Creativity, Determination

Piece of Cake

Is there nobility in poverty? That’s probably a stretch. At a minimum there is resourcefulness, and that can look like creativity or innovation. Or something. Please indulge me. If I don’t get to live at leisure, at least I can feel virtuous.
The co-worker whose birthday unluckily follows mine has been subject to my noble projects since we started working together. She will enjoy the delight of yet another DIY disaster tomorrow.
In our office, we take turns celebrating birthdays by each taking responsibility for cake, card, and scheduling for the next person in line. The beautiful, polished team-mate whose January birthday I plan also had the poor luck to draw me as her secret Santa at the holiday exchange. She ended up with a home-made bookmark and a second hand cookbook in December. Now she gets to smile politely at whatever I manage to glom together in my kitchen tonight.
I just can’t abide dropping $20 on the designer cupcakes. How could I possibly justify that to myself given our increased payroll deduction and my impending (inshallah) mortgage payment? Even with the time store-bought pastries would save, I can’t bring myself to do it. I mean, a gal has to spend money on all sorts of things she can’t do herself, like root canals and oil changes (and perhaps she’ll get around to tackling the latter sooner or later), so there is no earthly reason to short the kid’s college fund on something so easy. Baking? Come on. Piece of. . .
Okay. Last year, Beautiful Team-Mate mentioned that she likes plain-Jane yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She is an easy-going Midwestern gal who likes just about everyone and whose smile makes the boys swoon, in no small part because she has no earthly idea of her effect on them. She would never ask for anything fancy, so yellow-with-chocolate she had last year.
So, today on my lunch break, I schlep it over to the supermarket and buy exactly one yellow cake mix (the one with Box Top for Education for Bug’s school, of course. Ten cents right there!) I don’t start on the project until nearly 9:00pm, given bath, bedtime reading, lunch-making, dishwashing, and generally lugging around the weight of the world. When I begin, I realize I have no concept how to proceed. I mean, I want to do something special, right? Something more than yellow-with-chocolate, because. . . Why? I don’t know. Because she’s nice and she deserves a little effort? Because this is my playtime? Because I can?
Because it’s just really fun to learn something new?
While the oven preheats, I poke around the kitchen. All these things I never notice appear in the nooks and crannies, items that go bad or go stale, that we forget we bought in a moment of inspiration. Unopened sour cream. A whole cabinet full of liquor. Powdered sugar, gelatins, puddings and extracts. Nuts, chips, candies and sugars. Oh! And already on the shelf? A yellow cake mix just sitting there. I could have saved $1.29!
I visit a website called Yummly and type in “sour cream cake mix kahlua.” A bunch of recipes pop up. This one for mocha cake is the one I follow. More or less. I mean, who knows why — no one in this house eats pudding or even likes it — but I happen to have a box of chocolate pudding on hand. Not vanilla. Also, coffee crystals seem like a good idea, and anyway, it just play. Glop, glop. An extra egg. Who knew you could just pour alcohol right into the batter? And what’s with the pudding? Crack, whip, scrape. The whole blorp of sour cream. A little extra sugar. A few more chocolate chips? I hope the small ones are little enough not to sink. Beat, fold, pour.
An hour later, the faint aroma of liqueur and scorched chocolate drifts into the upstairs bedrooms. The concoction comes out of the oven looking nothing like mama’s yellow birthday cake. It is crinkled and singed and lop-sided. There is a good chance it won’t make it out in one piece. It actually looks a little tubercular, all wrinkly taupe and sunk in its fluted tube.
On the stove waiting for morning is a double boiler at the ready. Poised nearby are chocolate squares, butter, powdered sugar, and the bottle of kahlua with its lid already loose. Mocha glaze may be a bit ambitious for 6:30 am, but the gal’s got to try to save this poor wretch. Where first aid and a transfusion fail, try chocolate. And a hit on the flask.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a deadline is the ultimate inspiration. If disaster awaits on the other side of the bundt pan, there is always that extra Betty Crocker mix waiting patiently on the pantry shelf. It only takes about 30 minutes in a 9×13 sheet pan, and I can pick up a can of chocolate frosting at the supermarket on my lunch break. I think those go for about $1.49. Beautiful Team-Mate may have her simple, happy cake after all. Even then, I can say, “I made it with my own hands just for you.” Bug’s college fund is safe (for now). I even have an idea of how to use all that old rum and Bailey’s taking up precious space in my dining room.
Tomorrow at 3:00 in the conference room, a dozen of us will get our sugar kick one way or another. I can bask in the glow of my secret treasure, that proud nobility of knowing I swung it all — creativity, learning, play, and even, yes, cake — for the price of a loaf of bread.
A loaf of bread on sale.

