Sunday, October 27, 2013

Praise Products That Are Built with Science (or in the Kitchen)

“How was it?”
“Ehhh” (the universal noise someone makes when they are stalling’s for a polite answer that doesn't give away too much disappointment).
“Well… it was only as good as water.” My husband was talking about the homemade ‘shave butter’ I crafted with honey and coconut oil once we ran out of the good stuff*.

There are few particular instances when I get crafty with natural products:  the downtime between purchases (a quick replacement until I can get to the store), the result of research, and when the spirit moves me into creating something that doesn't yet exist in real stores. The point is that some things in the better than science natural category truly work, and some are just crap. This article is about the crappy ones so that you, dear reader, do not succumb to wasting time or precious ingredients on these things.

Body Lotion. Body lotion is tricky. I am allergic to a lot of ingredients, and have tried Crisco, coconut oil, cocoa butter, Shea butter, Vaseline, and a combination of these things together. If you’re not picky, then any of these will keep your skin hydrated after a shower, however, sheets and clothes will absorb the oil smell from whatever you choose and you also get the benefit of being a delicious snack-lick for pets.
Toothpaste. I made toothpaste from castile soap, coconut oil, and some eucalyptus essential oil (since I didn't have any mint). I’m saving this recipe for when I go “off the grid” and can no longer go into supermarkets. Seriously, if you’re in a pinch, the high school sleepover trick of using floss and mouthwash is a much better option if you’re going to be in the company of other human beings.
Foot Powder. Baking soda for foot powder. I was borrowing the idea of baking soda making your fridge smell better here, but my shoes became personal foot slip n’ slides for at least two weeks after attempting this.
Steak or BBQ sauce. Over the past five years I’ve made probably 3 or 4 gallons of this stuff and none of it was that good, usually because I was lacking some ingredients (orange zest) or the recipe was overly ambitious (no sugar BBQ sauce that also tasted great).
Hair dye. There are blogs that claim one can change their hair color with lemon, cinnamon, tea or honey. After spending several hours under the cap, I can assure you the difference in the before/after is underwhelming. There’s probably a hair type where each of these solutions works, but since my hair is porous and curly, I might as well go with the dye that’s been formulated to be ‘gentle.’
Conditioner. While we’re on the topic of hair products, I’ll admit that once (or five times) I've used mayonnaise as a deep conditioner. You know what? All this does is make your head smell like egg salad. The number of shampoos required to remove the smell negated any conditioning benefits of the oil.
Lastly, shaving butter. Coconut oil and honey are delicious, but don’t have the physical properties to make for a proper shave.

Those are the major busts. Here is a list of natural items that have worked, with recipes:

Bronzer: 2 TBSP unsweetened cocoa powder + 1 – 3 TBSP starch (corn, tapioca, etc.) You will also smell amazingly delicious to yourself circa six or seven hours into wearing it. This recipe also works as a dry shampoo for dark hair.
Copper pot bottom cleaner: 1 TBSP ketchup + 1 TSP salt. This isn’t as good as Barkeeper’s Friend, but it will make do.
Silver jewelry cleaner: Non-gel toothpaste: I hate tarnish, and I hate getting out the silver cleaner and a rag just for my Claire’s earrings. Nothing beats minty fresh ears!
Sauerkraut: If you can handle the smell, 1 head of shredded green cabbage + 3 TBSP salt + time. I've made some of the best tasting sauerkraut with doubling up gallon Ziploc baggies. Most people make theirs with stone pots or jars. The important thing here is to use good cabbage; red and savoy cabbage make subpar kraut because it’s so dry compared to green cabbage.
Fat free, creamy salad dressing: 1 TBSP fat free Greek yogurt + 1 TSP spicy mustard + 1 TSP honey + enough white vinegar to thin out the mixture enough for your tastes. I make this every couple of days to put on my salads at work. It’s not ranch, but it’s not the ole’ oil and vinegar standby either.
Conditioner: Use enough molasses to cover your head. I’m not sure why this is so great, but my dark curls look phenomenal (even better than a coconut oil soak) after leaving this on for 30 minutes and washing it out. I hear honey works as an equivalent for light hair, but I can't personally verify this.

Protein muffins:
·         1 cup of whey protein
·         1 cup of flour (I use whole wheat pastry or barley but regular is fine)
·         2 TSP baking powder (I use Haines Featherweight no sodium)
·         3 sweetener packets (I use Stevia)
·         ½ TSP cinnamon
·         ½ TSP allspice
·         2 large eggs
·         1 TSP vanilla
·         1 TBSP canola oil
·         ½ C applesauce (no sugar added)
·         ½ C fat free Greek yogurt

Mix all dry ingredients together in one bowl. Mix all wet ingredients together in another bowl. Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix. Pour into ten muffin cups and bake at 350 for 25 minutes.
Depending on the brand of whey used, each muffin contains around 100 calories, 10 grams of protein, less than 3 grams of total fat, and 10-12 grams of carbohydrates.

