down upon your wretched bed.

Thing 1: Sweetums
I happened to be looking at Muppet things on Amazon one day, just like everyone else probably does from time to time. I ran across this action figure of Sweetums and was a little bit smitten. I might have shrieked with glee. Josh asked if I wanted a Sweetums action figure for Christmas and I told him absolutely not. I am, after all, a grownup.

Y'all know Sweetums, right? Big guy? Kinda raggedy? Very susceptible to lullabies?

You know, this guy!

Thing 2: The snow
For the first time in many, many years, Raleigh had a white Christmas. Which, you know, is not really a big deal. It's just a particular weather event that happens on a particular day. But people get excited, including me.

Thing 3: Merry Christmas


stuff romantic.

A friend of mine stayed a few days at my house recently. The spare bedroom is also the room where a lot of my yard sale purchases end up. My stationery collection is in there, as well as random crafting things, a collection of pictures that need to hung on the wall, and, well, just a bunch of mismatched crap. My general policy with stuff is to get it, and then figure out what to do with it later. My friend called sleeping in this room like sleeping at Grandma's house, because Grandmas have had a lifetime of collecting all manner of random crap. And that's why I like estate sales.

Now, that's a pretty funny story, and I've since adopted the name "Grandma's Room" to refer to that particular bedroom. But it's a little weird, too. I have kind of a lot of stuff. Sometimes I'm not sure what that indicates about me.

Upstairs from Grandma's room, there is a small blip of a room. It's set under the slope of the roof, and you can't stand upright in a third of the space. The last owners used it as a nursery, but it is now Josh's library. The twenty-first century called to say that books are on the way out, but Josh did not get the message. If anything, he took it as a sign of the apocalypse and decided that he needed to be prepared to be the last man standing against the tide of digitalization. He is trying to get all the books into his attic before the Germans came knocking. He probably brings home an average of ten books from a morning of yard sales, though twenty is not uncommon. He is constantly on the lookout for shelves, because most of the ones we now have are stacked two deep.

He has a library, and I have Grandma's Room. We are both comfortable in our self-made clutter. We don't necessarily understand or appreciate the other person's clutter, but we realize that to complain would be hypocritical. Even so, we can both see that the situation as it is is not sustainable. We can't keep taking on more stuff at the rate we have been. Aside from the fact that our house is only so big, we might actually want to have children someday. Sorry, Mama, no grandkids from this daughter, there's no room among the bookshelves, and besides, a kid would just break the Pyrex.

So. What to do?

I'm going to take a slight detour and talk about why I love secondhand stuff. Because I have no idea if you get it at all. Maybe some of you do, and maybe some of you think I'm capital-n Nuts. We could sit here and come up with a lot of reasons for my love affair with stuff, most of them not very flattering to me. We could call me a hoarder, an elitist, a shopaholic, a material girl, a miserly spinster (getting nasty in here). You know, it's probably a lot of those things, too. I collect like a magpie. I think that a mere glance at my living room full of spectacularly cool stuff would convince anyone that I am spectacularly cool myself. I spend hours shopping every week of the year and I work my schedule around my Saturday morning shopping frenzy. I never feel like I have too much stuff. And I will haggle anyone for fifty cents.

I started thrifting for the practicality of getting equal quality for less money, and then all that other stuff came later. Including the romantic aspect of secondhand, which is where I am now. Rather than all those nasty other terms I offered, let's be generous and call me a romantic, a Stuff Romantic. Used things come with a story. They have a past. Now, these are not necessarily exciting histories. I do have some things which probably have incredibly interesting histories. We have a dummy WWII cartridge. That's not just a find, that's a freaking artifact. We bought it from an electrician who found it in someone else's crawlspace. Even the purchasing story is more interesting than usual. However, most stories are excruciatingly boring. They are so ordinary, so everyday, like that guy who tells you everything he had to eat that day. Boring. I have some chairs in my living room that reek of the seventies (figuratively). They sat in someone's finished basement for thirty years before I bought them. That is their story - sitting in the basement for thirty years. It's not a particularly thrilling tale. It could use some pirates maybe, or at the very least some political intrigue.

Most stuff is boring. Just look around your house at all the stuff you see every day. That cup holds your toothbrush. You bought that blanket in college. Your kid gave you that magnet on the fridge. These are little, daily, unimportant things, and yet they make up the bulk of our lives. More of our existence is spent in the basement sitting in an ugly orange chair than it is with pirates. These objects are real life as we know it. And just like people, they carry their stories with them. Sometimes I ask the seller to tell me everything they can about what I'm buying: how old it is, how was it used, who owned it, any of those memories that come to mind when you see your toothbrush cup. Sometimes they volunteer that information out of nostalgia and Southern friendliness. But even if nothing is communicated, I saw the house and the people who owned it before. Later, when I see the thing in my own house, I can picture where I first saw it and how it came to be mine. I can feel the history.

Now. You think I've snapped the tether because I'm talking about magical mystical auras of past lives floating around toothbrush cups. I know that these objects are in actuality no different than the similar objects on the shelf at Kohl's. They are no different than they were decades ago when they were on the shelf at Woolworth's. However, I personally feel different when I look at them. I get a sense of that history. I know that feeling is coming from inside my own head, rather than anything the object itself is actually giving off. But you know what? That counts. Therefore, by the perception is reality principle, I have just proved that there are magical mystical auras of past lives floating around toothbrush cups.

So. That's my attempt to explain the romantic side of it. To get back to the practical aspect of it, what am I going to do with all this stuff?

Buy less, obviously. You might be surprised to find out that I do. When I was new to thrifting, I bought most everything that ever caught my fancy. It was all so cool and so cheap. But then I grew out of that, and I became more selective. Just think: those weekly entries where I describe the ridiculous amount of stuff I acquired in four short hours - that is me being selective.

That is only a partial solution, and it's not a very fun one. A real solution would be to stop going to sales at all. But I don't see that as a solution at all. It is the anorexia of solutions. I'd rather have the sensible diet and exercise of solutions, one where I can still have this hobby that I love, but I won't be found dead in my house one day, suffocated by vintage clocks. I could go to sales and then not buy anything. There is a lot of fun in just looking, and I often am excited by the things that I had the rare opportunity to even see. I don't think I could do that, though. First I would buy just one thing, then two, and then pretty soon I have a fully stocked Grandma's room.

Right now, I'm using more of a bulimia solution. I purge regularly, taking carloads of stuff to Goodwill. Some of them are going back to the very Goodwill I bought them from. Some things are easy to get rid of, like if I've already bought another thing that serves the same purpose that I like better. But sometimes something will live for a long time in Grandma's room before I have to give up on the idea of ever finding any good use for it. However, my purges are never as great or as often as my binges.

I have noticed that I find it much easier to get rid of stuff when I can give it away to someone I know. There are things I've been holding onto for years for no good reason, but if someone mentioned that they had use for that thing, I would offer it in a heartbeat. I would like to claim that I just have a very generous nature, but I'm not really into talking about my qualities here. I'd much rather use this blog for exploring my flaws in the hope that airing them out will make them easier to overcome until I'm finally a Good Person.

So I don't think of it as being generous, because I get a warm fuzzy out of giving stuff away. And if I'm doing something for the warm fuzzies, no matter if someone else is benefiting, then my motivations are selfish.

So this got me thinking. What if I expanded the circle of people who are able to receive my surplus of goods? And what if I started charging a finder's fee?

There are people who do this. There are antique dealers and consignment shops, and those have been around a long time. I see those people at yard sales. More recently, there are online dealers. The internet has opened up the market such that anyone who has some junk can sell it online. I read some of their blogs, and I recognize them as kindreds. They are people who love to treasure hunt, who really believe that secondhand stuff is way better for all kinds of financial, environmental, community, and awesomeness reasons. They write posts showing off their latest finds, and I am excited with them, just like I am when Josh shows me his new first edition Hemingway.

I have been very, very resistant to the idea of reselling. I read reseller blogs, and I know that I could do what they do. I see the exact same things at sales that they are selling. Even reading those entries makes me look at things differently at sales. I look at a pile of linens, and I'm partially looking for some new kitchen towels, but I'm also keeping half an eye out for the little ladybug brand name, because I know those are collector's items.

And that change in perspective is precisely why I've decided not to resell. Right now, I go to yard sales, and just looking through the piles and piles of stuff is a kind of labor of love. I can pick things up, admire them, file their uniqueness away in my mental filing cabinet. Then I can buy them or put them down, solely on the basis of whether I want to own them. I don't have to think about whether they are secretly valuable, or what I could possibly get for them. I just have to decide if I like them enough to pay what the seller is asking. Later, I can do research to find out the history, and if it turns out that people regularly pay $50 on eBay for them, then that is just gravy.

I don't want to start seeing stuff as commodities, rather than as stuff. If I started reselling, I would see price tags, not the past stories and potential future stories that I see now. I don't want to be like that. I get a lot of joy out of this goofy hobby.