Career, Happy Days, Home

Happy 100 Days: 37

Happy News of the Day: The Powers that Be approved the promotion! This was my official first day as Director of PhD Student Services. The real fun begins tomorrow when I cruise the main campus schmoozing with folks in the know about future projects. Onward and upward!
So-So News of the Day: For all his sweet talk, the sexy condo is out of my league. The seller’s broker came back today with word that a $6000 special assessment for new staircases has to be included in the purchase price. The gal who owns it was supposed to have been making monthly payments but has not paid a single penny. The bank will not approve the short sale without the buyer taking on the assessment. That would be me, except that it won’t be me. Also? The condo fees were listed incorrectly. They are actually $117 higher per month than advertised. A chunk of change that size can choke you in a year or three, never mind a few decades.
I would have to live on credit cards and ramen for the next 10 years to afford it. So, today, I bid this dream a sad farewell. Goodbye, bamboo floors! Au revoir, living room dance space! So long, staggering mortgage and second job!
It’s not quite a heartbreak. A little heart-squeeze, perhaps? The regret is mixed with a dollop of sweet relief. It’s nice to be able to imagine a Christmas with gifts again.
I met my agent at another cute little place this afternoon. The price is right and it’s a decent location but the traffic NOISE NOISE NOISE is unbearable. Tomorrow, we head out west again to another property which would require a commute. It is not quite as burdensome as many of the places in my price range, though, and the neighborhood is close to several of Bug’s and my favorite parks, shopping, and rec centers. Also, it is 1140 square feet with fireplace and a fenced back patio. We’re still talking condo-ville in a car-clogged area, so I’ll have to see if the property itself is enough of an oasis to make up for the shark-infested surroundings.
Rain and snow are churning just beyond tonight’s clouds. Once the slop starts to fall tomorrow afternoon, I will have the perfect opportunity to see just how much road-time those two hundred square feet are worth.

Career, Growing Up, Happy Days, Home

Happy 100 Days: 40

Less than 48 hours after making the offer on the condo, fear’s icy hands come to drag me down under the churning surface. A closer look at my budget squeezes the air from my lungs. The Wow of this has become the Ugh. What do you call buyer’s remorse before the purchase? Bidder’s remorse, maybe? If this offer is accepted, I have no earthly idea how I am supposed to make ends meet.
This is supposed to be the happy blog. I know. I will try to write my way there now, because nothing else is working. Thinking is getting me nowhere but further down in the cold dark.
Two and a half years ago when Tee’s job went away, all of our possessions went with it. Four-bedroom house, the shed Tee built for our tools and outdoor gear, furniture, appliances. All the little things a family collects over time had to go away, too: bicycles, books, dishes, linens, lamps, sleds, on and on. You can imagine. We sold tons of stuff on Craigslist. A massive yard sale that brought in $1000.
It was a conflagration. It was as complete as embers and ash.
We moved back to where we had started six years earlier. We rented a storage unit after moving in with my folks but soon realized the rent on the space would far outstrip the cost of the items inside. We emptied it, took several trips to Goodwill, and each tucked away what little bundle of marital debris we could manage in our respective borrowed bedrooms.
I had been out of the workforce raising Bug and being a camp wife in the mountains for five years. This set me back on the job hunt but it did not cripple me. In the wretched economy of 2010, I landed a decent job at an entry-level salary and am thankful for it every day. Even so, my paycheck does not stretch far enough to move Bug and me out of dependence on my parents. In those first panicked months of separation from Tee, I realized that no one was going to fix this for me. If I was going to climb out of my financial hole, I had to do it myself (with ample and very blessed help from the folks, of course. No way around that). Three options seemed to be available to me:

