Monday, November 26, 2012

The Economics of Boo-ty

(Apologies for running two holidays behind)

The first time I ever fell asleep in class was during high school economics my senior year.   I’d like to say I fell asleep because I was staying up late working or even going out with my friends (I won’t even try to say it was because of studying).  It was also the first time I ever earned a D in a class.  When my parents asked about the grade, my response was the same as most students’ whose grades were slipping, “The teacher is boring.”
Of course, that earned me narrowed eyes and a big, “So what?”
I loved school and learning.  “Dull” was one thing – a teacher who lacked a dynamic personality - but that had never stopped me from learning before.  Then I realized “boring” meant that I couldn’t relate my life to anything that the teacher was describing.  I can still hear the teacher saying, “Guns and butter….”
How (or why) would butter be made in a gun factory or vice-versa?  And wouldn’t there be metal shards in the first batch of butter?   That would be dangerous.  How long did it take to clean the equipment to make it safe for making butter?  Were the first batch of guns slippery? 
And then everything would fade to black and the unicorns and rainbows would appear and all was right once more.
“How can you not understand economics?” my dad asked.
I had run two “businesses” prior to my senior year – first the quail raising fiasco with my neighbor throughout middle school and in my sophomore year when I served as vice president of marketing for Junior Achievement (where we actually decided on a product, made it, and sold it, not just filling out a workbook, which is what happens today).  I knew about cost effectiveness, the difference between gross and net, the importance of pleasing stockholders as well as keeping worker morale high (all members of JA were paid) among other concepts, although without the terminology.
But there was a simpler way for the teacher to relate economics to all students:  Halloween booty.
While costumes were important, as every child knows, a significant part of Halloween is about candy, not just quantity, but also quality. 
It starts with market research.  This is done the day before Halloween, an informal survey among fellow students.  With a neighborhood school, everyone knew where their classmates lived and most of us were within walking distance.  “What kind of Halloween are you guys giving out?”  Chocolate earned high marks, taffy, low. Pixie sticks and Smarties were flexible depending on one’s taste.   A sufficient number of chocolates warranted adding that street to the route.  There was also some research done on the fly as one group left a house when another approached.  “What are they giving out?”  “BUTTERFINGERS!”  Yes!  Or (sigh) “Neccos.”  Ugh.  Pass.

Business Plan:  Having a plan was key.  How long would trick-or-treating last?  What routes would maximize quantity and quality?  What size of bag would allow for a good take, but not look too greedy not to mention be comfortable to carry with its weighted load.  Plastic pumpkins cut up hands, and we wanted payment to be as painless as possible.
Sales:  For safety (and fun), no one went trick-or-treating alone.  But the number in the group, along with the type of costume needed to be considered.  A large disorganized group allowed for occasional double dipping, but could also result in team members being overlooked.  If costumes were too threatening, the homeowner would want to be done with the transaction quicker.  Small talk or gimmicks (singing or other performance) were worthwhile at places with high value candy. 
The trick-or-treating business did not end once we returned back home. 

Gross Profit:  Candy was counted and sorted.  Any open candy was tossed, naturally. 
Then negotiations began.
Supply and Demand:  Fortunately, my sister and I had differing tastes in candy.   She preferred tart and powdery whereas I preferred chocolate with something (Butterfingers, Krackles, $100,000 Bars) and caramel (Milk Duds, Sugar Daddies, and caramel squares). Some items were an equal exchange -  Bit O’Honey for Pixi Stix.  And then there were the disposables – Specials, Neccos, and 3 Musketeers.  Depending on the trend, there might be more tart than chocolate, potentially giving my sister the advantage.
Pricing:  While tart wasn’t my favorite flavor, was I willing to sacrifice quantity for quality?  Mid-value candy (butterscotch, Jolly Ranchers, plain milk chocolate and lollypops) gave a little more flexibility.  Full size candy bars and Dip Sticks were gold. 
Taxes:  As with the monetary world, a portion of the Halloween booty went to the governing forces.  My dad didn’t have a sweet tooth, but my mother had some favorites.  At the time, since neither my sister nor I liked dark chocolate, all the Specials would go to my mother.  She could have the 3 Musketeers as well.  However, sometimes those didn’t suffice and taxes were raised.  My mother would ask for our Snickers.  My sister didn’t mind, but I liked caramel, so it became an issue of negotiating Mr. Goodbars and Baby Ruths, again decreasing quantity, but increasing quality.
Budgeting:  My mother rarely bought candy and when she did, it was usually a box of See’s.  My sister and I were allowed to keep our candy, eating as much or as little as we pleased whenever we liked (although, there was The Great Disaster when our dachshund found my stash and devoured all but a single Tootsie Roll that bore a piercing the diameter of his tooth).  It was considered a high achievement to still have candy when Thanksgiving arrived, and it never tasted sweeter than when the other sibling had squandered their portion. 

