Wednesday, February 8, 2017
I was in graduate school at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School from May 2014 to May 2015 and I took the TTA bus (since rebranded as Go Triangle) from Durham to Chapel Hill almost every day. The grocery shopping strategy I had used for the prior 16 years, from when I relocated from Arlington, Virginia to Durham, North Carolina in 1998 and began working from home, was no longer an option. No more shopping every few days getting a few things at a time. No more waiting until I felt like cooking something to look in the fridge and see what I had then go to the store to get what I needed.
My life was changing. I needed a plan.
The perfectly sensible plan I came up with was that I would shop and cook on the weekend to make food for the week. I would take my lunch, and I would try to keep on hand simple things I could eat for dinner.
This is what I had recommended to other people who couldn’t shop and cook like I did due to schedule constraints. Try to be organized and take care of it on the weekends.
This is a good plan.
Did this plan work?
Let’s start from the beginning.
My first day of school was on a Tuesday, which was also the day when I did my Scrap Exchange bookkeeping work. So I got up at the butt-crack of dawn and got myself over to UNC and figured out how to get from home to the bus and from the bus to KFBS and did orientation and all that and then figured out how to get back to the bus and back home. And then once I was home, I got my stuff together and rode my bike over to The Scrap Exchange and did my bookkeeping.
It was a long day.
I was riding my bike home from work, happy and relieved to have made it through this Olympic decathlon of a day, and I had a moment where I was very proud of myself for going through what I had gone through to make it all happen. It was the culmination of a long process that had been a lot of work. But I had done it. I had taken the initiative to find out about the program, to call and talk to the admissions people to find out if this was something I should even think about doing, to figure out how you even take GRE’s these days, to study for them and sit for them and do well enough on verbal section that the first thing the admissions counselor said to me when I walked in to her office was “Wow, you did great on your GRE!” (Which I hadn’t actually, I did great on one part and terrible on the other but if she wanted to just look at the part I did great on then that was fine by me.) I had put together the application, gotten letters of recommendation, scheduled the interview. Actually showed up for the interview. And I got into a program that is very competitive, it is one of the top accounting programs in the country. None of that was easy, especially when you are 47 years old and your last (and first, and only) experience with higher education ended in 1989. And when you don’t actually want to work as an accountant (separate story there…).
So at the end of my first day of school, I’m riding my bike home down an empty Main Street, past the fancy restaurants that had sprouted in downtown Durham over the prior few years, and I think to myself, I’m really proud of you. This was a lot of work, and you didn’t have to do it. You had a lot of hoops to jump through, but you did them all, you got accepted into the program, and you did what you needed to do to enroll, and you actually enrolled. And then after all that you actually went to school — you got up early and got dressed in real clothes and made it to school on time and made it through the day, got yourself back home to Durham, and then went and got your other work done. That’s a big accomplishment, you should be proud of yourself.
And then I had this sudden, awful realization that this was the FIRST DAY.
This was not the end of anything, it was just the beginning. And I was going to have to do the same thing over and over again, every day, for the next 11 months. And I didn’t cry, but if I had had any idea how hard the year would turn out to be, I would have.
So anyway, I made it through the first day, and the second too, and the rest of the week. I got up a few minutes earlier to put together a nice lunch in the morning, using a bento box I got at Crate & Barrel a few weeks before school started. (As any kindergartener can tell you, there’s nothing like a new lunch box to make you feel excited about going to school.)
I felt very competent and on top of things. Cutting up carrots and an apple then heading off to the bus stop.
We were in class for three-and-a-half hours in the morning, 8:30 to noon, and then an hour break, and then afternoon class from 1 to 4:30 p.m. For unknown reasons, KFBS is FREEZING. It was so cold in that building. So after three-and-a-half hours of sitting in a classroom that was approximately the temperature of a walk-in cooler, for lunch, I would go outside the back door, near the cafeteria, and sit on the little brick divider wall that ran along the stairs and try to absorb whatever heat I could from the hot stones I was sitting on and the humid air hanging around me. Like a skink sunning myself on a rock, trying to raise my body temperature back up to something that made me feel like I wasn’t dead.
It was nice and peaceful back there and I brought good food. Fruit and vegetables, and chicken or some other protein, and maybe a cookie or some other sweet.
I shopped on Sunday, got food for the week, cooked it up, got everything ready.
This all sounds lovely, no? And how long did this last?
Well, in the middle of week three, I got sick and missed part of one class and a night of studying, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal except it is when you are in class seven hours a day, five days a week. Every day is like a week — we did financial management in six classes, which included a quiz, a midterm, and a final exam. Missing anything is no bueno. You are hanging by a thread to start with, anything that disrupts the routine could easily be the end of the line.
So it turned out the organized shopping/cooking/eating strategy lasted exactly three weeks.
The weekend leading into week four, I was like okay I can spend three hours shopping for food and cooking or I can try to catch up and pass my exam. Given how much I had gone through to get in to the program, I decided that studying was more important than cooking. And I never fully recovered. That was the end of the shopping and cooking on weekends.
For a while, I was able to keep it rolling by making things like empanadas (recipe from the More-With-Less Cookbook), which are simple and put everything (meat, vegetable, carbs) together in one convenient package so you can make a batch in half an hour and have week of grab-and-eat meals.
But slowly I began the inexorable slide to eating out more, and eating more packaged food. Take-out Chinese, Clif bars, Pop-Tarts. Usually once a week I would time my trip home so I could bike to Franklin Street, go to Cosmic Cantina for a burrito, then catch the bus back to Durham.
As the weeks wore on, it became harder and harder to figure out what I even wanted to eat — nothing appealed to me, whether I was fixing something at home or buying something at the grocery store or going to a restaurant. When that happened, I would go to McDonald’s and get a McChicken sandwich and a yogurt parfait for $2.14. Food problem solved.
Unfortunately that happened a lot.