And yet, and yet. I can't buy all the stuff that I see, and I can't keep all the stuff that I buy. I either need to find some new friends that would appreciate the kinds of gifts I've got to offer, or I need to sell some of this crap.

It is fair to say that I have an unfairly low opinion about resellers. I come in contact with them in their stores, and I see them at sales. Neither encounter makes me like them at all.

First, let's talk about their stores. I've talked about vintage stores before, and how they make me so angry. They are like a cruel joke, and they trick me every time. I look in the window, and I see a plethora of amazing old stuff: the prettiest Pyrex, the funkiest lamps, the softest faded linens, the most beautiful stationery. Then I go inside, and there is even more than I could have imagined. It's like the most amazing yard sale ever, where every table is covered in fantastic finds, rather than three piles of baby clothes covering one pretty good find. But then inevitably, I look at the price tag and my happy illusion comes crashing down. This is not a yard sale. It's a vintage store, where people are trying to sell me stuff that I could have found myself. Those aren't finds at all, because the store people put them on the table for me to see. I never buy anything at these stores, because I know I will find something just as good eventually. I refuse to pay a finder's fee.

It's the same thing as online dealers. The Pyrex on eBay is prettier than mine. But it's more expensive, and I wouldn't get the experience of finding it. Entering a couple of words into a search box is easier than digging through crusty boxes of old dishware. I earned my Pyrex. Also, if the appeal of secondhand items is that magical mystical aura of past lives, having a middleman between me and the previous owner breaks that connection. The purchasing experience seems sterile and lifeless, which colors my ownership experience. Might as well have gone to Kohl's.

So I go to their stores, and I leave angry. What about when I see them at sales? You can tell them from the casual buyers, because they have a sort of no-nonsense air about them as they poke through a sale. And then there are the scanners.

You can buy a small hand-held device that will scan a barcode and then bring up information about the item you scanned. Book resellers use them to find out how much they could possibly sell a book for, so they can decide whether the profit margin is big enough to justify the purchase of the book. I try to be generous with my feelings towards scanners, but the truth is that when I see one, I kinda want to kick them in the shins, just a little bit. For one thing, they are in the way, and I want to look at the books. Plus, they are buying books solely on a monetary basis. They might be buying books that I actually want to read, and they don't intend to read them at all. They just want to make money off of them. They are book pimps. And they are in my way.

But see, that's not fair to these people at all. This is a way that they make money. It may be their only job, or it may be a little side job that they do to have some extra cash. In all likelihood, they love books, too. Why else would you resell books unless you actually loved them? If I met someone who owned an actual, brick and mortar used book store, I would immediately assume that they were raging bibliophiles. In fact, I would instantly like that person. I would not assume that they were using books just to make money and I would never call them book pimps. For the same reason, I should not feel so cheated and angry at those who resell stuff from Grandma's room. Who would go to the trouble of accumulating this stuff if they did not have their own little love affair with it? These are the people who did not have to read the explanation about why I thrift. They already get it. I read their blogs, and I like them. I see their pictures of great finds, and I am happy for them. The fact that they then sell those finds doesn't make me like them less. It actually makes me like them more, because they are spreading the Gospel of Secondhand.

So, given the fact that I have just logically determined that my bias against resellers was completely unjustified, could I become one of them? If I imagine my potential buyers as fellow stuff romantics, then I could compare myself to someone who works at an animal shelter, rather than to a pimp. I'm just trying to find a good home for some pieces of daily human history.

I just want to say, for the benefit of my mother, that reselling is not something that I am seriously considering as a career option. I'm not going to quit my software job and hunt Pyrex full time (but, oh man, doesn't that sound really awesome?). It's just something that I've been thinking about lately, and when I think about something, I usually end up writing about it. Honestly, the thought of dealing with the shipping aspect of it sort of makes me all tired inside. But I dunno, maybe on a small level, it is the kind of solution I'm looking for - one where I get to keep doing the goofy hobby that I love.


there are llamas.

There is a mansion near my house. I don't know what else to call it. Really freaking huge house just doesn't seem to cover it. It's such a really freaking huge house that it needs another word, and that word is mansion. It's beautiful and sits on a huge parcel of land. If not for the interstate right next to it and the airport two miles away, it would be a dream house.

Here, let me just show you.

Thank you, Google, for making it easier to spy on our neighbors!

Anyway, I pass by this house every day because it is in between my house and pretty much everything else. The first couple of times I saw it, I was struck anew in its vastness and the implied vastness of the bank accounts of the people who lived there. But after a while, even this giant mansion became just more scenery on the way home.

Next to the house, on that same piece of prime real estate, there is a barn-like structure. Here, I'll show you again.

There is a nice grassy paddock in front of the barn, where livestock might graze and watch the planes go over. In fact, livestock do exactly that. The barn and paddock are partially obscured from the view of the highway, which is as close as I'll ever get to such a house, but many times I saw animals there. With that kind of setup, anyone would assume horses, and the animals that I briefly saw in between the trees as I was driving by were roughly the right size and shape of a horse.


One day, I saw an animal in profile. It could've been a horse, but it was kinda shaggy. Also, its neck was a bit long. Those people, those mind-numbingly rich people, had llamas. One can only assume that they buy the very finest llama food. Perhaps they served it in stemmed crystal, like those old Fancy Feast commercials.

For you to relate to this whole story at all, you need to think that llamas are funny. Because they are. Some things are just funny, like penguins and squid and llamas. They even have a funny name, with two Ls at the front. Funny! Also, they have a funny shape and a goofy face and they are shaggy.

I was really excited to find that I lived so close to llamas, even if I would never ever have any contact with them, seeing as how they were the wealthiest llamas in town. I told Josh all about the llamas, expecting to see an enthusiastic response.

Instead, what I got was doubt. He didn't believe that there were llamas. He thought I was mistaken, that I just wanted very badly to see llamas and so I imagined them. He thinks that I am a crazy person who just sees llamas everywhere. Rather than focus on his doubt, I should note that he didn't leave me, citing llama-based hysteria.

Of course, his reaction only made me increase my efforts to see the llamas. Every single time I drove by, I rubbernecked to catch a glimpse of them. A lot of times, they weren't out, or they weren't turned the right way to really show off their llama-ness. So convinced was Josh that there were no llamas, and so fleeting and few were my sightings, that I began to think that maybe I was a crazy person who just sees llamas everywhere. But then I would see that shaggy not-horse again, and I would be revived in my faith.

I considered how to get photographic evidence of the existence of the rich llamas. I could park down the road and walk back up the street, safely on the grass. Would that yield a good enough picture, even across the way and through the trees? I could conceivably drive up to the mansion and ask, but I was intimidated by the obvious wealth of the people. Even if they were the kind of people who had llamas, they might still not like strangers coming up their driveway. Besides, it was gated. I could just imagine using the intercom outside the gate, talking to the butler, saying "Hi, I live down the road and I just want to know if you have any llamas?"

The llamas were a point of contention in my relationship for a year. That is a long time to argue about whether or not there are llamas, let me tell you.

One day, I came home from work and Josh was waiting for me, bursting to tell me something. He told me that he had talked to our next-door neighbor that day, who knew the people who lived in the mansion. She confirmed that there were llamas. Then I think she was confused by Josh's excited reaction. I guess most people don't think llamas are funny, nor do they get into arguments about llamas that span months.

The point is, there are llamas.


tv service.

When I answered the phone, it was Time Warner, which goes to show that if you see an unfamiliar number on your caller ID, you should just let it go to voicemail. But heck, I'd answered, so I might as well talk to the lady. I was a little worried that it might be about a billing problem, but no, it was a sales call.

She told me they were having some special deals because it was the end of the year. There were some clickety noises in the background as she called up my account. Lo and behold, she found that I only had internet service with them. This seems like a business opportunity. Here is this lady, who has paid her bill faithfully for several years now. Perhaps she would also be interested in some cable TV and internet phone?

"What are you doing for phone and TV service right now, ma'am?"

"We use cell phones and don't have TV service." This is not entirely true. We have Vonage, but we are getting rid of it as soon as our required two year contract is over. Then we will use only cell phones.

"Do you own a TV?"

"Yes." Oh yes, it was state of the art back in 1995. Twenty-six inches, hoo boy.

"But you don't have any TV service."


"What do y'all do?"

Ugh, that irritates me so much. I got similar disbelief when I moved into the house and didn't sign up for cable.

"I cook, I read books, and we do have movies that we watch on our TV." Here again, I sorta was not quite honest with the Time Warner lady. What I said is true, but it was incomplete. See, we have a Roku and a Netflix account. Frankly, that is all the TV that I want. Netflix has obviously put a lot of work into their streaming service. The selection is enormous, and it's searchable from the TV interface. Basically, I have a huge selection of things to watch, and I can watch them without commercials anytime I want. That is worth $15 a month to me. I happily pay it to Netflix, a company that seems to be efficiently run, has innovative ideas and good customer service. Time Warner? They once sent the police to my doorstep because they didn't have my address right.

