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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Border Crossings: Frugality, Disney, Shopping and other Stuff

It's all about borders and boundaries. To get a grip on your finances, you need to have some idea of what you are spending, even on such necessities as food. But I think boundaries are necessary in another sense as well.

I was thinking about this after reading the post at Get Rich Slowly yesterday about the blogger's paid trip to Disney to see a Disney/T Rowe Price collaboration designed to teach the lessons of personal finance. I wondered--in a comment--if the blogger would (or should) reveal how much his freebies were worth. My comment must have been awfully mild because he did not respond to it (though he did respond to someone who wondered more directly about a conflict of interest). But that potential border crossing--between being an objective blogger who promotes sensible personal finance--and a journalist on a trip made me think of border crossings at Disney more generally.

Disney is FUN. And that's fine. It is also pretty expensive. My family has had only one Disney experience. Years ago, Mr. FS and I delivered papers at a conference in Orlando. We took the children. When the conference was over, we stayed on to go to Disney World, where we saw many of our colleagues. Most of our driving costs were courtesy of our employer. The basic ticket price for a day at the theme park is--I would say--worth it. You get a lot of bang for your buck as far as FUN goes.

What's not worth it are the souvenirs. Food is also ridiculously expensive and you are not allowed to bring anything in. This is not the case at EuroDisney; Europeans would not stand for that. Hotels in Orlando can also be ridiculously cheap. I ran into a colleague who had stuffed 6 or so kids from his blended family into their van. They stayed in a motel a little way out for maybe $60.00 a night. But if you stay on-site as my brother did, you may be spending upwards of $300.00 per night.

What is my point? My point is that you should separate experiences. If Disney is about the park and FUN, then it is not too expensive. Like Jazz Fest (see Mr. FS's post on this), you get a whole day of FUN for your ticket price. If you add in souvenirs, it becomes very expensive. Similarly, and unlike Jazz Fest, it is not a food experience. The food is mediocre to bad at all levels. So we ate at the lowest level we could get away with--and as little as possible. We bought no souvenirs. So we had the FUN, but did not "border cross" to food and shopping.

Similarly, I think the T Rowe Price/Disney collaboration border crosses as well, mixing financial education and FUN. As I said in my comment on GRS, this reminds me of companies that sell overpriced items saying that a percentage will be donated to a worthy cause. Border crossing: tee shirts and charity. You could probably send more to charity if you bought the tee shirt and sent your own contribution to your charity. Having a personal finance "game" at Disney strikes me as trying to go left and right at the same time; they are contradictory activities, sending, I think, a mixed message. In fact, some of the comments at GRS and elsewhere spoke about how cool a piggy bank souvenir would be. Why not buy your piggy bank at the Dollar Store?

Indeed, a frugal tip for Disney goers would be to head over to the nearest thrift store. There you will find zillions of Disney tee shirts, pajamas, sweatshirts--even sweaters in adult sizes. All emblazoned with Disney characters. Many seemingly unworn. My sister-in-law, noticing all the Hawaii-themed tees at a local thrift, decided to buy her souvenirs BEFORE the family trip to Hawaii. There's even more Disney merchandise than Hawaii merchandise.

I really believe that you get the most out of experiences when you respect the boundaries. When we go out to eat, we try to go where the food is good. That would be New Orleans (including Jazz Fest)--or Paris--or Montreal. Not Disney. When I want to shop, I prefer Banana Republic (on sale!) to the Disney Store.

I suppose it is to the advantage of Disney and other marketers to try to make us cross the borders--or even not to notice that there are borders. To promote the souvenirs et al as PART of the Disney experience is to border cross and leave prudent personal finance behind. It is related to the bundled packages (internet, cable, phone, cell phone) that are so financially tangled that not even Consumer Reports can figure out what plan is a good deal.

Edmund Andrews Encore: The Last on Busted, I Hope

Why does this guy still stick in my craw? After a flurry of news--both in mainstream media and on blogs--interest seems to have subsided. Why do I check the reviews of his book on Amazon every day? I think I figured out the source of my extreme irritation with him. Read on, if you are interested.

First, in case you don't know who this fellow is: Andrews had a piece in the New York Times with a neat twist: he was an informed economics writer for the paper of record and in dire financial straits owing to a mortgage that ate up most of his take-home pay. He presented himself as responsible for his folly--and then excused himself because he did it for "the love of [his] life." Somewhat contradictorily, he also presented himself as a victim of lenders gone wild. No links to Andrews: he's gotten enough publicity.

Then, Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, busted him in her blog. It turned out that his new wife had declared bankruptcy twice, the second time after they were married. Most unsavory was the revelation that her second bankruptcy involved wiping out a $29,000 loan from her sister.

So at first I thought my irritation with this guy came from his omission of relevant information that pretty much ruined his narrative. Then, when the responses from the mainstream media started coming out, my irritation increased.The New York Times presented Andrews as a victim of a scary blogger; NPR presented him as a nice guy with an oopsie. Now I know the blogosphere can be a nasty place, but all this reminded me of the vain efforts of the power structure to control new media back in the sixteenth century. Ye olde (then the relatively new) printing press was making it difficult for the power structure to control information. Flash forward to the English Revolution! I was really put off by the circling of the wagons around Andrews; cronyism ("I'll promote your book if you promote mine") trumped ethics, in my opinion. (No links to all this either; you're probably sick of all this too, if you were ever interested.)

And now for my finale: the source of my irritation. I figured it out! The book just came out. In it, Andrews presents himself as now having not paid his mortgage for 8 months. He claims he is waiting to hear from the lender about terms.

Uhhhh. Didn't he get his book contract a few years ago? Presumably. That would mean that his desire to present a narrative of victimhood shaped his behavior. This makes me question the choices he chronicles in the book, since he was writing about them as he made them!

I also find it interesting that his advance (he mentioned $30,000, not sure if that is the whole thing or just a portion) is about the amount he owes on his mortgage AND is almost the exact amount that his wife borrowed from her sister (which has been excused by the bankruptcy filing). So he has two good places to put that advance.

Thanks for reading, folks. Does anyone have anything to add or should I just give it a rest?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How to Make Country French Bread

Wait till you see this, folks. Frugal Son has spent the last few days putting together a video featuring the bread making prowess of Mr. Frugal Scholar. Mr. FS has been baking this bread for about thirty years. Perhaps in other posts I will tell some of the many bread anecdotes we have accumulated over the years. The original recipe came from Bernard Clayton's The Breads of France. It is modeled on the famous Poilane bread of Paris. However, I think M. Poilane would be shocked to see powdered milk in the sourdough starter.

