Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Roaring Twenties Lives On

So for the past 9 months or maybe longer, my head's been stuck in 1920's for a number of reasons. And, I don't want to leave.

F Scott Fitzgerald 
I randomly picked up a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories last year at the library. I was bored with the new books, and I crave classic literature. His writing is like a photograph, a snapshot of an era capturing its values and its mood.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: I've seen the Brad Pitt movie a few times and really the only correlation to the original short story is the concept of reverse aging. The original story is funny, ridiculous and sad at the same time. The movie obviously draws it out and captures the emotional struggles. The short story has Benjamin's father forcing the old man to play toys while he's a cranky old man. I don't want to say any more about it because it's quite short and worth reading.

- Bernice Bobs Her Hair: This was the story I started reading while I was at the library and it pulled me into it.The story is regarding female relationships, how men perceived women and especially what it meant for a woman to cut her hair.

-Diamond Big as the Ritz: I was just amazed reading this story. Fitzgerald wrote this as a satirical fantasy, but it touches on class, race and gender issues.

-The Ice Palace: I liked this one because it emphasizes the Red vs Blue state divide. It's not a new division like the media pundits want you to believe. It's always been there. However, we're so homogenized today technological advancements, which is why it doesn't make sense. You can watch American Idol and have a Domino's pizza delivered pretty much anywhere in the country. Back then, southerners were different than northerners in terms of lifestyle and values. Think about the distance itself. Today, we're schlepping all over the country for 1 day meetings. Back then, one took the train it took days to get to the other side. I'm not saying we don't have cultural differences today -  you're not going to find fried okra in Brooklyn and you can't find a good bagel south of MD. "Ice Palace" is a story about a southern flower who ends up in the northern ice palace and can't breathe. It was a significant culture clash, and more animosity than it would be today. Her guy friends feel like she's betraying them for marrying a northerner.

By the way, just about every heroine in these stories is luscious rose of 17-19 years old and eager to get engaged, but supposedly, one is still able to flirt when engaged. Eventually, one gets married and she's pretty much done. Unless of course, her husband dies and the former love interest has an entree into her life again.  I don't know if this was representative of the era or if this was Fitzgerald's selling point for stories published in the Saturday Evening Post.

Midnight in Paris
So, this movie is absolutely lovely in so many ways - Owen Wilson, Woody Allen, Rachel McAdams, Paris, literary and art references, Marion Cotillard, Paris, Owen Wilson and Paris at midnight.

This movie is PG13 so if I were a high school teacher, I'd definitely encourage students to watch this. I've let my daughter watch certain parts of this, though I think a lot would still go over her head. I've always exposed her to art, so Van Gogh and Monet should be part of her vocabulary. I hadn't heard of Impressionism until a high school field trip to Princeton art museum.

When we were watching this, we pulled out the iPad and googled artists and books ("what was Hemingway's first book?" "Who was Luis Bunuel?"

Fortunately, the research was already done here with a list of the references.

This timing of this movie was perfect for me because I loved seeing my boy Scott Fitzgerald portrayed on screen. By the way, I have to learn more about Scott & Zelda. I've read his work, and now I need to understand more about the woman in his life. 

Speaking of Paris and Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose" about Edith Piaf is a must see. She does an absolutely stunning portrayal of Edith Piaf. Actually, this woman could give a stunning portrayal of a shoebox, so it doesn't matter.

The Last Nude

I saw this book by Ellis Avery reviewed in "O" magazine and I wondered to myself why I never read the books suggested. So, at the library, I happened upon this book by Ellis and just picked it up. It's a story about a young American girl who becomes a model for an artist in pre-WWII Paris.  Until I saw the book's
website, I didn't realize Tamara De Lempicka was an actual art deco artist and really represented this style. The book dives into the relationship between artist and model, artist and partons, and how when you're surviving from the gut emotions get in the way. The story is definitely erotic and romantic, and feeds into the romanticism of that era. But, throwing in a kick of reality with political undertones.

I wasn't thrilled with the way the author had 75% of the book told from the point of view of the model, but then had the last 25% in the artist's voice 60 years later. That was disruptive. Her voice should've been used throughout the story, but then it may have interrupted Rafaela's story and how things were revealed to her in time. Also, I did get confused between some of the characters. Maybe that's just me, and I don't need additional art fans and friends inside the story unless they have a purpose.

By the way, Rafaela is 17 in the story. When did heroines start aging?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tips for Saving on Groceries

I’m a daughter of immigrants growing up in the ‘70s. Suddenly, all the habits that we grew up with are called “being green”, “extreme budgeting” and “cost-savings”.