Disposable Goods:  My sister and I got so good at “budgeting,” that some candy turned sticky and gooey before we could finish it.  We learned which candies kept (bubble gum) and which went “bad”(hard candy) and organized our consumption to accommodate expiration dates.
I took economics again in college, dreading the moment.  However, my professor used a variety of illustrations, including a Broadway musical song, to explain terms and concepts.  I didn’t fall asleep and surprisingly, I had the highest grade in the class.  Sweet.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Despite being a native Angeleno, I’m not enthralled with cars or driving. I wasn’t eager to get my driver’s license; I didn’t beg to get a car; I rarely volunteer to drive the carpool, and I don’t know where the drive-thru fast food places are. Because I like to observe, I much prefer public transport, or, better yet, safety and comfy shoes permitting, walking.  While driving, one is required to be vigilant rather than observant, but I tend to slide from the former into the latter, which isn’t safe and I realize that.

It doesn’t matter so much if I’m caught in traffic on the 405.  Being vigilant, I notice the driver to my right is shaving with an electric razor.  But then I observe how he shakes out the razor and start wondering if his car is coated with a fine prickly silver dust of razor stubble and if so, how thick is it?  It’s kind of gross, but how much grosser than, say, dog hair, which isn’t as prickly but probably stinks a little and - -


I dutifully pull up the half car length that appeared during my observation/wonderings.

And then I become aware that the driver to my left is reading a book, and of course I start wondering what kind of book he could be reading.  It must be pretty intriguing since he can’t put it down long enough to drive where he’s going.   At least I’m not reading, and I feel a little better about myself, but he’s so interested in the book that I’m a little jealous.  Maybe he’s reading an assignment, but he’s too old to be a student.  No, that’s stereotyping.  He could be a  - -


I’m careful as I nudge my way forward because the driver in front of me is applying make-up.  She’s curling her eyelashes and I have to wonder if she’s ever been startled and accidentally pinched off her lashes.  Then she applies mascara and I obsess about rear ending her because just a little bump could cause her to jab her eye and I think if I bumped her just a tiny bit, that would teach her a lesson about how dangerous that is.  But then I imagine her eye on a mascara wand looking something like a Halloween Charm Pop and that freaks me out.  What would she do and how would the other drivers around her act, because for sure they’d notice a woman with an “eyeball pop,” wouldn’t they?


My family is aware of my tendencies.  Safety and practicality were always top priority.

The first car I drove was the family’s silver station wagon, a 1968 Chevy Impala.  

“It’s heavy and safe,” my mother declared.

It was a behemoth of steel.  Once, while my sister and I slept soundly in the far back, we awoke to a thump and the sound of breaking glass.  We’d been rear-ended. My father cursed, stomped on the parking brake, and went out to inspect the damage.  It was raining and my sister and I, hands and noses flattened against the back window, strained to see into the watery night. The other car had broken headlights and a drooping front bumper.  My dad grumbled something, got back in the car and we drove off.  The next morning, I hurried out to see the damage to our car, hoping it would enhance the tale of Our Car Crash.  But the effect was lost when I saw that the only damage sustained was the tiny bent step, a palm-sized, rubber topped protrusion.  My sister made the first and only dent in the car 11 years later, when she took out the cement block wall in the high school senior parking lot.

My next car was also “safe and reliable,” a Honda Accord that my parents purchased from a family friend the year before I graduated college. The only thrill about it was that it was a stick shift.  My sister eagerly taught me how to drive it.  Oddly, it was my future husband who had taught her how to drive stick.  I brought the car with me to Baton Rouge, where it was totaled on a rainy day when, ironically, I was rear ended.  However, I had run into the car in front of me first while sharing my observations with my passengers (who weren’t harmed).

My mother made me promise to buy something “safe and reliable.” I did.  I drove that car to Washington, D.C. and then over the Chesapeake Bridge.  My vigilance slipped into the observation and I realized that at some point, between the “bridge” becoming a tunnel, there was water level.  I panicked.  What would happen if a big ship came by, creating a giant wake?  Wouldn’t the tunnels flood?  I pulled over in one of the observation areas, and my then boyfriend took over driving duties while I scanned the bay for giant ships and rolled down the windows, planning to get out of the car before the water in the tunnels peaked.

It wasn’t until I got tenure as a high school teacher, that I decided I would finally get a car that I wanted, one that I might actually enjoy driving.  I saw a convertible 1997 Toyota Celica. My husband slid in next to me and his head scrubbed the ceiling.  I pictured his bald spot getting larger with the chafing.

“If you like it, honey, get it.  It’s your car,” my husband said.

But I was already picturing him driving it.

There was a Mitsubishi Eclipse parked next to the Celica.  We tried that.  My husband’s head cleared. 

