Monday, December 29, 2008


Though it sounds selfish to admit it, this was truly the one Christmas where I got everything I wanted.

Cutting boards... knives... dishtowels... a spatula... measuring spoons... and THREE APPLIANCES!

The first, and initially most impressive, is the Magic Bullet. If you haven't seen the infomercial, this thing is like a mini-blender with scads of attachments and a theoretical twenty-four functions. (I'm thinking the Magic Bullet people are counting things like "mince garlic" and "chop onions" as two different functions.) I was ready to be wowed, but unfortunately the thing broke in two different places the first time I took it out of the box. We were able to fix the first break (the blade came undone from the base), but the second one (an attachment cracking when I tried to wash it) was permanent. So... verdict still out on the Magic Bullet's awesomeness. It has the potential to be very useful, but I'm a bit afraid it will start breaking again.

The second is my toaster, which I adore. When I was very poor in Minneapolis I once took a toaster out of a dumpster and cleaned it up. I had a lot of affection for that toaster because of the DIY aspect, but even more affection for this one because it doesn't have rust spots on the outside. Toast is one of the best parts of bread. ^__^

And the third, and probably my favorite, is my SLOW COOKER!!!!! I should actually call this one my re-favorite because it's the exact same model as the slow cooker a friend gave me a year ago, which I then gave to my old roommate because I couldn't take it with me to DC.

I have already made so much food with my slow cooker. It's so fantastic to have a slow cooker again.

Yay appliances!!!!!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day

One of the most interesting things about the Christmas season is the way it makes everyone so... contemplative. 'Tis the season for the making of plans, the tallying of accounts, and (for those Festivus-celebrants among us) the airing of grievances. Part of it, of course, is due to Christmas' position at the end of the calendar year; but part of it seems to be because of our goal, every year, to get Christmas "right."

This year we're going to spend less. Or eat less. Or bake better Christmas cookies (and then eat fewer of them). This year we're going to start a new tradition, or give only locally-made gifts, or try to make it through the weekend without fighting with our relatives.

This year we're going to send our cards on time; do our shopping on time; wrap everything in wrapping paper made with 100% post-consumer content. We're going to destress, take our children to the Nutcracker or the animal shelter, give them more presents so they won't feel the pinch of the economic season or give them fewer presents so they will learn the joy of being satisfied with less.

We're going to find the perfect present for everybody, but we're not going to make Christmas about the presents, because that's not what Christmas is about.

This year, we're going to learn once-and-for-all what Christmas is really about.

As this kind of thinking passes through our minds the way a Lionel engine meanders on electric tracks by the three little carolers cast together in red-and-green plastic, in another direction comes another train, this one traveling on an introspection born of uncertainty.

What if she doesn't like what I bought her? What if I picked wrong? What if they think my house isn't clean, or that I've put on weight, or they don't like the movie, or they don't eat the cookies; what if there's nothing to talk about, or we start fighting after all; what if the bread doesn't bake or the pie doesn't jell or we can't get tickets?

What if they don't get me what I wanted? What if all of my presents are so wrong that it means that no one was paying attention, and then why weren't they paying attention???

What can I wear so they think I'm successful? What can I show them so they think I'm interesting? What can I feed them so they think I can cook? What should I put in my house, or plan for our time together, so they understand that I understand what Christmas should be?

And this whole thing takes months, sometimes. Thinking and shopping and essay after essay in the New York Times (et al) about how to plan a meaningful Christmas, a stress-free Christmas, a low-cost Christmas, an anti-consumer Christmas, a healthy-food Christmas, a fashionista Christmas, a spiritual Christmas, a secular spiritual Christmas, a magical Christmas, a right Christmas, the Christmas where we all finally prove that we know what Christmas is all about.

And in the meanwhile we get all discombobulated and short-tempered trying to work out the various cross-purpose equations. (This is where the grievances start to get aired, unfortunately. It's no coincidence that Festivus is celebrated on December 23.)

And then in my case on Christmas morning itself my family arrived while my hair was still wet and before I had a chance to light the twenty-four glittering tealights (uncheck the "appearing successful" and the "magical decorations" boxes), and in everyone else's cases it was something else a little bit different but a little bit the same, and the truth is that we muddle through the day like we do every year, and then it's over.

The squash turned out well; the Hello Cupcakes were a huge success; I tried a new way of baking bread which caused the crust to stick to the pan (but the upper 3/4ths of the bread tasted fine). I gave a few good presents, and received my long-awaited toaster as well as a MAGIC BULLET (which was UNEXPECTED and SO AWESOME!!!!!). Later we all went for a walk, to see the fifty Christmas trees outside the White House.

And now it's over. (And I've got about an hour-and-a-half left of being contemplative before I chuck it and start looking at the twenty-four fabulous cooking things that the Magic Bullet can do for me. ^__^)

I wrote at the beginning of all this
that I didn't know how to create a celebration out of such a high-maintenance, cross-purposes holiday. (Yes, I know I used "cross-purposes" twice now. Is there a better way to describe Christmas?) And I've decided, now, that I don't know at all what Christmas is "all about," but we got a good meal out of the day, and a pleasant walk, and my parents get to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle while I get to plan out how to use my Magic Bullet to make my own hummus.

