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 about.com, (http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/healthcare/a/tallbutfat.htm) 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. " (http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/wgtloss.html) 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.