“Why would you go do something stupid like buy a convertible?  The roofs tear and leak in the rain,” my dad snorted.

“Because it’s fun,” I said, at least as “fun” as a mode of transportation could be. 

I like the car because it gives me some variety (top up or down?), and it’s pretty.  I thought that having a smaller car would make me more vigilant, but it doesn’t.  My husband was afraid to drive it since we wouldn’t be able to afford the insurance if he got a speeding ticket.  The car doesn’t have many miles on it, considering its age.

When the Eclipse started rattling, my husband said it was time for something new.  I’ve kept the car for 12 years partially because it meant no car payments, but also because I didn’t see what difference a newer car would make.  But he was right.  We needed something that would allow us to transport the dogs.  I’ve never liked SUVs, so that left “cross-overs” or station wagons.  I checked out the Prius V.  It wasn’t stylish but it was reliable and safe.  But the gadgetry concerned me.  Would my exterior observations be drawn into the interior?  Then I saw the gas mileage:  42 miles to the gallon compared to 24.  Sold.

It’s just dawned on me.  I’m back to a silver station wagon.

“Let’s take your car, honey,” my husband said as we prepared for a weekend trip.

“Sure, but you drive,” I said.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Turnabout is Fair Play

Read about Kristina Wojtaszek's inspiration for "Cinder" here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

It's Heeeeeere!

Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales has arrived in the virtual world!  Kindle users click here.   Paperback version gets released tomorrow for all you bibliophiliacs!

Find out if it is "Safe Upon the Shore!"

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Body of Evidence

“You’re a happy eater and a sad eater.  That’s not good.” 
-          A friend

Let me clarify, my friend wasn’t speaking to me, but she could’ve been and in my case she could’ve added “stress-eater,” “celebratory eater,” and gourmande.  Food and I have a love-hate thing.  No, it’s more like food “just isn’t that into me.”  Although, it is way into me, especially around my belly - a good couple of few inches thick at that.  And so, it’s on to The Salad Days.

I hate salad.

O.k., not really.  Plenty of people have witnessed me ordering a salad and eating it with a fair amount of pleasure. There are even some salads that I crave (gasp!) – the salad niçoise at the now gone Left Bank for example or the seafood cobb salad at Marmalade Café (sans bacon).   So, it’s not salad itself that I hate, but what the Salad Days represent: penance, order, rationality.

The irony isn’t lost on me. Perhaps it’s another sign of our times that the very phrase that has historically meant a time of abundance and wild abandonment has come to mean a period of asceticism and temperance.  How is it that fresh and nutritionally rich food is considered a penance?  How is it that I scoff at this permitted unlimited indulgence, which rewards me with better health and appearance?

The penance isn’t so much because I’ve gained weight, although that is a problem since even my “fat clothes” are getting a bit snug.  If I’d over-indulged in martinis and raw oysters, white chocolate macadamia nut cheesecake, Irish mussels, or lobster boils, that would be fine.  I love those foods.  But I can’t remember what I’ve been scarfing down for the past few months, and that for me is the bigger problem.

I’m not a control freak, because if I were, I wouldn’t be in this situation.  And I’m not completely out of control, because if I were my situation wouldn’t matter.  My problem is that I want to be a control freak but it, or rather I, go pear shaped and now I’m trying to run damage control.  Welcome to the mind of a bulimic.

Bulimia isn’t just gorging and purging. Bulimics don’t eat everything anywhere, that would be pica and in the eating disorder hierarchy, people with pica are the bottom rung.  For the record, anorexics are the top wrung, ethereal creatures that have complete control over the basics of life.  They’ve got attitudes.  They mock those of us on the lower rungs. They keep to their delusions.  They don’t waiver between the two worlds.  

Bulimics blur the line of rationality.  They think each step of the process through, but not all at once.  They know the laws of association – that eating certain foods recreates emotional memories.  Like the first puff of a cigarette, the first bite triggers emotional memory, but then it disappears and that pleasure of the first bite is followed by a neutral second, third, fourth, five thousandth bite.  Then it’s time to chase the emotional fulfillment with the next food that has a similar association.  And then the next.

The problem arises when, unlike alcoholic drunkenness, “sobriety” returns instantaneously.  It’s like having the cheesecake goggles ripped off my face, knowing that “magic food” is not the solution to the problem.  Then damage control kicks in:  the purge. There’s actually two kinds of  purges:  the kind to alleviate gastric pressure – which happens while still on a glassy-eyed bender and then the second, which is a pathetic attempt to undo what’s been done – not the consumption of calories so much as an attempt to turn the clock back to rationality.  It’s part of denial.  We don’t want anyone to know that we’re subject to bouts of irrational thinking and we’ll go to great lengths to hide it.