I also started drinking soda, much more than I had been. I drank pop when I was younger, in high school and college, but I stopped almost entirely when I was just out of college making $15,000 a year at my first job, because I had so little discretionary income, I couldn’t afford to spend any of it sugar water. And after that, I would tend to drink it when I was on a trip, but not as part of my regular life.
Bit that changed when I was in school. I’d drink coffee in the mornings — which I never had before — and Coke or Pepsi in the afternoon and evenings.
During the fall and spring when class started slightly later than they had over the summer, I’d still take the 7:30 bus, which gave me time to get breakfast before class. I’d get a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel, which was one of the only things I liked in the cafeteria. Every now and then I would drive, and I would take the route that took me past the Biscuitville on Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd and I would stop and get a sausage and egg biscuit. (I love love love Biscuitville.) In the spring, I became hooked on the spicy chicken sandwich in the cafeteria, the combo meal with a large Coke and fries.
I read recently about a study that showed that sleep-deprived people experience food cravings similar to those of marijuana users. And I was like oh, hey, that would explain the bacon egg and cheese bagels, and the fried chicken sandwiches.
The few times I did try to cook during that year, I found that the smell of food in my house made me feel sick. It was sensory overload, I couldn’t handle it.
And all of this felt like it was a cumulative problem. The longer school went on, the worse it got.
At some point during the spring term, I was discussing my food problems over email with a friend who is a corporate lawyer and has a crazy busy work schedule. Her suggestion was sandwiches —she said you can get a bunch of sandwich stuff at the grocery store, it keeps for a long time, and you can almost always make yourself eat a sandwich. Also it doesn’t use hardly any dishes, all you really need is a knife and a paper towel, you don’t even need a plate.
That made sense, so I stopped at Trader Joe’s on one of my trips back from Chapel Hill and bought deli ham and turkey and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes and wraps and that’s what I ate if I hadn’t eaten at school and was hungry when I got home, a sandwich wrap. My friend was totally right, it’s pretty easy to eat a sandwich, they are filling, there were no dishes, and it didn’t make my house smell.
This definitely helped get me through to the end.
I also broke down and started buying boxes of Clif bars and jars peanut butter and dried fruit and nuts and things I could keep in my locker, so I could have something not terrible without having to spend quite so much money. And I stopped feeling bad about buying meals out, because at that point I was going for survival. How much I spent and what I spent it on didn’t really matter.
I did manage to survive school … barely … but the experience was so mentally exhausting that it took me nearly three months before I could cook anything more complicated than scrambled eggs.
I was finally starting to get back on track with shopping and cooking when I started studying for CPA exams, while also working at Scrap Exchange and working with a few of my long-time Filemaker clients (both of which I had also continued to do while I was in grad school) which more or less derailed me all over again.
At first, I started to revert to my in-school pattern of eating out more, but that comes with its own challenges — first you have to figure out where to go, and then once you’re there you have to figure out what to order. And of course it takes time to actually get there and get your food and eat it. This initially led me down the McChicken/yogurt parfait road — all of the decisions are already made, and you only spend $2 — but I decided I didn’t want to do that again, I needed to figure out something else.
And then I made a slow-cooker barbecue pork for a Scrap Exchange Boot Camp lunch, and I realized that this was the solution to all of my problems: you cook a five-pound pork shoulder, it takes about 20 minutes of prep time and 8 or so hours in the slow cooker and you end up with two weeks of meals. (If you live by yourself … much less, obviously, if you are feeding other people in addition to yourself.)
I cooked one pork butt, ate it every day for two weeks, then tried to move on to something else for some variety but gave up after a week and cooked another one. And then another one when that was gone.
I ate it on slider buns, so I could eat one or two or three, depending on how hungry I was, and I bought full seeded watermelons at King’s, and that’s what I ate all summer. Pork barbecue sliders and watermelon. For breakfast I’d fry eggs and eat them on a tortilla with the barbecue. For dessert I’d eat watermelon.
I couldn’t decide if this was fine, because who cares if you eat the same thing every day for weeks on end, or bad, because what is wrong with you, you’re eating pork barbecue for every meal. My god.
But I did it anyway, because I didn’t have to decide what to eat or think about what I felt like eating, I didn’t have to shop but once every few weeks, I didn’t have to do hardly any dishes, my house didn’t smell like food (except for the first day when I cooked the pork), and I didn’t have to spend $12 a day on prepared food. And the pork barbecue is really good, and it’s REALLY easy to make. If you have a slow cooker you should make it. (And if you don’t have a slow cooker, you should think about getting one, they are cheap.)
Here’s the recipe, which I found by googling “nc barbecue slow-cooker pork” , or something like that, and got from The Domestic Front, and adjusted slightly:
Slow-Cooker Pork Barbeque
(Eastern North Carolina style)
4-6 lb pork butt
1 or 2 onions
1 Tbsp liquid smoke
FOR THE SPICE RUB
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp paprika
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
FOR THE SAUCE
1 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cayenne
Combine ingredients for the spice rub and coat all sides of the pork with the spice rub.
Combine all ingredients for the sauce and stir to mix.
Quarter the onion(s) and place in the bottom of a slow cooker.
Place the spice-rubbed pork on top of the onions. Pour the liquid smoke over the pork. Reserve 1/3 of the sauce to serve when eating; pour the remaining 2/3 of the sauce over the pork. Turn the cooker on low and cook for 8-10 hours.
At the end of the designated cooking time, take the cooked pork out of the slow cooker and, if desired, drain off the fat. Pour the sauce out of the slow cooker and allow the fat to separate. When cool enough to handle, chop or shred the pork. Pour the de-fatted sauce over the shredded meat and stir to mix.
Serve on sandwich buns, with the reserved sauce
Whether or not you have to remove fat from the pork and from the sauce depends on how much fat is on the pork to start with. The first time I made it, I didn’t drain the fat and it was very greasy. However other times I’ve made it, there was hardly any fat to drain off. So I think that just depends on your pork. (With one round, I saved the fat and later used it in a batch ginger snaps. They were good.) You could also try to brown the meat and drain off some of the fat before you put it in the slow cooker, but that adds complication so it’s hard for me to recommend that since the point of this is that it’s extremely simple and takes hardy any time.