Right now, let me link this to the ostensible topic of this blog: frugality. Bonnie McCullough, who wrote a wonderful book on organizing that includes a section on finances, remarks that baking bread will save a family at least $1.00 per day per family member on food. This is not because of the money you save on the bread. This is because when you eat good bread, you're not eating other stuff.

A note from Frugal Son:

Having grown up with my dad's bread readily and constantly available, I think it was easy for me to take it for granted and even occasionally wish we could have Bunny Bread like a normal family. I was always surprised and slightly amused by my friends' reactions to the bread. They would scarf down as much as they could get their hands on. Once I even paid a friend to take care of my sister's bird in loaves of bread! My bread renaissance came about after I left home at 16 to go to my beloved residential high school. While the school offered many things, delicious bread was not one of them. Maybe I was being punished by some Bread Deity for all my youthful Bunny Bread desires. Upon returning home I understood how my friends felt and I could not keep my hands off the bread. I even enjoyed eating it plain, something which I would never have done before.

This bread is as versatile as it is tasty. A toasted slice rubbed with raw garlic and adorned with freshly ground pepper and a pinch of salt makes a delicious snack which we have creatively named "Spicy Bread." Rubbing a slice with butter and a drizzle of honey makes a perfect late night sweet treat. Or you can simply use it as an accompaniment to your eggs at breakfast or soup for dinner. Try out the recipe--which is a lot less intimidating in real life than it looks on paper--and see if you fall in loave with this bread (sorry I couldn't resist).

The bread recipe can be found here.

Baking Bread: The Frugal Scholar Blog from SLF on Vimeo.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day: The Lay of the Last Survivor

On Saturday, we went to Miss Em's graduation. We will spare you the video of the graduation speech delivered by our own Miss Em. Sunday, we recovered from the long drive. Today, I was planning to write yet once more on the Edmund Andrews saga, which gets curious-er and curious-er. Then I remembered that it is Memorial Day. Today, if any day, we should count our blessings and remember.

Even though I don't teach too much "war literature," I am lucky enough to have repeatedly taught two of the greatest masterpieces of the genre: The Iliad and Beowulf. Both poems are about mortality and the meaning of life. Both are also about memory.

Below is a brief excerpt from Beowulf (translation by Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, 2002). Like most poems that purportedly glorify war, this is also an anti-war poem. Beowulf explores the threats to peace that come both from without us and from within us. This poignant moment is a flashback. A nameless man laments the death of his community as he buries their treasures.

Hold now, Earth what men may not,
the hoard of the heroes, earth-gotten wealth
when it first was won. War-death has felled them,
An evil befalling each of my people.
The long-house is mirthless when men are lifeless.
I have none to wear sword, none to bear wine
or polish the precious vessels and plates.
Gone are the brothers who braved many battles.
From the hard helmet the hand-wrought gilding
drops in the dust. Asleep are the smiths
who knew how to burnish the war-chief's mask
or mend the mail-shirts mangled in battle.
Shields and mail-shirts molder with warriors
and follow no foes to faraway fields.
No harp rejoices to herald the heroes,
no hand-fed hawk swoops through the hall,
no stallion stamps in the keep's courtyard.
Death has undone many kindreds of men.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Jazzfest and Free-fest

By Mr. FS

Jazzfest (a.k.a The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) is, in my opinion, the single most important event of the year in New Orleans, eclipsing even Mardi Gras. Jazzfest has it all—food, music, arts and crafts, parades, people o all ages dancing like crazy. Also heat and sometimes rain, although this year was an exception in both cases (highs in the low 80s; no rain to speak of).

But is it worth it? People complain mightily about the cost of tickets--$50 at the gate, ort $40 (plus $3 handling fee) if you get them early from the box office. This year was the 40th Jazzfest, and I heard a lot of festgoers reminiscing about when the tickets were $10 (or less). Of course, the first Jazzfest, which took place in Congo Square (rather than on the fairgrounds, its current venue), only had a couple of stages, while now there are 12, and on a typical day you can hear 70+ performances (theoretically, that is, although you’d spend most of your time running from stage to stage). That means that you get a lot for the price of a ticket.

For example, here’s my Thursday, April 30 itinerary. (I went by myself, so I could move quickly; it's harder to cover as much territory in a group.) I got there right when the gates opened at 11:00, and after a peep into the Gospel tent went to hear Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone in the blues tent. Then Corey Ledet and his Zydeco Band at the Fais Do Do stage, then the Honey Island Swamp Band at the Gentilly stage, then Rumba Buena at Congo Square, back to Fais Do Do for a bit of Sonny Bourg and the Bayou Blues Band, then to the Acura stage for Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes; back to Fais Do Do for the Creole Zydeco Farmers then over to the Gentilly stage for Theresa Andersson, back to Congo square for the New Birth Brass Band, then to Acura for The Meter Men (Leo, Zig, and George), then to the Jazz tent for George Wein and the Newport All-Stars featuring Howard Allen, Anat Cohen, Randy Brecker, Lew Tebackin, Jimmy Cobb, and Esperanza Spalding, then to the Gentilly stage for a bit of Emmylou Harris, then to Fais Do Do for a bit of Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys, and finally to Congo Square for Solomon Burke. I’d say that’s worth the price of admission (at $43 this works out to about $3 a performance).

However, the music to Frugal Son’s crawfish peeling instructional video (the great Dirty Dozen Brass Band) got me to thinking that one of the best aspects of Jazzfest is absolutely free. This is the street scene when the Fest lets out, and particularly the To Be Continued Brass Band, which usually plays on Gentilly just outside the gate. We first heard them a couple of years before Katrina, when the band members must have still been in junior high school, and they’ve played every year in the same spot. They even played Jazzfest last year, on the Jazz and Heritage stage.

So now that Frugal Son has shown us how to post clips, I thought I’d give you some samples of this Free-Fest. I wish the clips were better quality, but they’ll give you an idea of what it’s all about. At the end of the clip you will see a couple of kids on the opposite corner who are just starting out in the world of New Orleans brass bands--just like the To Be Continued six or seven years ago.