Some lessons learned about these muffins:
·         If you put more than the described amount of flour or protein in these, they will come out roughly the consistency of rocks.
·         If you use chocolate flavored protein, replace the spices with 1 TSP of unsweetened cocoa powder.
·         Pureed pumpkin can be substituted for applesauce, but the muffins will come out less sweet (they aren't very sweet in the first place).

*Two orders of Shave Butter have been paid for and are shipping directly to our house post haste.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Best Kinds of Sales

“DIVORCE SALE,” was written in big, rushed letters on the sign.

“Honey, do you think we should turn around?” I’m not usually pulled in by sales on the side of the road, especially highways, and especially from people holding signs.

“I think if we’re going to turn around, we should do it right now.”
“No. Because you know what will happen. We’ll buy something very nice for very cheap and get a visit from a very angry person in a week or two.”

“We got all that other nice furniture from a divorce. Just sayin’”
“I know. But it wasn’t purchased from a sad person holding a sign on the highway…”
“She could throw it in the bushes just in case he shows up.”

Ah yes, divorce sales… which are arguably even better than the combined total of estate, yard, and bake sales because there’s an element of one person trying to screw other another (or letting go of “baggage”) in a divorce sale. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ayn and Nora: Perspective is at the Root of All Decisions

On a sick day, I usually turn to reruns of The Price is Right but this time I settled for a documentary of Ayn Rand (The Sense of Life, 1998). About this time last year, I read Atlas Shrugged, and it stuck with me because the philosophies on servitude and oppression of talent felt evident in my ill-fitting job at the time. I only got through the first hour of the documentary, realizing that the internet might have more engaging (or at least the possibility of unbiased) content of this interesting lady.

I was not disappointed.

After sifting through scores of articles on how she might have had a psychological or mental disorder, I found the story of reuniting with her youngest sister, Nora, to be the most intriguing. After 35 years of no communication, Nora came to visit Ayn in Manhattan. She didn't like America because of the overabundance of choice (known today as decision fatigue), the conveniences of our technology, and a much more tacit issue of having one’s dreams (i.e. freedom) at arm’s length versus in one’s head, where it can remain glamorized and untouched by the burdens of reality.  

This might take a few minutes...
Before reading this article, I wasn't sure why anyone would not like it here. When I was in college, I met a couple of Russian girls my age that definitely preferred to live in their old home versus Maryland. They couldn't quite articulate the issue, and I dismissed it as an offhand comment.* However, the insight of the sisters’ reunion made the stark difference of how we value human relationships and time spent on any given activity. Not that all relationships in America are shallow, but with the heavy emphasis on networking, Facebook friend numbers and general screen time, we spend surprisingly little face time with our friends and family. American culture, with its conveniences and technology, is set up to enable workaholism, consumerism, and indulgence of all waking hours into anything we like. It’s wonderful, but not for everyone.

"To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." 
- Friedrich Nietzsche

As for achieving one’s dreams or adhering to an archetypal purpose, I’m conflicted because there are a lot of individuals who are satisfied with their current lives and don’t require freedom to fulfill their self-actualization. 
Livin' the dream.
The flavor of American Dream that entails of leading a fuller, richer life may not appeal to such people. There will also be those who are driven, who will do the work and find the place they need to be. For those in between – who are not satisfied with their current position and don’t have the drive for doing something about it – this is a case of clashing or unknown values, which requires some psychological or spiritual digging and a different perspective for resolution.

*The majority of folks who've come here from another country are overwhelmingly positive about being here. Some quotes:
"You know, the best part about being in America is ordering food through the window of your car and being able to eat it inside the car!" 
"I've waited 25 years in order to ride a big roller coaster like this. We don't have them at home."
"You can work hard and move up. Or be lazy and not make money." 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Two Brush Surprise

I have two toothbrushes - one for my teeth, and one for cleaning jewelry and other things that require small bristles (hair clippers, fingernails, etc.). Of course since they are the exact same model, there's a chance for mix up, which happened yesterday. 

Eeeny meeny...

After I re-brushed my teeth with the correct toothbrush (I was afraid I made my teeth dirtier using the 'designated cleaning brush,' ironically), I laughed at myself.