And I was about to end the post there... when I got a link, via Twitter.

The Christmas season began with a man getting trampled to death at a Wal-Mart.

It ended with a blogger raising enough money (from anonymous donors) to keep her friends from losing their home.

Forget the twenty-four tealights and the recycle-paper Christmas cards and even my amazing Bullet. Forget the introspection and the contemplation. That's Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lululemon, or: The Story Of A Brand

At first I thought I would bake my yoga teacher a loaf of bread.

I baked my boss a loaf of bread, and she liked it; and I baked the rest of the office a loaf of bread, and they liked it. Giving bread is successful and cost-effective and tasty!

But last week everyone else in the yoga studio showed up with baked goods. The place was overflowing with them, to the point where my yoga teacher, after last week's class, invited me to pick and choose a sampler platter of cookies and muffins to take back with me.

So... bringing bread would probably be one baked good too much.

From my (and my mother's) experience as a piano teacher, I knew what it was like to get inundated with trinkets and tchotchkes and peppermint-scented hand lotion at Christmas time. I think my mom received, at some point or another, every possible thing that could be shaped like a piano. So I couldn't possibly insult my yoga teacher by going that route.

Then I thought "well, what would my teacher need?" The first thing that came to mind was cash; she is running a small business, after all, and we are living in hard economic times. I thought about giving her a Christmas bonus like one would give a hairdresser or doorman (this from a person who's never had either), but didn't know how to frame it without seeming tacky. Dear Yoga Teacher: Thanks for all your help. Here is a $20. It's intended for you to use on studio expenses but I suppose I can't stop you from blowing it on pizza if that's what you really want. Merry Christmas!

Then, in class, I noticed something. Lots of the stuff in the yoga studio had the same little symbol on it. It looked kind of like the silhouette of a woman with flipped-up hair. Okay, I thought. She must like that store. I need to get her a gift card for that place.

The trouble was that I couldn't exactly google "woman flipped-up hair" and try to find out what this place was. (Note to Gaurav and other marketers: this is an epic brand fail, no?) But, like a true Christmas miracle, I happened to pass a woman on the street this morning who was carrying a shopping bag. A shopping bag with that mysterious flippy-haired lady on it. The bag also had two words: Lululemon Athletica.

A quick googlemaps later, and I set off over my lunch break to visit my first Lululemon.

If the salesladies of Lush are like goth Hello Kitties, the salesgirls at Lululemon are like incredibly athletic Jack Russell Terriers. I stepped into the store, paused by the yoga mat section for the briefest instant, and was suddenly assaulted by an overwhelmingly cheerful "Do you like mats? I like mats! Look at all these mats! This one is my favorite mat, but this one is good too, and I really like this one, and this one is like the best mat ever, but it's super expensive. What kind of mat do you use?"

"I don't know," I told her. "I got mine for free when I bought a pair of shoes." (This is true. I've also had the same mat since high school.)

Now, I probably shouldn't rag on Lululemon too much for having enthusiastic salespeople. But Lululemon and Lush both seem to have the same problem: salespeople who talk and talk so much about the product that they don't take the time to listen -- or even ask -- what you need. At Lush it's all soap, but at Lululemon they have a sports bra aisle. And as enthusiastic as she was, I was not interested in hearing a stranger (even a trained one) give me unsolicited advice on how to handle "my ladies."

They've got good products in there, no doubt; and a staff eager and willing to help you find them (or, if that fails, shove them directly into your hands). But the most telling part of the Lululemon brand came at the end, when I was buying my gift card. You see, all around the store were these signs with these fill-in-the-blank inspirational goals: I will _______ by _______. I will skydive by this summer, I will switch to organic food by January, etc.

The woman who rung me up was wearing a fill-in-the-blank shirt. Hers said I will move out of my parents' house by May 2009.

I wish her the best.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Family Christmas Special (The Third)

In the offs and ons while I have been decking my halls, trimming my tree, returning my tree to the Target and then trimming a better tree, wrapping my presents, and cooking my non-Christmas-related Japanese candied lima beans, I've been watching old-school Christmas specials, courtesy of YouTube and various other internet streaming video sites.

What strikes me most about the brief explosion of Christmas cartoons which seemed to hit America in the early 1980s (and then continued to be aired every year for a good decade afterwards) is the quality of the music.

Let's take, for example, our friend Stephen Colbert and his recent A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All. Colbert hired a roster of famous musicians: Elvis Costello, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, John Legend, and Feist. Can anyone remember a single song from that show?

Now let's see if you can remember this one:

You hope, while I hurry
You pray, while I plan
We'll do what's necessary, 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand!

Even though Twas The Night Before Christmas (better known as "that one about the mice and the clock") first aired in 1974, that tune is so catchy that, over thirty years later, the South Park people just assumed we'd remember it. Speaking of which, probably most people who saw any of the South Park Christmas specials even once can still sing (albeit with a few mumbled lyrics) songs like "Jew on Christmas" or "Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo." (Mr. Hankey, the Christmas poo... he loves me and I love you... therefore vicariously he loves you!)