To Be Continued Brass Band from SLF on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Conversation: Mandatory, Discretionary, Frivolous

My title comes from the New Yorker article that many have written about: The Death of Kings by Nick Paumgarten. Paumgarten's title is from Shakespeare's Richard II and is quoted by an English major turned master of Wall Street when he is fired. He also thinks of a story by Kakfa. So is endorsed the theory--long espoused by teachers of the humanities, and college loan officers at fancy liberal arts institutions--that college is a good investment and that liberal arts degrees are intrinsically enriching to the recipient. (In spite of my snide tone, I do still share those sentiments.)

I found the tone of this article quite portentous. There was also a strange cast of characters, most notably a seriously ill market "divvy" (the term is from those Jonathan Gash novels, in which a "divvy just has a feel for what is an authentic antique and what not).

So, the essay was rather rough going for me, as I felt mired in the portentousness. But there was some excellent personal finance advice. Michael Cembalest, chief investment office at J.P Morgan, wrote, in an internal memo I'd love to see (google search being in vain) on "the Conversation."

The conversation can take place between a husband and a wife, or a parent and a child. Its subject is affordability; its only requirement is honesty, and rudimentary math. In some cases, the Conversation, or the underlying reality, can lead to estrangement or divorce; an absence of money will expose differences in values and taste.

Cembalist divided [his expenses] into the categories "mandatory" (mortgage, taxes, transportation), "discretionary" (distilled spirits, gym memberships) and "frivolous" (electronics, jewelry, art works). He then outlined some of his decisions: "cheaper booze, cheaper jewelry," and so on.

The useful nugget here is the third category: frivolous. I think this is a useful addition to the usual dyad of "needs" vs. "wants." So under "need" (or "want") may be college education. But the third category enables us to say that private school tuition might be frivolous for our income. Under"want" might be vacation, but we can decide whether to go to Montreal (reasonably priced for us, since we go to New England every summer and Montreal is a short drive) or Antarctica (kind of expensive!).

This also provides a better way to distinguish between "good" and "bad" debt. The usual suspects for good debt are housing and education. I hardly need to point out that some versions of these can be "frivolous."

So I guess that the now-notorious Edmund Andrews had that Conversation with the spouse. How much better to have it before you get married!

As Nick Paumgarten notes, "The numbers do not lie or flatter."

On a frivolous note, dear Readers, what frivolities do you partake of? And which ones do you look forward to?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cheap Chic: Garbage Couture

Another post whereby Frugal Scholar mooches off her kids. This time, the mooch is via the Divine Miss Em, whose talents are numerous. Miss Em is a senior in high school. Those who have been followers for a while may recall that she goes to a wonderful state-supported magnet school, the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. This is a residential high school, located on a college campus. It is available to all who qualify for the sum of $700.00 a year for room and board. What a gift for my children!

We received a recent email full of news about the senior class activities, including the Senior Breakfast. The theme this year was garbage. So all the girls made dresses out of garbage bags. Would I be too doting-mama to say that Miss Em won the Best Dressed Award?

There is so much here to emulate: pick a theme that will lead to frugal fun. Their prom had an India theme. So Miss Em borrowed a sari, bought some cheap Indian jewels via a website, and--being artsy--painted henna designs on many hands. This was perhaps a $20.00 prom. I read a blogpost on conscientious spending, where another proud mama noted that her daughter stuck to a $300.00 prom budget, which was a far cry from the over $1000.00 average. Well, I think we can do even better than that!

Similarly, the Senior Breakfast could have had a country club theme or such. But no--the kids thought of something creative and frugal.

So below we have an excerpt from Miss Em's email and some pics from the festivities. I have no idea what the guys wore. The pics show what I have always thought: the important thing for the girls is getting dressed up with your friends.

What is Senior Breakfast, you ask? Well let me tell you! It's an LSMSA tradition where the night before "Dead Day" (Dead Day is the day before exams start, where there's no class and dead silence because all the students are studying themselves to death) we have a late-night breakfast. As in, it starts at midnight and ends around 1AM. We are served breakfast and hang out with our classmates and we dress up in accordance with the theme. This year, the theme was trash-bag formal. You make formal attire out of trash bags, duct tape, any "trash" you can think of. Being a crafty girl, I worked super hard on my costume. I made it entirely from trash bags. It was a floor-length gown with ruching and layers. I must admit, it was very impressive by the time I was done with it. I made it ball-gown-big at the bottom by blowing up garbage bags with air, tying them off, and putting them underneath the dress. I'll attach a picture of it. I think you'll be impressed. It was also fun to spend so many hours on the dress, wear it, and then literally rip it off my body. Wheee! I also made accessories out of duct tape. Duct tape earrings and headbands and even a bracelet and a ring.

Although the pictures may have a girls gone wild vibe, let me assure you, this is a studious and accomplished bunch. Indeed, I am sure they will all do well in college, and, thereafter, will rule the world.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Frugal Son Peels Crawfish and Cooks: Videoblog

Wow! Readers, you are in for a treat. Once again, I am an overproud mom in spite of myself. Frugal Son has created the first videoblog for us. He is showing how to peel crawfish. What has this to do with frugality? Well, Mr. FS and Frugal Son went to a crawfish boil (I stayed home--by choice). There were lots of leftovers to be taken home. Frugal Son had the idea of combining the crawfish meat with some ratatouille that we froze last summer. Mr. FS and I are having difficulty consuming all the frozen eggplant we have, not to mention the greens that we have outside. Luckily, Frugal Son has returned from college with his big appetite. He also has a good sense of improvisational cooking. He ate the concoction with some bread: it was delicious. Enjoy the video and the music by New Orleans' legends, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Crawfish Video for Blog from SLF on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Edmund Andrews Part 2

OK, I know I said I wouldn't read any more about Edmund Andrews, the NYT writer who just published a book on his own sub-prime mortgage. But you can't get away from this guy! Now he's been featured on All Things Considered. He's certainly getting a lot of free publicity. If you're looking for some good writing on finance, I'd suggest you check some of the writers on my blogroll, all of whom share one thing that Mr. Andrews does not have: a sense of responsibility. Here is Mr. Andrews on NPR:

"That said, I really don't think I need to apologize for my mistakes because the country was in a situation at that moment where the whole financial system was enticing and enabling and encouraging everybody to borrow as much as they could," he says. "And the decisions that were made at the lender level and the Wall Street level were far more cynical and reckless than anything an individual consumer could have done."

