshmallow Magic and Fruit Rings. The great thing about Loser Cereal, besides the price is that if you put in in snack sized seal bags, they make a great desk top snack, which in theory can keep you from spending money in vending machines. Cereal in a snack bag is also cheaper than toaster pastries which are loaded with way too much sugar anyway. BTW, for those of you who are calorie counting, the average calories for one cup of loser cereal is 120, and one cup fits perfectly in those snack sized bags.

2) Dishwasher - When I was a kid, my mom would always tell us not to run the dishwasher unless it was full. Well, I've gone one step further than that. I don't run my dishwasher at all! By doing our dishes by hand, we save between $50 and $100 a month on our power bill. Our water bill seems to be less too. Yes, it takes up time, and yes it's one more thing for your kids to moan about, but I think of it as character building.

3) Shower heads - This is especially useful if you have teenagers in the house. For what ever reason, my teenagers need no fewer than 20 minutes in the shower. This could prove to be quite costly in both water and the gas it takes to heat the water. But not if you install a low flow shower head. You might recognize this shower head from maybe a dorm or locker room or maybe even an economical motel. And now you know why. Low flow shower heads can use up to 70% less water and still provide great water pressure. The last one I bought was less than $15 and it easily paid for itself in the first month!

4) Bottle your own water - Bottled water is one of the greatest marketing schemes of our time. But for those who prefer the taste of filtered water, there is an easy solution. In my house it's super easy, because my refrigerator dispenses filtered water. So I bought a half dozen cheap water bottles at the dollar store and I fill them up as needed straight from my refrigerator door. I also have a gallon size bottle that I take to work with me to refill my bottle as needed. Don't have a filtered water dispenser? No problem. Table top water filters such as the one's made by Britta, work just as well. Here's an added bonus: there are a number of sugar free drink mixes that come in single sized tubes that can be added to water to make lemonade, peach tea, or even fruit punch. While some might consider the name brand Chrystal Lite, the Target brand works just the same for me.

5) Tea Time! - Tea is a great money saver hot or cold. I have a special jug that I use to make iced tea. I usually add frozen fruit such as peaches and mangos and let it brew a full day before serving. It's a great alternative to soda. Hot tea is an equal blessing. When I was in grad school, I carried a zip-bag full of tea bags with me. So, whenever I had a break, as opposed to spending money, I would make tea using a travel mug I carried with me.

6) Coffee to go - Another thing I did, was invest in a good thermos, that I filled with home brew. So if I really wanted coffee I wouldn't have to go without. If I wanted to get really adventuresome, I'd add some Mexican chocolate to it with a dollop of condensed milk. It would be enough caffeine to get me through nighttime seminars.

7) Baked goods - Do you have a baked good habit? It's a bad habit both in expense and calories! But if you just can't go without, take an hour and make some brownies or muffins at home and store them in the freezer. Again, as an unemployed grad student, I used to make mini pinapple upside down cakes, and throw them in my lunch box. They went really great with the tea!

8) Make Lists - One of the worst shopping sins we can commit, is shopping without a list. When ever I go without a list, I invariably buy something I already had, and forget something I needed. This results in another trip to the store which means time lost, gas used, and most likely an impulse buy of something else I don't need. I try and keep two lists: One for household goods, and one for food. As soon as something is half way gone, it goes on the list. This also prevents ad hoc trips to the store.

9) Cheap Fun/Family Time - Cheap fun basically means not relying on a second party to entertain us. Outside fun is some of the best you can have. Besides hiking, which of course is high on my list, there are kites to fly, balls to kick, frisbees to throw, and things to explore, like the library. Indoor fun works too, once it gets too cold for the latter. Forget video games. Get a deck of UNO cards, fish out the Scrabble, or see use the Monopoly money to play poker. Plug speakers into an iPod and play Name That Tune! The great thing about cheap fun is that it doesn't cost anything and pays you back in quality family time. Cheap fun can also be rolled into other things, like baking.

10) Soup /Sandwich - As soon as the leaves turned every year, my mom would start making soup. Soup was a weekend food. She'd make a huge pot of it and instead of getting fast food to avoid cooking, we all grazed on whatever was in the pot. Sometimes it was beans, which translated into burritos or bean tacos, other times it was a hearty Mexican soup with cabbage, garbanzo beans and sweet potatoes. The best part about soup was the stuff at the bottom. My mom had this Special Mix she made to go in the soup that included equal parts brown and yellow lentils, split peas, pinto beans, barley and little pasta alphabets, whole cumin and lemon pepper. One year when I was away from home she sent me a gallon size jar of it, and it lasted all winter. Soup is easy, hot, and satisfying, and also great with grilled cheese or in our house with quesadillas. Another house specialty is Mazzaball-Chicken Noodle Soup!