I’ve made it with fresh garlic and without garlic, because I never have granulated or powdered garlic around, and I’ve made it with various kinds of paprika (half-sharp, smoked) and haven’t noticed a difference between any of them. The original recipe calls for smoked paprika.
This freezes very well. Though you will have to get yourself to stop eating it before it’s gone in order for that to work.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Both of my parents grew up in Seattle, Washington. I was born there and lived there until I was 8, and went back fairly regularly after we moved away to visit relatives. My parents had gone to high school on the south side of the city, at Cleveland, but after my father got out of the service and my brother was born, they moved over to the north side of town, near the University, first in Laurelhurst and then in View Ridge.
When we lived in Seattle, we shopped at a small neighborhood grocery store owned by a close family friend of my grandparents named Walt Landis. The store was on N.E. 45th, just before it turns into Sand Point Way, and I have many fond memories of spending time there as a child.
Walt was a joker, he liked to tease me. He’d bring me and my brother in to the back warehouse area of the store give us the freshest, juiciest strawberries. After we’d been there a little while he’d say, “I think your mother is calling you.” So I’d go out to find my mom, and she’d say, no, I’m still shopping, you’re fine. I’d go in back and tell Walt that she hadn’t been calling me and he’d say, “Oh, okay.” Then a minute later he’d say, “I think she’s calling you now
My grandparents had moved to Seattle in the 1940s and my grandmother lived there until 2001 when she was nearing 90, at which point she moved to Western New York to be near my parents. At the time I was living there, she lived in the same area we lived in, first in a house in Hawthorne Hills and then, after my grandfather died, she sold the house and moved to in an apartment off of Sand Point Way.
My grandmother sometimes shopped at Albertson’s or the Tradewell on Sand Point Way, but usually she went to the QFC in University Village. The QFC was originally on the west side of the shopping center and it was more or less a standard grocery store, but in the 90s, University Village went upscale and took the QFC with it. The store got very much larger and moved over to the east side, near the Burgermaster.
Usually when I would visit my grandmother, we would do some activity in the late morning — run errands or visit someone or do some out-of-town-visitor type activity — and then we’d go back home to eat lunch, rest for a bit and watch her shows (“… like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives…”). Then in the afternoon we’d go out to get what we needed for dinner. At this point in her life, my grandmother shopped for groceries almost every day.
I remember one time when I was visiting, when the QFC was in its fancy-dan iteration, and we had gotten what we needed and were ready to check out, my grandmother looked at each of the lines to she if she could find the checkout person she liked. She spotted her and said, “Oh! Here she is. Let’s get in this line.”
When we got up to the head of the line, my grandmother introduced me to the cashier. “This is my granddaughter Becky,” And the cashier seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, which I think surprised me a bit. I think I expected my grandmother to like this checkout person more than the checkout person liked my grandmother, that the checkout person was trying to act friendly because it was her job. But it seemed like she actually enjoyed seeing my grandmother, and she was happy to get to meet me, as if she had heard about me and was pleased to be able to put a face to a name. My cousin Deanna had recently visited (and of course my grandmother had been in the store with Deanna) and the cashier commented on how lucky my grandmother was to have both of her granddaughters out to see her, one after the other like that.
When we were leaving, my grandmother said, “Most of the ones who work here, they don’t even look at you, they just run the groceries through. You know …” she put a blank look on her face and moved her hand as if she were running groceries across a scanner. “But she’s really nice, she always talks to you, asks you how you are.”
When I was self-employed and working from home every day (from 2002 to spring 2012), I shopped pretty much just like my grandmother — I went to the store almost every day. [I’ve written about my shopping strategy in a few places, like here and here.] I definitely recommend this approach if you work from home, especially if you have a store that is within walking or biking distance from your house. It gives you a break from working, gets you out of the house, and gives you something to look forward to so you don’t feel like you are trapped for the rest of your life in your office with a bunch of work you don’t want to do. Not that I ever felt like that.
Also you can spend much less money on groceries, because you can check to see what in your refrigerator is about to go bad and then buy what you need to make something to go with that. You will hardly every throw anything away, and you can train yourself to spend small amounts of money at a time at the store. Because you are walking or on your bike and you can only carry so much home with you, and also you know you will be back in a few days, you will stop feeling the need to walk up and down every aisle and buy anything you ever might use. You will just buy what you need for right now (and maybe tomorrow or the next day) and that is all.
That’s what I used to do. It was great.
I shopped mostly at Whole Foods, because it was a nice walk from my house and also it was a nice store, and very shoppable. The way I shop when I’m shopping multiple times a week, and walking to the store, is to get the necessary items first, then fill in with optional items until one of two limits is reached: either (a) I hit my price ceiling (which at the time was about $12) or (b) my basket is getting too heavy for me to carry home. This approach works much, much better in a smaller store than in a giant supermarket. You can’t be wandering back and forth willy-nilly through all the aisles in a store the size of an airplane hangar until you decide you have what you need.
The local Whole Foods (in Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill) started out as a locally owned chain called Wellspring. The Durham store was originally on the north end of Ninth Street, in a space later occupied by Magnolia Grill (my father’s favorite restaurant in Durham) and now by Monuts. It outgrew that space and moved up Ninth Street to the space later occupied by George’s Garage and now home to Panera Bread and Juju (the area my friend Ann and I now refer to as “Cary Durham” because you feel like you’re in Cary when you’re there) and then in the early 90s moved over to Broad Street, across from Duke’s East Campus, taking the place of a very sketchy A & P that had been there in the 80s.
Whole Foods bought the Wellspring chain some time in the 90s and promised to keep it all just the same. Which it pretty much did, for a number of years.
I remember when I did my food projects in 2009 and 2010 and wrote about shopping at Whole Foods, and people were totally down on me for that. But I liked my Wellspring/Whole Foods then, I liked the people who worked there and I was there all the time and I knew where everything was, they had lots of specials and you could almost always find something at a good price. It was a good store.
