What Not to Eat

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

NOTES
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.

 

 

The Store You Deserve

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.

Cry Me a River, Cowboy

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?

Um, yeah.

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?

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.

Well.

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.

Carpe diem.

Half Full, Half Empty

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.”

Experiences vs. Things

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

My mom likes to give me something I want for Christmas so she asks me to send her ideas. Sometimes I do and she’s happy, but sometimes I don’t have any ideas. This year I didn’t have any ideas so she wasn’t very happy with me and she gave me a check. She said, “You didn’t tell me anything you want so this is what you get.” My grandmother used to send a check, too, for my birthday and Christmas.

Because I am a crazy data tracker, it’s not hard for me to keep track of what I’ve spent my gift money on and how much I have left.

With the money my grandmother would send, I would use it to go out to lunch when I wanted a treat. I would think about it like it was my grandmother taking me out to lunch, and I’d write her a note and tell her that I’d spent it that way. She liked that.

With the money I got from my parents this year I took my friend Ann out for an end-of-year lunch at Pizzeria Toro. I’ve eaten there with my parents a few times and we’ve had very good meals. I thought my dad especially might like that I spent some of my gift money on that.

Shortly after the Pizzeria Toro meal, a few days or a few weeks — who’s to say, it’s all blurring together these days — I was thinking about how I could have bought something with that money, but instead I spent it on lunch. Call it buyer’s remorse on pizza. (Though the meal was excellent, and I don’t actually regret it — just a passing thought.)

This made me think about Experiences vs. Things and their relative values.

There is a great bias today toward Experiences — there is a moderately pervasive idea that Experiences are valuable and life affirming, while Things are just a bunch of crap that you’re going to have to get rid of someday and that weigh you down. Marie Kondo and all that.

I think that previous generations would be baffled by this idea — that going out to lunch would be considered better than buying something special that you could have and keep and use for a long period of time.

Back in the day, going out to lunch with gift money might more likely be thought of as “squandering.” Like playing the ponies — at the end of the day, you’ve got nothing to show for it. But today, going to lunch (or playing the ponies) is an Experience, and all to the good.

One blog I read and like wrote a post a few years ago about marginal utility and the idea that people value Experiences over Things today because most people have an abundance of material goods but limited free time. This increases the relative value of experiences and decreases the relative value of things.

And I think this is true, but I think other factors are at work as well.

For instance people in any given social circle don’t necessarily live near each other or visit each other’s houses regularly, and many interactions are conducted online. Having a nice car or a Persian rug might go unnoticed unless you posted pictures, which might look like you were trying to show off, and, depending on your social circle, might look crass.

But of course it’s perfectly natural for you to post pictures of your vacation, or Instagram your Pizzeria Toro crispy pigs’ ears.

[Side note: I read a book a year or two ago by a foodie economist about how to find the best cheap food, and one of his pieces of advice is that if something on the menu sounds bad, you should order it. Because if it sounds bad, the only reason it would be on the menu is because it tastes good. Case in point, if you are at Toro, order the crispy pig’s ears. They are good.]

This also made me think of one of the studies that Juliet Schor describes in her book The Overspent American. She talks a lot in the book about conspicuous consumption and status symbols. And this seems obvious now that I’m writing it out, but she makes the case that status symbols are things that other people see. She describes an interesting study about cosmetics that women use in public (lipstick) vs. cosmetics that women use privately (cleanser), and notes that only lipstick fit the pattern of status object purchasing.

So I really feel that a lot of the Experiences vs. Things dichotomy is driven by status objects and what can be advertised to your social group to show how successful you are.

Experiences say, “I am an interesting person who is expanding my horizons. I have the time and the money to explore the world. Don’t you wish you were me.”

Things say, “I am a shallow materialist.”

My experiences at the moment involve trying to answer many multiple choice questions like:

For the next two years, a lease is estimated to have an operating net cash inflow of $7,500 per annum, before adjusting for $5,000 per annum tax basis lease amortization and a 40% tax rate. The present value of an ordinary annuity of $1 per year at 10% for two years is 1.74. What is the leases’s after-tax present value using a 10% discount factor?

No one is jealous of me. So I will turn to Things.

With the money I didn’t spend at Toro, I’m buying a new wall clock. Because the one I had broke like four years ago and I still — STILL — look on that wall to see what time it is. But alas I have no clock there.

But someday soon I will. And I will be able to look at it every day. And when I look at it I will think about I got it as a Christmas present from my parents. And that will make my mom happy too.