There has been so much venom directed at the poor, working or otherwise, for succumbing to the lure of these loans. I've seen similar "tough love" applied to college freshman who get into credit card debt, enticed by the offer of a free tee shirt. And college graduates, who profess to be surprised by the size of their monthly payments, are met with "Duh. You signed on the dotted line." Let's have a heart for these people, who do not have the advantages of the Mr. Andrews with his access to the media publicity machine.

And, while we're at it, let me give you some lines from the literary character who never accepts responsibility for his actions. (Actually, he does for a brief moment or two, but then relapses). That character is Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost. Here's one of my fave moments, where Satan places the blame for his rebellion on God!

But he who reigns
Monarch in Heav’n, till then as one secure
Sat on his Throne, upheld by old repute,
Consent or custome, and his Regal State
Put forth at full, but still his strength conceal’d,
Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall.

What think you, Readers, of the Blame Game?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Finance Writer: Heal Thyself, with some Trollope

Has everyone seen this? A New York Times finance writer has a piece on how he got sucked into the subprime mortgage mess. This is part of a forthcoming book. Lucky writer: he can get plenty of publicity for his forthcoming volume.

You can read the article yourself. I blasted through it last night. I cannot read it again. This is why. As I read, I began to have all sorts of physical symptoms: dizziness, shortness of breath, constricted feeling in the chest. Hmmmm. All the signs of a heart attack???

I had a similar set of symptoms as I read a volume of Trollope last summer. My father-in-law gave me a complete hardcover set of the Chronicles of Barset. What a pleasure! How had I missed these all my life? The perfect level book for my summer reading and to have six of them was a pleasure beyond the norm.

Anyway, the book that set off the feelings of a heart attack was Framley Parsonage. Here is the Amazon summary.

Mark Robarts is a clergyman with ambitions beyond his small country parish of Framley. In a naive attempt to mix in influential circles, he agrees to guarantee a bill for a large sum of money for the disreputable local Member of Parliament, while being helped in his career in the Church by the same hand. But the unscrupulous politician reneges on his financial obligations, and Mark must face the consequences this debt may bring to his family. One of Trollope's most enduringly popular novels since it appeared in 1860, Framley Parsonage is an evocative depiction of country life in nineteenth-century England, told with great compassion and acute insight into human nature.

From the second Mark Robarts guarantees that debt, you can see what is coming. Ditto for the New York Times writer.

I remarked a few posts ago that I seem to be frugal by chance (that is, nature), rather than by choice. My physical response to stories of debt--one of which is, let us remember, fictional--suggests why I am so debt-averse. If I get into debt, I will surely die of a heart attack. I should not receive any plaudits for paying off our mortgage early. Once again, dear Readers, it is my nature.

Dear Readers, any good summer reads for me? With a financial focus or not, I'm always looking.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eames Chairs: A Frugal Gift

For those who know what an Eames chair is, the above title may seem baffling. Icons of mid-century modern design themselves, Rae and Charles Eames designed chairs and other items that are icons of mid-century modern design. Iconic rarely comes cheap.

My parents married in 1953 and craved mid-century modern, though I suppose it was just called modern at the time. Most desired was the iconic Eames lounge chair and ottoman, which now costs $3699.00.

My parents, with children born in (oops!) 1954 and (oops!) 1955, were in no position to buy much of anything for many years. My father was in graduate school and worked at Macy's at night. My mother struggled with two children.

At some point, they acquired a set of four of what was--and perhaps still is--the cheapest Eames chair:
Today these cost $449.00. Mr. FS and I now have these, awaiting a replacement of a small worn-out gasket. Obviously, these were a good buy, and, if you intend to get 40+ years of service out of them as my parents did, they still are.

As I said, my parents REALLY wanted the lounge chair and ottoman. I once bought my parents a book on Eames design from the Museum of Modern Art Gift Shop, when, as an art-besotted teenager, I would take a long train trip and visit museums several times a month. But, except for that tome and the 4 chairs, my parents did not succumb to their desire for Eames. And, of course, with each passing year, the chair got more and more expensive.

Duchesse rightly mentioned in a comment that families have different gift-giving protocols. My parents never gave each other gifts. I had a very close friend whose mother left strategically-placed clippings all over the house, with her desired items circled. I asked my mother why she and my father never exchanged gifts. She said that if she really wanted something, she would get it. She also said that she and my father didn't need to show they loved each other by giving gifts on designated days. My friend's parents, who had a marriage made in Hell, divorced as soon as their children finished high school. With just two examples, I cannot claim that gift-giving or not-gift-giving correlates to happiness in marriage.

After 25 years of marriage, my parents decided it was time to celebrate and get the lounge chair. But they had a small tiff. My mother wanted to buy one for my father. My father wanted to buy one for my mother. What to do? Each bought one for the other. Those chairs proved to be frugal purchases, going on 30 years now.

I know this sounds suspiciously like that O. Henry chestnut The Gift of the Magi.But it is, I promise, true.

So dear Readers: Do you have any examples of seemingly over-the-top purchases that have given so much pleasure and/or use that they are frugal? Please share!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What is a Writer? Some Questions for You, My Readers

So, off-topic. I'm supposed to be writing about frugality, which, in my definition, is a very expansive topic. But this is over the edge even of my concept.

Interestingly, Duchesse wrote on this very topic today. So see my list of blogs to your right; she is Passage des Perles.

Is this writing? And, if so, how does it "count"? I am a teacher and thus have a toe in the academic world, including the world of academic writing. Yesterday, I had my yearly evaluation with the wonderful DH (who is my Department Head, and not, obviously, my Dear Husband. Such nepotism would truly be over-the-top.) Luckily, I had a small print publication last year in an academic journal. I also gave a paper at an academic conference. And I participated in a workshop in California on faculty development and did some faculty development stuff here. So I got a high score in "professional activities."

On my way out, I said, "If my blog gets 300 readers a day, can that count as a professional activity?" He chuckled in an avuncular way, even though he is only four months my senior. A similar chuckle was emitted by an old friend from graduate school, who, luckily, teaches here with me and is, owing to our shared past, TOTALLY TRUSTWORTHY. Interestingly, these two fellows are working with the newer modes of publication. Indeed, they just got an $85,000.00 grant to explore both traditional print-based and newer electronic forms of publication.