Some time around 2011 or 2012, they renovated the store, taking over the storefront adjacent to them and bumping out the bike shop that was there, which was fine by me as the people who worked in that bike shop were the worst kind of sexist bike snobs. I hated that store.
After the expansion and renovation, the store went from feeling like Wellspring, the store it had always been, to feeling like every other Whole Foods in the country. That was obviously on purpose — of course they want to make their branding and everything consistent — and I’m sure it did what they wanted it to in terms of bringing in new people, but around that time, I stopped shopping in the store the way I had been.
Part of the problem was that they changed all the aisles around — and then right after I’d finally figured out where the things I actually wanted to buy were, they changed it around again. The first time I was willing to work through it; the second time I was like okay no.
The store got much bigger, but most of the additional space was devoted to expanded prepared foods and seating area. The actual shopping area was almost the same size as before (except for the cheese counter which was all the way down near prepared foods) so that part wasn’t a problem, but it seemed like their prices went up. I could no longer find things on special that were within my very tight price range. This caused me to start shopping at other stores, which then started a downward spiral of not shopping there enough to see any deals, which meant that even when I did go to the store, I only bought very specific things, because I wasn’t engaged enough to see what was on special and was actually affordable.
In spring 2012, I started working two part-time jobs, in addition to my self-employment work, which made my shopping and cooking schedule somewhat more complicated. Whole Foods was in the direction of one of my part-time jobs, but they changed their hours to close an hour earlier (at 9 p.m.) and often I worked until later than that, so I couldn’t stop on my way home, and it didn’t work for me to stop on my way to work. Also because my schedule was so erratic, and because one of the part-time jobs came with a fairly regular supply of leftover catering food, I wasn’t cooking at home as much.
During that time, I started shopping more at Compare Foods, which is a New York-based grocery chain catering to Hispanic customers. It has very good prices on produce, and pretty good quality, and I generally like shopping there. There is a Compare that is walkable from my house, though it is not as nice a walk as to the Whole Foods. Near the Compare is a small independent grocery called King’s, which is very Southern and very local, and which reminds me of Walt’s grocery store where we shopped when I was a child. I love King’s.
So I gradually switched from shopping mostly at Whole Foods to shopping mostly at King’s and Compare, and from walking to shop a few times a week to driving and shopping once a week or every other week. If you’re shopping infrequently, it’s much harder to walk, because you can only carry so much.
These days I’m going to an office 5 days a week, so typically I shop on the weekend (King’s and/or Compare) or I stop at Food Lion after work or the Durham Co-op Market on my way home.
The Lakewood Food Lion (or Food Dog, as one of my friends likes to call it) was renovated last year and I now completely love that store. It’s always clean, it has very nice looking produce, and it has really great prices on almost everything. Also it is mostly neighborhood people, there is usually very little sign of the hipster apocalypse that has invaded Durham in recent months, so that is nice. I feel like I’m actually in Durham, not some bizarre place that used to be Durham but is now a place that fancy people want to live in. (Ann and I were driving around town a few weeks ago and saw yet another sign proclaiming “Luxury Apartments — Coming 2017.” We started joking that we’re going to start a band and call it Luxury Apartments Coming 2017.)
I have mixed feelings about the Co-op. It’s a nice store, it’s locally owned, everyone who works there is really nice, and they have a great ice machine. (Seriously, they do.) But I can’t do my regular shopping there because the selection is limited, the prices are high, and I don’t need organic gluten free everything. I think it’s probably good for people who either have enough discretionary income that prices don’t matter or who are willing to spend whatever it takes to get certain kinds of foods (organic, local, etc.). And I know there are plenty of those people around, I am just not one of them.
I do not regularly shop at Whole Foods these days, but I do go there for specific things. The main thing I go there for is the “Can’t Commit? Try a little bit!” cheese basket, where they have small quantities of fancy cheese for less than $3. This is perfect because when I buy a regular amount of cheese I don’t always finish it before it gets funky. So this gives me the amount of cheese I should be buying, and it’s much better cheese than I would buy if I were buying a larger quantity, and I get to try all kinds of new varieties depending on what’s in the basket. This is hands down my favorite part of the store.
I also buy nuts and some bulk items (oats, popcorn), and I make a special trip for the 365 brand tonic water because it is much better than regular grocery store tonic, and almost the same price. If you like gin and tonics, you should definitely try it. It’s really good.
For a while I was going to Target for certain things that they sell super cheap — cereal, peanut butter, juice, brownie mix (and Aim toothpaste for 89 cents!). But recently they installed self-checkout kiosks, and the last time I was there they had only one or two lanes open, way down at the other end of the store. It was like they wanted everyone with groceries to go through the self-checkout, and I find the self-checkout experience generally unpleasant. I’d rather have a person with a job checking me out than using a machine that grates on my nerves … place item in the bagging area … so I only use those when I have to, or if I have one or two things and all of the lines are long. Target isn’t convenient, so between the hassle of getting over there and the pain of the self-checkout kiosks, I decided I should just pay extra and go to Food Lion for the items I used to get at Target and be done with it. (I may make an exception when I run out of toothpaste.)
I shopped at Costco recently for some things we needed for a work-related event, and I know that Costco has very good prices on high-quality items, but I find shopping at Costco a completely soul-crushing experience. The combination of walking in and immediately being faced with enormous piles of enormous televisions, and all of the food packaged, and everything in such huge quantities. There’s just no life there. It’s like everything that depresses me about the world today, everything I hate, shrink-wrapped and piled high, aisle after aisle, in one cavernous retail establishment. Also it seems to me that the prices aren’t always better, especially since you might have to buy way more than you need, so even if the unit cost is lower, the total amount you’re spending is more than you would spend in a regular store.
I’ve tried to like you, Costco. I really have. But I just can’t.
So that is the current state of my feelings on grocery stores: pro Food Lion, con Costco, and a true believer in King’s and Compare. I’m sure you are all happy to know that.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
For a long time, there was a thrift store in Durham called Thrift World. I don’t remember it when I was in school in the 80s, but I think it was around then. I know it was around in the late 90s when I moved back to the area.