Mom's Mexican Soup

1 Beef Shank Steak
1 can garbanzos
1/2 head cabbage
2 small sweet potatoes
1 small white onion
4 cloves garlic
1 tbsp cumin
1/2 cup Special Mix
salt to taste

Boil shank till cooked. Skim fat off the top, add sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, cumin, salt and Special Mix. Simmer two and a half hours. Fish out meat and cut into small morsals. Return meat to pot and add garbanzos and cabbage, simmer an additional 30 minutes. Salt to taste.

more to come...

Purging Credit

Remember layaway? Every year as soon as the winter coats came out, my mother would take me to the store to pick one out. We then took it to the layaway counter where a small amount was put down and the coat was paid off over the next couple of months. I usually would receive the coat as a Christmas gift, and for some reason it always felt happy special. We bought lots of things this way. For other, more frivolous things, we would save up the money. My mom had a rule about not spending dimes. They always went into the piggy bank, and over time those dimes would add up. Dimes bought things like the Cookie Monster cookie jar we had for years, or an electric wok. We ate stir fry for two straight years after that purchase.

About 3 years ago I gave up revolving credit cold turkey. If I didn't have cash on hand, I figured I didn't need it, and I've found that this is more or less true. I also stock pile certain things. Rice for instance. I always have 10 lbs of rice and 10 lbs of beans in the house. Powdered milk is always good to have on hand, as is farina, also known as Cream of Wheat. I know how to make things stretch if I have to. Besides, I like being frugal. I think it forces me to be clever.

What amazes me most, is how giving up credit has changed my perspective. I no longer think in terms of things I want, but more in terms of things I truly need. This has forced me to recognize that many of the things I have, are not necessary, and I now have an overwhelming desire to purge as much as possible.

The purging began in my closet. The rule of thumb is, if I haven't worn it for over a year, it goes. Some things I save for the material though. I love to make bags, and silky skirts make great linings. Shoes it seems are the hardest for me to part with. At any given time, I have no fewer than 20 pair, and I wear at least two thirds of them. Some are seasonal; flip flops for instance summer, and oxfords for winter and fall. The shoes I have the hardest time parting with are Converse.

The most embarrassing part about purging is when I take the stuff to Goodwill. It's usually two or three garbage bags worth of clothing, and I'm always ashamed that I am discarding so much when so many in the world have so little. It doesn't stop me from taking a receipt for my tax-deductible contribution though. It is however a reminder, that trinkets and clothes will not make you whole.

Of course it's nice to have nice things, and having something nice and new makes us feel special. But I fear as a society we have become addicted to that type of gratification, and as soon as the newness wears off, we have to buy something else to get that happy special feeling again. Which makes me wonder: Why do we have to feel so special all the time, especially when that gratification doesn't last?

This is one of the reasons I like Burning Man so much. When on the playa, there are a lot of ways to get that special happy feeling: giving help when someone needs it, sharing resources, giving without expectation of return. These actions can yield gratification as well, and the cool part is, that the newness of it is less likely to fade so fast. But, here in the default world, it often feels as though kindness is taken for weakness, and as a result the proverbial walls go up and I hold fast in my fortress. At least I know I have enough rice and beans to get me through.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Strong Women

I believe that the best things we can be as women are smart and strong. The same could be said of the human race as well. After all if we are smart, we know that compassion is an essential part of life, and that knowledge is best gained by error. And if we are strong, we have the ability to withstand the pain of those errors and continue on, hopefully a little wiser than we were before. So, yeah, I like the idea of being smart and strong as a woman as well as a human being.

But it is the former, that unfortunately invariably gives me trouble. As women, there is often a fine line we must traverse between strength and sexuality. There's a debate going on right now about women and sexuality. Does sexuality give strength or invite subservience? It's hard to say. On the one hand, women I believe for centuries have used sexuality as a means to acquire wealth, comfort, influence and yes, even power over men. But sexual give and take is complex and nuanced, and it is often hard to tell who has the advantage.