It’s a surprise to me that other people don’t shop or save money. The fall into the practice of "convenience" shopping, and are surprised at how high their grocery bills are.  I opened the eyes of a former colleague who was trying to manage a household with 3 boys on 1 1/2 incomes. She was used to buying on a whim and full price. I explained her the fine art of couponing and comparison shopping. She kept a notebook and did calculations on unit costs instead of whole package. She took it to the next level and became an avid garage sale diva (doing her homework online, planning her route, having her list of items she needed). She bought me a pair of tennis rackets for $3, which are still quite good.

So, I’m still surprised by people who don’t know how to shop wisely.

What’s the deal with coupons?
Coupons are free money. There’s such a thrill when the cashier says “$55.42” and you say, “oh, I forgot to give you coupons.” And the bill comes down to $45.42.

 I haven’t collected actual data, but my goal is to get $5-10 off in paper coupons per shopping trip. That’s $30-50 a month for pieces of paper that gets thrown out by other people.  My mom was into coupons since as far back as I could remember. She did the mail-in rebates, too. When we went shopping for her, we had to bring the coupon book.

Ok, so how do I begin?
I’m old school and don’t do all the online sites. I can’t keep track of it and I’m not dedicating my life to this.
  1. We order the local Sunday paper only for the coupons.
  2. Get a plastic organizer from the Dollar Store.
  3. Put labels into product categories (Beauty/Hygiene, Beverage, Breakfast, etc) and ordered by the aisles (e.g., Cereals come before Frozen)
  4. Clip coupons and put them in little piles by category
  5. File them into the organizer
  6. Don’t forget our coupon book when you go shopping

Dude, this takes too long! I don't have time!
  • Get kids to help organize the coupons (that’s what my mom did!). It’s a great way for them to match up like objects and categorize them. For older ones, get them to remove the expired ones.
  • I cut coupons while watching TV. What else are you doing? Just looking at Jennifer Lopez’s hair and Randy Jackson's make up?
By the way, the 15-20 min I spend going through them is billable time – I get paid for this at the check out line!

Coupon Math
Wow, If I buy 3 boxes, I get 50 cents off!
Ok, let’s pause here. If you buy 3 boxes of cereal at $3 each, you’re spending $9 and saving 50 cents. So you’re spending $8.50. Do you really want or need 3 boxes of cereal? If yes, go ahead and buy it with a coupon. If not,  check to see if there’s another cereal that’s on sale. Even if it’s slightly more than the $3.00, you’re still spending less than $8.50.

It’s only 25 cents. It’s not worth it.
Of course, it’s a quarter, not even a whole dollar. Keep in mind stores do double coupons so your 25 cents becomes 50 cents off. Now it’s respectable.

Let ‘s say the coupon can’t be doubled. If you have 4 of them, that’s $1 off. So, keep going because every little bit contributes to the total.

Know your products
Anyone who has had generic cereal knows “Whole Grain O’s” are not the same as Cheerios. So, don’t skimp out on the good stuff to save money.
These are my “Must Have” good ones:
-         -  Paper towels
-          - Garbage bags
-         -  Plastic storage bags
-          - Cleaning products
-          - Lotions and soaps

You can figure out what brands you want. But if you buy a cheap paper towel, you’re going to end up using 3 more of them as one good quality towel.These are the coupons I target when I get my paper.

Best Way to shop:
-          Make a list of items you need. I keep a magnetic pad on the fridge and during the week, make notes on what we need.

-          Before you leave the house, take a quick look at the pantry and see what you need. Imagine you are making dinner for Monday. What would you need to make that fabulous dish? This also prevents you from buying another box of pasta because you think you ran out. 

-          Leave kids at home. One child adds about $7-10 to your total bill. Tell them to wait at home and help you carry in the grocery bags. (Again, mom would honk outside and we’d have to fetch the bags)

Look for alternate stores
When you bought your house, were you checking the quality of the stores next to your house? 

Yes, that’s what I thought. So, why do we assume the shop next door to us is the BEST shop to buy everything? We’re falling for the convenience. And, I’m not saying I’m not guilty. In the interest of time, I’ll overpay for cilantro at the American store than go to the Asian store where it’s 2/3 cheaper. If you have luxury of time, then pause and plan.
  • Find a Produce Junction or other types of farmer’s market stores. You tend to have to buy in bulk for fruits and veggies (e.g., you have to buy 3 heads of lettuce) and it’s still a steal. So, you can go in on it with a friend and agree to share. Donate the extra lettuce head to community center. 
  •  Find Indian and Asian markets. The produce there is ripe and ready for immediate consumption. So don’t overstock on some of these items because it’ll just go bad before you can finish. So, get what you need immediately.
  • While you’re at the Indian and Asian markets, look for those native ingredients. The prices for spices and dried ingredients (lentils, beans, nuts, coconut for example) are so much better than what is sold in American stores.  They also have ready-made paste and sauces that would blow your mind. You get more than 3 feet of space as you do in the American stores. 
  •  There are some discount bread stores like Pepperidge Farm, Hostess and Entemann’s. You could get bread and baked products at discounted prices because it’s passed the Sell By day. GASP!  They’re actually quite fine (much like the produce in the Asian markets). Breads can be frozen and used as needed. I’ve only had issues with quality on these if I happen to hold it too long after purchasing without freezing any of them. 
  •  Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s. Well, here’s a tough one. I think they’re good for SOME items and you need to do some comparison shopping. Yes, Stacey’s Pita Chips are in a huge bag at Costco’s and other stores don’t even carry that size. So, it’s definitely a huge plus (and Costco has coupons for it!). However, other items (e.g., paper towels) might have a higher cost for bulk than buying with coupons.

