Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What's Your Money Word?

Money is not objective.  Everyone, I read once, can reduce their emotional relationship to money with one word.  For many, though fewer now, it's success.  For lots of others, it's security.  For many, especially in America, it's sex.  Mine is independence, which sounds great except it means that when I get help of any sort I worry about what I might owe in other ways, and the mention of joint bank accounts makes me break out in a cold sweat. 

On his blog, The Simple Dollar, Trent Hamm writes about his own "financial meltdown" and how he went on to mend his own personal fiscal crisis, in partnership with his wife. One important day, he looked at his infant son in his crib and realized he'd equated taking care of his child with giving him things. The epiphany was that his son needed only his love and attention, not more stuff.  And the wolf was at the door, so there was that.

Hamm is very brave in relating his own experience with money.  His parents lived paycheck to paycheck, and every windfall, in his experience, meant a new toy and, eventually, a television for his room.  His parents, of course, were working on their own emotional desire to remedy their son's lack of material possessions, because they worried about what others thought about their ability to provide.  Then there were the relatives who slipped him a twenty and asked him not to tell his parents but to "go spend it on something fun." 

His takeaway?  First, that extra money was for immediate gratification.  And second, that getting help from anyone was shameful, but for also to be blown on something one could enjoy instantly.  So, he never learned to save anything, and then, as a new father, his whole world crashed down. His story is compelling because he found a way out, and he learned some valuable lessons, the most important of which is that appearance (beyond keeping oneself extremely clean and well-groomed) is much less important than a future without financial angst.  His first steps out involved taking a long, hard look at how he was spending.  This is not fun at all, in my experience, when one first starts, but if you can stop beating yourself up and really look, it gets easier, because once you know what's going on you can take control. 

Most money "experts" don't talk about the emotional aspects of money, at least not as the first bit of said wisdom, and so their advice on saving and investing is really lost on the vast majority of readers.  How, the rest of us ask, can I possibly save when I need so many things?  Don't these people know what life costs?  What will the other parents at school think when my child isn't at art class or soccer or lives in that house?

Spending well is like eating well, to my mind:  we simply cannot do without it, but we can determine how we deal with it.  So, decide what you care about and plan ahead, and also know where your weak spots lie. (It's all hard in the world we live in.)  Do the best you can, and forgive yourself for the unconsidered splurge, as long as you keep track in general.  Life is really short, so enjoy it.  But for most of us, it's longer than ever, so eating dessert first isn't the best course of action, at least not every day.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Zodiac Dinner Party: Real Scorpios Eat Roquefort

Food and Wine has an interesting idea this month:  a dinner party based on astrological signs.  Like all personality classifications, I take the notion of sun signs with a large pinch of sea salt, but it's still fun.  I'd never thought about it, but traditional winemakers paid attention not only to weather and soil but also to the movement of celestial bodies when they were deciding when and how to plant, tend and harvest. 

The article, the full version of which is only in the print publication, includes a chart of signs and their respective tasting styles and suggestions for favorite wines and foods.  It completely nails my Scorpio tendencies, saying I am "intense" and "love routine." The latter is altogether true, although I've never before seen it attributed to my sign.  So I love pungent (okay, smelly) foods like Roquefort and big, spicy reds to drink.  Of course I enjoy lots of other things, too, but the article definitely captures when I feel most myself in terms of eating and imbibing.  Check it out here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Makes a Great Story?

In fiction as in life, the best stories are about a quest for one of two things:  wisdom or redemption.  We are held either by the innocent who goes out into the big, bad world, and we worry for his soul.  It's the same in Great Expectations as in The Devil Wears Prada.  Will their benefactor (always questionable, be he an ex-con or a fashion editor) ultimately destroy the youngster, or will he or she learn to survive independently?

The other compelling character, made even more so as a reader ages, is a middle-aged protaganist who seems irretrievably cynical or who is just broken down by life. This theme captures our attention with a sequence of events engendering hope rather than worry.  In spite of all the mistakes he's made, can he find happiness?

By now all of you have heard of Crazy Heart, as it won multiple Oscars for its score and for Jeff Bridges' performance.  The movie has been on my list since I read the reviews, and as I love the music, I'll get to it.  Last week I was traveling and bought the novel, written by Thomas Cobb and published in 1987, in the Charlotte airport, and it was so delicious I forced myself to put it down halfway through my flight so I would have something to look forward to on the red-eye back from Miami five days later.  This was only a partial solution, as I was distracted from the turbulence over Atlanta but wept through the last twenty pages.

Bad Blake is a great talent but a deeply flawed man.  He's known as a fading talent with good musical instincts, and after drinking away most of his earnings and still mourning the departure of his young wife and son twenty years earlier, he's a decent musician but mostly a drunk.  A good woman with a sweet young son of her own runs across his path, and he is changed.