It triggered an old memory where my sis and I incessantly giggled while my grandma brushed her hair at our dresser. 
She finally asked, "What is it?"
"That's the brush we use on the cat HAHAHAHA!!" 
Of course the brush was an old hairbrush we used on ourselves at some point, but was innocuously laying out next to the mirror among jewelry and socks.

This indicates either that history is doomed to repeat, or that I should store 'tools' in a way that makes them obvious they aren't to be used for hygiene. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Putting Your Work in the River of the Universe

This time last year, I changed jobs in my field. I was excited to have new work and a new crowd, but a few months in the initial energy dissipated and I decided my dream was to leave the organization completely to pursue a creative field. I also decided to give myself five years to pull together a strategy and implement it.
The biggest (or most pressing issue) was that I couldn't find any good resources on how to make this transition. At the time, I was signed up for an online entrepreneurial organization that provided interviews of people who ‘made it’ as specialists in their field, and who made enough money to support themselves. Others in the group were somewhere on the path, figuring out how to act normally in a crowd or how to get feedback on their business ideas. I was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and honestly looking for a way to replace my income stream with something else.

I set out multiple fishnets to figure out a path. I informally interviewed five well respected engineers at work on how they managed their careers. Consistently, their response was that they just said yes to whatever came along, which sometimes took them out of their ‘comfort zone.’ They iterated that this was the key to their success. I was happy to find consistency, but I had no idea what the heck they meant without some specifics or context. People tend to learn a lot when they are out of their comfort zone, but that doesn't mean that they become excellent at anything. When I was a technical trainer, which had nothing to do with my engineering degree, I was probably a “B-rated” trainer, as I had no formal grooming, nor did I really care about getting more polished as a speaker, or spent my free time learning how to use the software better.

I also asked people in the entrepreneur forums how they transitioned careers. I got one lonely half-response from a woman who served as a diplomat and is now selling Chinese tea. I asked her all sorts of questions about how she was able to find the opportunities for tea, and how she managed her money situation. She was obviously happy about her business, but I wanted to know how she discovered her calling, and what triggered the switch. As it turns out, people don’t necessarily want to get into these types of details about their lives. Besides the tea seller, I exhausted several other outlets, including a lot of internet research.  I wasn't looking to copy a specific road map, but I couldn't see my own path based on information that only scratched the surface. I wanted to understand everything about the emotional roller coaster of “making it”, as well as any monetary changes. I didn't want to go back to a chaotic financial place.

But at the core of this research, from all of these attempts, I was looking for permission to let my creative work into the world. I wanted my paintings and writing to be “good enough” to exist beyond the safe walls of our home. It’s an incredibly scary world out there, especially after watching the constant tearing down of celebrities and artists on the internet or in the news.  I haven’t put in the 10,000 hours into any one thing (maybe sleeping), and so I don’t necessarily consider myself qualified enough to join the race of fantastic painters and story tellers.

However, the vision and the drive are still there. I have always been able to see a distant light on the horizon of doing something great, of contributing something great in the world.

This past week, I submitted a painting* I’d been working on in my oils class to the media contest at work. It took all the guts I had, because I've committed over a decade of time to studying and applying engineering, efficiency, and data management. I finally let my work “into the river.” I have no idea what will happen, but after submission, I experienced an incredible peace. How funny that I need to prove something like this to myself – even when there’s nothing at stake.

In fact, I’m inspired to do another portrait, maybe this time using an original photo versus copyrighted material.

One day at a time…

*I wouldn't feel right posting a picture of the painting here, as it would invoke copyright infringement. The original picture is Sakuran II by Zemotion, found here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Synergy of Lifestuffs

Every so often, I troll through my old journals. The journey usually ends up with a self awareness that is either: hilarious, impressive, or circular. Today I found a particular entry from this day in 2005 which hit at least two of the three marks:

Sweet Frog: Perfection in a cup
Most Perfect

The most perfect dinner is family and friends, salad, soup, three different breads, five different spreads, sweet tea, flavorful meat (maybe gravy), two vegetables (one of them green beans), wine, water with bubbles in ice, and dark chocolate with strawberries and whip cream. 

The most perfect boyfriend is one who considers you, the future, how he presents himself, and his family. He balances work and play, and shares all of his interests and friends with you. He likes animals, and makes you laugh. Every once in a while, he'll make you his favorite omelette recipe and help you move apartments.

The most perfect game allows you to be active - a test of skill, strength, and agility. It is one where players wholeheartedly put their energies into, and it's not so much about the winning so much as having the guts to be the winner.

The most perfect sleep is one waking up refreshed. Going to sleep is as easy as smiling at a happy thought, and dreams are saturated with color and funny memories. Waking up is a quiet experience, and the refreshed feeling stays with you all day.