I persisted with DH, saying "Why not?" He said, "It's not on poetry." I said, "Well, sometimes it is." "Plus," I added, "it's that new genre, what do you call it." DH said, "Creative non-fiction." Yes! That's it! Or is it?

What think you, my Dear Readers (though not 300 per day, I don't think). Is this writing?

Posted from my office. It's OK. I got here early. I'm giving some finals later. This is the first post written at my office computer. Does that make it professional activity?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Diet for a Small Planet and Food Prices

Warning: This will be a short, rushed, and probably subpar post. I have so much work to do.

Many frugal types write about saving money on food. There are various strategies for this: stockpiling, couponing, eating lower-priced items, and more. I have written about this topic myself. Then along comes Duchesse, who wondered why all the press on saving money on food? She mentioned that her husband comes from a French tradition, with its deeply-rooted attitudes towards living and eating well. I wrote something along these lines a while ago too, when I remarked that Louisiana residents seem to spend on food in the European tradition. Of course, Louisiana comes from a deeply-rooted French tradition as well.

Speaking of rooting: I was rooting around my pantry, where I store the excess of my excess cookbooks. I was looking for some books for Frugal Son, especially Jacques Pepin's La Technique. Amazingly, I found it.

I also found a bedraggled copy of Diet for a Small Planet. A blast from the past! Is there anyone who didn't own a copy of this book and dream of saving the world from hunger by combining proteins?

I flipped through the book and only saw one recipe I remember making: Lentils Monastery. This is a regular old lentil soup with a little sherry in it. The sherry must be the monastery part.

Now, what has this to do with food prices? Well, in an appendix, there is a list of foods under the heading "Cost of One Day's Protein." Now I don't know if the prices are circa 1971 when the book was first published, or circa 1982, when the "revised and updated" version came out. But I now see why I've always suspected that I spend about the same on food as in years gone by.

Let's say the prices are circa 1982. In 1982, I was in graduate school, teaching 3 sections of freshman composition per year for the princely stipend of $300.00/month. One year, we got a $100.00 raise. We foolishly thought this meant $100.00 a month, because students at other schools got this much. But no, it was a $10.00 per month raise. I digress.

Here are some of the food prices Lappe lists, with recent prices in parentheses:

Eggs: 93 cents (99 cents to $1.99)
Milk: 42 cents/quart ($1.00)
Cheddar cheese: $2.90/lb ($5.00 for yummy Cabot)
Black beans: 69 cents/lb (99 cents)
Peanuts: $1.98/lb (the same!)
Chicken breast on the bone: $1.69/lb (I got some for under $1.00!)

Hmmmmm. Food for thought. Maybe farming methods are producing cheaper food, but of lower quality. Certainly, my current income is more than ten times my graduate student stipend (thank God!); my food costs are not that different.

So Dear Readers, I will not be back on track for a while. I am trying to persuade Frugal Son to write a post or two. I will return as possible.

And, of course, a question: what do you think of these numbers?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Limits of Frugality

A miserable week ahead of exams and grading. But . . .what is this??? Another post from Mr. FS! Thanks so much.

Sorry I have not been responding to your many great comments. Will catch up ASAP, Dear Readers.

By Mr. FS

My faith in humanity was boosted by the compassionate and tolerant response to the recent revelation that I wear my gardening pants for weeks and months between launderings. I will freely admit that frugality is not my only motivation for this practice; I enjoy the connection between myself (or my clothing) and my garden that becomes apparent, over the course of passing weeks, as we come more and more to resemble each other. However, there are some people who are truly frugal-crazy, and I use them sort of like meteorologists use marks on a bridge to calculate flood stage. If I approach their level there’s trouble a-brewing.

Our neighbor (our only neighbor for a few years) in Oregon belonged in this class of true frugal fanatics. Ed Lester had retired at 55 and moved into a one bedroom log cabin at the end of the unpaved road nearest our property. He was quite a character, a real pack rat who had managed to fill up a good deal of the cleared area around his cabin, along with two old trailers, with what he fondly called his “junk,” much of which actually came in quite useful over the years, both to him and to us. Country people learn not to throw anything out. If you have five broken chain saws, you can probably scavenge enough to make a single working one. He lived there with his new wife. He’d met her in the “city,” and I’m not sure quite sure she knew what to make of him.

One day I dropped by and found their small living room draped with pieces of drying plastic wrap. Ed just couldn’t let them go. I tried to convince him that the energy it cost to pump the wash water (they had a well with an electric pump), not to mention to heat the water, was more than the cost of the plastic. But it wasn’t any use. This was in the early seventies, and maybe plastic seemed more valuable then than it does today.

It’s hard, however, to decide what’s crazy and what’s not, especially when you have to evaluate your own decisions. Am I crazy to re-use sour cream containers to make yoghurt? I don’t think so. And when they break, am I crazy to cut them into strips to use as markers for my seedlings? No! On the other hand, in a way I’m channeling Ed Lester when I wash out those fine and perfectly serviceable ziplock freezer bags. I’m not sure I can justify this, but I wouldn’t sleep well if I threw them out. I suppose I should listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” Of course Emerson also said, when asked how he knew that his impulses were from above rather than below, that “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." If the devil is tempting me to wash my ziplock freezer bags, then I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

It’s a delicate balancing act, however, and assertions of self-reliance don’t help keep one’s frugal impulses in perspective. So I wonder: where do you draw the line? Is there some frugal act you’re convinced is rational while others think is the sign of approaching dementia?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Clerodendrum Speciossisimum: the Frugal Gardener’s Pal

A double gift for me from Mr. FS: a post and something floral. Thanks so much. Just what I wanted.

By Mr. FS

I grew up in Pasadena California, which, as you can imagine, has a very different climate than Louisiana. For one thing, here we get about 60 inches of rain a year; Pasadena got about 20 in a good year. But when we moved to Louisiana I hadn’t done much gardening, and for the first few years I’d order plants from catalogs, choosing whatever looked best or sounded most interesting. Zones? I ignored them. I don’t think any of these plants survived for more than one season.

Now I have a different and much simpler philosophy: if it doesn’t both grow and reproduce with minimal care it doesn’t belong in my garden. Zones can be a rough guideline to survival, but there are so many “microclimates” that even this isn’t sure fire. The easiest way to decide what thrives is to look around at local gardens, especially ones that are a bit “wild.”