Anyone up for a Colbert Christmas special sing-along? Anyone? How about any other Christmas-special songs written in the last five years?

Didn't think so.

But ten points for the first person to (without looking it up) finish the 1987 Garfield Christmas Special lyric:

Dad would chop down the tree (Work!)
Mom would cook up a meal (Chores!)
Doc Boy would get in the way (Fighting!)


And a hundred billion bonus points to the person who recognizes the reference in the post's title. ^__^

Christmas Dinner In Its Skin

There she is. Isn't she a beauty?

I also have a live butter lettuce still attached to its root, which I didn't take a picture of because the woman at the Farmers' Market packed the lettuce into "its own ecosystem" (i.e. an opaque plastic bag which I cannot open until right before serving).

I love butter lettuce. ^__^

So: Christmas dinner will have butternut squash and butter lettuce (I see a trend here...), along with freshly-baked flaxseed bread and locally-made Vermeer cheese to eat it with; also apples, and the Alaskan salmon my parents are bringing.

Doesn't that sound delicious?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sheep: A Christmas Fable

It's been a strange news season this Christmas. All of the news stories seem to be saying "nobody is spending anything on Christmas this year," and yet the truth of the matter is a lot closer to the NYT story "Woman Sacrifices Designer Jeans For Herself So Child Can Have A Garage Full Of Presents," or, of course, to "Wal-Mart Worker Trampled In Rush For Flat-Screen TVs."

So I wrote a short story about it, sort of. A Christmas fable for economic hard times. Suggestions for improving the ending are much encouraged.


She took it from him while he was racing to the bathroom, eyes turned the other way, hands focused on unsnapping his little blue jeans in time to reach the toilet. She bent to pick up a sock while she was at it, then put it back; to make this work, she couldn’t risk making it look like anything else had changed.

There wasn’t much time to do anything but shove it into the top shelf of his closet before he finished; when she heard the flush the sheep was stuffed behind a tiny suitcase that hadn’t moved, otherwise, for a year. Then the bare feet came racing back and she asked, automatically, tiredly, “Did you remember to wash your hands?”

He hadn’t remembered, thankfully, because the tired reminder she gave him then and the stern walk back to the bathroom was still in both their minds, she hoped, when he went to bed an hour later and first noticed his sheep was missing. She told him he must have lost it somewhere; that he was careless, that he needed to take better care of his things. She let him throw his pillow down from the bed and look under all of his blankets, then under the bed itself, then into the corners of his sock-strewn room. She had to tell him to stop, so they could sleep, and that they would look again tomorrow.

After he went to bed she turned to the bills. It should be obvious at this point in the story that she was the kind of woman who had a lot of bills, and no husband, and a mother who had died sometime in the last year, which explained why the child-size suitcase hadn’t moved. There wasn’t anywhere for them to go, and no money for Christmas, and the kid had created a list of toys that filled two full pages. She blamed the school for that; they had given up on the cable a few months ago, but some teacher had the brilliant idea to steal an hour away from classroom management by having her students write out letters to Santa (can schools still do that?) and the stupid school believed in having students “learn in clusters,” which meant that her kid had sat at a little table with five other kids and spent the entire afternoon talking about toys.

So she took the sheep. She sat there, with the bills, trying to remember if this had ever been done before, in some Chicken Soup book or something, but the closest she got was a vague memory about a woman cutting off her own hair to buy her husband a watch combined with Charlie Brown buying that sad, stupid Christmas tree. They did have a Christmas tree this year, the same plastic tree that had sat in the laundry room, in its box, squeezed next to the washer, since last Christmas. There were no presents. She had told him that Santa would bring the presents.

Which meant that every day, in the six remaining days until Christmas, she had to remind him about that stupid sheep. It wasn’t hard, the first night; he woke up, in the middle of the night and couldn’t find it, and she had to re-remind him he had lost it and they had to re-search for it while she tried not to look at what time it was. The next evening, before bed, he remembered it himself and took the initiative to continue the search by taking the cushions off of the couch. The third day the couch cushions were still on the floor but he seemed to have forgotten; she had to ask “did you find your sheep yet?” and was gratified by his look of remembrance, then guilt.

He slept poorly without his sheep, and was cranky in the mornings, but she made him talk about Santa, about how Santa had the power to make magical things happen, and about how he could grant the Christmas wish of every good little girl and boy. At this point, of course, you can see exactly where the story is going, if you hadn’t seen it before; and yet the kid persisted, for the first several days, to talk about video games and racing cars and toys that required double-A batteries. Finally she brought out the memory of Grandma, who had given him that sheep when he was born, and then the tears came. It was about time.

The sheep was now wrapped in a box in her own closet, and on the evening of Christmas Eve itself she got her son to sit down and write a letter to Santa in which he asked for nothing for Christmas except his very own lost sheep, the one she had reminded him of every day. She let him put the letter in the mailbox and took it out again when his back was turned.

At this point it might be appropriate to invoke the Great Shepherd, or at least that shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep strewn across the hillside like discarded socks while he went looking for the missing one. But this mother hadn’t considered that far into religious metaphor, and took her son to church that night mostly because she felt like she ought to do so. Exhausted from the nightly searches for his sheep, he fell asleep halfway through.

