Monthly Archives: September 2009

Let’s Go Dutch!

I am cheap.

There.  I said it.

I am not going to dress it up and call it frugal.  I am not going to politicize it and call it fiscally responsible.  Have been, always may be, as cheap as a futon on layaway.

The trouble is, no one likes being associated with this characteristic.  “Cheap” doesn’t align itself with rosy ideals like “conservative,” “responsible,” and “restrained.”  Instead, it RSVPs to parties hosted by the unattractive ogres of greed, selfishness, and shamelessness.

And I hate those parties.  They’re always BYOB.

So why am I cheap?  That’s akin to asking why I’m left-handed.  I feel I had nothing to do with it, and it’s been with me as long as I can remember.

Both sets of my grandparents were/are incredibly tough on themselves about money virtually their entire lives.  Coming out of the Depression, that is not a huge surprise.  But when I see my grandmother fold her used foil to prepare for its next use, it sticks with me.  When I hear my grandfather went to Starbucks every week, not for coffee, but to pick up their grounds for his garden, I reassess the soy latte I am about to purchase.

But that’s not really my type of cheap.  Both sit too high on the labor-scale.  My type of cheap is bringing lunch to work to save five bucks.  My type of cheap is splitting the tab when there’s more than two of us.  I never buy myself clothes.  I only buy cards for people in the $0.99 aisle.  I tell the waiter I’ll stick with water.  I’ll walk a mile to avoid paying for parking.

I used to defend my inability to spend money by backing it up with some sort of righteousness…you know, like “I work, I save money, I don’t need to borrow from anyone, etc..”  But that comes to a rapid halt when someone points out that my parents paid for my college education.

So they weren’t cheap with you, were they, Abby?

My defensive logic also fails when I get a check in the mail from that very grandparent who folds foil.

How’s that stinginess working for you, now, Abbs?   Still can’t buy a friend dinner?

I have come to understand that the opposite of stinginess is generosity.  Those I tease for being cheapest in my family always turn out to be the ones who are most generous.  Look at my parents.   My dad won’t buy himself anything nicer than a Ford pickup (manual shift and windows, mind you), but then he spares no expense for my wedding week in Hawaii.  My mom won’t see movies in the theater (“It’s twelve dollars!  They’re insane!”) but then she takes all six of us on a two week vacation to Europe.

At first glance, it doesn’t make sense.  But when I look closer, when I push aside the coupon clippings and less-than-designer clothes, I realize the center of this is sacrifice.  They are not cheap, they are sacrificial.  They love their children or their grandchildren so intensely that they are willing to go without so they can give lavishly.  And that is righteous.

I was reminded this week of the alternative.  David Brooks wrote in his column in the New York Times that for the first time since its inception, the United States has lost the blessed virtue of restraint.  Americans are in worse debt than they ever have been, they make more money than ever before, and they seem completely unaware that either of those positions is disgraceful.

The key part of the journey is finding middle ground.   How can I be generous with others, show restraint for myself, and still not go into massive debt?  I am 25 and just realizing that this is entirely possible.

Mostly I am finding my footing by following Mike’s example.  He always tips far more than required.  He almost always covers the check when he’s out with a friend.  He spoils me with presents I don’t deserve.  And whenever we go to the movies, he always beelines for the popcorn and orders me a large.  Which to me is like Christmas, it’s so extravagant.

For now, parting with my money requires the effort of The Jaws of Life.  But I’m aware of it.  I’m moving to change it.  Four quotes are getting me there.

My father:  “Money is just a tool.  Use it to get what you need.  You control it; don’t let it control you.”

My mother:  “Don’t be cheap.”

My paternal grandfather:  “Never try to repay me for what I’ve given you.  Instead, do the same for your grandchildren.”

My maternal grandfather:  “Save.  Provide for your family.  Then, buy yourself a Cadillac.  What are you waiting for?”

They provide me with a goal.