Let me introduce you to my favorite plant. I’ve never seen it offered in a nursery around here, but it’s spectacularly prolific and over the years has brought at least a score (an underestimate) of questions and comments from passers-by. This plant grew in one neglected spot near the fence of a neighbor’s yard, and I’d always much admired its large tropical heart-shaped leaves and huge panicles of red flowers that lasted literally for months. One day I snipped some cuttings overhanging the sidewalk and got them to root without too much difficulty.

And that was the beginning of a long and satisfying relationship with clerodendrum speciossimum (or clerodendrum paniculatum), AKA: giant salvia, pagoda flower, java shrub, Javanese glorybower. It was actually a year or so before I found a description of it in Charlotte Seidenberg’s The New Orleans Garden and could finally give my new best friend a name. (Seidenberg mentions she first saw the plant in an old garden in my home town of Covington.) This plant is nearly impervious to pests (and we have plenty down here), reproduces from seed and root (and even fragments of roots), and grows in sun and shade. If I’m working in the garden and some passerby begins “I just wanted to know what that plant . . . .” I don’t have to wait for the end of the sentence. It’s the clerodendrum. Over the years I’ve given away dozens of plants and roots.

So a frugal person’s garden is inexpensive to start, inexpensive to expand, and inexpensive to maintain, although this is a lesson I had to learn by wasting money on plants that didn’t grow. And the best way to meet these requirements is to let your garden be itself and to say goodbye to exotic flora. You and your garden will be much happier. What is your favorite plant?

By the way (Dear Readers, as Ms FS would say), does anyone know how far north the clerodendrum speciossimum thrives? I haven’t seen it in many other gardens, even around here. That’s a real mystery to me, especially since the plant evokes such passionate interest from everyone who sees it. The websites I’ve looked at say it doesn’t do well above zone 9, but we’re zone 8, and it does fabulously well (and apparently flourishes as a house plant as well--I’ll have to try that.) It’s true that it dies back in the winter, but always comes back from the root, and is indeed a bit invasive, though easy to keep under control. The photo (taken May 1st)is of the first plant to flower; it grows right against the south side of the house and so gets lots of sun and heat.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mother's Day Gifts for Me

Now that I have come out with the confession that I am frugal by chance, I can divulge my true desire for Mother's Day. NOTHING that takes up physical space. No, I don't want jewelry. I love wearing some pieces that belonged to my Grandmother Emma (1901-1983)and Great-Aunt Fritzi (1895-1967), now gone for many years (and tears come to my eyes as I think of them, even now). But if I didn't want an engagement ring (see yesterday's post; now that I think of it, I never was engaged), I certainly don't want anything now.

Oh, but what about all those "days of pampering" at the spa that are recommended in all media? Ugh. Sounds gruesome. Years ago, one of my colleagues opted for very early retirement. He got a certification in massage therapy. As part of his training, he had to offered a bunch of pro bono massages, which he made available to friends and colleagues. Mr. FS took advantage, but, as for me, ugh encore.

It's not just Mother's Day. I don't really like presents in general. OK, I lied. I've received two good presents. One was an envelope with cash in it and the phone number of a nice salon: "For your haircut" said the note. I started to cry. I was so happy! I had been putting off a haircut and my family chipped in for this.

Another was a bottle of perfume that my children bought for me at my favorite liquidation store. It was a bottle of Dolce and Gabbana Sicily. I had bought Miss Em a bottle of Marc Jacobs Blush and had sniffed the Sicily and said that I might buy some for myself later. Because this was liquidation from a verrrryyyy famous cosmetics emporium, it was only $15.00! Since I am frugal by chance, I don't like others to spend a lot of money, even if it is for me.

Now Miss Em gives me haircuts and I still have half a bottle of the perfume.

I hope my children wish me a Happy Mother's Day and IF THEY WANT they can bring me a cup of coffee. Now that I think of it, neither will be home on Sunday. I'll take a rain check on the coffee.

The best gift is what the recipient really wants, isn't it? I love when people bring me coffee (very strong, preferably Louisiana chicory coffee, milk, no sugar).

Am I the only one in the world who doesn't like gifts?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Frugal by Chance

I just realized that I am frugal by chance.

What does that mean? I was planning to write about how I am frugal by choice. And that is a good thing, especially because it is easier than being frugal by necessity, as so many are in these difficult economic times.

But then I realized that it is hardly a choice. There's just a lot of stuff I don't want. One of Miss Em's college application essays was on her unlikely invitation to a debutante luncheon and ball. She began by saying that it was, indeed, unlikely, because her family was "resolutely eccentric." And it is true, as Duchesse remarked in response to a post by Mr. FS, that our eccentricity is perhaps a bit ostentatious.

With that eccentricity comes a long list of stuff I don't want. I never wanted an engagement ring, and don't have one. I never wanted a wedding, and had a quickie at the court house in Richmond, Indiana. I never wanted china or silver, and don't have either.

I once had a discussion with two women my age and one was complaining that her new home did not have room for a hutch in the dining room. This was evidently an intolerable situation. I said that I didn't have a hutch and that that was OK because I didn't have fine china to display. They looked at me with pity.

My mother may be used to me by now, but I think she wanted me to want all the above items. I can't help it. It is my nature. I am frugal by chance. Please accept me as I am.

So, Readers: Are you frugal by necessity, by choice, or by chance?


Once again, I am inspired by Funny About Money, who, in a recent post, mentioned that her financial advisor opined that she had a talent for small savings.

I think I have a talent for microsavings. Many bloggers, whatever their take on frugal tips, declare that the big savings are what count: mortgage, insurance, travel, car purchases, and so forth. Elizabeth Warren and Daughter say the same in All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan" Count the Dollars, Not the Pennies.

Of course, I'd rather save dollars than pennies. But it's not always possible: only the microfrugalities have a guaranteed and steady payoff.

On insurance, for instance. I live in a state where some former Insurance Commissioners reside in prison. I have known several people who had insurance from smaller companies that went out of business, leaving them with unpaid medical bills and car insurance claims. Because of this, Mr. FS and I have always bitten the bullet and stayed with national companies. Post-Katrina, we had little trouble.