Thus, as a woman who no longer relies on sexuality to attain the upper hand, I am personally thrust into a category of women who are by and large threatening to the fragile insecure male. It seems that as long as personal or professional gain is achieved under a veil of sexuality, it is somehow acceptable. Otherwise, women such as myself who are capable, smart and ambitious and want to be recognized for those attributes are deemed to be pushy.

What's a girl to do?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Job Hunting

A very dear and wise friend once told me that there is a difference between one's job and one's work. "A job," he told me "is something you do to make a living." "Your work is what you do for life."

I was very fortunate to have received this bit of wisdom before I was even old enough to get a job. And, the philosophy worked for me for a number of years. But now, I'm at that point in life where I have to wonder what my work truly is. There have been times when I thought I knew, but that knowledge was only temporary, which brings me to a personal philosophy: I believe that we are our truest selves when we are 10 years old. When I was 10 years old, I use to sit in front of my sister's portable typewriter willing myself to learn how to type so that I could become a writer. I wanted to write books like Charlotte's Web, narrative stories that captured the imagination of the reader so well that they never felt lonely as long as the book was open. I guess I was pretty lonely as a kid, and part of the desire to write was to keep someone else from being lonely.

So, in a perfect world, I would make money for doing just as I'm doing now, pontificating via keyboard my own inner dialogue as though it matters. I actually enjoy all sorts of writing: informative essays, critical writing, copy writing, poetry and now this blog. But that pipe dream is at the moment unlikely, thus I once again must go through the painful process of finding a job.

Job hunting can be tricky. There's a fine balance between finding the job one wants and the job one needs. And like any relationship, there first has to be an attraction, and then intrigue, maybe some negotiation, and then comfort and even security. Looking for a job is very much like looking for a mate. Considering that for many of us, we spend as much, if not more waking time at work as we do at home, liking the tasks we are to perform and the people with which we do those tasks with or for is both helpful and essential.

Job hunting can be both rewarding and humiliating at the same time. Just the resume can sometimes be traumatic, specifically if one's experience and skills are less than stellar. Luckily I have both good skills and good experience, but I've also come to realize that I'm at that point in my career where I am over-qualified for a lot of jobs but not quite experienced or qualified enough for the next rung. I'm also at a point where I can no longer work for less than I am worth. After all, I am a grown up with grown up responsibilities, such as a mortgage. And I've become accustomed to a certain quality of life.

So what does one do at this point? Do I seek out a job, or do I seek out my work? Despite the bad economy, I can't help but think my chances of finding a job I like are good. As for my work, I also have a strong belief that in the end things tend to work out. Then again, I can't help but feel like I'm at a Jr. High dance, in my best outfit, hoping to be noticed, hoping to be recognized for the great potential that I am.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Diet and Weight Loss

We are a fat, fat nation. According to an article on, ( women are now 29 lbs. heavier now than they were in 1960. One wouldn't know this based on the sizes available in most stores. Seriously, when did 0 become a size? And I find it ironic that clothing for women of current proportions is called Womens sizes. What exactly are those other sizes? Waifs? Twigs? Barbie Wannabes?

In the 80's I remember a big exercise craze. We jogged, we jazzercized, we mall-walked and sneakers became athletic shoes. But then we got cable tv, remote controls, video games, super-sized fast food and of course the internet. In less than a generation we became couch potatoes, more interested in special effects meant to mimic reality than in real life itself.

And it's easy to understand why. Passive entertainment is a great way to escape, to not think, not contemplate, not deal. And if we are all entertained by the same thing, then it gives us ample fodder for diversion. The internet has seen to that. Just Google Britney Spears. The result will yield 104,000,000 matches. For some reason if we are all diverted by the same thing, we think that it makes a difference, that something is happening. It's not. And the expanding size of the American waistline is the evidence that this is true. We are not doing anything but Entertaining Ourselves to Death as Neal Postman likes to say.

So now here we are, nearly 30 lbs heavier and looking for the easy fix. We all want to lose weight in just 20 minutes a day. We have diet soda, light mayonnaise, and a saccharine existence. According to a 1992 FDA pamphlet, "An estimated 50 million Americans will go on diets this year," and "Americans spend an estimated $30 billion a year on all types of diet programs and products, including diet foods and drinks. " ( It boggles the imagination, that is of course only if one stops to consider such things in the first place.