Like all good stories, the pleasure is in the details.  One smells the bowling alleys he plays and gets a profoundly bleak sense of what it feels like to be in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  (Quite a lot like a logging town in Northern Ontario, by my frame of reference.)  He plays and feels alive, at least when the back up band sent his way is good, and then he drinks and goes back to his hotel room with D-list groupies, and then he drinks some more.  His drug of choice is Jack Daniels, and the more he swills the more he remembers details of his early years with dirt-poor daddy and an unrelenting Southern Baptist mother. 

He is a fifty-six year old man with not many miles left in him.  He dwells on the past, even when he lets in a dear and faithful friend who tells him to talk to his estranged son: "Stop kicking your own butt for what's past.  You're doing the right thing now," says the friend. "Don't let what you can't help f*#k it up."  Good notion. But like most of us, Bad's issue isn't regret, but learning to live life in a way where there is less of it.

Bad Blake will capture you, like he does the women who love him, and not let you go.  There are a few books that have held me for many years after I've read them, but I know this will be one of them.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Eavesdropping on Happiness

Ignorance is not bliss.  This finding alone makes me happier.  Add in that talking also adds to well-being, and I'm buoyant.  In Eavesdropping on Happiness, an article published in Psychological Science, the authors put microphones on 79 undergraduates and listened to their conversations over four days, analyzed them based on a coding system, then had the subjects complete a detailed Satisfaction With Life survey.  Those who had regular, serious conversations with others (not about the weather, for example, but about worries about their kids or their passion for stamp-collecting) were qualitatively happier people.

Humans, introvert or extrovert, do better when they connect with others in a meaningful manner on a regular basis.  I once read about a woman who asked people she met at dinner parties to tell her about the last time they fell in love.  She said it was the best way to learn a lot about people quickly. 

The authors conclude:  "Together, the present findings demonstrate that the happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial."  They concede that happy people may naturally attract others to "deep social encounters" and thus be happier.  But it could also be that deep conversational connection does in fact make us feel less alone in this big world. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spin the Bottle (NYC)

Do you remember the first time you played that game?  The last?  I do, on both counts, but that's not for public consumption. 

It's a rather titllating name for a blog, and the one to which I refer has tons of practical and unpretentious information for people who like wine.  What's the best temperature to store it? Serve it?  What is best with chocolate?  These are very important questions.

If you are getting married, looking for a good and reasonable bottle, or want a review of a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc ("spring in a bottle"--how nice does that sound?) you are at the right place.  Sasha answers all of the questions you have but were afraid to ask.  Enjoy her wisdom!!

Monday, March 15, 2010

How Do You Find the Time?

With two children, a full-time job, six to eight hours a week of commuting, a dog, a cat, a reading habit and a (bit of) a social life, it seemed like I was kidding myself when I decided to blog.  I considered it for a long time, talked to some other committed bloggers I knew, and realized that putting out five hundred words or so several times a week would in fact give me more than it took from me, and it has.  I love to write so much I'd blog if nobody at all read what I put out there, but my tracking service tells me otherwise, which encourages me enormously.

But how on earth, people ask, do I find the time?  My kids are a little older and their father and I share parenting, so I do have a few extra minutes there.  I've gotten through fewer books in the nine months since I started my blog, and read less "real" news and spend more time looking for cool blogs to inspire my writing.  What I don't do much of is watch television.

An IBM math genius built a model to determine exactly how much time Americans spend watching the tube.  Are you sitting down?  It's 200 billion hours a year. That's five or six hours a day for most people. This is how the most powerful nation on earth spends its time.

I watched a ton of bad t.v. when I was a kid, even with only five channels via our rabbit ears, as in the sticks cable was a long time coming.  I didn't have many other options when it was 20 below for nearly half the year. My kids certainly watch it, and although I limit it, they sit in front of the set more than I know they should.  But friends my age who didn't get to see much or any at all became complete junkies as adults, saying they felt like they couldn't be cool unless they knew what had happened on last night's Cheers.  These days, I often find my children turn off the Disney Channel in boredom on their own, which means they may be figuring it out for themselves.

A solid argument can be made that the internet is hardly a highbrow alternative.  And most people find they are too tired to read after a long day at work.  But ask yourself---are you giving up cherished goals because you have to see the latest episode of Jersey Shore?   Are you not pursuing a higher education?  Not writing the novel or screenplay you know you've got in you?  Putting off getting in shape or learning to speak a new language?  How much more could we accomplish as a nation if we turned off the television for one evening a week and volunteered? 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Good Friends Tell You When You've Missed the Point Entirely

A wise and thoughtful friend pointed out that my knee-jerk reaction that resulted in my last post made me sound like a member of the Ladies' Temperance Union, which for anyone who knows me (particularly said friend, who has seen me through the good, bad and the Merlot, letting me stay in her guest room on more than one late night) is pretty rich. 