For now, please remember not to text me because it’s ten cents a shot.

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West Side Story

Seattle is a territorial city.  It aims to please all its residents equally.

It says to those who wish they were French, “I give you Ballard.  Buy a baguette and a latte at the local farmers market before enjoying an art gallery made with only organic materials.”

It hollers to those who can’t get enough of their twenties, “Please enjoy Belltown!  Live life in the city with overpriced drinks and breathtaking views.  Party hardy.”

For those who want everything to be utterly suburban but within city limits, “Run around Greenlake.  You will forget you are in a major metropolis but still be comforted by knowing you are technically an urban-dweller.”

And for those who live on the other side of Lake Washington, known locally as “The Eastside,” it excites them by saying, “You can have killer amenities and half an acre of land, and yet when you’re on vacation tell people that you’re from Seattle and it will be legitimate.”

This is exactly my problem.  For a commitment-phobic person such as myself, choosing a place to live is akin to choosing a life partner — you have to live with it indefinitely, in one word it represents who you are, and you truly don’t know what kind of deal you’re getting until long after you’ve signed the dotted line.

Was that cynical?

Luckily, my life partner turned out to be a spectacular deal.  That’s why I’m so petrified of choosing a place to buy; what are the chances I’ll strike gold twice?

Yesterday Mike and I went with our realtor to see a number of condos downtown and also a cute house in Wallingford.  The condos were top-of-the-line with views to match, low maintenance (but with high maintenance fees, of course), and deep in the city.  The home was the exact opposite:  1920s woodwork (but no appliances whatsoever), steeped in charm, and would take months of work to be livable.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Because Seattle keeps fast-pitching the choices from the kitchen and we keep bellying up to the table to sample the selection.

Friends are no help in the situation.   Please reference the first five paragraphs of this essay to understand why.  Everyone already lives somewhere, and defends it as though it is their first-born.  No matter how unappealing, it’s theirs, so it’s beautiful.

Again, am I drinking from the cynic’s cup or what?

Conversely, we truly agree that the majority of neighborhoods in Seattle are fantastic and have their own benefits, so we can be easily swayed by a very satisfied customer.  You love living in Kirkland?  Please, expand on that!  Maybe we would love it too!

We recently had dinner with two great friends of ours and their six-week-old baby boy (he is objectively very attractive, unlike the hypothetical baby from two paragraphs ago, and I’m not just saying that. We discussed it with the couple at length).  They were a Godsend because they were so unemotional about the situation.  They live in Bothell, have a beautiful home and yard, and love it.  But they emphasized that it might not be our time for that yet.  Maybe we’re supposed to be living our newlywed years in the city, in a place that is loud and fast-paced.  Maybe the yard and the three bedrooms aren’t what we need right now.  And maybe that’s OK.

It’s all very James Taylor circa “Home by Another Way.”

“Time to go home by another way, home by another way/You have to figure God’s saying play the odds/And go home by another way.”

I want to live high in a tower in the middle of the city.  I want to live on a square of green grass that is my own.  But I need to be at peace with having one first, then the other.  Or allowing myself to let go of such strict parameters, and just let God lead.  Imagine — being OK with where He has me.  That is the ultimate goal.

For now He has me at my favorite place on Earth, Eastlake Avenue.  Our little nest meets all of our needs and spoils us with a view of Seattle I will miss when I leave.  If God can select this place for us, I am positive He can figure out our next home.

In the meantime, all pithy commentary on where we should live is welcome.  Unless you live in Issaquah.  That is never going to happen, people (especially now that I just made enemies with everyone in Issaquah).

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Filed under The WORD (Faith)

Under Where?

“What’s the matter?” I asked my mom.  Her head was in her hands at the dinner table, and she was shaking slightly.

She looked up at her family seated around her and tried to speak, but couldn’t.

“Oh my gosh, what happened?” my sister, Erin, persisted.