It was on University Drive, and later it moved (I’m not sure when) to the Lakewood Shopping Center, until the air conditioning went out in the middle of summer and the landlord wouldn’t fix it and the store closed. That was the end of Thrift World.
It was a very big store, they had tons of stuff and they had good prices and you could usually find good stuff there. Many people loved Thrift World. But it was also kind of a crappy store — it felt not very clean and kind of run down.
Its (presumably un-ironic) slogan was, “The store you deserve.”
Some people I was friendly with in college enjoyed getting dressed up in crazy clothes when they would go out drinking. Thrift World was one of their favorite places to shop for party clothes.
I continued to be friendly with some of these people after college, when I lived in New Jersey and also when I was in DC, and they didn’t end their dress-up habits when they graduated from college. For a number of years afterwards (possibly continuing to the present day, I haven’t kept up with them so much lately) when they would get together for a party they would pull out the hats and dresses and Mardi Gras beads.
One of these friends worked on the Hill and lived across from Eastern Market during the time when I was living in the DC area.
I remember one winter in the 1994/1995/1996 range when my friend planned a party and told me to come and bring whoever I wanted. When I got to the party and saw that most of the people in the room were dressed in party attire that was not typical for your average Capitol Hill party, I called my friend Sue, who I had previously invited to the party, and who had hung out with these friends a fair amount, both in New Jersey and in DC, so she was used to this kind of behavior, but she was planning on bringing her boyfriend with her and he was not so much the kind of guy who would pull out a sari for the average Saturday night out. I figured I should warn them.
I said, “Okay just letting you know, they’re in costume. You might want to prepare Mike.”
She laughed. “Okay! Duly noted.”
Half an hour or so later, Sue and Mike get to the party and I’m standing on a sofa drinking a beer wearing this huge fake fur coat. Sue sees me and starts laughing. “Look at you!,” she says. “You look like a pimp!”
[Side story: At one point, my friend who worked on the Hill was complaining about how he felt like people didn’t take him seriously. I was telling Sue this and Sue said, “Wait, he doesn’t think people take him seriously? Here’s an idea. Maybe he should stop running around wearing a toga and a pith helmet. Maybe that would help.”]
I moved from DC to Durham in spring 1998. My 10-year college reunion was the following year, and instead of doing the official reunion activity on Saturday night I had a party at my apartment for my friends and whoever else wanted to come.
My dress-up friends came to the party, in full dress-up regalia.
I was complimenting one of them on his outfit and he told me they had gone to Thrift World for the new duds. He quoted the slogan: The store you deserve.
Then he said, “I always thought that was kind of harsh.”
That made me laugh, and forever after, whenever someone would mention Thrift World, the store you deserve, I would think of my friend’s comment.
After the recent election, that phrase came to mind.
I feel like we have ended up with the president we deserve.
We have a country where our leaders act as if the sole purpose of education is to enable people to get a job, as if there were no difference between a university and a trade school. Critical thinking skills? Who needs those.
We have an educational system that is very good for high achievers — our top performing students do as well as kids from any other country, we have the best university system in the world, students from everywhere want to come here to study — but that often leaves average or below average students behind (especially those with low incomes, who aren’t able to supplement their education with enriching extracurricular activities). This dynamic has contributed to income inequality — wealthy educated people (and their kids) do better and better while the less educated (and their kids) fall further and further behind.
We have more free time than ever, but what do with it? We watch movies and binge watch television shows. We watch sports (and bet on sports, and participate in fantasy sports leagues). We spend hours on Facebook. We play World of Warcraft/Candy Crush/Angry Birds/Pokemon Go.
The average person spends more than 5 hours a day watching television. The highest paid, most envied people in our culture are celebrities. It’s what kids want to be when they grow up — they want to be famous.
Of course we’re going to vote for someone famous who says he’ll solve all of our problems the minute he gets into office over someone who outlines actual policies. Of course we prefer a celebrity to a politician. We don’t like politicians. We don’t trust the media, so we don’t believe what they say when they expose actual corruption (illegal payments to lawmakers, misuse of tax laws and the like) as opposed to false equivalence “corruption,” when media outlets need to report something on the other side, too, so they take things out of context and make legitimate things seem nefarious. We believe all kinds of conspiracy theories regardless of how nonsensical they are. A significant portion of Americans believe not that Hillary Clinton is a typical politician, or even that she is a corrupt politician, but that she is an actual murderer. They think she started with Vince Foster and just kept going.
So no, we don’t like politicians.
But we love celebrities, no matter what kinds of outrageous behavior they exhibit. In fact the more outrageous the better. Rich celebrities, especially. We love them.
And now we have one as our President.
(Who knew that the memorable commercial from decades past, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV,” was our future politics.)
How will it turn out?
We’ll all just have to wait and see.
And watch. Very, very closely. Because We are the People, and We the People are the government. We the People created this American democracy and it is up to us, We the People, to keep it from running off the rails.
(I was also thinking recently about Wangari Maathai’s bus metaphor, what do you do when you are on the right bus but it is taken over by a bad bus driver.)
So everyone needs to do their job — stay alert, watch what is happening, contact your representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress to tell them your position on areas of concern to you — and everyone needs to remember that We are the People and democracy depends on us.
And that is your thought for this holiday weekend.
Friday, November 4, 2016
I was completely obsessed with the election until Wednesday when I realized that I was making myself crazy. No one knows what is going to happen, and no matter how many articles I read, or how much analysis I plow through on FiveThirtyEight.com, I will not get the answer I am looking for — no one can tell me for sure what kind of a world I am going to wake up to on Wednesday, November 9, 2016.
No one can predict whether enough voters from the many groups Trump has offended (women, Muslims, Mexicans, former prisoners of war, people with disabilities … the list goes on and on) will come out to vote against him, or whether Hillary’s debate performances convinced enough people that regardless of what happened with the “damn emails,” as Bernie Sanders so memorably called them, she is a competent adult human who is eminently qualified to be President. (She has actual policies and can speak in complete sentences — all the time, not just for a few minutes.)