On travel,too. Yes, we use the on-line sites for deals. Often poor Mr. FS will spend hours on plane fares, only to end up saving $15.00, or worse, watching fares go UP. Sometimes he does quite well, but sometimes it's a waste of time. And it's never guaranteed.

On the auto purchases, yes we got the prices from Consumer Reports and used them well. But you can't do super-well on cars that are in high demand for good reasons. So we are happy with our Camry (1998) and Civic Hybrid (2003), both bought new for good, but not great prices.

But every week, I can save at least 20% on groceries, just by picking up the loss leaders. This amounts to pennies, but week in and out, year in and out, it adds up. I can always save pennies.

The only guaranteed way of saving dollars these days seems to reside in paying off your mortgage. I guess it's a good thing I already did that. I'd love to hear about other strategies.

So, dear Readers, do you think my concept of microsavings works? How do you microsave? And, if you have bigger ways to save, of course, please share.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Barbara Kafka's Continuous Cooking

A change of pace from my ruminations (to be continued) on cash gifts for adult children. Today my plan was to buy a chicken (a good sale at Rouses) and roast it. I was at the store because I had to mail a few items and also needed some milk. That was good, because chickens were nowhere to be found. I had to get a raincheck. In fact, I was at the end of a long line for my rain check. (Why? the chicken wasn't THAT cheap.)

So we're gong to have potato and vegetable hash, part of my clean out the fridge quest, and some eggs, which were gifted to us by a retired colleague.

But something good came from my roasting plans. Since I didn't want to roast a chicken all by itself, I had decided to roast some veggies too. So I took a look at a cookbook I had gotten from a long while ago. I confess I had not opened the book: Barbara Kafka's Roasting: a Simple Art.

Kafka anticipated my oft-repeated sentiments that people today eat fewer home-cooked meals AND spend more time at it, because each meal is a unique event, shopped for and prepared in isolation. Here is Kafka's eloquent exhortation:

It seems to me that less cooking is done today than used to be and that when it is done, it is so much more work because we have lost the habit of the continuous kitchen. We start each meal from scratch with fresh shopping and a brand-new independent recipe. Our predecessors didn't, and we can save ourselves a great deal of work and have better, more economical food with greater depth of flavor by seeing cooking as an ongoing process. There is not better way to get in the habit than with roast birds, meats, and fish.

"Start with a roast" might be the motto of the continuous kitchen. When the roast is done and eaten, there are usually leftovers of the home cook's version of a chef's mise en place for future meals.

. . . .paragraph on using bones to make stock . . .

Leftovers have gotten a bad name . . .. Today's leftovers can be turned into
tomorrow's elegant first-course salad, a simple sauter, or a curry. Having good leftovers is like having a good souos-chef in the kitchen, someone who has done half the work before I turn up for the finishing touches.

Financial Help to Adult Children, Part 2

Sorry about the return to yesterday's topic. I am still thinking about the issue. And I noticed that Duchesse, one of the most astute and thoughtful bloggers I've read, returned to comment once more on yesterday's post. So below in that post you can read Duchesse's two interesting comments, from the perspective of both a receiver and a potential giver. And there is also a thoughtful post from FB, a recently out of college person, whose writings show a tremendous sense of energy, ambition, and responsibility.

Let me just divulge where I got the idea of giving my children the unused money in their 529 (education) accounts. A while ago, probably before I discovered blogs as a source of information and entertainment, I saw this question. Perhaps this was on the CNN money site? Anyway, this fellow in his 20s raised this issue: (I am paraphrasing from memory, so the accuracy is subject to question)

I decided to get a PhD in psychology. My parents have always paid my educational expenses. The PhD would probably cost around $150,000.00. I mentioned this to my father and he said that he would pay for the PhD OR give me the money to start a business. What should I do?

The answer (also paraphrased from memory) went something like this:

Wise father. He was testing whether you really wanted that degree or if you made the decision based on the fact that he would pay for it. You have been given a great opportunity. Use it well. Think carefully about what it is you want.

This made a great impression on me. I spoke to Mr. FS about it. We liked that the adult child had a stake in the decision, that his decision had consequences.

So Readers, any more thoughts on the issue?

By the way, Duchesse suggested that one should perhaps help the medical student more than the less-ambitious child. Interestingly, according to the Millionaire Next Door, this is the OPPOSITE of what parents do. Most parents "strengthen the strong," by forcing the more ambitious children into self-reliance and independence (i.e. they give them less or nothing), and "weaken the weak," by giving the less ambitious or accomplished more, thereby encouraging dependence.

Food for thought, once again.

And again, Readers, where do you stand on this vexing issue?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

How Much Financial Help for Adult Children?

I have posted now and again on my plans to hand my now 18 and 20 year old children (in smallish pieces, over about 5 years) the money we had saved for their college education. This is because they chose no-cost options. I have not really received any comments on this plan, though I would welcome some. Good idea? Bad?

The other day, I mentioned in a comment on Funny About Money's blog (see Blogroll to the right for a link to her fabulous blog), that, as my wants are kind of low at the moment, I plan to help my children out later when they want to buy houses. Funny's response: SDXB reflects that middle-class children never grow up: we continue to nurture them psychologically and financially in perpetuity.

SDXB (aka Semi-Demi-Ex-Boyfriend, for those who are not FAM aficionados) is echoing the advice of Thomas Stanley and William Danko, authors of The Millionaire Next Door. They call the giving of money to adult children "economic outpatient care," and note that, generally, parents who do this "weaken the weak." Children who receive EOC are (relative to their peers) low-producers. I have certainly seen this weakening effect among people of my acquaintance.

Of course I LOVE The Millionaire Next Door. I remember reading it for the first time, seeing a question along the lines of What are the three characteristics of millionaires? I turned the page to see this: FRUGAL FRUGAL FRUGAL. I was so happy, especially since this was in the big-spending 90s, when the laws of saving and frugality didn't seem to apply.

So on one side there are Stanley and Danko, whose arguments are backed up by research. And I do despise the sense of entitlement of many (most?) of my peers and their children.

But here's the other side. I keep feeling that kids now are--sometimes because of the example set by parents--starting out behind. I read an article stating that students have NEVER graduated with the amount of education debt common today. In days of yore, parents who could afford it gave children a head-start--with a dowry, a piece of land, a goat.