Then my mom turned red with laughter.  She could barely breathe.  She did the thing where you try to start a sentence but become engulfed in your own hilarity and can’t continue.  At least she wasn’t crying, like we originally thought, but now we wanted in on the joke.  Laughter like that deserves company.

“As we were just talking, just now, I thought I had dropped my napkin under the table because I felt cloth at my feet,” she explained.  “Then I looked under the table…”

Gone.  She had no words, she was laughing so hard.  “Abby…just look under the table.” 

I was seated next to her so I pulled the tablecloth to the side so I could see what she was pointing to. 

Under the table was a pair of men’s tighty whities.  Yes, underwear.  And then I was gone.

I started laughing and yelling, “It’s tighty whities!  It’s tighty whities!” which lead to Sam, Erin, my dad, and Mike losing it entirely. 

“WHAT?!” they yelled at once. 

“I was PLAYING FOOTSIE WITH THE TIGHTY WHITIES!” my mom hollered in-between laughs. 

It’s important to note that we were not at Denny’s, or The Olive Garden.  We were on a cruise ship, in a fancy dining room.  Or, I suppose, what should be a fancy enough dining room not to have intimates littered on the floor.

What do you think my mature, composed self did at that moment?  I scooped them with my foot and flung them under the table at Erin, of course.  She felt it hit her leg and the look on her face was priceless.  In case you didn’t know, Erin despises all talk or reference to potty humor, bodily functions, or human anatomy.  So having a stranger’s pair of panties touch her leg was, let’s say, distressing.

But it was classic free entertainment for the rest of us.  Aren’t we a sensitive bunch?

When we had some semblance of control over ourselves, we started asking the obvious.  How had said underpants arrived under our table?  To whom did they belong?  Did he miss his shorties? 

Dad said they were probably in the laundry with the tablecloth and that’s how they were mistakenly put under our table.  But that lead to the awkward conclusion that the cruise staff was washing our table linens with soiled underwear.  Ew.

So we decided instead that someone at dinner had felt constricted by his undergarments (they WERE tight, after all) and chose to shimmy them out of his pant leg and leave them concealed under the table.

Either way, what were we supposed to do with them now?

This created a rousing game of “You tell her!” about telling our waitress the situation.

“No, it’s humiliating, I’m not doing it, YOU tell her!” we argued.  After all, we knew no one in the family was going to touch the tighty whities.  Well, except for my mom, who had unknowingly already played footsie with them.

Just then our waitress walked by and I raised my hand to get her attention because I still couldn’t speak without laughing.  She hurried over, totally serious, apparently not noticing that we were in hysterics. 

“We just want to show you something,” I said to her, beaming.  “Look under the table near Erin.”

She looked incredibly bewildered, and kept saying “What?  What is it?” in her Romanian accent.  I had a moment of compassion as I realized she was probably going to feel incredibly awkward when she saw what we were referring to.

I was right.

She turned scarlet, put her hands to her face, and looked around at us like, “This is mortifying and I just realized I don’t get paid enough to deal with this sort of nonsense.”  But she still dealt with the nonsense quite well. 

She swiped them out from under the table, and when she realized we were not angry but highly amused, she cracked a smile too.  Then she giggled as she ran away, whisking herself through the spinning kitchen door to dispose of (or show coworkers) the men’s drawers.

They were never to be seen again, but clearly never to be forgotten.

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This Caged Bird Isn’t Singing

The good people of Princess Cruises put me under lock and key.

For my own sake.  For the sake of all the other passengers.  And it was entirely my own doing.

On the ninth day of a two-week cruise in Europe, I felt sick.  It was the type of illness one prefers not to discuss with anyone, family or otherwise, due to its less-than-appealing nature.  But it is also the type of illness that cannot be ignored.

After whining both to my husband and my entire family that I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and then left their fist engorged in my stomach, they suggested I see the cruise doctor.  “Maybe he’ll have some Pepto,” they said.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Oh how we would come to regret those words.