"Well, ma'am, you'll find that there are a lot of educational programs on now. We have the Science channel, and there is a Smithsonian channel as well. It's not all reality TV."

Ah, she's giving me the spiel reserved for concerned parents. You know, I've seen educational programming, and I'm never very impressed because it's so sensationalized. They cut out the information and replace it with invented drama. I'm sure there is good educational programming out there. It's probably on Netflix, though. But I didn't say all that, just like I didn't ask the lady how much more she might be able to get done in her life if she didn't have TV service.

"I'm not interested in getting any TV service at all."

Click. She hung up on me. I guess I'm a lost cause.


remember snow.

During my childhood, the Tarheel blue skies of North Carolina forgot how to snow. I lived in the foothills, though people east of Hickory would say that I lived in the mountains. When Josh would introduce me to his friends that grew up with him in Winston-Salem, he would tell them that I was from the mountains. I would correct him every single time, because I did not grow up in the mountains. I grew up in the foothills. Then I realized that he was just making fun of me, because moutain people are to be made fun of. Well, he's the one dating the mountain woman.

Anyway, even in the foothills, it should snow. It should snow several times in the course of a winter, and at least one time, there should be enough accumulation to get us out of school for three days or more. That shouldn't be too much to ask for, not in the foothills. But there was no snow. The TV weatherman on WBTV, Eric something-or-other, would promise winter weather events, but it would just be cold. The closest thing we got to snow was rumors. This being my formative years, I came to be skeptical of snow. Sure, the forecast might say it was coming, but I knew better. I would have to get up and go to school just like every other day.

We had some family pictures around the house from when I was very small. There was clearly a great big snow, and my brothers built an igloo. I was little and cute in my mismatched hand-me-down winter gear, oblivious to the years of snow deprivation ahead of me. I don't remember that actual snow, I've only seen the pictures. As far as my memory was concerned, it had never snowed in the foothills of North Carolina. Seems like we had a couple of ice storms. There was one in particular where my mom didn't come home until really late because she'd gotten stuck somewhere after her mail route. I don't remember the specifics of it, though I do remember my sister yelling at me for laughing at a TV show when our mother was surely dead in a ditch.

I got more than my fill of snow in college in Boone, because, as anyone with any actual knowledge of North Carolina geography can tell you, Boone is in the mountains. To get to Boone from my hometown, you had to climb a mountain. One thing I learned at college was that I pretty much hate winter. The campus at Appalachian is the kind where the walk to class is actually uphill both ways. When I left town for the last time, I was trying to get away from winter. Every time I hear on the news that the skies over Boone have dumped another foot of snow on the students walking to class, I cackle inside. Suckers.

It must have been while I was at school, but the skies over the rest of North Carolina must have remembered about snow. It snows now even in Raleigh, which is definitely getting to be flatlands. A couple of weekends ago, I looked at the afternoon sky and thought it looked like snow. You know, sort of gray without being dark. I thought it was weird, because my childhood trained me to not even really believe in snow. Even when it started coming down, I didn't think it would stick. But it did - two or three inches. We stayed home in the warm, venturing outside only to walk around the neighborhood holding hands. Then it all melted away the next day. This is the kind of snow that I can get behind. As long as I don't have to go anywhere and it's all gone the next day, I am A-OK with snow.

Yesterday, a coworker said he needed to get snow groceries, which means milk and bread. Why milk and bread? I don't know. I don't think anyone knows anymore, they just know that's what they're supposed to get. It was probably all started years ago by the Wheat and Dairy Council. His comment was the first I'd heard of any snow, because I don't pay a bit of attention to the weather reports. I scoffed. Later, my boss sent out an email tellings us that the office would go by the Wake County Public Schools' ruling in terms of delays or closing. People left the office yesterday evening saying "See you Friday!" Still, I would not allow myself to hope. Don't they know? It doesn't snow in North Carolina.

I woke up this morning at 7 AM, and there was a fine white dusting on the ground. I used my phone to check the school closings without leaving my bed. Half an hour later, I got an email from my boss saying that the office was closed, and still I was in bed. Wohoo! Snow day!

Of course, snow days aren't the same as they were when I was a kid, or rather as they would have been, had there been any snow days. But I slept a little later before going downstairs, making some coffee, and then logging onto my computer to work from home in my pajamas. I can play my music without bothering anyone, and I can pause to admire the Christmas tree. It is not the snow day I would have dreamed of when I was a kid when I still had hope for snow, but I've got to admit, it's pretty dang nice.



I'm no good at Christmas, and I've known it for a long time. Once, in middle school, we were going around the classroom on the first day back from Christmas vacation, telling what we did over the holiday. I shrugged and said "My family isn't big on Christmas."

"What are you, Jewish?" some other kid asked.

I knew that we weren't Jewish, but I didn't know why the other kids seemed to get so much more out of the year's biggest holiday than I did. I just figured we were sort of apathetic. We were low-key people in general, so if this one holiday failed to impress us the way it did the rest of the country, that wasn't entirely out of line with our characters.

I was wrong, though. It was a religious thing after all. Back before I was born, my family was part of a denomination of Christianity that was...well, let's call it restrictive. They didn't celebrate Christmas with presents and Santa. I actually don't know how they celebrated it. Probably with prayer and sitting quietly. Eventually, my folks got out of that church and became Methodists, who are much more lenient about things like reindeer and decorated trees and stockings. However, our family was already pretty established by that time and had no holiday traditions. So we had a tree and we got presents and we ate a big meal, but that was it. It was like my parents had read an encyclopedia entry about American Christmas traditions and then tried to have a holiday based on that.

I have come to believe that it is these traditions that are key to what everyone else loves about Christmas. So many of these traditions are shared, as if everyone in the whole country had actually celebrated it in the same house. So one kid might talk about going to his grandma's, and all the other kids are basking in the glow of the memories of seeing their own grandmas. But then there are individual family traditions. The same kid then talks about having to sit and wait on the stairs, shivering with anticipation, presents so close he could smell them, waiting for his parents to make themselves coffee before he and his siblings were unleashed upon the tree. And all the other kids are thinking about their own family quirks, waiting just as anxiously for their turn to share them with the rest of the class.

And I never really got all that. I didn't feel deprived, because I didn't understand what those other kids had that I didn't. I still got presents, we still had a tree. We didn't do stockings, though I tried once. I hung up some old socks on the mantle and I put candy in them. The candy all melted when we used the fireplace, ruining the socks and my interest in stockings. Even without stockings, it seemed like we had the same basic holiday structure as everyone else. So why wasn't I as excited as everyone else? The idea of a missing set of family traditions never occurred to me.

Through the magic of boyfriends, I have latched on to the traditions of other families. I went to Christmas at my ex-boyfriend's grandparents' house for several years. It seemed like a pretty standard gathering. We went, we ate, we chatted with aunts and uncles and cousins, we opened presents. The last year I went, his mom gave me my own stocking. It had a scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas on it, and when you pressed a button, it played music. I was very touched, and not just because it looked expensive. I have no idea whatever happened to that stocking. Maybe they lucked out and his next girlfriend liked Snoopy, too.

I've been doing Christmas with Josh's family for four years now. Actually, the first year, I had to invite myself. It had gotten to be December without him mentioning anything about holiday plans, when I finally asked him whether I was welcome wherever he was going. He was surprised. He hadn't asked because he'd figured I had my own family thing to go to. I should've explained to him that I rely on boyfriends for my Christmases.

His parents are divorced, which adds a whole level of complication that I never imagined in my naive and limited understanding of what other people did at Christmas. We go to his dad's for Christmas Eve, where we eat the most amazing steak and seafood dinner and watch classic holiday movies on repeat. We have beer before dinner, wine during dinner, port or cognac with dessert, followed by spiked coffee or eggnog. By the time Clarence is getting his wings, we all feel pretty good about the world.

The next morning, we go to Josh's mom's house. Or maybe his aunt's or his other aunt's or his grandmother - it doesn't matter, they all live within a square mile of each other. They have Christmas breakfast with oyster stew. All those years, I wondered what I might be missing about Christmas, and it was oyster stew. After breakfast, we sit in the living room while various family members play music for everyone. One guy plays the accordian, there are a couple of pianists, and finally three violinists and a cellist. There is an impressive amount of musical ability in that family. I would feel bad about my complete lack thereof - I rely on boyfriends for that, too - if not for his grandmother, who can't play a lick either. She just sits and looks proud enough to burst. Later, we walk back over to his mom's house for presents. There was a stocking for me last year, a spare one they had - the visitor stocking, I suppose.

I have always felt welcome at these gatherings. Everyone has been wonderfully sweet, they give me gifts, they feed me food, they ply me with alcohol. And yet, I feel like an outsider. Even as I start to understand the routine of it, I have no emotional attachment to these traditions. Perhaps that will come with time - in twenty years I may really look forward to that oyster stew. But for now, I still feel like a kid listening to how everyone else spent their Christmas vacation. I just don't get it.