And the next morning, when he saw the box underneath the tree—the only box that Santa brought, to fulfill his only Christmas wish—can you imagine how excited he must have been at that Christmas miracle? I think he was excited, despite the manipulation and deceit which led him to that excitement; despite the fact that he was duped into believing that it was his own fault to begin with. I think in that moment he was happier than any other child on God’s green earth. Certainly he took much better care of his sheep after that.

The place this story has to conclude, of course, is with a step into the future: the son, older, realizing what his mother did that year so that he could have a happy Christmas. The trouble is that there are two parts to that realization: the part that came first was when he was a teenager, and it caused him to say some very uncomplimentary things towards his mother. But we’ll skip over that and go straight to the part where he was an adult, where the story ends, where—in another book—he would have climbed up the windows into his mother’s house so he could cradle her while she slept and sing “I’ll love you forever.” Instead, he surprised her one Christmas morning with a single gift in a red-wrapped gift box: and as a good reader you should be able to know exactly what it was.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Blue Presents: Presents

Thanks to Lifehacker for teaching me how to wrap presents in images cut from holiday catalogs instead of going out to buy disposable holiday wrapping paper. ^__^

Also: a picture of a candy display in the Safeway labeled "Fannie May Bag Of Foil." Mmm... foil.

Not A Soap

Thirty seconds ago, this was going to be a very different post.

To wit: today we all got Christmas presents on behalf of our office. What was really neat was that everybody got a different thing. Some people got gourmet cookies, some people got a CD, etc. When I opened my present, I squee-ed with excitement because underneath the wrapping paper was... a bag of scented soaps!

I was so thrilled that I immediately went to the person who had given all the gifts, and thanked this person effusively and with much gratitude for giving me this bag of soaps, because they were so pretty and I love soap! and what a great present!

And I was going to write a blog post about how fun it was to get some soap after I spent so much time blogging that I wasn't going to give any soap because I am the only person who actually gets excited over soap.

But first, of course, I had to take the soaps out of their little bag.

When I undid the (to my credit, moderately opaque) wrapping, I discovered that all the colorful little square-shaped bars of soap had wicks in them.

They were candles.

Part of me wants to imagine that the person who gave me these candles gave out enough presents that maybe, when I came in to thank her for the soap, she might have believed that she actually gave me soap (especially because I thanked her with such genuine excitement), but the kind of person who would take the time to give a personalized present to everyone in the office isn't the kind of person who forgets who got what.

In short, I made an idiot of myself today. (On the plus side, I got some pretty candles.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

No One Is Getting Hello Cupcake For Christmas This Year, Either


I had it all planned out.

See, I love going into Hello Cupcake and talking to the owners about cupcakes and then picking out a cupcake and then sitting by the window and eating the cupcake and writing Christmas cards or chatting with friends or reading about Mr. Darcy (who is almost as good as a cupcake).

And, because I love Hello Cupcake, I want to share it with as many people as possible, especially because it's a local business and it uses local ingredients and no HFCS and all of that.

And, although I convinced myself not to buy everyone soap for Christmas just because I like soap, I figured there wouldn't be anything at all wrong with buying everyone cupcakes.

And, since Hello Cupcake sells environmentally-friendly "cup-a-cake" covered cupcake holders (imagine tiny, cupcake-shaped bento boxes, suitable for carrying cupcakes home without having to get a disposable bag) I wanted to buy cupcakes, put them in their holders, and put one cupcake in each stocking for discovery on Christmas morning.

Imagine the deliciousness of finding out that instead of being a giant cookie hog like he is every other year, this time Santa left you a cupcake. And because I have never, ever seen a person look grumpy or cranky or anything but happy while eating a Hello Cupcake, this would also ensure a very Merry Christmas morning.

I had the fun of poring over the flavors and trying to pick out the best cupcakes for the various members of my family:

For my mom, the Heart of Darkness, which despite its unfortunate literary allusion is actually just chocolate-on-chocolate, a "deep dark devil's-food cake topped with chocolate ganache frosting." (All images from Hello Cupcake.)

For my sister, who makes fun of my willingness to repeatedly spend time at a cupcake shop, the Princess.

For my aunt, the Black-and-White, because who should have to choose between dark chocolate and white chocolate? This way she gets the best of all possibilities.

For my dad, the Rum Raisin, because the only way to make a cupcake "manly" is to soak it in alcohol for a while. There are actually two alcohol-soaked cupcakes, but the other is the Dulce de Leche, which is still pretty girly. But rum is a nice masculine alcohol, right? Pirates drink rum! (No picture of the rum cupcake, unfortch -- it's seasonal and not on the website.)

And for me, the... ooh, I can't decide... um... the Vanilla Gorilla. It's a banana cupcake (with real banana) and vanilla frosting.

Add a few cupcakes on reserve in the refrigerator in case someone asks "why is the rum [cupcake] gone?" or wants to try another one, and we've got ourselves the happiest of Christmas mornings.

And then I went to Hello Cupcake to ask them about their holiday hours. Turns out they will be on vacation Christmas week. So instead of buying cupcakes Christmas Eve afternoon, I would have to buy them days in advance, which would be disastrous for the cupcakes.