Experiences are good. Things are good. You just have to buy the right Things.

Make It Happen

Monday, January 25, 2016

When I lived in Northern Virginia, I played soccer on a bunch of teams — at least two different co-ed teams and then a few different iterations of a women’s team, and lots of different tournament teams. It’s sort of a cult thing around there. Once you start playing with one team, you just keep getting sucked in.

The problem with being even a little bit organized is that you invariably get stuck being in charge of things. After a few years of playing on the main women’s team I played with, I ended up being made the organizer. Despite my protestations. And then we won our division and got moved up into the top division. So then I had to organize a much better team, which was significantly more challenging.

The season we moved up, the people in charge of the league decided to have a one-day pre-season tournament to get everyone ready to play. I was still trying to pull my team together, so this was a bit of a hurdle, but it seemed like we had everything together and we were pretty much ready. But then at the eleventh hour, the fields changed — instead of being out at the Linton Hall fields in Manassas, the games were moved to the Fort Belvoir fields in Alexandria.

Linton Hall and Fort Belvoir are nowhere near each other.

This was spring 1995. Some people in 1995 had cell phones, but normal people in 1995 did not have cell phones.

We did a phone tree (remember those?) to get the word to everyone, and it worked well. We managed to get in touch with all but one person — Michelle Verrier was the only person we couldn’t reach.

Michelle Verrier worked crazy hours and lived at her parents’ house. She had told us she couldn’t make the early game because she was taking a class, but she said she’d be there for the 2pm game. Her plan was to head straight for Linton Hall as soon as she got out of class.

Which was fine, except that now no one would be at Linton Hall when she got there.

When we tried to call her in the morning, she’d already left for class. Tegan, who was helping me with phone calls and had talked to Michelle’s dad, was like “Oh, too bad. Well at least we got everyone else. We did what we could.”

Michelle Verrier happened to be a really good player. And a really nice person. I’d only played with her a few times, but she was someone I definitely wanted to play on my team. On all of my teams in fact. The more teams I could play on with Michelle Verrier, the better.

But everyone else who ran a soccer team felt this same way. Michelle played with like 5 or 6 teams, but she wouldn’t commit to any of them, because her work schedule was so crazy. She would just play when she could.

I knew that if Michelle Verrier got out of class and hauled her butt out to Linton Hall, and when she got there all she found was a bunch of empty soccer fields, I would never see her at one of my games again.

This is what was running through my head when Tegan told me she hadn’t been able to get in touch with Michelle.

I told Tegan I needed more information.

I said, “Where is the class?” And I don’t know if she knew that, or if she had to call Michelle’s house again, but we found out that the class was at Georgetown. And my brother had gone to Georgetown, so I knew that area fairly well, and I knew that (at that time) there was only one main parking lot.

I said, “Find out what kind of car she has.”

So I got a description of the car — make, model, color, distinguishing bumper stickers (and it turned out it had a baby seat! it was her sister’s car, that would make it easier) — and headed to the Georgetown University parking lot.

I found the car.

I wrote a big note on a piece of paper:

MICHELLE — GAMES HAVE BEEN MOVED!!!
TO FORT BELVOIR!
SEE YOU 2PM

I put it under her windshield wiper and hoped for the best.

Now we had done what we could.

I went to the fields. We played the first game. We were sitting around waiting for the second game and I saw a player walking in our direction. It was Michelle!

I was so happy! I said, “You found us!!”

She said, “Oh my gosh, that was SO WEIRD to get to my car and have a note to me on it. How did you do that???”

And she played with us that season, and for the next two years, and after a year she told her other teams she couldn’t play with them anymore and just played with my team.

And I remember this as being one of the crowning achievements of my pre-cell phone days — getting a message to someone I barely knew by leaving a note on her car.

****

I was reminded of this story on Saturday, when I got a call from one of the people I work with, who was supposed to be going to a conference on Sunday. She said our other co-worker who was supposed to go with her was sick, and she herself wasn’t able to get out of her neighborhood because of the snow, so she thought we would have to cancel the trip to the conference, since neither of them could go.

And I was like, no. We paid for it, it’s important to be there, and there is just not enough snow to cancel this trip.

A similar situation occurred in 2010, we got hit with winter weather the weekend of this same conference. For that one, I was actually scheduled to attend the conference, but the person I was supposed to go with didn’t think it was safe to drive. I thought it would be fine, but I wasn’t going to make someone who didn’t feel safe go with me, so I went by myself.