These things are still perfect against the vista of time, even the part about green beans.

Monday, August 26, 2013

How Long Will It Be When We Solve All of Life's Little Mysteries?

Ok, probably never. 

Gah! What IS this flag about??

But in August 2013, we are one step closer to enlightenment. Last month, I noticed a flag on our commute. It was a run-of-the-mill variety flag, proudly stuck at the end of a mailbox. What I noticed though, was that for a week or two, I couldn't discern what was on the flag. My picture taking skills are mediocre at best, mostly because I'm too impatient for the "right moment." Feeling a bit Nancy Drew, I had the dazzling idea of taking a picture of it every day until I could piece together the shape (my husband in the driver's seat course).

Day 1: I forget to take the picture. Doh!
Day 2: The wind assaulted the flag just at the moment I felt could only be the 'right' moment for the day. Shucks. 
Days 3-12: The flag was folded up on itself because the Forecast hovered somewhere between 'rainforest' and 'freak storm.' While technically on a pole, the flag looked like a sad pile of red laundry floating the usual 4 feet off the ground.
Day 13: Maybe it was the practice of taking a picture at 60 mph, but I managed to collect a really decent picture of the flag. The problem was that it was still too far away, and given that we're not in the magical future where one could blow up a myopic pixel to the screen of an iPad (with enhanced resolution), I could only guess at what this object on the flag was.  My guess was it was either a loaf of bread wearing a chef hat or a calculator with a steam cloud coming out of it. In an unofficial Facebook poll, I received a wild variety of answers, the most viable being an adding machine (which was verified by stopping his car and inspecting it one sunny afternoon).

I wasn't satisfied.

Day 14: I discovered the SnappyCam app via Lifehacker, which takes 20 pictures a second from your iPhone. This sounded like a game changer as far as my private investigation was going.

Day 15: The app was downloaded and loading. The slight whine to the start up alerted my husband that I was getting serious. What I didn't know (because I hate reading useful material after 6 pm), was that you didn't have to push the button 20 times per second to get the mindblowing experience that is SnappyCam. Without a fresh cup of coffee, I managed four pictures (much more than my usual one), and a few pictures of my knee. Like all good scientists, I was elated to have made progress. 

Later that evening, I was clued in that if you held down the button continuously, then the camera would take a stream of pictures at 20 per second. So close.

Day 16: I think I took 40 pictures pictures of that flag. But my husband decided to play a trick on me and turned on the windshield wipers at the "right" moment. Gah! I shot him a filthy as he wickedly laughed the whole way home (although I was laughing at how ridiculous this all was).

At this point, I was probably up to 50-60 shots of this flag on my phone. Deleting the 'bad ones' was getting to be a tad stressful, as they all looked like they could give me a smidge of info. 

"It's an adding machine," my husband said.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"I can see it when we pass by," was his response.

Given I was happy as a clam in my denial-fest, I wasn't about to solve this delicious mystery. My sense of wonder about the world and the je ne sais quoi of life stems from the very fact that I don't know stuff, (and my commute was on the cusp of less purposeful if I didn't take these pictures every day).

Day 17: I'm in the driver's seat and my husband promises to take a picture of the flag with my phone. "Weep!" was the familiar start up sound, followed by clicking that rivaled the sounds of a Geiger counter on radioactive spew.
"Let me see," I said. The moment of truth was about to be revealed...

He took a great picture of a flag with an adding machine on it. It is plainly attached to the mailbox with a sign touting in Sans Serif: Shaffer's Accounting. Time for a Scooby Snack.

Whaddya reckon? Would this make you stop to get your taxes done? Would you be relieved to pick out this driveway from the wasteland of other places to stop on the highway?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fresh Air and Good Books

I'm in the middle of reading two books. The first one is Phantastes (not to be misread as 'fantasies' which is something my lazy mind's ear would do) by George McDonald, written in 1858. It is about a journey through Fairy Land by our hero, Anodos, who is both unsure and ambivalent about such a place. Within Fairy Land, he meets, and later becomes obsessed with, the Marble Lady. She is closer to myth and an object Anodos craves to be with versus any real type of person. Like a Harry Potter story, there are things in Fairy Land that could only exist in a context of magic, such as bloodthirsty trees and enchanted mirrors. The settings described are creepy, mundane, and gorgeous.
Photo credit: Pargile at

The second book is October Vagabonds by Richard Le Gallienne, an English poet who wrote this book in 1910. This book, like the first, is about two men who journey on foot to New York when the first fall chill hits the air. I found this story a little harder to fall into at first, but I'm finding a lot of pretty mental descriptions of things they find on their journey through New England. I thoroughly enjoy the thought of a painter and a writer traveling together and cataloging something brilliant about each day. Maybe it's the moon, or a bird, or the way "Dutch Hollow" sounds in your head.