So no one is getting Hello Cupcake for Christmas this year.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Did It

I just finished balancing my checkbook against my cash-flow budget and predicting expenses through the end of January.

And... I did it. I managed to set aside enough money for two months' living expenses before January 1, 2009.

Currently the first month's worth of money is in a savings account. The second month's money is still in my checking account, and I'm very nervous about making the savings transfer because I feel like as soon as I hit "send" I'll fall down the stairs again and break my other toe. And although I'm pretty sure my savings account is one of the kind where I don't have to pay fees to get the money back again, I probably should double-check with customer service because the internet information/interface is less than helpful.

And although leaving a large amount of available funds in my checking account is also not a bad idea (see "breaking other toe," above), I'm also worried that if it stays in there it'll accidentally turn into vodka tonics at happy hours or whatever pretty thing is in the ATL window.

Gaah. Money makes me nervous.

On the plus side, dinner does not. I have baked cabbage w/ginger and leftover dal and will be enjoying myself thoroughly.

And, if I had any, I'd bust out the champagne. ^__^

Sunday, December 14, 2008


I've had the loveliest time writing out my holiday cards. I know maybe "when I'm older" they will seem more like a chore, but I was quite sad when they came to an end.

It helped, of course, that I wrote them out in one of my favorite spots in the city: Hello Cupcake. Hello Cupcake would happily become my third place if it weren't so hazardous to my waistline. I spent the entire afternoon there, writing and sipping coffee and (when I was done writing) reading the Annotated Pride and Prejudice and slowly but surely eating two of the most delicious cupcakes: one lemon-flavored and one rum raisin (with actual rum).

The thing I love about Hello Cupcake is that everyone in there is happy. Starbucks and Au Bon Pain and Cosi and all those other corporate-style joints always have that rushed feel; everyone's impatient, looking at their watches, screaming out the names of the coffees or banging furiously on their laptops.

At Hello Cupcake, everything moves slowly. First because there are rows and rows of cupcakes on display, cupcakes in flavors unpredicted and unimaginable and all with piquant, mysterious names ("the Lucy") which means that the first thing anyone does when walking into the cupcake shop is stop and stare at all the cupcakes and then, slowly, start asking the people behind the counter: what's this one? what's that one? No one makes decisions quickly, not when there are so many choices; and then finally a cupcake (or two) is selected and taken to a table or (if you're lucky) a seat by the window and peeled so very very slowly and admired, for a moment and then finally, the first bite.

It's difficult to be anything but happy when eating a Hello Cupcake.

(But I digress.)

So the first round of Christmas cards was easy: relatives, an old roommate, people who had written me recommendation letters. (With the latter, it was another way of saying thank you for everything, the job you helped me get has made me so happy...)

Then the second round, and I found myself writing to people I hadn't seen in over a year; people I had met while I was in India.

When I realized it had been over a year since I had last written to, say, the person who helped me get the teaching stint in Hyderabad, I felt a little guilty. I know it isn't exactly the sort of relationship where one is in constant contact, but this person helped me have a transformative experience and I believe the last time I wrote him was... last Christmas.

The thing is it doesn't feel like it was more than a year. It feels like a million years since I left graduate school, but no time at all since I left India. I wonder if it is because I had so much school and only one trip. Maybe I put the memories in a different part of my brain; one that keeps things a little sharper.

I don't know if the cards will ever get to India (I tend to distrust international mail), but it was fun to write them and to ask questions like "did you ever get your apartment? did the food get any better? did such-and-such ever find the love of his life?" even though I know the questions will never be answered.

And when I got to the end and had no more people to whom to write, it was a bit disappointing. I suppose there's always next year. ^__^ And when you go to the DC area, do make sure to spend some happy happy time in Hello Cupcake.

Blue's Counter-Intuitive Budget Tips

I like to read "frugality blogs" in the way that some people like to read beauty magazines; a guilty pleasure, combined with the hope that one of these blogs will have the magic secret to saving all the money in the world.

But, like the-person-who-wasn't-Kurt-Vonnegut who said "Don't read beauty magazines/they will only make you feel ugly," sometimes reading those blogs is a bit "this guy says he NEVER eats at a restaurant; oh noes I went to Hello Cupcake today I AM SO PROFLIGATE..."

And then there are the "frugality tips," which always start with "bring your lunch to work every day" and end somewhere around "turn down the heat, wear lots of sweaters, and line-dry your underwear across your living room so you don't have to pay for the dryer."

But two of the more-common frugality tips ended up causing me to spend more money (or, actually, to spend the same amount of money but in less effective ways). Here's why:

1. Don't use debit cards; only use cash.

The frugality blogs say to use cash instead of debit cards because "when you're out of cash, you have to stop spending." They also say that it "hurts" more to hand over cash than to swipe a card.

I find that the only thing that "hurts" about having cash is the heaviness of the change. Otherwise cash tends to fly out of my fingers. When I swipe a debit card I know that transaction is going to be written down in three different places: in the small "ledger" that I keep in my purse (so I can remember what I spent money on), in my monthly "items by category" budget, and in my long-term cash-flow budget. Cash, on the other hand, is money that my brain views as already spent. It's money I've already pulled from the ATM, which I'm not going to be able to shove back in there. Might as well hand it to someone before I lose it!