Twenty minutes later Mike and I were in the doctor’s office and I’m asked several questions about my current gastrological state.  I answered every question like a lamb going to slaughter, totally trusting my handler to cure me.  Instead, she whipped out the shotgun for the kill.

“I’m afraid that we have a very strict on-board policy for anyone experiencing your symptoms,” she explained in a stuffy British accent.  “Therefore we must quarantine you for a period of at least 24 hours following your most recent symptom.  Since yours was twenty minutes ago, that puts us at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning.  Until then, you are not to leave your stateroom for any reason.”

I stared at her like Bambi must have stared at the hunter who killed her mother.

It took about a millisecond for Mike and me to look at each other and calculate the repercussions of what I’d done.  11AM is long past the 7AM call time for us to go on a tour of Capri the following day.  11AM means we will miss an entire day of our trip.  And every hour leading up to 11AM is an hour lost of our vacation.  I felt like such an idiot.

She briskly left the room to let reality sink in.  I immediately burst into the kind of tears that one normally saves for when one’s child has been kidnapped.  I was up out of my chair, morally indignant, grabbing my things and heading for the door to flee.  Michael grabbed me and reminded me that I was on a boat – where was I going to go?  Anywhere I would go, they would find me.  If I wasn’t in my “quarantined room,” they would know.  If I disobeyed, I could get us both permanently kicked off the ship.

Then the crocodile tears really let loose.

With our shoulders slumped in defeat, we walked back to our room.  I told Mike to go enjoy the day at sea – go golfing! I said.  Go swimming!  Live life for the both of us!

He reminded me that I was quarantined, not dying.

So I got in bed (there wasn’t anywhere else to go, the room was about 10’ x 15’).  I watched Casino Royale twice (you’re poisoned, Mr. Bond?  How sad for you.  I am a PRISONER.).  I read a million chapters of 1776 (I’m sorry the Revolutionary War is so tough Mr. Washington, but this situation is no picnic either).  Clearly my mental state was not strong.

I decided that few things could make me feel more rejected as a member of humanity than having not two, but THREE men come into my room on separate occasions “to disinfect.”  I laid there while they scrubbed the room, dressed all in white, wearing SARS or Swine Flu-type masks, avoiding eye contact.  I turned to Mike and questioned whether he was secretly friends with Ashton Kutcher.

In this midst of all this, my parents were outraged.  They understood that anything contagious on a boat could mean disaster, but getting OFF the boat for the day couldn’t possibly harm anyone.  So they went straight to the doctor and argued that I should be released at 7AM the following day.  The doctor said she would CONSIDER IT, but it wasn’t likely.

At 9:30 that evening, I called the nurse.  I asked if the doctor had reached a decision after her careful consideration.  After much convincing from the nurse for which I owed her full credit, she relented and said I could go to Capri.

I jumped around the room like I had just been paroled after a 15-year sentence.

The next day as I stepped into fresh Italian air, I was so full of appreciation and joy that it was as if I had never been on a vacation in my life and this was my only chance to do it.  There’s nothing like nearly losing your holiday in its entirety to bring you to a state of such gratefulness you’re sure you will never take another moment of life for granted.  It’s also obvious that I honed my skills in hyperbole during my 20 hour jail time.

Despite those feelings, it surprised me to find that my greatest lesson from this experience wasn’t “be grateful,” but rather “life happens.”  I can go around the world, escaping many forms of reality in my life, but it is still life.  Bad things happen.  Things outside of my control happen when they will, not when I want them to.

It also became clear to me that I went through a thoroughly humiliating experience, one that allowed me to display my least attractive character traits, and still my family loved me.  My parents fought for me.  My sisters took turns hanging out in the dungeon that was my room.  My husband not only brought me snacks and refused to leave me, but also made potty jokes that were all too apt.

Come to think of it, I think being quarantined brought out the best in us.

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