  1. Marry a rich guy
  2. Write a best-selling book
  3. Increase my income at my job

Options 1 and 2 were a bit too risky for my taste. I was fresh out of a marriage to someone whose perception of the world had never been based in a reality I recognized. I needed to place my bets on something that depended less on the whims of others. Sure, I would date (eventually) and sure, I would write (erratically), but I was not yet ready to morph into a Kardashian or JK Rowling.
I am a hard worker, though. I can kick ass when I put my mind to something.
Which is what I have done at my job. It helps that I love it and that working in higher ed is a great way to make a contribution while still drawing in decent benefits. I am pleased to note that 2 1/2 years into my job, I have received two small raises, a promotion, and am being encouraged to take on a greater leadership role at the university. My income has not doubled and it may never, but I have seen my effort and courage rewarded well. This gives me every reason to believe that if I keep on finding ways to grow and improve, new opportunities will present themselves.
It is just a little hard to remember all this when I picture being entirely responsible for mortgage and everything else my son will need to grow up safe and well.
A short sale can take somewhere between 90-120 days to close. This gives me a few months to tighten my belt. I think now about re-accumulating these possessions to make a home, and I see how the expense can sink a person. Tee and I took eight years to build up that foundation. It will take far more than that yard-sale $1000 to begin to re-furnish a life. If I move in the next few months, I will have to come up with stores of money I simply do not have to cover payments my parents’ largesse has helped me avoid. You know, those little things like food in the fridge, heat, and electricity.
I keep running and re-running the numbers in my personal budget. Where else can I shave? The internal chatter has been incessant:

If I bike to the metro every day, I don’t have to pay parking or gas. Can we get by on $200 a month in groceries? What about $150? The gym membership can go, of course. We will have to reel in Christmas and birthdays. No more eating out. I don’t need much in the way of new clothes for the next few years, and I know where to find decent used kid stuff. Shoes for Bug could be a problem. The kid needs a new pair every 6 months!

All of this, to make sure Bug and I have a home. It seems insane to do it. It also seems insane not to. With an interest rate of around 3.5% for 30 years in a high-growth area of the DC metro region, this place can be both a good home and a decent investment for our future.  If I can swing it for a couple of spaghetti-years, I may be able to come up with other creative ways to bring in money.
This is where the happiness warms loose the cold grip of fear.The truth is that I have every tool available to me to make this work.

  • I am already frugal to a fault.
  • My years working in a family homeless shelter taught me about resourcefulness.
  • Camp taught me to be creative with spaces and furnishings.
  • The past two years have shown me the extent of my work ethic, creativity, and willingness to try unconventional approaches.
  • I have such a great circle of supportive friends and family, I know we will never be entirely on our own.
  • Bug and I could share a room for a year and find a roommate. I know graduate students and the condo is near a university.
  • With my free weekends and my own home, I could make progress on writing projects that could bring in extra money.
  • As long as I keep my eyes and heart open, something new will present itself to help me along. It always has, and it always does.
  • A home is not the same as having a baby. It is reversible. If I get a few years into this and can’t make ends meet, I can sell. People sell houses all the time. Someone is selling this one to me.

Just because I am tired and scared today and can’t think of how to make this work does not mean it can’t work. I was tired and scared in 2010. I was blind to a way forward. Somehow, we made it here. Here is a really good place to be.
The  future is growing up and around me. Some of it is within my control. A great deal of it is coming here to meet me. I keep learning the lay of the land and how to move over it. Just keep walking, as they say, and the way will appear.