2. Use the "envelope method."

The "envelope method" is a variation on the "spend cash only" idea; essentially it boils down to "at the beginning of the week, put the amount of money you wish to spend on restaurants/entertainment/whatever into an envelope; when the envelope is empty, stop spending."

It took me a little over a month to figure out why this method wasn't working for me. With the envelope method, I found myself spending more and feeling less satisfied with my purchases.

Then it hit me. The envelope method was the financial equivalent of counting calories (which I also did, for about two weeks, until I decided this garbage is F**KING WITH MY BRAIN and I am NOT going down the slow road to an eating disorder).

When one counts calories, it doesn't matter what one eats as long as it fits underneath the magic number; and if one goes over the magic number, time for the brain to whip out the cudgel. The same, I found, with the ridiculous "envelope method;" because my brain had flipped around from a state of "buy what you need" to "buy what fits within this arbitrary dollar amount," I spent up to the dollar amount; and if I spent exactly the dollar amount and then something unexpected happened, like running out of laundry detergent a few days earlier than planned, out came the cudgel.

Part of the reason, I think, that these tips didn't work for me is because I began with different starting conditions than the majority of these frugal bloggers; the people who blog about frugality tend to have life stories like "I used to buy seventeen lattes and sixty-six new pairs of shoes a week, and now I have to train myself to spend only what is in my envelope."

My money story is a little bit different. I've always had to think, seriously, about what I wanted before I bought it; starting from when I was a kid and got an allowance of $4 per week and saved it up every month so at the end of the month I could buy a single cassette tape from the music store. I've never gone to the grocery store without a list. While I enjoy some kinds of shopping (yay Farmers' Market) I don't view shopping as something to do "for entertainment."

So, at the end of a long and admittedly self-indulgent post, here comes the real question: now that I am earning enough money to begin to use it to plan for the future, how can I re-train my brain so that it doesn't always think, when I'm making a purchase, "but you might need that $20 for something else more important -- and if you don't need it today, you'll definitely need it for retirement!"

I realized today that if I do make my goal of saving two months' living expenses by the end of the year (and it will be close), I'll have saved two-fifths of everything I've earned since I started my job. That seems more than admirable.

So why am I always reading frugality blogs and looking for ways to save more?

Sleeping In

If you're of a certain generation (mine), you probably remember waking up at some ridiculous hour of the morning without even an alarm clock to remind you so you could race to the tv, turn it on, and start watching Saturday Morning Cartoons.

For me, if I remember correctly, Marsupilami started at 6:30 a.m., followed by that show where the kid gets sucked into his Nintendo and has to fight Mother Brain with the help of Kid Icarus and a sentient Game Boy, then Camp Candy (the idea of basing a children's cartoon on "what would happen if John Candy ran a summer camp" creeps me out a bit, in retrospect), then Garfield and Friends (THE BEST ONE -- and it ran for an HOUR), then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It seems quaint, now, to think of a world where cartoons were only shown for three hours, one day a week.

At any rate, blah blah blah and I grew up and my circadian rhythms changed and I found it impossible to wake up before 10 a.m. on weekends (and sometimes slept until noon).

Now they've flipped back. Like, overnight.

Part of it, I think, is yoga's fault: if my usual wakeup time is between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m., then of course my body thinks that sleeping until 7:30 is "sleeping in."

But even on these weekend days when I don't get to bed until midnight, when I would think that my body would want to keep me asleep for a little longer, it pops me right up at 7:30 exactly and says "let's go let's go let's go! time to do yogas and write and eat kashi!"


I'd say it was a function of turning almost-thirty, but I've talked to other people in my peer group and they still have no problem sleeping until noon.

I suppose the next step is turning seventy and finding myself compelled to eat dinner at 4 p.m. and go to bed at 9. ^__^

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I have to share this just because I am so excited about it.

I was planning to spend most of Sunday chopping up apples for freezing purposes, since I knew the apple harvest was pretty much over and if I wanted locally-grown apples through spring, I would have to do the chopping and freezing myself.

But before I did, I practiced due diligence and went and asked the Farmers' Market people when, exactly, the apple harvest would end. If I were going to carry home enough apples for me to eat at least one per day until next August, I would have to strategically, mathematically, plan out how to stagger the loads.

"Oh, we've picked all our apples," they said. Then they said something about storage and oxidation and something else I didn't understand, ending up with "and we'll be able to sell all of these apples until at least May."

Locally-grown apples until at least May.

*jumps up and down with excitement*

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Why No One Is Getting Soap This Year

I have a confession to make.

When I give out Christmas presents (or birthday presents, or any presents), I sometimes get distracted by giving people things I think they should have, rather than things they might want. It comes from a good place -- I want to share my favorite things with the people I care about -- but at the same time sometimes means that the only person really excited when the gift is opened is me.

And I think I've given out plenty of things that have been more exciting for me to give than for the recipient to receive (last year's "genuine Amritsari pashminas for everyone!" shopping spree comes to mind).