The thing is, there actually is a magic formula to losing weight. It's called Diet and Exercise. The formula is really simple. Burn more than you consume, and you will lose weight. In some ways, weight loss isn't that much different than database management. When creating a database, the general rule of thumb is crap in, crap out. If you put bad data is put into the database, then only bad data will come out of the database. The same can be said of nutrition. If you eat crap, then you look, feel and are likely full of crap. Is it really that hard to eat 3 carbs, 2 proteins and 5 fruits or vegetables a day? Apparently it is when we are constantly bombarded with advertising that encourages us to consume for gratification as opposed to nutrition. But we do have a choice in this. We can choose not to buy into the idea that everything good is covered in melted cheese, or processed with natural sweeteners, (read: high fructose corn syrup). We can eat healthy food in moderation. We can live actively, dance, walk, sing and interact in a way that doesn't require logging on. But of course then we wouldn't have the irony of this rant in a blog.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Burning Man

I made my first trip to Burning Man in 2003. I was supposed to have gone to Chicago that year as a poetry groupie for the Poetry Slam Nationals, but it didn't work out. I already had the money set aside, and the time off work, so my sister said, "Why don't you come with us to Burning Man?" I begrudgingly agreed. I had heard about it for years. And, even though I was skeptical as hell, I got a ticket, did my research and was ready to go just a few short weeks later.

First of all, let me say that preparing for Burning Man that first year was really no-brainer. I spent 9 years in the Army, and spending time in the field was usually my favorite part. I read the Survivor Guide that comes with the ticket from cover to cover, and planned accordingly. The only thing I didn't have that first year was glow sticks.

I can still remember arriving to the gate that first year. We left late, which annoyed me to no end. I was ready at 9AM, but the others were not. So we sat around for several hours before we were able to leave. We finally arrived and got to the gate which was manned by a group of people all dressed as some version of Catholic school girls. There was something going on with a bell, and spanking, but I was tired, and still skeptical, so when I got to the person taking the tickets, I said, "just point me to my camp." And they did. I think the look in my eye told them everything.

It didn't take long that first year to become enchanted. First of all, we had an amazing campsite. We were right at Center Camp with a view of the Man. We didn't even really have to venture out, we could sit there and watch the Playa go by. We saw art cars, painted people, and on three nights had entertainment in the form of the "Glam Clam," a make shift karaoke machine on wheels that set up right in front of our camp.

I met amazing people, and connected deeply with some. I remember sharing a moment with a woman whom I had done mendi art on. We sat together and talked for what seemed like hours with an intimacy I had never known before. I was so sad to see her go, and missed her terribly when she did. The connection was deep and intense, but I only saw her one other time at the end of the week when we hugged goodbye. I'll never forget her, and never be sorry that she quickly floated into and out of my life.

So, that first burn changed me. I was a convert. I came to consider myself a Burner, which is the term attendants use for themselves. Fast forward to 2008. I have just returned from my fourth Burn. The second and third were not quite as magical as the first, but this year I feel like I rediscovered what captured me the first time.

This year, we were in Kidsville, a collection of camps in a designated area known as a village, where possession of a child is required in order to stay there. And this year I was a Playa Mom. In the mornings, we served cereal, Pop Tarts, tang and bacon. Kids and adults alike would magically appear as soon as the smell of bacon wafted across the village. The cereal and Pop Tarts were quite a hit as well. The day we broke out the Lucky Charms was our busiest.

It was great. Kids were clambering for cereal and bacon, soy milk and granola magically appeared from one of the neighbors, and everyone picked up after themselves. We visited, talked about our real lives and about the random playa moments that make Burning Man such a special experience.

By 11:00 we were done with Cereal Camp, and could clean up and go explore the playa, which we did. We saw amazing art, Barbie Death Camp, one of our favorite places, people doing silly things, people doing interesting things and random acts of kindness.

I over prepared this year and I was glad I did. Almost every time someone needed something, I was able to say, "Hold on a sec, I've got that for you." And, I was happy to share. I gave aloe vera to some one with psoriosis, sunglasses, an extra hat, zinc oxcide to someone with a rash, and hand sanitizer at the porta-jons. Half the enjoyment of Burning Man is being in a society where it's alright to give, and giving can be so healing for the soul. It can make you smile all day. And it's contageous.