It was fine.

So when I got the call on Saturday, it seemed like ultimately we might not be able to get there, but I decided before we cancelled, we should at least try to see if we could get something to work.

I hadn’t been out of the house in two days, so a walk over to the building didn’t seem like a bad idea, and I figured I could see how the roads looked, if people were able to drive and things looked icy or clear or what. And if things looked good, I could drive the van back to my house and then leave in the morning. Everything would be fine.

I walked over to the building, picked up the van and drove it home. We left for Charlotte in the morning. Everything was fine.

I feel like people sometimes give up and say they can’t do something before they’ve even tried to see if maybe they can. Because they’ve only thought of one option, the thing they would normally do, and that won’t work. So they think they’re done.

But really, people, you just need to keep thinking. Because maybe something else will work. You just need to think of it.

You just need to make it happen.

Into Your Wallet

Thursday, November 5, 2015

As previously mentioned, I recently read the Marie Kondo book. I am still formulating my final opinion about the entirety of it, but one of her ideas that I can completely get behind is the idea that coins go “into your wallet.”

She commented that many of her clients’ homes, when she would first visit, would have loose change scattered about: in the bottom of bags, dropped on the tops of dressers and end tables, stored in jars.

(Similarly, in The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin refers to a “scum of clutter” that “filmed the surface” of her family’s home; when she sizes up her bedroom, she notes that “CDs, DVDs, cords, chargers, coins, collar stays, business cards and instruction booklets were scattered like confetti.”)

I myself have noted this phenomenon — people leave change everywhere. Including strewn on the floor.

I can understand why someone would put it in a jar, and I can even see how it could end up on a dresser or tabletop, but having it scattered across the floor baffles me. Why?  Why would you ever drop change on the floor and not pick it up??

When I lived in Virginia in the mid-90s, my housemate Ted saved his pennies in a jar and when he moved to Utah he said he was leaving them behind for me and our other housemate, Chip. Chip pooh-poohed the pennies so I took possession of them. There were a lot. My bank was near my office, and I commuted to work by bike, so I had to carry them in to the office in my bag on my back. It was heavy.

The teller at my bank told me the way it worked is that I put a deposit slip with my account number in the bag with the pennies and they would run them through the counting machine then credit my account for the total amount. Easy enough. As soon as I handed the bag over to the bank, I promptly forgot about it.

My next month’s bank statement had a mystery deposit for seventeen dollars and some change on it.

I was like what the heck is this? I finally figured out (possibly by contacting the bank) that it was the pennies. I told Chip about the deposit. He said, “Hey! Half of that is mine!”

No go dude.

When my grandmother died and we cleaned out her apartment, we found so much change that I gave up on counting it all and instead separated it by denomination and weighed each pile and divided them into thirds and gave three approximately equal piles (roughly equal by denomination, which totalled a roughly equal cumulative pile) to my three nieces. I told them they could count it up themselves. My estimate was $83.07, and I feel like I was pretty close to the actual total, but I don’t remember what the final count was.

I’m not sure why my grandmother had so much change. She played penny poker with it, so some of it was for that, but there really was a lot.

When I was growing up, my grandmother would save her quarters and put them in a small blue glass candy dish that she kept in the coat closet near the front door. When she had accumulated ten dollars worth, she’d put the quarters in a roll, and when she had two rolls, she’d give one to me and one to my brother.

This is good thing to do with your change — save it as a special treat for your grandchildren.

Scattering your change across your floor and never bothering to pick it up is a not a good thing to do with it.

Nor is not taking it in the first place.

I was at the Green Market a few weeks ago buying a churro. The woman in front of me ordered $4.25 worth of treats and when the vendor tried to hand over her $0.75 change, she refused it. I can only imagine what my faced looked like. I almost stuck out my hand and said, “I’ll take it.” But I bit my tongue and let the vendor keep it.

TAKE YOUR CHANGE PEOPLE.

So the point of this post is to provide a short public service announcement in case anyone out there is confused about the nature of coins given as change for dollar bills.

Change is in fact actual money that you can spend just like dollar bills. It is legal tender. You do not need to take coins to a machine at the supermarket and pay money to turn them into dollar bills. You can start spending them right now, every time you buy something. Carry a little coin purse with you and see if you can make exact change on every purchase.

If you have really a lot, separate out the quarters and start with those. Eventually you will get through it all.

And then try to remember: Coins go into your wallet.