I haven't finished either book, but both make me want to pack up a knapsack (I'm pretty sure we only own duffle and book bags) and hit the road. Recently discovering the website, where the author describes what it's like living and traveling throughout Asia and the Middle East, has only added fuel to the fire (also, a great comprehensive resource on condiments!). My husband has dubbed this part of my personality as 'adrenaline junkie.'
Cabin fever induces a certain restlessness that is only released by going outdoors or somewhere away from the office slog, unfinished home projects, and to-do lists that can eat away most of the day.
When I finish these books, I'll be a little sad the journey is over. Maybe at that point I'll find another book that can take me away like a Calgon commercial.

Monday, August 12, 2013


I was watching TV at the dentist, trying to distract myself from the, and saw a McDonald's McCafe ad. The folks in the ad went in reverse - from being in a group on the beach to being a group in the parking lot with a lot of uncovered smoothies.

I'd like to point out that if the ad didn't feature models drinking high calorie beverages, carrying open drinks while running, or a group of grown-ass ladies on swings, then I'd believe this product could be something I could have in my own life. Evidently, this is how you would properly run with a beverage (note NO STRAWS). As of now, there's nothing realistic or even interesting about the ad. At least Dairy Queen's Blizzard ad explains all the recipes' inspirations... mmm s'mores. Not for a minute do I suspect that DQ includes fresh marshmallow (whatever that means), but a fast food treat that tastes vaguely like a s'more? I'm in!!

Let's be clear... I'm at the point in my life where ads only draw me in when I'm roused by something (or someone - if Christian Bale called me up for money, I wouldn't be able to resist). But I'm no marketing genius. The problem is that I don't pay attention to many ads, even if marketing gurus think they are tempting me with their products.

In Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, it was mentioned that Target in particular was one of those companies that tracks customers' purchases, address, spending habits, and lifestyle choices (see how they figured out when women are pregnant here). Each booklet of coupons sent to my mailbox are individually chosen based on my previous purchases and stereotype. Despite all the tracking however, the little coupons printed fresh from the receipt machine usually end up lining the kitchen trash bag. I have no interest in buying stuff that is off-brand, not necessary (like another pair of jeans), or isn't fresh.
No coupons please.
Recently I was in the Honda dealership waiting room overhearing a conversation between a daughter and what I thought were her parents,

"I ended up getting the blah blah SUV in Alabaster Silver."
Pause, which I assume was the person on the other line asking more questions.
"Yeah, with the zero percent financing, I could sell my old car and have the payment lowered with blah blah interest to less than my old monthly payment."

I vaguely wondered if she was a robot, specifically a parrot robot that could remember all the advertising she was recently bombarded with. "Alabaster silver" was just 'light' silver, right?

No matter. She seemed happy, I suppose.

I guess it's a blessing not to get sucked into normal advertising (I'd probably be much more broke buying all the junk that's constantly hawked at women, alumni, people who own their car, people who eat food, and others...

Some examples:

Fun times for everyone!!!
This catalog (that actually came to my house) could be for anything...

World's largest?? I'm in!!
?!?! I can't even believe it myself?!?!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Selling Cold Water on a Cloudy Day: My Fascination with Making Money

Starting Out

When I was about 11 or 12, I was inspired to start a lemonade stand. The concept was motivated either from a commercial or a show on Nickelodeon. It was intoxicating how one could make a few extra bucks using things laying around the house! All I wanted was to buy the next book in the Goosebumps series, but because I hated babysitting so much, my cash flow at the time wasn't supporting my reading habit. 
This kicked off my lifelong fear of ventriloquism props.
There were two major obstacles: one was we didn't actually have lemons or lemon juice. The second problem was that I didn't drink lemonade, and I had no idea how to make it. Fortunately, these setbacks were much smaller than my non-full bookshelf.

I decided to go with what I knew, and decided to sell plain water instead of lemonade from one of our plastic pitchers. I decided that the shortcomings could be easily remedied with smart marketing, so I created Burma Shave signs that began at the top of the street that closely resembled soda slogans:
Feeling Thirsty?
How about a refreshing drink?
Best water you've tasted all day!
Come on by!

I probably should have rhymed too, in retrospect
One of the neighbors took pity on me, and purchased a largish Dixie cup of ice water from my makeshift stand for a quarter. While certainly not the same profits of babysitting, I was impressed with myself for coming up with this idea, and pulling it off on a 60 degree, cloudy day.