So. Just so you all know. NO ONE is getting soap this year.

I promise.

You all dodged a bullet, too. There's a handcrafted soap booth at the Farmers' Market, and they have these bags of miniature "one-serving" soap balls in different colors and textures and scents, and I was so going to buy one of those bags and break it open and divvy the soap balls up into individual lace bags and use them as stocking stuffers.

And then I remembered that I had given out soap last year, and even though it was the best soap in the world no one had seemed half as excited about receiving it as I was at handing it out. And then the frugal part of me said "well, if soap is only exciting for you, you should use that money on something that will be exciting for them."

So. This year, I promise, will be a soap-free Christmas!

But I won't tell you what might take it's place in the stockings...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Butternut Squash (and Christmas!)

Why did I wait 27 years to eat a butternut squash?

I bought one for the first time yesterday at the Farmers' Market, and cooked it up. It was ridiculously easy to cook, once I got past the infuriating part of peeling it and chopping it up into small pieces. (I think my "chopping knife" is too cheap and/or dull. At one point the squash slipped and the knife landed on my finger and it didn't even break the skin.)

So. Throw squash cubes in water, boil for about 15 minutes, mash with cinnamon/cardamom/ginger (previously tempered in olive oil), garnish with raisins.

Why did I wait 27 years to eat this????

I've been thinking, off-and-on, about what I can cook for my family when they come to my dream apartment for Christmas. I know that they won't want to eat in my little apartment for every meal, but this is what I'm thinking: they'll arrive Christmas Eve afternoon and we'll all have dinner together somewhere, maybe at one of those places that does the traditional "Christmas" package.

But they'll all end up at my apartment on Christmas morning, and that means I get to cook up a Christmas lunch.

So, to my family (who all read this blog): here's what I'm thinking re: menu.

Butternut Squash
Locally-Farmed Cheese
Pink Lady Apples
A Green (TBD)
Homemade Bread
Some Kind of Christmas Cookie, Also Homemade

Mom, I'll make sure to leave the raisins on the side so you don't have to have them in your squash. ^__^

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Still More Of This Picture-Taking Stuff

The sign is a little blurry, but it says "Free Holiday Treat! Get a free cookie when you buy a Fresh Value Meal!" Someone should send it to Fail Blog with the label HEALTH-CONSCIOUS FAIL.

One of the selling points at the National Zoo's ZooLights exhibit was the opportunity to get your picture taken in front of a snow globe. When we went, this is what happened: we walked up and saw a person in a panda suit dancing around inside a giant inflatable snowglobe. Suddenly, the snowglobe begins to deflate. The person freaks out and pulls the panda head off. The "event manager" tells her to stay inside the snowglobe and it is reinflated (while she is still holding the panda head, looking both terrified and miserable). Once the snowglobe is back up, the woman puts the head back on and starts right back up dancing. My friends and I all whipped out our cell phones to commemorate this moment.

At the Target. Footie pajamas for women. And not just this particular one. There was a whole aisle of them. Mmmm... sexy.

Now, I don't remember how long it took to play a game of Clue when I was a kid, but I was very disappointed to see it miniaturized and advertised (clearly to parents) as something that will only take 20 minutes, tops. What -- you can't even give your kids the full half-hour anymore?

And a partridge floating above a cypress bush!


When my sister came to visit me this afternoon, she found me safety-pinning socks to a string of red beads.

"Are you no longer using the dryer?" she asked me. "Is this one of those earth-friendly things?"

"No," I said. "I'm hanging stockings."

I explained that I had wanted to put up some stockings so that I could stuff them (shh... don't tell my parents... I want them to think Santa's doing it), and that I had looked at stockings at the Target but they were all appallingly ugly, and I had looked for hand-knit locovore free-range stockings at the Farmers' Market and at Eastern Market but I couldn't find any, and then I remembered that I had a few pairs of woolen socks of my own.

"I do not want a gift from the inside of your old dirty sock," my sister said.

"It's not old," I told her, "it's rustic. Plus they're completely clean. Also it's frugal -- why should I go buy some socks that are pretending to look all woolen and rustic when I have socks at home I can use?"

"Stop calling those socks rustic," my sister told me. "And where are you planning to hang them?"

I showed her.

"The stockings were hung by the air conditioner with care..."

"Absolutely not," my sister told me. "I'm taking you to the Target."

At the Target, we followed the sound of screaming children to the Christmas aisles and found ourselves confronted by an array of gigantic stockings, three times the size of any human leg.

"Wow. These are ugly," my sister said.

"I told you," I told her.

We pawed through stockings large enough to fit entire Easy-Bake Ovens or Tickle Me Elmos or whatever people are pretending Santa brought for their children this year; stockings emblazoned with Hannah Montana and High School Musical without even the passing courtesy of pasting Santa hats on the various characters; stockings covered with fake fur or sequins or NASCAR advertisements.

"NO NO NO NO NO we are not bringing any of these things home," I said. "I'm going to leave and go hang my old socks on the air conditioner."

"No you are not," my sister said. "We will find something."

And, eventually, we did. And, although I argued at first that the appliqued snowmen and penguins were not in keeping with the general theme of the decorations (which is "live plants and flame"), I had to admit that they looked much better than my worn-out old socks.