No one knows if young people who wanted a cranky old man to be their President will protest by voting for Gary Johnson (of “What is Aleppo?” fame) or Jill Stein. No one knows if Trump’s strategy of targeting groups who typically don’t vote will bring in millions of new voters who will turn the tide in his favor.
No one knows.
I read an op-ed in the New York Times that talked about how it’s not too late to do something, that people should make a plan for voting, they should talk about their plan with other people, they should talk about how they executed their plan after they voted. And they should not be afraid to talk politics. Because it matters.
Al Gore lost Florida in 2000 by 537 votes. Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election.
Every vote counts.
Most people I know here in North Carolina have already voted. We have several weeks of early voting, and it’s much more convenient than having to go on election day.
[Don’t tell me anything about the early voting results! I’m sticking my head in the sand until the election is over… la la la I can’t hear you.]
Except that my polling place is just down the street from my house and I like voting there. I thought about voting early, thinking that it might make me feel better and stop freaking out so much, but I haven’t yet. I think tomorrow is the last day. I might go tomorrow, but I’ll probably just go to my regular polling place on Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. before I go to work.
That is my voting plan. There is no chance I will forget to vote on Tuesday.
I will be voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton. And you should too. Even if you don’t like her. Even if you don’t trust her. Even if you are a Republican.
Because in the words of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she is the only sane, competent person currently running for President.
I emailed a friend who has kids in their 20s. I’m worried about young people sitting out. I asked if her kids had voted, and if they were voting for Clinton. She said her daughter had, and her son was still working out his registration. She said her daughter told her that many of her friends said they weren’t going to vote.
My friend said she sat her daughter down for The Talk. She told her that that was lame. Just look at one issue, she said. Abortion: Trump has said he’ll pick Supreme Court nominees that will reverse Roe v. Wade. If you care about that at all, even if that’s the only thing you care about, you should vote for Clinton.
[And clearly Trump is playing up the Supreme Court issue because that he how he got Evangelicals to support him, because apparently abortion is the only thing that matters to them, serial adultery and complete lack of morals are just fine.]
This was my response:
No kidding. Pick any single issue you care about and Trump has some crazy-ass position on it.
I don’t care WHAT people think of her. It doesn’t matter. I know she’s not your first choice but come on people this is NOT a situation where it’s six of one half dozen of the other, they’re all corrupt politicians, what does it matter anyway. Trump is a crazy person, the only thing he’s done in his life is take money from other people and make himself rich. He has no attention span and can barely put together a coherent sentence. What in the world qualifies him to run the country? This is not an entry-level position!
Geez louise people.
And I’m going to add to that response here.
Trump probably doesn’t have just one crazy-ass position on the issue you care about, he might have two or three positions, all of them expressed in the same paragraph. He’ll just keep saying things so later he can pick the one he decides sounds best and say that that’s his position. He might have a position that is completely different from his vice president’s position. He might have two positions that completely contradict each other — like bringing back coal and promoting natural gas (two fuels that compete with each other in the same market) at the same time.
And he hasn’t just taken other people’s money and gotten rich with it, he’s done it in completely legally and ethically dubious ways. But no one knows for sure because he won’t put out any information.
But one thing we do know for sure is that he thinks that it’s okay to grab women by the pussy. Because when you’re a star, they let you do it. And how do we know he thinks that? Because he said it. We heard him say it.
Do you want to live in a world where someone who brags about grabbing women by the pussy is in charge of the country? Do you?
Okay. Stopping now.
You get my point.
Vote. Your vote matters. Don’t sit out. Don’t vote for a third-party candidate who has no chance of winning.
Vote Hillary Clinton for President.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
I will introduce this story by saying that I have a freakish memory. So much so that sometimes I wonder if there is not something better I could be doing with my brain than remembering details from other people’s lives that even they do not remember. (At least this story is about my actual life, not someone else’s.)
I saw in the paper a few weeks ago that Hal Ketchum was playing in Durham. I have never heard Hal Ketchum’s music and I know basically nothing about him, but it made me laugh because of the following story.
In June 1995, I broke my arm playing soccer. I was living in Arlington, Virginia and working in Dupont Circle, and had been commuting to work by bike. Given the broken arm, I had to find a new mode of transport. After a few morning trips on the Metro, I decided I would walk to work until I was able to ride my bike again — turned out that summertime Metro riding with a broken arm was not that much fun.
So I’m heading off to work walking across Key Bridge and I’m wearing a t-shirt I’d had since college that had on it a comic strip character drawn by someone I had been friendly with in school. The character was named Sidney. I’m about a third of the way across the bridge and I see a person walking toward me from the other direction and he gets to where he can see me and he says, “Hey! You’re wearing a Sidney t-shirt!” And then he says, “What did you do to your arm?”
It was Ted Rex, the person I had been friendly with at school who was the creator of Sidney and the designer of the 6 year-old t-shirt I was wearing. (Later he told me that he recognized the t-shirt long before he could tell who I was.)
[Random aside: He is also the person who told me about the space shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986. We were sitting next to each other on the bus. After he told me the news he said, “Yeah. And it’s so weird because yesterday was Mozart’s birthday.”]
So we stop and exchange pleasantries and I tell him what I did to my arm and then we move along in our opposite directions on our way to our respective workplaces.
And then later when I’m thinking about it I’m thinking that this is odd, because the last I knew, Ted was living in Falls Church. I’m like what was he doing walking across Key Bridge at 8 o’clock in the morning? It was Forth of July weekend, so I thought it might be related to that, and also that meant we had a break in our normal commuting schedules and I didn’t walk to work for a few days and I was sort of mad at myself for not asking more questions. I was stuck in a state of mild confusion trying to figure out what was going on.
But then the holiday weekend ended and it was back to the regular routine, and I walked to work and ran into Ted on the bridge again, so I got to ask him all of the follow-up questions I should have asked in the first place.