Sometime around 2003, I idly dreamed of being an interior designer. Of course I skipped to the good part where I was making millions designing rooms for people who had incredible amounts of money. Since I had no plan or money, all of my decorating attempts at this point were C- at best. In fact, I vaguely knew what furniture belonged in what room, despite my mom's best efforts at repeatedly ordering Southern Living and other room-project-magazines during the entirety of my life.

Using the term "design" loosely, I implemented great ideas like:
A swing under my loft
Rope lights, a cheaper cousin of the neon sign.
Inside yurts with sheets. Do you remember sheet forts as kids? This is probably a more accurate description.
Spray painted picture frames.
Cat furniture as modern art.
Fake ivy leaves around mirrors... to create that 'fairy garden feeling' anywhere, especially the bathroom, which usually needs a lot of magic.

Money and Happiness

On April 15, I read Penelope Trunk's article about how much money you need to be really happy. While this concept isn't exactly news, it made me think about how much money would really be worth the effort. 

When I lived in Alexandria, I diluted my Suave shampoo with water so I could afford my sports car. The car itself had a high payment per month (over $500/month). The insurance, even though I'm female with no accidents, was $2200 a year! The taxes, on top of all of that, were over $350/six months just to park my car on the street (dents were free). It was an expensive choice. If I had to do it all over again, maybe I would have chosen differently. I was apathetic at the time whether I wanted better clothes or a car with a turbo.*
Who needs fresh hair when you're rockin' this??
It got sort of intense. There was a night where I made pizza out of the leftover veggies in the fridge. When the pizza was done, I bent to pick it out of the oven and it burned my hand. I dropped the pizza and had to choose whether to eat it off the floor or eat almonds for dinner. I didn't have enough money to go to the town's two-star Taco Bell. Feel free to judge, but I chose the almonds, simply because the state of my floor wasn't clean enough to be a plate. My paycheck, thankfully, arrived in my account the next day. 

Hopefully I will never go back to that lifestyle, as I had see-through toilet paper, and could not afford to go to the swanky places in and around the Alexandria area. In fact, every weekend I took a cooler to my friend's house (an hour away!) because groceries were cheaper there. The irony was that I was 20 lbs heavier at the time, because I was so enamored with, and perhaps dependent on, free food (e.g. bagels, ice cream, etc.), and salads are rarely free.

If you only get one trip to the Pizza Hut salad bar, make it count! 
What makes me kind of happy is that there are other articles saying that being a good saver is better than making extra dough. According to me (of course), I'm an excellent saver. I could probably stretch $30K way farther than the average bear because I can prioritize and discard what's unimportant. 

Unlike shampoo, undiluted ketchup is important.

Growing Up (a little)

After my sports car, I bought something easier to insure and equally zen to spend time in for the daily commute. It was everything I could want in a car, especially if I were to spend more than half an hour in it. I started eating better, and spent money to make salads and healthy food at home. Affordability was no longer an issue, but it was still expensive to eat right and make good money decisions. 

I hope if I get to the point of making $700K per year, that my decisions will be whether I get a driver for my car or not... whether I go to the French Riviera or not... whether I decide on the dryer that automatically folds clothes or does taxes. 

* When I was working on Capitol Hill, clothes were a big deal AND you spent a lot of time in your car. At the time, it was hard to find a good balance. Being respected and being comfortable are still in direct conflict, but at least now I'm not making those crazy insurance payments!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mannequins are Just Like Us

It was 2 pm on Saturday, and The Mister and I were impatiently waiting in the dealership’s queue for someone to help us. All we wanted was an inspection, and what the dealership didn't know was that I've had inspections before that only took 10-15 minutes. Using our laser beam stares (dual-focused for maximum effect) we finally got a nice man’s attention. 

“It’ll be an hour and a half…. at the most,” he quickly added, probably after noting the two holes in the ceiling right above my eyebrows.

“Yeah. We’re out.”

We decided that we needed a break. 
A date even, post haste. 
So we went to our favorite watering hole right off I-95, which also happens to be at the mall, because walking around in air conditioned bliss while people watching is one of our favorite things to do.

Once in the mall, “Look at that mannequin! I mean, who even can stand that way in real life?” he said.

I couldn't come up with anything; however, like a trail of breadcrumbs, there were mannequins only a mere stone's throw away that looked like this:

"What is she thinking?"
"Hmm.. probably whether or not she looks good in that dress, or maybe she's just judging all of us humans as we walk by."
Ten paces further, a whole set!