Happy 100 Days: 71

For two years, the restrictions have been a willful suppression of pleasure. The diet was imposed by uncertainty. Not knowing how long this journey through the desert would be, not knowing how long the provisions would hold out, required strict limitations on expenditure. That control became so second-nature that it barely required thought. It did, however, require a denial of sensation and a refusal to acknowledge desire or even pleasure except in the dark moments.
Today, a small but noticeable shift occurred. I was able to forgo grabbing lunch out not because I wouldn’t let myself, but because I didn’t want it. Same went for parking that 3/4 mile from the metro and crossing the distance on foot. I was excited to walk and to save that $4.50.
For the first time, I know exactly where my spare change is going.
The condos and townhouses I checked out in the past couple days are within my price range (more or less) and at least one looked just about right for Bug and me. In Northern Virginia’s hot real estate market, simply finding places to see is no small chore. I have visited eight homes on the furthest outer reaches of my commute, and that’s all she wrote. Those are the only properties listed. Can you believe it? Only eight two bedroom properties under $220,000 whose condo fees are in the vicinity of manageable are for sale anywhere in two of the largest counties in the state. And only one of those is both affordable and not a roach motel.
It boggles the mind.
At some point, I have to stop letting my memory wander around the lovely four-bedroom cottage on Lake George that Tee, Bug and I inhabited rent-free a little over two years ago. Or the three-bedroom split-level sitting on the hill overlooking Four Mile Creek in the middle of Pike National Forest in Colorado, when our nearest neighbor was a half mile away and we also paid no rent. No, no use picking at the scabs. Camp was a magical, bizarre chapter in my life. It is the past. This is the here and now.
Here, now: the one condo that has captured my attention. I can afford it and still have a little money left to buy a couch sometime in the next five years.
The place is tiny. It sits underneath a larger townhouse in a crowded community. But it is cute and it backs up to a small playground. It has a fireplace and room for a table in the kitchen. A deck just big enough for a grill and two camp chairs. New kitchen appliances. A bedroom each for my boy and me.
I returned to the neighborhood tonight after work. The commute is tough, but it is not as bad as I had feared. Also, it sits on a bus line that feeds my metro stop. So far, so good.
I walked alone through its cul-de-sacs and back lots in the dark. I saw families inside their kitchens eating meals. A couple leaning close on the front steps. Halloween decorations. Harvest wreaths on glass doors. Mums along walkways. I saw a few folks walking dogs, and a few women, like me, strolling alone in the dark even without dogs. I heard only the faintest traffic hum even though rush hour was roaring along one of the busiest arteries in the region just a block and a half away. I saw people driving with care through the neighborhood. I saw tennis courts. A community room. A pool covered for winter within walking distance along back sidewalks.
I saw places Bug could ride his bike. I saw a patch of soil where I could plant my own mums.
I am not sold yet. I have not fallen in love, but that’s no surprise. My romantic capabilities have always been a bit stunted. In matters of the heart and, it appears, the estate, I tend to delay immersion until I have a good handle on depth and currents. I am learning to see the possibilities here, though, and to feel the swell of pride in knowing I could do this on my own.
When I met with the real estate agent, I had my questions printed in bullets and ready to fire. She answered them all, agreeing to send me copies of contract templates and a few other items so I can be ready to rock when it’s time to put an offer down. Places we are seeing are only on the market 4 days, 5, before they are under contract and gone gone gone. One property that was listed Friday was already under contract by this morning. We have to move. It’s exciting, especially for someone like me who wants to read everything and ask every question.
That means I sit on the metro and read. I curl up on the living room couch and read. I have worked my way through three books on first-time home buying, one for condos and townhomes in particular. I understand concepts that were indecipherable even a week ago. Earnest money. Title insurance. Inspection contingency. I am learning what to ask. I was on the phone again with my loan officer today asking for further clarification on how HOA dues and condo fees affect the pre-approval.
So much to define, to absorb, to sort. So much to learn!
I can see that if I do this. . . no, when I do this, my lifestyle is going to look quite different. But before that, first this: a single mom living on an university administrator’s salary can own a home! She is not helpless or stuck. She can provide for herself and her child while also building a life that is sustainable for the long haul. She even may even be able to replace the cabinets one day and pull up that rotting deck and build something sturdier.
That’s why it was so easy to bring my lunch and walk the mile to the metro. It didn’t require an ounce of self-restraint. The pleasure is not in the immediate quenching of a passing thirst. The pleasure is in walking steadily towards the mirage, and watching with shivering disbelief as it moves closer, grows larger, and resolves into clear relief.
Yes, it is an oasis after all. Yes. It is real.