Turned out that his housemate in Falls Church had gotten married so he had to move out and he was subletting a place in Georgetown for the summer waiting for his friend Chip to finish a post-law school clerkship and then they were going to rent a house to live in.
Coincidentally, my housemate was getting married in a few months so I too was looking for a new place to live.
Ted and I were on the same work schedule and we had basically the same route to work, in opposite directions, so we saw each other every day and would check in on how the house-hunting was going. Which of course was grim. (People who believe that renting is better than owning have never tried to find an affordable apartment within walking distance to the Metro in the Washington, D.C. area.)
One day I took the Metro instead of walking, and when I got home that night, there was a message on the answering machine from Ted.
He said he missed me walking and hoped everything was okay. Then he said that Chip had been in town and they were looking at houses and had an idea — they wondered if I wanted to go in on a house with them.
This was an intriguing notion.
The market for small apartments was terrible, as was, it turned out, the market for small houses. Ted and Chip figured that if the three of us pooled our resources, we could get a much better place than we could each on our own.
I continued to look for the perfect apartment, but I also started looking at houses with Ted. This was much more enjoyable than looking for an apartment, if only because I had someone to suffer with.
We looked at many, many houses. Most of them were completely unsuitable for three unrelated people to live in, or completely geographically undesirable, or completely out of our price range. Or some combination thereof.
We finally found one house, on Jackson Street, that we loved, but someone else rented it before we could get our name on it. After that, Ted kept comparing every house we looked at to the Jackson Street house. Finally I was like, “Ted, that house is gone. It doesn’t matter whether this house is better or worse than the Jackson Street house because we can’t live in the Jackson Street house. Stop thinking about the Jackson Street house. You need to move on.”
We then found this completely AMAZING house on Washington Boulevard. It had five bedrooms and three full bathrooms and was built by an architect for his family. It was exactly in our price range. The only downsides were that it was on a busy street and it was a bit far from the Metro. But it was definitely within walking distance to the Metro and it was very bikeable and I was able to convince Ted that the busy street would be fine. Because everything else about it was perfect, we both loved it.
Chip was still in Virginia Beach and we were going to have to make a decision without his input because we needed to get everything signed so we didn’t lose it. So we signed the lease and I fronted the $2,000 for the security deposit.
It was a huge relief to find a place and I was really excited about living there.
Ted and I continued to see each other every morning on our walk to work. During one of our morning chats, I said I was going to a concert at Wolf Trap that night. Ted said he had just been there. He said he had seen Hank Ketchum. And I was like, “Really? Hank Ketchum?”
I said, “Hank Ketchum, the guy who draws Dennis the Menace?”
Ted said, without hesitation, “Yeah.”
This seemed very odd to me. “What was he doing?,” I asked.
Ted said, again with a completely straight face, “Drawing pictures.” He mimed the action of someone up on a stage drawing a cartoon, “To music.”
And I just looked at him. I was like “Really?” And I didn’t really believe him but whatever, it was Ted and I had to get to work. I let it go and we went off in our opposite directions.
I don’t remember exactly how I found out that it was Hal Ketchum at Wolf Trap, not Hank Ketchum. Maybe someone told me or maybe I looked it up. (Or, now that I’m thinking about it, I probably saw a list of scheduled shows when I was at the concert that night.)
Later that week, Ted calls me at work. He sounds very serious. He says, “Uh, hey, I have some bad news.” He pauses. “Chippy came up and I took him to look at the house and he didn’t like it.”
And I was like, “What???”
This sent me into a panic — my office started spinning. We had just signed a lease on a house for $2,000 a month, which was way more than I could afford by myself, and I put my $2,000 down for the security deposit, and I did not know what it meant that Chip was saying he didn’t like the house.
“What do you mean he doesn’t like it?” I said. “He doesn’t like the location?”
“No,” Ted said. “He doesn’t like the house.”
And this was completely not making sense to me because the house was great, there was no way we could find a better house than that. I’m like how can he not like the house?
I think Ted could feel my panic so he let me off the hook early. He says, “Oh, I’m just kidding. Chip loved it.”
And I start to breathe again but now I want to kill Ted. I was like Oh my god, I hate you. And I may have said that. And then the next thing that comes out of my mouth is, “And it wasn’t Hank Ketchum at Wolf Trap either.” (As if this mattered at all at this point, I have no idea why I brought this up.)
I can tell that Ted is laughing on the other end of the line but he plays it straight. He doubles down, he says, “Yes it was.”
I say, “No it wasn’t. It was Hal Ketchum.”
Ted says, “Oh. Well Hank Ketchum opened.”
Friday, August 19, 2016
My laptop died on Monday. It was on, I went and did other things, when I came back the screen was dark. It’s an old computer, every now and then it gets tired and turns off. Weird, but whatever. You push the button and it comes back on.
Except this time it didn’t.
And actually the exact same thing happened last year, it went dark and stayed dark. I took it to my IT friend Tom and he looked at it and declared it a lost cause but took out the hard drive and transplanted the hard drive into a different body (separate story there, I will spare you the details) and that was fine, it booted right up, no problems at all. I was back in business.
So in my mind, on Monday, this is the same thing. I know we won’t be able to transplant again, but that’s okay, it’s time for me to move on from this computer anyway, it was barely functional even before the screen went dark. The reason I hadn’t gotten a new one is because I’m still feeling a bit in between things at this point and I hadn’t figured out what I should get to replace it. And I had all of my systems set up for this computer, and adjusting to a new computer is so hard for me — the autistic person who lives inside my brain is completely change averse. Especially with computers. Man, I just hate getting a new computer, I put it off as long as possible, and even when I do it, I never quite adjust to the change, there are always things I miss about my old computer. If it were up to me, I’d still be using DOS. (Oh, XyWrite how I miss you!)
And given the age of my computer, my extreme attachment to my data, and my general level of technical competence (seriously, I am technically competent, I am the person you call when you can’t figure out how to get your printer to work or just what is going on with your computer), you’d think I would have been really on top of the data backup thing. I’d have local backups and cloud backups and some kind of syncing thing so everything was totally covered. All of that. Right?