We like standing in line. And bad wigs.
Holy cow! We really hit on something here. There happens to be an entire subculture of mannequins that only differentiated themselves from us only by their plastic skin (and sometimes stares). They are just like us. For example, they have friends:

Oh! That's the same place I shop!!

They have dreams:
Need more pixie dust.

They get married:
Saying yes to the dress.

They get pregnant:
Boy or girl? Oh mannequin, cool!

And have little ones:

They have jobs:
Werkin' it
And today's secret ingredient is... legs!

They put on weight:
Add caption

And work it off:
I just got back from Power Power class.
I never eat doughnuts!

They hang out:
Mannequins photobombing each other.
Does anyone have a quarter? 

They enjoy the upper crust:
Life in plastic, it's fantastic!

They hire their own butlers:
Welcome home, Sir. 
Just like us!! 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Novelty of Going Back in Time

I grew up with a book practically attached to my arm, and somehow managed to develop a triangular thumb from keeping paperbacks wedged open hours on end. In a minute of inspiration (with the help of Amazon), I purchased a paperback copy of the Starlight Crystal for $0.01. This was my favorite book in high school, although I was a fan of a lot of Christopher Pike’s work. 
A lot of my high school days looked like this.
Reading his stories made me feel powerful and smart – things that are totally up my alley. I had completely forgotten what this particular story was about, but the cover art reminded me (in the cobwebby part of my brain) that the story affected me in a deep, unchangeable way.

When it arrived, I was disappointed at the thinness of it. I also laughed at myself for the label ‘reader,’ when most of the books I consumed in high school were on the order of a couple hundred pages at most. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix* was 870 pages, 570 pages short of War and Peace.

I should also mention that I've developed a bit of attention deficiency over the past few years. Back when I had an extremely long attention span, I’d spend hours cataloging and rehearsing the lyrics to songs like Jump Around and Slim Shady. Granted, there was a certain level of freedom not owning a car, having access to the internet, or paying bills.  The last time I did nothing for a stretch longer than a few minutes was sometime in 2008, when I was still convinced that I could change the entire world.

The lack of attention has spilled into my reading habit, and I have frequently picked up a book only to stop reading it 30 pages or so in. Perhaps the part of my intellect that thoroughly enjoyed young adult lit refuses to evolve into big-girl stories. There’s also a lot of crap out there that’s not worth reading, or it just takes too long to get into (Tolkien, Tolstoy).

As I opened up the yellowed pages, I expected another childhood memory to be ruined (like the time I watched a Strawberry Shortcake episode or ate a blueberry Pop-Tart - gah!), but my curiosity at that point had reached critical mass. I shouldn't have worried – I inhaled the book in one day.

I probably won’t do the book justice with my description, so here's what I liked about it. It was the first book in ‘my collection’ with a Buddhist flavor; it was a story about space-time, destiny, and discrimination of the real and temporary. Writing the narrative was probably tough, because it's through the lenses of a teenage girl, and also has a striking vision of how galaxies work with the mechanisms of spirituality. When I read this book the first time, it was hard to understand the concepts of permanence because my concept of forever was sort of tiny (after all, I had four friends that made a BFF pact). It also didn't help that my only resource for space-time concepts was contained in a dusty copy of A Brief History of Time on our bookshelf. However, the story of looking for someone special across galaxies and centuries captured my heart, and it was the first story I enjoyed reading on how 'things happen for a reason.' 

I was pumped after reading it again. It meant that I do not have the attention span of a gnat, and I remembered how great it was to enjoy young adult fiction (or philosophical stories about aliens). That said, I'm up for suggestions on what to read next! Please post in the comments.

*I read this entire series as well as the Hunger Games trilogy. Both were good, but Harry's story moved much quicker (and who can argue with the cool factor of magic?).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Beyond Sustenance and Taste, An Ode to Food

A modern-day Boo Radley knothole.
When I was seven, I was privileged to have a snack cabinet, at my grandmother's house, all to myself. Of course there were paper plates and extra cups stored in there, but there were also little treasures of Fig Newtons, and ‘Nabs.’

If you’re not familiar, Nabs are Nabisco products, mainly bags of crackers or chips, and I was obsessed with Fig Newtons because of its weird texture and slight aftertaste. Fig Newtons were my inspiration to be sneaky. How could I get two packs of Fig Newtons without being obvious?

My sister, the stealthier of the two of us, had a weakness for the candy dish.  Watching her remove the glass top was like watching Stella open the safe in the Italian Job. When I opened the dish, inevitably a grownup would yell from the other room, “Get out of the candy!” Dang.