My intention in writing it wasn't meanspririted, but it that doesn't matter, because it came across that way.  Although it's a point of pride with me to be tolerant and thoughtful, it appears I can be as narrow-minded as the next guy.  In writing what I did, I forgot that others' experience isn't the same as mine---the very definition of intolerance. 

Many years ago another dear friend asked me why I read fiction.  My response was, "For empathy."  I've not been working hard enough at that.  Although I suppose I might now have a better sense of how Gil LeBreton feels.   

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Should Obesity be Encouraged?

Do we really need more plus-size clothes in the retail world?  To believe Marketplace, we do.  In a segment on this evening's show, the NPR production revealed a gaping hole in the clothing market.  Obese professional women, it would appear, do not have many wardrobe options. 

Those interviewed are not looking at ten or twenty resistant pounds despite a healthy diet and regular movement.  One is size 22--this means she is clinically overweight.  This means she isn't at all healthy. 

The show is prefaced by the idea that the fashion industry only like stick-thin models, etc.  This is all well documented, but is the remedy to make sure the one third of Americans who are obese have appropriate clothing options?  I'm not talking about the vast majority of women who couldn't be in Vogue, and really wouldn't want to. I'm looking at those who are risking their very lives with their excessive weight.  Do we really need to tell them it's just fine to be morbidly obese?

I am old enough to remember when people used to be able to smoke in their offices.  I knew a good many who, when they knew they would suffer the indignity of standing outside to get their fix, decided it was finally time to quit.  Of course, the impetus behind these rules was the damage they were doing to others, but how many lives were extended by a couple of decades as a result of these laws?  Obesity is an epidemic, and to make an economic argument, the many illnesses that result from it cost our economy in lost productivity every day. 

Not all clothes should be size 2, and every body is different.  Marketplace points out there is a significant market in the Plus range, which some retailers are chasing.  It's a great business model, but so were low-tar cigarettes. Why can't we find a healthy medium between jutting bones and Type 2 diabetes?  

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

John Mayer Bridges the Generation Gap

My daughter's first concert was the Dixie Chicks.  She was six, and it was the tour after "the incident." I'd gotten the tickets gratis from a friend.  At the time, I was in a deeply conservative workplace in one of the most Republican counties in the United States, and I and felt as though I was showing my child the ropes in the French Resistance.  Midway through the show, a woman turned around and looked at us and gave me a thumbs-up, and I burst into tears. 

Last night we saw John Mayer in Dallas, and he thrilled us both.  Of course he is tabloid fodder, especially these days, and in his brief monologues he only expressed his gratitude for his fans and said that if he was able to lift all of us up from the tedium of our lives (not his words, but the sentiment I heard) for a couple of hours, he felt he was doing something meaningful.

His dating habits get much press, as do his flaky comments, although he assumes most people give him creative leeway and take what he says with a grain of salt, which ends up seeming rather sweet when you see him in person.  Anyway, he didn't use the word "napalm" or anything worse, and he played well for both the screaming girls (though they were pretty quiet) the Gen-Xers, and the twenty-something guys sitting quietly listening to his brilliant riffs. 

I am as busy at work as I can ever remember, and I had no business taking a night to run off to see a rockstar.  But my teenager and I actually have overlap in our musical tastes, and the nosebleed seats I got as a member of the general public didn't break me.  So we watched the crowd roar when the deep and brooding one hit the stage, and we jumped up and down when he played our favorites.  For my readers who are music snobs--and if you are and don't have children, know it's a hard line to walk when you do--you should know that Mayer is the real thing.  Listen to his live recording in LA, and tell me if you can really say you hate it.  And I know I won't remember any of the many nights I work late.  But my child said, "This. Is. Awesome. Thanks."  I'll remember that for sure.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What Kathryn Biegelow Can (and Can't) Teach us About Success

The boys' club in Hollywood took a bit of a whack last night with Kathryn Bigelow's win as Best Director for The Hurt Locker.  She did something big, because she was first--Hollywood values women for their dewy looks and scorns those who want power, from what little I know about The Business--and was a gracious winner.  Here's my take-away:

To be top-tier successful, it's important not to need any life at all outside of work.  After the Oscars ended, I did a quick search of Bigelow and discovered that beyond her much-discussed, two-year marriage to James Cameron, she doesn't have much of an official personal life.  No new husband, though for all I know she has a devoted life partner.  No children, which, like it or not, is a by-product of being the equivalent of a CEO.  The men who get there often have kids, though most will admit they never see them. 

