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!