Last year was the first where I was really interested in doing anything at all on my own for Christmas. After all, I have a house now. I have roots, permanence! Therefore, I need, uh, decorations. So I thought about a tree. In the apartment, I'd sort of half-heartedly put ornaments on my unicycle turned upside-down. I was going for eccentric, but I think it was mostly pathetic. A real house deserves a real tree, maybe one right in front of the living room window.

Also: stockings. I'm not sure what got into my head, but I saw some handmade stockings online and I decided that I was going to make some. If I'd thought it through, I would have realized that I'm a crappy seamstress and I don't even really understand about stockings anyway. But I paid a quarter for a secondhand stocking to use as a pattern, I bought the material and some felt, and I spent two weeks worth of evenings sewing and stitching. There was some unstitching and ripping, too. I attached felt letters that spelled out our names and embroidered greenery garlands and snowflakes. The stockings don't play music and they look...homemade, but I'm quite proud of them.

Once they were all done, I tried to remember what I'd seen Josh pull out of his stocking at his mom's house. It seemed to be small toys, candy, and underwear. So I bought some small things and informed Josh that he was responsible for buying me small things. He thanked me for the heads up.

After I finished the stockings, I hung them up on the mantle. Then I put the things that I bought into Josh's and proudly showed him the bulging homemade sock. It was then that I learned something that probably does appear in the encyclopedia entry about American Christmas traditions - you don't stuff the stockings until Christmas Eve, because Santa takes all the credit. I don't care about Santa, and I don't think I ever will, and Josh knows that. So he gave me a better reason: little children cannot be trusted not to look in their stockings. He then informed me that grown men could not be trusted not to look either. And so I had to un-stuff his stocking and go hide all the little presents again.

As for the tree, I was open for suggestions. My family had always had an artificial tree with metal limbs that were color-coded so you'd know where to attach them to the trunk. I saw tree lots on the road in December, and I saw dead trees thrown out by the curb in January. For someone who didn't get Christmas anyway, the live tree thing seemed like a waste. When it came time for us to get a tree, I was leaning toward artificial. But I could tell Josh really wanted a live one, and so that's what we got. Hey, what do I know? My family was, like, Jewish, or something.

It was a beautiful tree - probably seven and a half feet tall. It made the whole room smell like a forest, and the needles got all over the floor. We had to water it, which is another thing you don't have to worry about with artificial trees. We had to feed it, and it shed. It was like a big, decorated pet. We were admiring it one evening, when Josh told me that you could always tell an artificial tree, no matter how nice and expensive, by the pattern of the branches. They're symmetrical, and there is a certain shape. Our tree was not symmetrical. It was generally tree-shaped, but some branches stuck out more than others, while others went out at different angles. I've decided that I like that about live trees, too. They're naturally imperfect, just like me.

So we had a tree, and it was naked. We didn't have any ornaments or lights or garlands or anything. I went to Big Lots and splurged on $30 worth of ornament multi-packs. Josh found a light set at the thrift store. Even after that, his parents came over and took pity on our pathetic unadorned tree and brought us about four boxes of decorations that had been in their basement. There was one that was bought the year Josh's dad was born, a few that his mee-maw knitted, and a couple that he remembers from the time before his parents split. We kept those and a few others that we just liked, but the others were sent along to the thrift store. I was terrified that we were unknowingly throwing out treasured heirlooms. But then again, I've picked up hundreds of heirlooms secondhand. Just because a different family inherits them doesn't mean that the memories held in them are completely lost. I guess the lesson is that if you want heirlooms to stay in the family, don't give them to me.

We had just finished decorating the tree and were standing back, arm in arm, to admire it. Me, I like to ruin a sweet moment with some sentimental remark said sarcastically.

"Aw, we have a tree. Does that make us a family?"

"Maybe. I think it's the stockings with our names on them that do that. That makes us a family."

And I didn't have any smart reply to that.

The thing is, I feel like I kinda get Christmas now. I don't know if it was the new house, the tree needles on the floor, the hand-me-down ornaments, the hunched-over embroidering or what, but I enjoyed last holiday season more than I can remember enjoying one before. I feel like we are starting Christmas from scratch. We'll go to his dad's and then to his mom's, but we're also doing stuff that is just ours. We are building our own traditions. They are straight out of the American Christmas Encyclopedia, so they are shared with the whole country, and yet somehow they are only ours.


the circle of secondhand life.

We are due for a massive purge.

Some of you may wonder where I put all the stuff. After all, the only thing I ever seem to do is shop, either at thrift stores or yard sales. During the summer, I seem to come home on Saturday afternoons with a hatchback bursting with new purchases. Sure, I can get it all into my Honda Fit, but where does it go in the house?

There comes a point in every thrifters life where they must get more selective. I started thrifting in high school. At first, it is truly thrilling. My whole world changed, as I realized that I could most anything I needed or wanted for a fraction of what regular stores were charging. And I could get a whole lot of things that I never knew I wanted. When you first start buying used, things can get a little crazy. I realized at some point that I was going through a lot of money (well, a lot for someone still on an allowance), and I was running out of space. So I had to settle down a bit. As I thrifted more, I got better at identifying what I would actually use and what was just something that seemed awesome and cheap at the time.

That doesn't mean there aren't still missteps. I still buy something and then realize a year later that I've never used it at all. And that's why I need to frequently purge. Because I binge, binge, binge all the time. Some things outlast their usefulness. A lot of things were purchased with no clear use in mind. To be fair, a lot of things that I buy for no apparent reason do find use. For example, I bought a food dehydrater for a dollar a few months back. I attempted to use it once, but it didn't quite work out. And then I put it in the pantry to get it out of the way and forgot about it for a while. Then lo and behold, I hear on the family grapevine that my sister-in-law wants a food dehydrator. So I give it to her, and everyone is happy. That has happened many times in the past. Either I find someone who needs the thing or I find some way to use it myself. Or I don't find a way and I send it off to the thrift store for someone else to try.

At the house, we always have a Goodwill pile, usually a box or bag sitting somewhere in the way. Josh and I periodically contribute to it as we find something in our big stash of stuff that hasn't worked out. Even so, we obtain faster than we release.

The best time to purge is during a move. You're forced to go through everything you own anyway, so it's a good time to assess whether your stuff deserves to take up space in your new digs. Unfortunately, I bought a house last year. I used to move every couple of years, but I'm going to be keeping the same address for a while. Without a move to force me to get rid of all the crap that I bought but never used, I have to use discipline and will power. Bleah.

Actually, it's not unfortunate at all that I bought a house. For one thing, I have a house now. But also, I went from a two bedroom apartment to a three bedroom home. I added about 700 square feet to my stuff storage. The house was kinda pathetically empty when I moved in. It was like a free pass to buy whatever caught my fancy. Ah, to be a yard saler with a half-empty house! Those were good times.

Those times are definitely over now. My house is full. I don't consider myself to be a hoarder, though I have some definite packrat tendencies. In terms of stuff, I am a lousy minimalist. Even with my high tolerance for clutter, it is time to purge. It's time to go through everything I own and decide whether it still deserves to live with me. And it's time to give Josh a couple of boxes and tell him not to come out of his library until they are full.

Purging is hard. Some things are obvious. I'm going to keep my kitchen table and I'm going to get rid of the brass lamp that has been sitting in the corner for a year. It's those things in between that give me trouble. Sure, I haven't found a use for it yet, but I'm still a little bit in love with it. I'm still holding out hope that I will find something to do with the cast-iron fajita plates shaped like cows. Or maybe I will meet someone that desparately needs some fajita plates. Do you need fajita plates? THEY ARE SHAPED LIKE COWS. Some of the things in that middle category will go into the Goodwill box, and some will remain on the shelf, safe for the time being.

I feel like I should feel bad that I need to purge. It implies wastefulness. After all, I paid money for those things, then I never used them and then I gave them away for free. Maybe if I calculated the amount of money spent on items never used, I would be even more selective about my purchasing. Numbers are good at making you feel guilty.

Obviously, I don't feel bad about it at all. Based on the amount of stuff I see at yard sales that has clearly never been used, I'm not the only person who buys a thing without a need for it. I allow myself to feel slightly superior to those people because they bought it new (and then sold it to me for very little). I am wasteful, but less wasteful than people who are really very wasteful indeed.

There is also the cyclical nature of secondhand binging and purging. I bought this from the secondhand market, and I am returning it there. While I might feel bad about wasting the money spent, I don't have to feel bad about wasting the thing itself. It has life in it yet, and perhaps the next person will figure out what to do with it where I could not. I take comfort in being part of this cycle. I don't hear Elton John singing that Lion King song every time I drop off a Goodwill donation, but I do get a sort of zen feeling about the whole thing. Purging this way is less like getting rid of stuff and more like sharing with someone I don't know. That's way cornier than I meant to get today, but there you go.


the lady doesn't like mushrooms.