Happy 100 Days: 87

We swipe the last of the paratha across the bottom of the silver dish. This was something new, Chicken Kadai. (“How was it?” “Oh,it was kadai for!”) He pours the final splash of house white from the half carafe into my glass and then his. We are re-visiting a story that he knows but we rarely discuss. As happens when we are liking each other again, he finds a way to phrase the questions no one else would dare ask and I find ways to open doors with my answers. We are not the last to occupy a table in the restaurant. The other couple has only just started their entree, but still, the servers have long since ceased re-filling our water, so we tumble out into the brisk night.
“Your call,” he says. “Someplace for another drink?”
I consider this. It is enticing, 9:30 on a Saturday night. Cars whoosh along the boulevard. Colored lights and warm chatter invite from somewhere just around the bend. I decide to reel in the vision of what comes after this in-between. “No,” I say. “We’ll save a few bucks, like we promised. If we want a drink, we’ll buy a six-pack. Stay in. Finish this conversation under a blanket on the couch.”
“Let’s go.”
In the store, we wheel the cart past the produce, past the bakery. He stops to squeeze a loaf of something dotted with pumpkin seeds. Then, he strokes another with a golden crust. “Like this,” he says, gazing at the gleam under the plastic sheath. “I want to get it like this. With that chewiness, you know?” We adopted a sourdough starter months ago. He is a much better father than I had expected.
I consider the cookies. He asks me if I want a treat, knowing I do.
“Let’s make some,” I say. “You have baking soda, right? Vanilla?” He nods. It has been too long since I have been in his kitchen. I used to know, but then there was the distance. He is out of butter now. He pauses at the beer and I leave him to it, heading on down to the dairy fridge. He is trying to watch his cholesterol, and the array of options is dizzying.
He approaches. “Country Crock?”
“I don’t think you can use it. See?” I point to the side of the margarine. “Not suitable for baking.”
“But that’s the generic. It says it is 48% oil. This one is 39%.”
I hold them up next to each other and try to puzzle through the fine print. “I don’t think a lower oil content is better for baking. I think it’s worse because it is more water. Maybe?”
Then he is holding up butter to compare. I find a butter blend, then two kinds of Smart Balance, one with canola oil and one with olive. We are trying to measure unknown quantities, the saturated fat in this one against the moisture content of that one. We juggle six different tubs. The poor butter sits alone to the side, denied entry but still on display just to advertise its failings. Its truth, its singular purity, is irrelevant in this contest.
“Fuck it,” he says. He dumps all but one of the tubs aside. The survivor lands with a thunk it in the basket.
We wheel out through the deserted produce section, grabbing a bunch of bananas on the way. He stops by the broccoli. “What is this?” He picks up a conical, fractal-studded oddity in sea-foam green. It is clearly brassica, but beyond that, it is a mystery. I believe I knew the name once but can’t call it up. “Romanesco,” he tells me. I realize I was imagining pieces never placed.
“What would someone do with it?”
“I don’t have any idea,” I say.
“Should we buy one and find out?” He digs around, finding the perfect one while I create a bouquet from a leggy artichoke, a rhubarb stalk, a yellow zucchini, and a single loose carrot. I tell him if we ever get married, this is what I want to carry down the aisle.
“You’re beautiful,” he says, laughing. He folds the romanesco into a plastic bag and places it in the cart.
Back at his place, I lose momentum for making cookies. I eat an unsatisfying square of Hershey’s chocolate instead. It is the only sweet in his kitchen, and it is waxy enough to keep me from coming back for seconds. He is made of stronger stuff than I am. Or maybe just different stuff. He opens a beer. We jabber on about important topics soon forgotten while he prepares the proof for tomorrow’s loaf. He realizes he is out of whole wheat flour. I remember that I am supposed to write something happy. I touch his back as he stirs white flour in. He never pours the discolored hootch off. He keeps it all in, everything unknown and alive, claiming “this is what gives it that flavor, you know?”
The sour whang lingers in the kitchen. In a nearby unit, neighbors bark at each other, their teary distress echoing at odd intervals against the balcony. That was us just last week. That was some other us a million years ago.