Food, particularly the variety that foodies and doctors warn you about, was always a fun memory to revisit. My grandma would ‘split a Coke,’ with me, or we’d pack up a cooler of snacks for a trip to the pool. My sister and I first learned how to negotiate with Kellogg’s cereal variety packs. We took extreme care to ensure if someone was stuck with the Frosted Mini Wheats, then they got dibs on the Frosted Flakes.  

I was a pretty happy kid, but there came a time when I needed to be out of the house every so often. Fortunately, food was also a way to get out of the house, and I was very open to even the smallest field trips. Bubba’s, a soft serve joint, was just half a mile away, and happened to serve a mean banana milk shake. We also filled after-class time with Cappuccino Blasts and Rax’s curly fries.

What were we thinking when we made a Wendy’s frosty run? It wasn't important, and most likely, it was just an excuse to drive “the Strip” on Friday night. Or mess with the Wendy’s workers by driving the car backwards through the Drive-Thru. Food represented a context; it was an entity that coincided with an event, effectively creating a snapshot of time. The BBQ sandwich special at Short Sugars* was a small reprieve from high school classes (and it didn't hurt that it was $2.63 for the sandwich, chips, and a sweet tea). Joe and Mimma’s was the ‘fancy’ Italian restaurant that denoted straight A’s or a birthday. Auntie Anne’s was more about the quest for acquiring a limeade versus whether it was made of fresh juice or not (although I frequently became hypnotized by both the operation of the juicer and fresh-pretzel making while waiting to pay).

There was always a dose of people watching thrown in. My husband and I are masters of noticing oddities at restaurants, and our specific series of eye movements are undetectable, except from real spies. “Do you see that older guy over there?” one would say.
“Yeah, what about?”
“He’s got a jar of peanut butter at the table.”
Insert subtle, non-directional glance. Report verified.
“Who does that?”
“Maybe he just likes peanut butter.”**
“Sure, but when you decide to bring in a whole jar of something to an establishment, is it a quick decision or have you been thinking about it for a while?”

And so on. It is a delight to dine at both expensive and low-rent establishments. Weird people go to both types, though there’s a higher density of them at places like Waffle House after 2 am.

Now that I live in the county, my going-out options are severely limited. To keep the food front fresh, I take up experimenting in the kitchen and sharing with my husband, friends and coworkers. Sometimes it goes well, “Liz, you've made the most perfect dessert (angel food cupcakes with butter cream icing). The cake part collapses into itself and all you’re left with is a mouthful of icing.”

What the perfect dessert looks like.
This was after I had scrapped a whole bowl of homemade cookie dough that refused to rise en oven. I've also created the seven-pound pumpkin cheesecake, modifying and combining a couple of internet recipes on the subject.*** It is both a blessing and a curse being an everlasting gobstopper of a cake, but if you really want to show someone who likes cheesecake that they are special, it does the job. 

Honestly, it’s not as fun making things in the kitchen as it is sharing food, although any time spent perusing the Food Network would lead you to believe otherwise. As such, I've transformed our kitchen into a sort of laboratory, outfitted with a proper snack cabinet for our guests.

And cats, evidently.

*Didja know you can buy individual hush puppies here? Yes. They are 25 cents.
**This is a real conversation we had in a local diner.
*** I used these recipes for the biggest cheesecake ever:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Psychology of Not Doing Things

How many things can we get done today that have nothing to do with what "should" be done?

Where does this so-called "should" come from? Why do we end up not doing things that have an obvious logical benefit? There's something small that makes these tasks impossible, and I suspect has more to do with priorities over lack of motivation, personal accountability, or passive barriers. The barriers are the symptom of a value conflict, which I most frequently encounter with my to-do lists.

I have lists from six months ago where stuff still hasn't gotten done, but the consequences of not getting those things done clearly aren't strong enough for me to make them a priority. In many cases, I'll just let these things slide for days, weeks, months. Spoiler alert: I haven't washed my car in a year. My favorite things to NOT do are:

Getting my car cleaned or clothes tailored
Updating my passport
Cleaning the bathroom
Filing away papers

I know I should just file away the tax papers in a separate folder, so tax season won't be a struggle. But that damn folder is so elusive (and upstairs), so I just don't feel like making the extra effort to put the paperwork away... especially because it won't make taxes any easier or more fun. 

For the most part, these things get done eventually. Should I have spent time on these things over other things? No. But a pile of papers on the counter or a stack of ill fitting pants give me a slight ping. Over time, I've realized that most of the things on my to-do lists probably aren't that crucial anyway. Why would I spend my waking hours on lots of unimportant tasks?

My wish for today is for everyone take one thing on their to-do list and  NOT do it.