I remember every mushroom I've eaten in the last fifteen years. There have been two.

I don't like mushrooms and I don't like that I don't like them. It makes me feel like a picky eater, and I don't care much for those either. I don't like not liking anything, because it makes life difficult for other people. If someone is making me dinner, they have to keep my preferences in mind. It would be much easier if I just didn't have any.

I'm not sure what it is. I don't like the taste, I don't like the texture, and I don't like the smell. But I don't know what came first. It's possible that I was turned off by the smell and then the other things became associated with that smell. But I don't like any of it, and I can't explain why. I shouldn't have to explain why. Once I told a friend that I didn't like cantaloupe, and she asked, "Why?" I'm not sure if she expected me to have some story about a bad cantaloupe experience. Because it tastes bad in my mouth, that's why. I'm allowed to not like things, and cantaloupe and mushrooms are two things that I cannot abide.

I ate a mushroom about eight years ago. I was at an art gallery, where there was lots of free food and wine, and they were not checking IDs. There were long tables lined with finger foods. I made it my business to try everything, as if it were the samples section at Sam's Club. I saw these little balls of something or other, brown on the bottom and sorta cheesy-looking on top. I couldn't really identify them, but I am not fearful of unfamiliar foods. Then, as soon as I touched one, I knew. And I also knew that it was too late, because I had touched it and so I had to put it on my plate. I took a bite, felt sick, and threw the rest away when I thought no one was looking. Then I went and got some more free wine.

As far as my kitchen is concerned, mushrooms do not exist. When I read a recipe, I skip right over the parts about mushrooms like it's not even there, sort of like when someone sends you a greeting card with a long message written in flowing script. If the mushrooms are a crucial element of the dish, then I just don't make that. Poor Josh. He never gets any shrooms. Whenever he eats pizza at the restaurant where he works, he always has them load it up with mushrooms, because all his meals from home are fungus-free.

I ate a mushroom last Friday. It wasn't an accident, like the time eight years ago. I did it because I was intimidated.

Josh and I went over to see one of his high school buddies and his parents. The dad answered the door, greeted us, and told Josh to "take the lady's coat and put it in the closet." At that instant, I was immediately thrown off my game. Everything about this situation screamed formality at me, and I really do better with casual affairs. Even though I know how to act, something in me thinks that if I allow myself to get too comfortable, I'll slip and betray my redneck past.

Not that I have any problem with my redneck past. But some people, particularly ones who mistakenly refer to me as "the lady," might.

There were mushrooms at dinner. They were stuffed with tuna, and apparently once of Josh's friend's specialties. We also had delicate salads, Thanksgiving leftovers, and deep-fried duck. I tried rutabagas for the first time ever, because I jump at the chance to try something new. And then the mushrooms were passed around and I put one on my plate. I wondered if Josh noticed and hoped that if he did, he wouldn't say anything. I knew it was completely stupid. These were nice people. Just because they serve salads with goat cheese and dried cherries on Christmas china does not mean that they would be offended if I happened to have an aversion to mushrooms.

I ate the whole thing. It was gross. I tried so hard to like it. I tried to tell myself that I was just put off by the texture and that the taste and smell were fine. When that didn't work, I told myself that it was just the smell. That didn't work either, and for the second time in fifteen years, I came to the conclusion that me and mushrooms are just not meant to be.

The whole experience was just...odd. Even as I was eating the mushroom, I could not have told you why I was doing it. It was only later, when I really thought about it, that I figured out my own bizarre behavior and the subconscious thought behind it. Frankly, it makes me wonder. What else have I been doing for what other weird reasons?


slightly inconvenient.

A while back, I wrote a long post about convenience foods and how they're not all bad and even what might be called a convenience food varies for some people. I can never tell what sticks when I throw something up here, but this post apparently hit a chord with my sister. I would say that she cooks in a world more inconvenient than mine, based mainly on the fact that she mills her own wheat. That's pretty hardcore. Anyway, she told me that frozen vegetables were a convenience food that she had accepted.

"As opposed to what?"


The conversation blew my mind a little bit. I had never questioned my use of frozen vegetables, mostly because the alternative of eating fresh vegetables all the time was so completely outlandish. But she's right, of course. Anything that you didn't see start out as a raw ingredient is a convenience food. What's neat is that you can set your own scale as to what is acceptable to use and what is not. My sister decided that store-bought flour wasn't worth it, but frozen vegetables are. Me, I'm still okay with flour from the shelves, and I use veggies both frozen and canned. It would be wonderful if I could get fresh ones all the time, no matter the season, but not being filthy stinking rich shouldn't prohibit me from having lasagna in the winter. To paraphrase my mother, I'd like to have the money to eat fresh vegetables all year long, but then I'd probably buy frozen ones and spend the extra money on a jukebox.

Someday, I may invest in my own wheat mill, but I am not there yet. I say "yet," because my cooking life has been gradually becoming more and more inconvenient. I make most things from scratch, assuming store-bought flour and canned vegetables can count in "scratch." There have been a couple of convenience foods that I have been loathe to give up. I knew I should, for all the reasons that I gave up frozen pizza and grocery store bakery bread, namely taste and price (something about nutrition, too, but mostly those other things). But I didn't want to make the switch. Those foods were just so darn convenient.

One of those things was pre-shredded cheese. I feel I should note that if we are being really picky (and we are since we've already brought up the concept of milling your own wheat), cheese itself is a convenience food. We always have a small selection of cheeses in the house, because for whatever reason, I seem to have a lot of recipes in my binder that call for the stuff. Mozzarella and cheddar all the time, and then sometimes Monterey Jack or Colby or Swiss if I can get a good deal. Since 99% of my recipes call for shredded, that's what I would buy. Every once in a while, I would think about getting a block and shred it myself, but that thought made me feel sort of tired inside. I'd had enough experience with fresh grated to know that it makes a huge difference. When you do your own shredding, the cheese melts so nicely, and it bubbles and stretches just like that old Little Caesar's commercial with the baby in the high chair. Oh yeah, and it tastes better, too.

The trouble was that cheese in either form is the same price. And I don't like grating. It reminds me of those bitter mornings in Blowing Rock where I had to set up the salad station at the restaurant, my hands frozen from handling produce that came straight from the walk-in refrigerator. I've been meaning to switch to block cheese for a year or two now, and only recently has my mind finally accepted the change. What happened was that I had to grate a whole 8-ounce block of cheese, and I realized that it just wasn't that bad. I still have half a bag of shredded cheddar left over that I haven't finished yet, but the rest of my supply is all in block form. I got over the inconvenience and discovered that it was worth it, just like I knew it would be, just like it has been every time before.

My other weakness was jarred garlic. Do you know about this stuff? I discovered it when I lived in Winston, back when I was first learning to cook. At that point, I didn't know you could easily buy fresh garlic. The jar was a momentous discovery for me, considering I thought the only other option was the plastic shakers of garlic powder in the spice aisle. The jars are big, inexpensive, and the contents keep FOREVER. All you do is stick a spoon in and you come out with garlic. I never even measured it. If the recipe called for a lot of garlic, I added a heaping spoonful. If it only called for a little bit of garlic, I added a spoonful and then I went back and added another partial spoonful, because I love me some garlic.

One day at the store, I noticed that a little bag containing three bulbs of garlic was not so expensive. Purely out of curiosity, I bought one. Then I forgot about it on purpose for a while. I meant to use it, really I did, but the jar was right at eye-level. So the bulbs hung out in the fridge drawer for a long time. And then one day, I reached for my trusty jar, and I noticed that it was almost empty. It was time to give the fresh stuff a chance.

For those of you who have never minced garlic, let me explain it to you. First, you have to unwrap it, like you do an onion. You do this by smashing the clove with something hard, and the paper comes off. Then there is this thing, the clove, that is roughly the size of the top section of my middle finger. Most recipes want you to mince it, so you have to cut it up into pieces about the size of the freckle on the side of my right wrist. If this is unclear, please consult your own body parts until the next time you see me. While you are mincing, be sure to think about the fact that you can buy a huge jar of the freckle-sized pieces for less than $6 at your local Food Lion. Pretty dang inconvenient. I know they have these things, garlic presses, that do all the tiny cutting work for you. But I don't have one, and I wasn't going to buy one unless I was sure that I was ready to leave the jarred stuff behind.

But I've made my garlic conversion, and I'll tell you how it happened. Last Sunday morning, I woke up with a hankering for cheddar biscuits. I must have had visions of them dancing in my head during the night. My recipe comes from Dolly Parton. I first tasted Dolly's cheddar biscuit at the Dixie Stampede. They sold cookbooks in the gift shop, but I saved my $24.99 in the hopes that the internet could give me the secret. Oh, Internet, I love you so. You tell me Dolly Parton's secrets.