Happy 100 Days: 98

I have brought my breakfast and lunch to work with me every day for over two years. I have schlepped the giant satchel bursting with my belongings and all this food a nearly a mile each morning to the metro. Except for those blessed days when a friend took pity on my and let me ride shotgun back towards home, I have walked that almost-mile back to my decrepit Saturn each evening. That little car has ferried me into its 13th year, and it is still chugging along. I jury-rigged part of the bumper back on this weekend with wire. The nice fellow at the hardware store also made me two new keys because the old ones were so worn down, they had started falling out of the ignition while I was driving.
I refuse to waste the gas and pay to park on campus when the Commonwealth will pay for my metro expenses. Also, why shell out cash for a spot in the metro garage on this end when my legs work just fine? And this too: give me one good reason to trade in the old beater if she runs well enough to get Bug and me where we need to go. She still gets about 29 miles to the gallon, which isn’t half bad for a pre-hybrid plastic car.
Every day, $5 stays put in the wallet because of all that hoofing it. Every day, $10 is not spent on meals because I haul those clanking Pyrex containers to work. A little here, a little there. A few bucks saved by purchasing the new(ish) dress from the consignment shop instead of Macy’s. A few more saved by not purchasing the dress at all. Pennies in the piggy bank.
Don’t be fooled by my righteous claims. I am far from pure. I have blown more than you would think possible on curry and Red Zinfandel when out with the gals, and I have given over to my share of impulses when Bug is off traveling with his daddy. (Did someone say “spa day”?)
Still. Two years of living off the largesse of the folks, painting my own toenails, and making Halloween costumes by hand has paid off. I knew I was working towards something, but I didn’t know what.
Last night, I decided to pause and ask myself that exact question: What is all this for?
Last night, I decided to stop being scared of the answer.
I have been telling myself it will 2015 before I can afford a place for Bug and me. Rent prices in this area will take your breath away, and the best I can manage on my income might be a small studio in the outer reaches of Fairfax County.
Is this even accurate? From time to time, I skim the rental listings, but have I really considered buying? Now this is a stunning prospect. . .
Because what I want is a place for Bug and me. A little place, just the right size for us and close to his dad. One I can afford on my own. A place to land. A home.
Instead of getting worked up and worried about it, I stayed true to my Contract with Joy. I simply looked this possibility right in the face. What is the first step? Find out what sort of mortgage I can feasibly manage (easy enough with all the online calculators). Second, type in a zip code. Third, watch in wonder as the smorgasbord of listings within my price range appear before me. Fourth, gorge.
So, get this. All that scrimping and penny-pinching? I have actually managed to save enough for a down payment. A decent one. Not quite a 20% one, but within spitting distance of it. And you know what else? Mortgage payments are actually lower than rents on comparable places (duh). This means I can actually afford a two-bedroom condo in the astronomically expensive school district where Bug happens to be enrolled and still have a chunk of my monthly income left over for those little luxuries like groceries and heat. If I look outside his district, I could even afford a real honest-to-goodness townhouse, with a basement and a postage stamp yard and everything.
Who knew? Me! Little ol’ me, actually almost back on my feet!
So, I promise to make this fun. This is good news, not yet another reason to panic. Even though interest rates are at HISTORIC LOWS and housing prices have BOTTOMED OUT and NOW is the time to buy, I am in no hurry. Bug has had enough transitions for about the next three lifetimes, and I still have the pooch to consider, and I only just this week started clocking 7-8 hours of sleep a night after two years of insomnia. Maybe it’s better not to breeze past the lessons about the practices that brought me here: One small choice a day, one packed lunch, one listing, one minor act of courage. Each one accumulates. Pennies in the piggy bank.
Buying a home is a pretty big project. This is what I have heard, anyway. I’ve never done it before, so I’ll just have to find out for myself.