Leave your credit card at home.
So, I mentioned I was shopping with my mom in 1970s. Back then, she bought groceries with cash. No one used credit cards for groceries and we didn’t have debit cards. She had cash from her paycheck and certain amount allotted for groceries. I’ve been at a number of lines where we had to put items back because we were running over.

While living at home, my sister and I would pause in the middle of a shopping trip to do a quick budget check. We would round up costs and figure out if we were running over or not. That made a difference because you could only buy what could be covered by the cash in hand.  Because credit and debit cards are ‘invisible’ transactions, you have a tendency to be overcome by “magic” and you can buy whatever you want. 

These are some tips and I'm sure there are more that I can add. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions about this.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Latest Musical Obsessions

When it comes to music, I've fallen hard and fast in love with three artists.

Gotye - Somebody I Used to Know.
I heard this on the radio a few weeks ago, and I had to see it who sang it. Then I saw the official video and loved the intensity of the song and depiction. Then, I fell for the cover of the song by Walk off the Earth.  Of course, there's the the parody of the cover of the song which made me laugh out loud like I haven't in long time. (Please watch these in order, else it won't make sense, which I admit I did not).

The song starts so subtly, and the way it breaks with the female voice is just chilling. The song is all over the place because the lyrics are potent - you hurt me, you're no longer in my life as someone I love, but someone I used to know. Everyone can relate to this one.

He could go for a sequel -- "Somebody I Used to Know... But Now You're on My Facebook and I See Your Status Every Day."

By the way, they did this song on "Glee," which is the way our society confirms one has arrived. The song was sung by two brothers, which shows how this song could be interpreted. I also heard some remix of it on the local pop music station. That's an injustice. It became a hit with its own simplicity. It didn't need extra music in the back. So why add it now? Who is it for?

Here's one more picture of Gotye, just because.

Melody Gardot
She suddenly popped up on my Adele station on Pandora. I immediately paused it and went to YouTube to find out more about her. Then I couldn't stop. I was hooked.

I watched her Accidental Musician (Parts 1-4) while I was working. I ain't gonna tell you anything about her because I want you to go listen.

She's popular in Europe, but she's from Philly no less and she's absent here. She's soothing, sexy, soulful, meaningful. One song that shows her range is "If the Stars Were Mine" because you're in Rio.. you're in New're in Paris. She's so natural. She just flows. Her music is perfect to listen to at work - it's quiet enough not to be a distraction from work, yet enough of a distraction to imagine I'm in a Parisian night club and not at work.

I can listen to her for hours. And have.

I had a colleague who wanted to be "a black back up singer" in her next life, full of soul and power as she was a petite Italian-American girl. (On a side note, I wouldn't mind coming back as a 60's nightclub singer like Zeenat Aman singing Churaliya).

But, alas, the black back-up singer has come back in the body of a young English girl as a lead singer who owns the world. Did she really record "21" when she was 21 years old? She's truly an old soul. Adele has touched so many people because of the emotion and pain she emotes in her songs.  The melodies harken the soulful sounds of 60's and 70's and amplifies them with the rules of this decade.

The greatest part is that Adele is a CD that my husband, daughter and I all listen to in the car. My daughter doesn't understand the complexity of the lyrics for "My One and Only," but is hooked on the vocal fluctuations of  "He Won't Go."

When I first truly listened to "Set Fire to the Rain", I was on a plane. I had heard it enough on Pandora. I played it over and over, wiping tears from eyes over her pain. (My God, "watched it pour as I touched your face".)

Right now, "My One and Only" is the song that's breaking me while I'm driving around town. "I dare you to let me be..your one and only." Daaaayyyyammm!! How do you come up with those words and then roar them perfectly, showing vulnerability and strength in one chorus.

The other part of her style I love is the way she sings certain words - "door" becomes "doe-hoo" and other words become polysyllabic. I'm sure there's a proper musical term for her fluctuations. 

These are the three artists I cannot get enough of these days. Just ask anyone who's been hanging around me.

"You listening to Gotye again?"

 "Of course, I've only heard it once today. Hey, do you want to.."

"No! I don't want to see the video!!!"

"Oh, put on Melody Gardot!"

"Who? What?"

"Ok, Adele." That always works.