They only problem with the recipe is that it uses a food which I have deemed to be unacceptably convenient: Bisquick. I don't mean to step on any toes here, but I personally think it is idiotic to buy a box that contains a mixture of things that I already have in my kitchen. So I asked the internet to give me a substitute. Once I found that, I scaled it down to just the 2 cups I needed for the biscuits. After eating the whole batch of biscuits in an obscenely short amount of time, I decided that I could probably go ahead and make some baking mix for future cheddar biscuit binging. I made the whole recipe, and then stuck it in a container in the freezer. Now, whenever I want cheddar biscuits, it's exactly as convenient as if I were using Bisquick, yet I get to feel smug because I made my own. I'm feeling smug and eating a cheddar biscuit, so it's a good day.

It's funny how my inconsistency regarding convenience foods is highlighted by this one single recipe. When I first read it, I immediately dismissed the Bisquick. It would never occur to me to buy and use baking mix. Bah! But when it comes time to mix the butter and garlic, I reach for the jar without a thought.

Except that last Sunday morning, the jar was empty. So I cut up a clove from that same sad batch of garlic that I bought months ago. Since it was not actually going into the biscuits but only flavoring the butter, I decided that I didn't have to mince it, only slice it. It was still a little bit inconvenient.

But then the garlic hit the melted butter, and my love affair with jarred garlic was all over. My whole kitchen was overrun with the smell of butter and garlic, just from some butter and one clove of garlic. Garlic + Butter = Flavor Friends Forever. That had never happened with the stuff in the jar. If this was the difference in smell, imagine the taste! I brushed that hot garlicky butter all over the finished cheddar biscuits, took a bite, and it was a whole different biscuit. Before, I'd thought the star of the Stampede biscuit was the cheddar. But now I know that the cheese is just a supporting player, and it's really all about the garlic butter. What's amazing to me is that none of the actual garlic pieces made it onto the biscuits. What I tasted was just the flavor infusion.

If you can't tell, I really like cheddar biscuits. And butter. And garlic. Is anyone else hungry?

My switch to fresh garlic mimicked my other experiences with inconvenient foods. Once I finally go, I can't go back. It's why I am resistant to even trying them sometimes, because I know my life will become slightly more complicated. There's no returning to the carefree days when I could just stick a spoon in a jar and come out with garlic. It's funny how illogical the whole thing is. Laziness is a powerful force. Is this a lesson that could be applied in other areas of my life? Nah.

Since I spend a lot of time here telling you my secrets, I'm going to tell one of Dolly's. Sssh. These delicious secrets take less than twenty minutes from start to finish. Shouldn't you be making them more often?

Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Garlic Cheese Biscuits
From Dolly's Dixie Fixin's
  • 5 tablespoons melted butter

  • 1 garlic clove, minced (or sliced!)

  • 2 c baking mix (see below)

  • 2/3 c milk

  • 2/3 c shredded cheddar cheese

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

  2. In a small bowl combine the butter and garlic; set aside.

  3. In a medium bowl combine the baking mix with the milk and mix just until a soft dough forms. Do NOT over-mix. Add the cheese to the dough and stir to combine. If the dough still seems just a tad dry/sticky, go ahead and add a drop or two more of milk or water

  4. Using a teaspoon, drop the dough onto an un-greased cookie sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

  5. Remove the biscuits from the oven and lightly brush with the butter-garlic mixture.

  6. Serve warm.

Inconvenient Bisquick
From Allrecipes
  • 9 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1/4 cup baking powder

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 2 cups shortening

  1. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Cut in shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. OR, stick it all into your food processor and pulse until you get the right consistency.

  2. Store in an airtight container in a cool dry place or in the freezer for up to 8 months.


secondhand frequency.

While you can get most anything at a yard sale, obviously some things are more common than others.  You are sort of at the mercy of the fates.  I’ve come to like that aspect of it.  It makes everything seem very serendipitous.  If you were looking for something specific in the retail world, you could look it up online or go to a specific store that is likely to carry your desired item.  However, with yard sales, you just sorta have to go from lawn to lawn and see what those people have to offer.  You have no idea if these people even have what you are looking for, much less whether they want to sell it.

Of course, some things are very common.  You may not see them at every sale, but you will probably see them every week.  If you are looking for a very common item, you likely will not have to wait very long to find it, and you can probably even be a little picky in terms of which one you want.  You want baby clothes?  I can get you baby clothes.  You want a baking sheet?  Well, that might take a couple of weeks, but it probably won’t take more than a month to find one.  However, some items are rare.  You might only see one once a year, if that.  And then every once in a while, you come across a once in a lifetime find.

Josh and I have been trying to think of a scale that we could use to describe the commonness of yard sale items, kind of a measure of secondhand frequency.  I mean, we could just use a 1 to 10 scale, but it would be more interesting if we could have items on either end of the scale that would epitomize something really common and something really rare.  We decided on “Christmas tins” as the representative item item on the very common end of the scale.  We see a lot of those, probably because everyone buys them and gives them away.  They’re not quite disposable enough to just chuck in the trash, so they accumulate in your basement until you get sick of them and have a yard sale.

Then we struggled to think of our unusual item.  After all, we wanted something we had seen in our yard sale exploits, otherwise the scale would lack veracity.  It became a matter of figuring out the most unusual thing we’d ever seen.IMG_20101121_201454And then yesterday, we saw it.  And then we bought it.  Because when we see the thing that is representative of all the amazingly unusual things that can be found at yard sales, we feel the need to bring it home.  I guess that’s just the kind of people we are.


for emergencies.

Every year around this time, we have a company meeting about our health benefits. Because every year, the cost of insuring the twenty-odd employees at this little company goes up 15% or so. In previous years, this meant that we would fill our forms to get quotes from other insurers. We'd always end up with Blue Cross again, usually with a slight increase in our copays. This year was different.

We switched from a PPO ("preferred provider organization") to a QHDHP ("qualified high deductible health plan"). I think it's cheaper for our boss, so I assume that we are not paying by the letter. The PPO is basically a discount system. You go to the doctor or you fill a prescription, then you pay the copay. If you have a heart-attack, then there is a smallish deductible, after which you pay 20% of the total cost. In the new plan, doctor visits cost the actual price that the doctor charges, rather than the blanket $15 copay. It's discounted from what you would pay if you had no insurance at all, because the insurance companies work out a deal with the doctors. It's like wholesale. If you rack up enough doctor's visits to meet your deductible, which for me is $1500 a year, then everything for the rest of the year is free. I'm gonna break my arm next year and then get a whole lot of free mammograms.

There's also a health saving account, where you can have money deducted from your paycheck pre-tax. The money in the account, unlike in some flexible spending accounts, rolls over from year to year. And when you spend it to pay for your more-expensive-than-it-was-last-year prescription, it's not taxed then either. Your $1500 pre-tax only cost you about $1000 post-tax. So if you have $1500 or more sitting in your saving account, then you're good for whatever happens.

During the meeting, I felt bad for Mike, the guy who came and explained our new system to us; it was a tough sell. Not that he was selling us anything. Our boss had already signed us all up, and this was what we were getting. But the guy did have to come and tell us how it was gonna be now, and no matter how many pairs of rose-colored glasses he gave us, it all just sounded more expensive. Before, a trip to the emergency room would set us back $150. I've spent more on dinner (plus tip). Now, it might cost the whole of our deductible. Mike said he couldn't argue with that. He added that a trip to the emergency room doesn't actually cost $150, so who is paying the extra $1350?

Our boss, probably feeling a little defensive about his decision to go with this plan, blamed the health care reform bill. No, actually, he specifically blamed the president. He did this twice before Mike cut in and said that the health care bill did nothing about lowering costs. He further said that the bill was not for us. After all, we already have insurance. That's why we were spending our Tuesday morning talking about copays and flexible spending accounts. The bill was for those millions of people who didn't have insurance at all.

I'm not sure if that mitigated anyone's anger, but the topic didn't come up again. I decided that I liked Mike.

Not that there wasn't more politics. I'm glad these meetings only happen once a year, because we have a few outspoken people in the office. Maybe I wouldn't mind so much if their views aligned more with mine. One guy kept asking hypotheticals that bordered on ridiculous. One question started off with "Seeing the direction the current administration is going with regards to taxation," and was followed up by a question about taxing the health savings accounts. Mike responded that it was difficult for him to answer questions regarding legislation that had not even been written yet. I thought about asking what would happen to our health saving accounts in the event of a robot holocaust.

I don't understand why people ask questions like that. I have a hard time believing that he thought he could get an answer, so was it just rhetoric? Was he trying to sound intelligent? Did he assume that most everyone agreed with him, and if they didn't, they quickly would once they heard his brilliant questions? Maybe he was sucking up to those in the office in higher tax brackets.