Now all we have to do is wait for Santa.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Prayer For My Plants

When I was younger and used to keep paper journals instead of this online one, I used to write prayers directly into my journal. In red ink. (I think so God would know they were extra-important.)

I think part of the reason having live plants in my apartment makes me feel all Christmas-anticipatory is because there is now a living, breathing, palpable reminder of the Christmas countdown: Can I keep these plants alive for the next twenty days???

I've never successfully kept a plant alive in my life. I still remember being the only kid in my class whose beans wouldn't sprout, and four years ago when I moved into my first "real" apartment one of the first things I did was get a geranium in a pot, which lasted for about a week even though I watered it and did all of the things the little plastic tag on the plant told me to do. (So I threw the geranium in the trash and went to the animal shelter and got a cat instead. The cat thrived.)

Of course, six beans and one geranium do not a track record make, not necessarily. But right now I'm mostly worried that the two cypress bushes and the poinsettia will freeze to death because they're on my windowsills and even though they're getting sunlight they're also getting cold air; and the Christmas-tree-in-a-pot will die from lack of sunlight because it's too big to fit on my windowsill so I've put it on the floor, but it's not in a very sunny spot, so maybe it won't be able to photosynthesize...

So, in short, a prayer for my plants:

Dear God, please help me to keep these plants alive. I'm going to follow the instructions on the little plastic tags, but I know my poinsettia is not in a warm enough place because poinsettias come from Mexico and are not meant to sit on a windowsill in Washington, D.C., and I'm afraid my Christmas tree is not getting enough light, even though maybe in a real forest it would only get that much light because it's pretty small and the other trees would cast shadows over it, and in all fairness I could move it to a sunnier spot, but the sunniest spot in my apartment is where the table is, and if I put the tree there I would have to move the table, but if I moved the table to where the tree is then the table would block the door to my bathroom. Also my Christmas tree is bedecked in Christmas lights so it needs to be near a wall outlet.

But even though I don't live in Mexico and my windowsills are too cold and my Christmas tree is only in partial light, please, please help me to keep these plants alive. Thank you. Amen.

Reclaiming Christmas

I spent last night redecorating for Christmas. (Then, for good measure, I cleaned the kitchen.)

Now my apartment feels right.

I think part of my repulsion to the ugly plastic fake Christmas tree came from its so-close proximity to my learning about the Black Friday Wal-Mart mob; I had literally come home with this tree-in-a-box, sat down to see if anything on the internet had changed in the last two hours, and learned that in another store in another city, a man had been trampled to death.

I kinda felt complicit. Sure, literally I wasn't, but I had also been in a big-box store on Black Friday and it was just a different combination of factors that made it not my store but that other store.

So I took back the ugly plastic tree, and despaired that I didn't know how to get my apartment ready for Christmas.

Then, on a work-related errand (I was returning catering trays to Whole Foods -- did you know they'll re-use them if you bring them back?) I saw an entire window display of rosemary trees. I didn't know such a thing existed. I guess I hadn't thought about the shape rosemary takes when it isn't inside a spice jar, but apparently it is Christmas-tree shaped, and just the right size for my little apartment.

I went nuts. This was perfect. The rosemary tree would live, in its pot, through the holiday season, and then I could strip it of its "needles" and put them in a generic tupperware and use them in my cooking. And, since I hadn't yet ever cooked anything which required rosemary, I would get to look up and learn some new recipes.

It was two days before I could get back to the Whole Foods. This worried me a little, because I was afraid all of the pretty rosemary trees would be gone, but I told myself it was an unreasonable fear. This is America, after all. Store windows are always full of products. Nothing ever disappears. The closest I had ever come to not finding what I wanted in a store was when I price-watched this green corduroy dress from ATL until it was 50% off, and then I went in to buy it with another 50% off coupon, but by then all of the ones in my size were gone, so I bought one in the next size up and ran it through the washer/dryer so it would shrink to fit.

When I went back to Whole Foods, all the pretty rosemary trees were gone. The man working Lawn and Garden told me it was blight; there wouldn't be any more rosemary tree harvests this season, and there wouldn't be any more rosemary trees anywhere in the tri-state area.

I was crushed. But I rallied and ended up walking out of the Whole Foods with four living plants: one miniature Christmas tree in a pot, two little cypress bushes, and one golden poinsettia.

Now my apartment is full of pretty green things, and I've hung up the lights and this afternoon I am going to put up some stockings and buy some tealights for the windows and get a whole bunch of peppermint and butterscotch candy canes to put into a glass jar that used to contain Priya-brand garlic paste.

I feel like I've reclaimed Christmas.

This, I know, is silly, because buying live plants at Whole Foods is only moderately different from buying a plastic plant at Target; and even my delight in my pretty golden poinsettia (instead of those everyday red poinsettias) should not be attributed to any sense of finding anything special; the only reason there was only one golden poinsettia hiding in the back behind all the red ones was because everyone else had already bought all of the golden ones and there was only one left.

Still, it's so much nicer in my apartment. And Blue is back in the Christmas spirit. ^__^