For the second year in a row, my son lost his bike on the playa. The first year was my fault, because I forgot the locks. This year he lent his bike to a stoner who had let him play his drums, and of course, the stoner lost it. The guy felt bad about it though. So much so that he actually offered me his pot in return. Now that might not sound all that generous, but here's a guy, who lives in his van, and carries his drums everywhere, and the only other valuable thing he has is his stash...and he was willing to give that up to the mom of the kid whose bike he lost. He was a stoner with a heart of gold. Just the gesture was enough for me.

And because it was, we were blessed with Playa Magic. As I walked back to my camp, I came across an abandoned bike with a blown innertube. I walked the bike back to my camp, fixed the tire and gave it to my son. Yup. That's Burning Man.

Friday, September 5, 2008

I hike

I like to hike. No, that's not right. I love to hike.

I love putting on my shoes, slathering myself in 40% Deet and heading to the Bay Ridge Trail that is less than a mile from my house.

The dogs seem to like it as well. Every time Jada sees me putting on my trail runners, her tail wags and she begins to jump in anticipation. Blondie hears the commotion and comes running as well. They love the trail. It's one of the few places they are allowed off leash. And the trail, unlike the dog park holds endless wonders in the form of lizards, pheasants, wild turkey, the occasional deer and odd coyote. Yes we all love to hike.

When we get to the trail, the dogs start going wild. They choke themselves pulling me to the point where they know the will be released into the wild. Jada goes off leash first and bounds into the dry grass prancing like a stag. Blondie stays on leash a little longer. Being a terrier mix, she has a tendency to run off. I wait till we are further up the trail where there are no detours for her to take before I let her go.

The first hill we climb is not that steep but runs about the length of two football fields. Two hundred yards of gradual incline is enough to labor your breath, feel the strain in your quads and begin to feel sweat form on the back of your neck, regardless of the temperature. Achieving this first slope is always a satisfying reminder that I can triumph over obstacles if I keep a steady pace. I've done it before, thus I can do it again. When the incline flattens out a bit I take a quick swig of water and continue on.

The next hill is much shorter but steeper. My second wind kicks in and I reach down to let Blondie off the leash. She takes off like a rocket running back and forth like a white streak with Jada close behind her. They will spend the rest of the hike playing this game of chase back and forth up and down the trail as I progress up and down the hills. When I get close to the top of the second hill I allow myself a look back at the world below. I can see the hills of Contra Costa county and a good portion of South Hampton Bay that makes Benicia so picturesque. Sometimes when I look back I see the Amtrak train on the tracks on the other side of the water glowing from the reflection of early morning sun.

When I get to the top of this hill I can also see the Carquinez Bridge which is the first bridge to the San Francisco Bay Area when coming west on Interstate 80. Occasionally when driving across this bridge I'll see an out of state car, obviously on some sort of cross country trek. I always look at the passengers just to see their amazement that there is water on this side of the land and this is where one really sees it. Beyond the Carquinez Bridge lies the rest of the Bay Area of which I can only make out various hills that I know are covered with eclectic suburbs, oaks, and dry grass not unlike that which I currently work my way through.

The third hill is the steepest. The trail winds back and fourth to get to the top. The dogs will typically stop running at this point and simply trail behind me. It's steep for them too. We get to the top and I begrudgingly turn back. Beyond this hill is a meadow, a ridge, another slope, and then a good steep climb that yields a view of the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the inland delta on the other, this of course if the weather is clear. But I don't have time for that on my morning hikes. I only have time to make it to the third hill. So, I sigh and return back to repeat my steps back to my car.

I take this hike 2 to 4 times a week. I do it for a number of reasons. Stress is one. It's a great way to expend excess energy that comes with unresolved drama and strife. Weight loss is another. I've lost a good 20 lbs. since I started hiking these hills. But more than anything, I do it to think. For some reason, this is when I do my best thinking, and my thoughts have a way of aligning themselves in an order that makes sense when I work my way up and down those hills. The views, the wildlife, the sounds, are all just a backdrop to the larger symphony that goes on in my head where deeds and intentions align themselves like chords, and it all begins to make sense. Sometimes it's like a waking dream where thoughts I didn't even know I had float to the top of my consciousness and I'm forced to consider what they signify.

Hiking for me is an exercise both physical and mental. It reminds me that I'm strong, and allows me a space where I have no choice but to hear what my mind says. Sometimes what I hear is scary, and other times it's informative, but almost always it leaves me with a sense of clarity that I'm thankful to have when I am done.