I don't mind the new health plan. It will be more expensive for me, since I go to the doctor only a couple of times a year. That used to cost me a total of $30, but now will probably be more like $100. In a purely financial sense, that is not in my best interests. But this plan is trying to be a different kind of insurance. It's more like the kind of insurance you have for your car or your house. There is no copay for getting your oil changed or even your brakes fixed. Auto insurance is for when you have an accident. It's not for maintenance, it's for emergencies. In the case of an emergency, this plan is much better. Yeah, they expect you to be able to save up $1500. I don't think that's an unreasonable request for a room full of adults employed in software.

The PPO system just doesn't seem to be very sustainable. If everyone thinks that it actually costs fifteen bucks to go to the doctor, then there is no push from consumers to lower prices. People don't shop around for better prices, they don't care what it actually costs nor who is paying the difference. If health care costs go up overall, it's invisible to us. Mike seems to think that the PPO system is on the way out. I can see why.

Just think - when I'm old I can tell my grandchildren how it used to cost $150 to go to the emergency room!


away down south in dixie.

Josh and I had a weeklong vacation with my brother's family in a mountain cabin in Cosby, Tennessee. Before we went, we talked about the things that we wanted to be sure to do - fishing, white-water rafting, maybe ziplining. Another brother recommended the Dixie Stampede, about an hour away in the glitzy tourist trap that is Pigeon Forge. The full name of the exciting destination is Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede.

How to explain the Stampede? Well, it's dinner theatre. With horses and cows. And sparkles and patriotism. Maybe it's just inexplicable. I'll try again.

Before the show starts, you are invited to sit in the Carriage House, which is a large room with a small raised stage in the middle. Young women in Miss Kitty outfits act as cocktail waitresses, except that everything you can order is virgin. Prohibition is in effect at the Stampede. I had some sort of frozen orange drink, an orange sunrise or something. It was delicious and served to me in a commemorative 2010 Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede plastic cup shaped like a boot. It would have been even better with a little vodka. Or rum, I'm not picky.

A trio of musicians soon took the stage - a guitar player, a fiddler, and a guy with a big double bass. They played old country songs and church hymns, the same songs I used to hear sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford in my daddy's pickup. In between songs, there was good ole boy banter and clean jokes. The audience sang and clapped along. It was odd hearing church music in a secular setting, even if probably 90% of the people in the room grew up singing those songs on Sunday mornings just like I did. But also it was an acknowledgement of a heritage. Whatever you believe, this music is part of the culture of the mountains of east Tennessee.

One thing I like about Dolly Parton: she's true to her roots, if not her hair color.

After the singin', we all filed into the main room to take our seats. The auditorium was shaped sort of like a smallish high school football stadium. It smelled like a barn. In the middle was a big dirt arena, freshly raked. Seating went around on three sides - benches set up behind tables. As we sat down, waiters came around and offered us beverages served in mason jars. I chose the sweet tea, because I figured that Dolly had a good recipe.

I don't like to perpetuate stereotypes about the South, but here's where it might get a little weird for those of y'all that ain't from around here. The waiters were dressed as soldiers from the War of Northern Aggression Civil War. All the servers on our side wore blue, while across the auditorium I saw patrons being served iced tea by boys in gray. I confess myself a little disappointed to not being on the other side, not because I wish the South had won or I have any delusions (or desire) about it rising again. But, well, I'm Southern. Dixie is my home, and these are my people. Me and Dolly, we are true to our roots.

The show starts and proceeds as the food is served. I'm sure they have it all timed out. When the lady in the sequined unitard rides two quarterhorses standing up, you get your soup. And when they do the magic trick with the woman in the barrel, you get your chicken. It's a big meal. When I say you get your chicken, I mean you get the whole bird delivered to your plate. For a chicken, it's smallish, but then again, it's only meant for one person. There's also a stuffed potato skin and a cheddar biscuit, a slice of pork tenderloin and apple turnover for dessert. It's all old fashioned comfort food, and it is mmm-mmm-good eatin'.

Here's the thing - there's no silverware. You'd probably eat the potato, the biscuit, and maybe the turnover with your hands anyway, unless you were on the prim side. The soup comes in a handled bowl for easy sipping. But the chicken sits on your plate just like those whole rotisserie chickens in the deli section at the grocery store. You just have to rip into it and eat it with your hands. It's not too greasy, and they give you a big napkin.

To my surprise, I found that I actively enjoyed eating with my hands. Obviously, the choice to not give your patrons a set of utensils is conscious, and personally, I think it was inspired. Some people seemed a little squeamish about it, but I was all in. I left a chicken skeleton on my plate, picked clean. There was something visceral about it, as if it added a whole new dimension to eating. We taste, we smell, and we feel the texture of the food in our mouths, but we rarely touch it with our fingers, because it's uncouth. Back before hand-washing was invented, that was probably a good idea. I'm not advocating throwing out your silverware, but maybe eating with our hands is something we should do more often, and not just pizza and toast.

The show is sort of like Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, or at least it's like how that Buffalo Bill's show is portrayed in Annie, Get Your Gun. There's some singing and dancing. They bring out a couple of horse-drawn wagons and a small herd of longhorns. A couple of equestrian acrobats do tricks like riding standing up or jumping through a ring of fire. A guy in overalls comes out and tells corny jokes. And there are contests between the North and the South (always the North and the South, never the Union and the Confederacy). These contests consist of racing up and down the field on a horse or having some children from the audience come down and chase chickens across a finish line (one kid picked up his chicken and threw it bodily across the line, which was not allowed). They assume that your hands and mouth are preoccupied with the meal, so you are instructed to cheer for your side by stomping your feet on the wooden floor, thus the name. After each contest, the winning side is awarded a blue or gray little victory flag.

I admit that the entertainment is cheesy. If you sit there and think about how corny the jokes are or how the performers appear to be just riding horses back and forth, you are not going to enjoy yourself. You have to be willing to let yourself get into it. The Dixie Stampede is not sophisticated or thought-provoking or even particularly clever. It's an experience, so you might as well stomp your feet. Just go with it. If you do, you will find to your surprise that you are having fun.

As we progressed through our vittles, it became clear that by the end of the evening, the South was going to have more victory flags. We speculated to ourselves how they were going to end the game. They obviously weren't rigging it for the North, but they could hardly have the South win. Even in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, they know better than to do that.

As it turned out, America won. Yay?

Okay, the whole Civil War theme is weird and insensitive. Even if the war hadn't been fought over the right to keep human beings as property, it was still the bloodiest war in American history. And the Stampede is making light of it, treating it as if it were some kind of cross-town rivalry. I can't defend that. But I can say that it was pretty accurate in terms of my experience growing up just on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. We had UNC vs. NC State, Pepsi vs. Coke, and North vs. South. We take great pride in being Southern, we love a good rivalry, and it seems like there's a real obvious one right there.

I won't deny that some of that North vs. South stuff is really the Union vs. the Confederacy. It's motivated by hatred and fear of the Other; racism still exists in the South. Growing up here, it was hard to reconcile the image of A Racist, who was Bad, with the actual people that you knew who seemed like good Christian folk, but didn't like black people. They could be your family, friends, or neighbors. They were people who you love and who have never been anything but good, salt-of-the-earth people to you. They would pray for you when someone in your family dies, and they brought you casseroles when you are sick. But then they had got this huge glaring flaw that makes you want to pretend that you're from Montana. Can you still be a good person if you are a racist? Are some failings unredeemable? Is anyone clean enough to decide which ones?

It is getting better. Racism has been almost non-existent in my experience in Raleigh, and even back in my rural hometown, it's improving. Each generation, there's a bit more acceptance and less hate. I hope to see the day when I don't have to defend the South. I know that it doesn't prove anything, but it did my heart good to see North Carolina turn blue in the 2008 election, even if only just barely. There's a black guy in the White House, and we helped! Voting for the other guy doesn't make you a racist, but as long as Obama won, can't we agree that it's a good thing to not look like jerks?

Maybe the Dixie Stampede is trying to reclaim the South's reputation. It's a place, full of people who are neither totally good nor totally evil, just like every other place in the world. And while you are at it, check it out, we have a legitimate culture here that isn't all about being illiterate and bigoted! If that's what they are doing, I wholeheartedly approve of the cause, if not the method. Treating the Civil War like it was a particularly exciting UNC/NC State football game isn't really acknowledging the shame of it.

For me, and I hope most people, Southern pride is not about saving your Confederate money in the belief that it will soon be in circulation again. It's about the good food and the pleasant weather and the friendly people. It's about the soft, lilting accents and the twangy accents and everything in between. It's about the trees and the mountains and the swamps and the plains and the beaches. It's about knowing and loving where you came from and being true to your roots. Everyone from every other place is allowed to love their home without anyone assuming they burn crosses in their spare time. Why not us?

So, do you understand the Dixie Stampede now?


sticker shock.

I received a $50 gift card to Kohls from Josh's mother, who wrote in a postscript that she hoped we had a Kohls down in Raleightown. She further noted that they seemed to be metastasizing where they lived. It was a weird word to use, and of course made me think of Kohls as some kind of cancer. Surely she doesn't think of Kohls that way, or why would she buy a gift card from there?