So I get a replacement laptop from my friends at Triangle Ecycling and I take my Mac to my IT friend Tom and he takes out the drive and plugs it into a different computer and … nothing. Doesn’t show up. Drive not readable.
I am not expecting this. At all. I’m like What? What do you mean it isn’t showing up?? My heart starts racing. My mind goes blank. I’m sure the color drained from my face.
I am a crazy data tracker. The great value of my data is that I have a giant data set — most of my emails dating back to 1993, all of my spending since 1995, time logs from 2003 on.
I have a good memory, I remember much more than the average person, but I also have a huge amount of data that I can mine. If we are trying to figure something out and we can’t remember what happened, I say, “Okay let’s go to the tape.” I can look through emails to see what we said, review spending records to see what I actually spent money on, look at time logs to see what I was working on. It’s like a huge external brain where all of our collective past is stored.
So of course I have this all backed up. Right?
All I can say is F*k Me.
And I also have to say that I have been feeling conflicted about this element of my personality for a while now, my great love of random information from my past, and my ongoing devotion to data tracking. It sometimes feels like a burden, to have all this stuff that I have to worry about keeping track of, to carry around with me for the rest of my life. When does it end?
And apparently this conflict prevented me from properly managing this storehouse of data. I just didn’t back things up, even after I bought a new external drive and was totally going to be organized. The drive is still in its packaging, I never even opened it.
So apparently when this ends is right now, in 2016, two weeks after my 49th birthday and two weeks before my last CPA exam.
This is like someone ignoring their girlfriend — la la la, I don’t need you — until she leaves and then he is like no, wait, I totally didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it! I’m sorry! Come back!
I remember telling a story to my friend Christine about a friend who dated a guy who she was really into but who was totally a jerk to her and they had broken up and she went on a trip with another guy and all of a sudden jerky boyfriend was like wait, I miss you! And he was all nice to her and telling her how sad he was and how much he wanted to be with her and how he couldn’t live without her.
So I’m telling Christine about my friend and she says, “Okay so he’s a jerk until she goes away with someone else and then he can’t live without her?”
And I say, “Yup, pretty much.”
And Christine says, “Oh, cry me a river, cowboy.”
So there you have it. Cry me a river, cowboy. My data is gone.
And it’s not like I don’t have any backups, I do, I have most of the older stuff, but I don’t have any of the most recent stuff and the thing about the recent stuff is I can’t even say what’s valuable. The data is only valuable in retrospect, when I can look back and see what happened, or remember stories that I told in emails that completely disappear with the passage of time (remind me sometime to tell you the Courtney the Clown story), or write things that later turn out to be worth reading. And also just because the sheer volume of it — the value is that I have everything.
Except now I don’t. How will I know I was even here?
I talked to my friend Ann after I found out. I said maybe it’s time to turn over a new leaf, to start fresh and not track data anymore. Just live in the moment.
She said, “Yeah. Let me know how that goes.”
Then we looked up the stages of grief to see where I was at (3=bargaining, (4=loneliness).
I miss you my data friends. I’m sorry I didn’t take care of you. So sorry.
So anyway, that was my day on Thursday.
And then I tried to study and focus on accounting for pensions and you can just imagine how that went.
But Friday is a new day.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
I was cleaning up some files on my computer the other day and ran across a message I wrote to a friend in spring 2015 describing the origin and context of what my law professor had dubbed The Currie Rule.
(I was in an accounting program, but I took all of the business law classes that were offered. Which was totally a good call, understanding basic legal concepts at this point in my life is completely useful.)
I’m posting a slightly reworked version of the message here because I think it is funny that this became a thing in class, and also I think that it is an oddly accurate representation of my world view.
That glass may look half-full now, but someday it will be empty.
So my law classes are taught Socratic method — professor asks question, student answers, general discussion ensues. Back and forth, questions and answers.
I talk some in class, but I try to not talk too much. If other people are willing to give answers, then they can just go ahead. Sometimes in the law classes I end up talking because the 24-year-olds can be so dumb, they just have no common sense. So a lot of times when I talk it’s to say something completely obvious that no one else seems to be able to think of. My professor appreciates that about me. (In the Mod One class I had with her, she told me I was “exceptional.” Yay, me.)
I don’t remember exactly how this came up, but it was in the partnership class during Mod Two, we were talking about getting everything written into the partnership agreement in the beginning, making sure everything is figured out up front, including how losses will be handled.
The professor asks why you want to do this in the beginning. Why do want to go through all of this detail from the start, talk about both profits and losses?
Some bright young thing gives a narrowly correct answer — something like because you need to file the paperwork in the beginning. Professor says, “Yes, that’s true … what else?” Another 24-year-old with another technically correct but incomplete answer, “Yes … what else?”
Sometimes this goes on for a while. I don’t remember how long it went in this case, but eventually I decide that the 24-year-olds aren’t going to come up with the answer. I raise my hand. Professor sees my hand and calls on me, “Yes, Ms Currie?”
I say, “Because in the beginning, no one ever thinks anything is going to go wrong. No one starts a business to lose money. And then once you’re losing money, you don’t want to have to figure out what to do. Things are already a mess and then it just turns into a bigger mess.”
She said, “That’s exactly right.”
So then for the rest of the year in her classes, any time the answer had to do with things going south and people losing money, she would call on me.
“Why is this, Ms Currie?” she’d say.
And I’d say, “Because no one ever thinks they’re going to lose money.”
She called it The Currie Rule.
In the ethics class that she taught in Mod Three, we had a class on sexual harassment. I was in the day’s second session. When I walked in to the classroom, she saw me and said, “Oh, there you are Ms Currie! I was looking for you in the earlier class.”
She said they were talking about office romances. She said she was looking for me to invoke The Currie Rule. All I could think of was about losing money, I was confused about how that related to an office romance.
She said, “No one ever thinks they’re going to break up.”
I said, “Oh yeah, that too.”