Claims of “chapped hands” explain teeth chaffed knuckles, excessive love of citrus explains acid erosion of gums and teeth.  Mouthwash and perfume hide the scent of vomit, but when barf spatters force a change clothes or worse, the need to wash one’s hair, there is panic.  Showering after a meal and changing clothes raises questions.   People will know about those Lost Hours. “Pure” bulimics (as opposed to anorexic-bulimics) tend to be overweight. The shame of the weight is not so much body image as the fashion magazines and feminists would like us to believe.  Excess weight is seen as the record of how many moments of irrationality we’ve experienced over a period of time.

Several years ago, I thought I’d take the bulimia by the horns.  I realized that no matter how much salad I ate, I could lose weight.  I looked great.  I had more energy.  I started doing things I enjoyed again like writing, dancing, and going to concerts.  With such good memories, I was hoping that salad would become my “go to” comfort food.

It’s not.  Long running habits are difficult to break, especially when my comfort foods factor so strongly in society’s moments of celebration and conviviality.  This only reinforces their emotional connection for me.

I don’t purge anymore. The damage it poses to my health are worse than the shame of irrational food consumption.  Besides, I have many irrational behaviors, so what difference does one more make? 

The Salad Days are here.  It’s time to embrace them.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

Murder most foul... or crustacean, in this case
It’s been a difficult few months.  My husband suffered the brunt of what has happened. I’ve only been support.  So, when my birthday arrived, my husband gave me a look of exhaustion and futility.

“No worries,” I assured him. 

Even so, having a birthday is a perfect excuse for a celebration, an invitation to luxuriate in happiness with those around us.  And we needed to celebrate, not for me, but to remind ourselves that life goes on.

“Hey, I have a crazy idea,” I said, calling him from the downtown parking lot.

 “Uh-huh,” he replied warily, knowing few of my ideas aren’t crazy.

“What if we have lobster for dinner?”

“Lobster?” There’s a hint of despair in his voice and I suspect he’s checking his wallet.

“Not going out,” I assure him.  “What if we cook it?  The live ones at the Asian market weren’t that expensive ….”

There’s a long pause from both of us.  It’s understood.

“O.k.,” he says, tacitly agreeing to the unspeakable.

I go to the market.  The tank is over-crowded, stress inducing, intolerable.  I finger which lobsters will be “freed.”    I carry them to the car and debate whether I should put them in the trunk or the cabin with me.  I opt for the cabin since it has air conditioning but as I drive home, I imagine them tearing their way out, charging me, claws snapping as I swerve into oncoming traffic.

 “Where are they?” my husband asks, lowering his voice and looking around the kitchen after I arrive.

“In the fridge,” I say.

We exchange looks. 

If it were done when t’is done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.

I hurry to my computer to look up how to cook lobster.  I know they should be boiled or steamed.  But, what I’m really looking for isn’t cooking time, but dying time.  When I was a child, my mother bought live crabs from the wharf, thinking it would be cheaper to cook them at home.  I remember the horror of hearing the crabs hit the top of the pot, the lid popping off as they tried to climb out, my mother panicking as my dad cursed and grabbed the crabs, throwing them back into the pot and holding the lid down as they shrieked.  He assured me it was just steam escaping their shells.

The Lobster Institute must encounter many people similar to me, although their responses are a bit elusive.  When asked “Do lobsters feel pain?” they equate their neurological system to that of insects.  A crafty move.  I don’t consider pain when I squash invading spiders or fleas.  But when asked specifically about the “movement of lobsters in a boiling pot,” they say that it is “a reflex action to any sudden stimulus.”   A reflex which continues for over a minute?  While a lobster can’t “process pain,” it can feel it and its reflex action is to get the #$%^ out of the situation.

Boiling appears to be the “fastest” death, although what is done before putting the lobsters into the pot makes all the difference.  “Hypnosis” actually doubles the time it takes for the lobster to die.  Slow heating in salt water also increases the amount of “activity.”  However, chilling the lobsters (putting them on ice or in the freezer) not only delays the reaction to pain, but by the time they feel it, they’re almost dead.

I inform my husband.  He rushes to the freezer and makes space.  We put the lobster into it.  I make martinis.

I prepare the water and set it to boil.  I make a salad; chop up potatoes and corn to add to the pot.  My husband paces, glancing at the pot through the glass lid.

“Is it time?” he asks.

The water is at a rolling boil.


He opens the freezer and rips open the bags.

“Wait,” I say, “let me get the camera.”

He’s appalled.

Out, out, damned spot.  Darn, I think it's butter.
I film him putting in the first lobster and stop filming so that I can put mine in, but before I can do it, he puts the other one in and shuts the lid.  He glances at me, then stares at back at the pot, holding his breath.

There’s not a sound.

He heaves a sigh of relief.

“I have done the deed.”

 All hail, Thane of Concord.

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The Cranky Cow by Kou K. Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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