Anyway, a couple of weeks later, Kohls sent me an advertisement that featured a $10 off your entire purchase card. A little 'rithmetic reveals that I had quickly acquired $60 worth of plastic money redeemable at Kohls. I'm not entirely sure that I've ever bought anything at Kohls before in my life. I don't have anything against the store, but I so rarely buy anything from a regular retail store that the experience of even going inside one has become a little foreign to me.

Is it preachy when I say things like that? I know I go on and on about buying things used, but it's because I'm enthusiastic. Secondhand is not for everyone, but I strongly suspect that more people would take to it if only they knew. So I'm sort of an evangelist.

This story is not about how superior I am compared to you because I shop at Goodwill. It's about what will happen to you if you ever become superior like me.

I went into Kohls without my gift card to scope out how I might want to spend my money. I can't say why I didn't just bring the gift cards with me. Maybe I thought that after years of repressing my inner spendthrift, I would break free in a slobbering and expensive panic if I found myself with a mini shopping spree. First stop: lingerie!

To continue this story, I'm afraid we must talk about panties.

I am in need of some new panties. Just like any other article of clothing, panties wear out and you have to replace them. You can buy panties at Goodwill or yard sales. I've never done it. I have bought a bathing suit at a yard sale, and I once fished a bra out of a dumpster. But when it comes to panties, I'd rather just buy new. I don't think there is anything wrong with the panties you might find at a Goodwill; in fact, they are often new. I think that my squeamishness has more to do with the idea of digging through a box of panties in someone's yard or at a Goodwill. I'd much rather just pick the 6-pack off the shelf and be done with it. I'm just repressed that way.

So! As far as my undergarments were concerned, these gift cards came along just in time. While I was planning on checking out the Christmas decorations and maybe the kitchen section, my real goal was the lingerie department. Once I got there, I came down a severe case of sticker shock. No need to worry about my inner spendthrift.

Did you know that the manufacturer's suggested retail price of a 3-pack of Hanes panties is $18? Are you freaking kidding me? Six dollars for a pair of nice-girl, plain-colored, 100% cotton panties, nothing exotic or sexy at all. I must be out of touch, because $6 is about what I was looking to spend on a 3-pack.

But Hark! Kohls was honoring our nation's veterans by having a sale. I get the impression that they are always have a sale of some kind. Select brands of lingerie were buy one and get the second half off, so that our veterans might stock up while the price was low. So six pairs of Hanes cotton panties is $27. That's $4.50 a pair and still completely outrageous. Let me tell you, the Christmas and kitchen sections were not any better.

And that's what happens when you go to a regular store after buying most of your stuff used for a few years. Your sense of value becomes totally skewed and broken, such that the shiny new stores can't lure you in. Everything in there seems like such a colossal rip-off. Even when you have free money in your hand, you can't bear to spend it at the rates they're charging. This is not specific to Kohls, which I would think is kind of a discount department store, what with the store-wide sale for Arbor Day. However, the fact that everything seems to be on sale (20% off! 30% off! BOGO!) all the time just pisses you off further. If everything is on sale, then they are clearly acknowledging that it was all overpriced in the first place.

It just makes me so mad.

I know that there are ways to shop frugally at traditional retail stores. There were things in the clearance section that were actually reasonable. And there are other stores that seem to be mostly made of the clearance sections of stores like Kohls (e.g. Marshalls, T.J. Maxx). But if Kohls is making enough money to metastasize, then there must be plenty of people who are paying $4.50 to $6 apiece for plain-colored cotton panties. Do they enjoy doing that? Or do they just not know that there are other options, if not at a thrift store then at least at T.J. Maxx? I wouldn't go so far as to just call those people suckers, though I suspect that the CEOs of many retail stores just might.

That's why I go on and on about buying secondhand. I'm not trying to say that I am a smarter shopper or better with money overall. I've just found this way to buy most everything that I need and a crap-ton of neat stuff that I don't need for next to nothing and no one seems to know about it. I want to make sure that you know about it, too. Because you are my friend, and also, if more people stopped paying $6 for panties, then I bet no one would try to charge that much.

*Disclaimer: Aside from coming off as a thrift-store snob here, I probably also sound very ungrateful regarding my gift card. Of course, I don't mean to be that way at all, it's just that I try to be really very open and honest in my writing. Often that trumps being sensitive. Really, I'm pretty insensitive anyway, and while I hope that I will improve in that regard, it's probably wise for anyone who spends any amount of time with me to know that I don't mean any offense. I'm really a lovely person once you get past my personality. Anyway, this disclaimer has gone on long enough, so I'll end it by saying that I very much appreciate the gift and the implied acceptance of me into the family. I also accept it as a challenge to get the absolute most out of my local Kohls that a body can for $50.


sometimes people sing and dance.

High Society
High Society is the musical version of The Philadelphia Story. So instead of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and James Stewart, you have Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra. Either way, a strong cast. Really, the movies are identical, except for all that singing. It really raises two questions: whether some movies would be better if there were more musical numbers, and whether other musical movies would be better without all the singing.

Sadly enough for High Society, the answer in this case is no and then yes. I've no doubt that there are some movies that would be greatly improved by adding a Cole Porter score. The Philadelphia Story is a love story, even a romantic comedy, but it's also kind of serious, too. Too serious, I think, for a Cole Porter score.

High Society is not a bad movie. The whole cast is great, Grace Kelly is so beautiful you want to slap yourself, the songs are great, and it's got Louis Armstrong. If you have never seen The Philadelphia Story, you might like it very much.

Songs and Dance: All singing, not really any dancing at all. You know, when I was writing this, I was thinking there wasn't much to impress me in terms of the songs, which felt like a betrayal to Cole Porter. But then I started looking for clips, and I remembered that I like this one, and oh, that one was good, too, and don't forget this other one! The thing is, there is a heck of a lot of talent in this picture.

Here is Bing and Frank. This song was added at the last minute, because it finally occurred to someone that they had made a whole movie starring both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and not once did they sing together. I love the banter they have going on both in the song and in the talking between the lyrics.

Will I Make Josh Watch It: No. I could try, but he would start complaining about five minutes in, saying he'd just rather watch The Philadelphia Story.

Easter Parade
I saw this movie a long time ago. I remembered a scene at the beginning of Fred Astaire dancing in a toy store, and then a scene at the end where everybody was walking down the street singing the titular song. Somehow, in my head, those two bookending numbers became the whole movie to me. As a result, I was not really looking forward to watching it again. Finally, I actually did watch it, and I realized that even musicals have more to them than two songs. This one even had a plot and stuff.

This one has a sort of Pygmalion feel to it, except instead of Henry Higgins teaching Eliza Doolittle to act like a lady, we have Don Hewes (Astaire) teaching Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) to dance. He's trying to get back at Ann Miller, his former dance partner who was really kind of a jerk for the whole movie. It's yet another movie set in the vaudeville era about those crazy vaudevillians. Aside from all the, you know, musical stuff, the script is very good, too. There are some great one-liners and sight gags, and a really funny scene where a French waiter describes a salad. You had to be there.

Songs and Dance: Very good all around. This might be the first movie I've mentioned featuring Ann Miller, but I am a fan. And of course, everyone knows that Fred and Judy can sing and dance. The songs are all by Irving Berlin, including some of the classics: Steppin' Out with my Baby," "A Fella with an Umbrella," and the title song. The lyrics are clever and the melodies are playful. What's not to like?

Here is a clip from Fred and Judy's show. See? It's cute!

Will I Make Josh Watch It: Maybe? I would not call this required viewing in terms of musical theatre education, but I think it's one of the most enjoyable ones I've seen in a while. It's just a solid example of the genre - everyone is mostly happy and nice and sometimes people sing and dance.

There's No Business Like Show Business
It took me a while to figure out why I didn't like this movie very much. It's got talented performers (Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Ray) and great songs (Irving Berlin again), and yet, I was just so bored by it. I've decided that the problem was with the plot. It feels so tacked on. I realize that complaining about the plot of a musical is missing the point a bit.

Here's how this movie happened: They had a lot of Irving Berlin songs lying around and one Ethel Merman. So they made a movie. The End. I knew that before I watched it, so it's entirely possible that this knowledge colored my perception. It sounds like the wrong way to make a movie, doesn't it? Shouldn't you start with a good story and then go from there?

I don't know how to write a movie. I do know that I didn't care what happened to the characters in this one. That is usually a pretty good indicator that the movie is not well-written.

Songs and Dance: Hey, at least these were good! Donald O'Connor had a really neat sequence where he danced in a garden full of Venus de Milo style sculptures (but not naked and with arms). Then they came to life and danced with him. I picked this number ("Lazy") with Marilyn, Mitzi, and Donald. I could have picked any one of several renditions of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," but I really liked the contrasting styles in this one. Plus, it's just so darn fun.

Will I Make Josh Watch It: Not a chance. I don't even really want to see it again.