If you want it, have the talent and the work ethic, you can get it.  If the timing is right.  The Hurt Locker, in another year, might not have won, good though it is.  But the Academy was clearly looking for something to articulate the war of the current generation, and the wind blew the right way for the movie.  Talented people who work hard will find success, but at the level of an Oscar or an Olympic medal, it boils down to the right day. 

Do work that matters to you, and success will follow.  This is the lowest-grossing movie that has ever won Best Picture.  In this era in particular, this is amazing.  Bigelow managed to scrape up the money to make something that mattered to her, and she got the highest accolade possible.  But even she didn't make the movie because she was thinking Oscar, but because this was a story she wanted to tell. This is in stark opposition to her former husband, who in my mind does things for external validation, but many who buy movie tickets clearly feel otherwise. 

You're only as good as yesterday's success.  For those who want to operate at a high level, they can't rest on their laurels.  Hollywood represents an accelerated version of this--today's darling is old news very fast.  So, fingers crossed, Ms. Bigelow has a good chance of staying power, because she is relying on her considerable talent rather than her (also considerable) good looks.  The looks go for everyone, no matter what.  But the hard work and accomplishments are what she will always own.  A great leap forward.  

Thursday, March 4, 2010

There Are No Wasted Steps

It only took four hours for three strong men and a big truck to take all of our stuff from the little 1927 with the arched doorways to the 1949 with the big deck.  The four weeks of purgatory with boxes everywhere were worth it on the back end, and the house is coming together.  Last night in a fit of organization I hung almost all the pictures, and received the beautiful custom slipcovers made for my couch, for less than half the price of a new sofa.  If you are in the DFW area and have an over-loved piece of furniture that you'd like to revive, Julia Laing is a talented woman who does gorgeous work.  This is a link to her website:

The kids and I absolutely love the new house and we are only two minutes from their dad, which simplifies the childrens' life between two homes. I am back in the neighborhood I felt the need to flee four years ago.  On the day of our move I went back to the odd little strip mall near the house. It has an Ace Hardware with friendly old guys who always help me find what I need and never laugh at my stupid questions.  I shopped at the cramped grocery store that's changed hands but still smells like it did twelve years ago when I moved here, immediately ran into a former neighbor, and was actually happy to see him.

The day after the big move, my son and I went to find the cat and get the last little bit of stuff.  The sweet little house that took good care of me for four years looked empty and lonely, with all its dents and missing pieces exposed.  When the house found me as I walked the kids to school, I felt like I was broken forever, but I knew that house was where I needed to be. The people in the neighborhood took me under their collective wing and made sure I had company--and often good food and wine--while I put myself back together. A friend who lived in the guest house helped me understand my life wasn't over by a long shot, that single life was pretty good, and there was still plenty of fun to be had. (We worked on the last thing quite successfully.)

As I locked the door for the last time, I welled up a little and said goodbye to the woman I was the first time I walked in. It wasn't long ago, really, but it feels as if a century has passed. And as hard as it was to be her, there are no wasted steps.  I wouldn't be here if I hadn't been there.  And this is a really good place.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Maple Leaf is not a Swastika

Careful what you wish for.  In an earlier post, I hoped my home country would experience unapologetic pride. According to Gil LeBreton in today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram, my fellow Canadians not only got patriotic, they turned into jack-booted thugs.  Yes, he likened the Vancouver Olympics to those of Berlin in 1936. 

It's ridiculous--more a  matter of bad writing than real sentiment, at least if you believe LeBreton's apology on the Star-Telegram website this afternoon.  It's also pretty rich coming out of someone from the land where people who don't wave flags unabashedly have their patriotism questioned.  But it's horribly insulting and in dreadful taste.  It's embarassing to me to know the headline: "Dallas Fort Worth Columnist Compares Canadians to Nazis" reflects on my adopted hometown.

Lebreton's views are in no way representative of the way my friends and neighbors here viewed the games, and even if they might think the host country's enthusiasm was a little too much, they would never call Canadians fascists.  Nevertheless, Lebreton hasn't done much to help the image of Texans, and his words are what's out there for all to read.

The best response came with trademark humor, published today in the Vancouver-based The Province and originally on writer Cam Battley's blog, and did me proud:  "It took the investigative skills of intrepid Fort Worth Star-Telegram sports columnist Gil LeBreton to uncover the ugly truth...Sure, Canadians seem multicultural, friendly and good-natured on the surface. But that’s just what they want you to think. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that they’re plotting to crush the world under their jackboots. Or snowshoes. Whatever." 

Read Battley's whole post.  It's smart, funny and insightful---everything LeBreton's is not.