Now people enter adult life with mounds of debt that will take years and years to pay off. Remember: college financial aid officers and the media have been declaring for years that "education debt is GOOD debt." Is this really "good"? And the lending has been "privatized," with our government guaranteeing the loans for the private lenders. And the lending has rules so complex that I cannot understand them, like the one that says that you can only consolidate or refinance your loans once, no matter how much interest rates may go down.

I'm getting out of my element here, so I had better stop. But here's my question: does all financial help weaken the recipient? Are kids starting out "behind" compared to how they started out in a perhaps mythical past? Help!!

Frugality plus Working=Happiness and a Long Life: Rest in Peace, Albert Gordon

Wow! I just have to post this, even though it will be all over the fruality blogosphere (of which I am a mote of dust). Within the past few weeks or so, there were stories about the remaining survivors of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The oldest--and most charismatic--was Albert Gordon, who just died at 107.

Here is his obituary for your reading pleasure. I love his work ethic and ingrained sense of frugality. Not to mention his appreciation of good writing, as evidenced by his love of The Elements of Style. From the New York Times:

Albert H. Gordon, who helped pick up the pieces of a shattered Kidder Peabody after the 1929 Wall Street crash and built the firm into what Forbes magazine called “a minor powerhouse on Wall Street,” died Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 107.

His son John announced the death.

Mr. Gordon lived to become an √©minence grise of the investment community, began running marathons in his 80s and at his death was the oldest graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Business School, according to Harvard Magazine. In 1960, Fortune magazine listed Mr. Gordon as one of the 10 most powerful men on Wall Street and as the financial community’s most successful underwriter and salesman. It noted that he ordered his men to read “The Elements of Style,” written by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 and revised by E. B. White in 1959, to improve their reports.

Mr. Gordon used his charm, powerful friends like Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum and legendary energy to chase deals. John C. Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, called Mr. Gordon “a famous business-getter.” In ruling that the investment industry did not violate federal antitrust laws in 1953, Judge Harold R. Medina noted the industriousness of Kidder. He said Mr. Gordon’s firm had “forged its way strictly on the merits from a minor position in 1931 to that of one of the country’s leading underwriters.”

Mr. Gordon arrived on Wall Street in 1925 as a new Harvard Business School graduate, to take a job as a statistician with Goldman. He traveled an immense territory selling commercial paper; he was on a train 12 nights out of 14. (He was later one of the first investment bankers to fly.)

In those days, investment bankers strove for decorum.

“We wore silk collars,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio in 2004. “We wore hats. We took ourselves seriously.” Kidder itself was a respected Wall Street institution when Mr. Gordon arrived in 1931. The firm had been prominent in the early financing of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

But two years after the crash, it was broke. J. P. Morgan & Company arranged financing that included a cash infusion from the Webster family of Stone & Webster, the engineering company. Frank Webster had led Kidder for most of the first third of the 20th century.

The reconstituted Kidder had three principals: Edward S. Webster Jr., Frank’s grandson and Mr. Gordon’s Harvard classmate; Chandler S. Hovey, who led a Boston investment bank, and Mr. Gordon, who, at 29, was the youngest.

Kidder came back. From 1960 to 1964, it ranked second among all investment banking concerns in a category of securities offering, The New York Times reported in 1965.

Mr. Gordon was chairman and a large shareholder of Kidder in 1986 when General Electric bought the business. Under G.E., Kidder floundered and ended up selling most of its assets to the competing PaineWebber Group in 1994. Mr. Hovey retired in 1952, and Mr. Webster died in 1957.

Albert Hamilton Gordon was born in the community of North Scituate, Mass., on July 21, 1901. His father, after working as a sheepherder in Wyoming, had moved east to become a successful leather merchant, supplying the British Army in World War I.

The younger Mr. Gordon graduated from Roxbury Latin School, where he broke his nose playing football. He graduated cum laude from Harvard College in 1923 with distinction in economics. He ranked third in his class at Harvard Business School. Arriving in New York, he shared an apartment with four or five friends, who embraced the local popular culture, including speakeasies, flappers and Babe Ruth. “We were having a very, very good time,” Mr. Gordon told NPR.

At his first job with Goldman Sachs, he got a $2 million deal from National Dairy Products, a predecessor of Kraft Foods. He was entitled to a substantial commission, but his boss took all the credit. Mr. Gordon learned an important lesson, he told Forbes in 2000, “You can’t retain employees if you don’t spread credit around.”

The Times reported in 1989 that Mr. Gordon had imbued Kidder with “an air of positive gentility, giving employees a free hand to pursue deals.” He also gradually sold back ownership of the firm to its workers, to signal that he would not challenge the new management he had recruited. He did not want anyone to think of him as “that greedy old bastard,” he told Business Month in 1989.

As one of the oldest surviving Wall Street veterans of the crash of 1929, Mr. Gordon was often asked to reflect on how he thought it had happened. In 1987, he told The Nation magazine, “Young men thought they could do anything.”

Mr. Gordon became something of a legend for his dedication to physical fitness, which he believed explained his longevity. He took one puff of a cigarette in his life, he said, didn’t salt his food and limited his alcohol intake to a glass of Champagne a year.

He was twice the oldest participant in the London marathon and sometimes walked from airports to his hotel. He made cold calls to prospective clients well into his 90s. At 105, he was still working four days a week at Deltec Asset Management.

Mr. Gordon was a past president of the Harvard Club of New York, and his generosity to Harvard is evident in the Albert H. Gordon Track and Tennis Center there, as well as a professorship at the business school. The New York Road Runners named its library and an annual race after him.

Mr. Gordon’s wife, the former Mary Rousmaniere, died in 1980. He is survived by his sons, Albert F. and John R., both of Manhattan, and Daniel F., of Philadelphia; his daughters, Mary Gordon Roberts and Sarah F. Gordon, both of Manhattan; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In the 1960s and 70s, Mr. Gordon offered cash rewards to employees who quit smoking. He always flew economy, and when he noticed a young Kidder vice president sitting in first class, Financial News reported in 2001, he penciled a note for a flight attendant to pass on.

“What is the food like up there?” it read.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The (Blog) Writer is Always A Fiction

When I was in graduate school, Walter Ong published an article that proved to be very influential: "The Writer's Audience is Always A Fiction." I don't remember anything about it beyond the title. Ong, who was a Jesuit priest as well as a scholar, remains an academic hero: in addition to writing about Ramist logic, he published many groundbreaking books on media, on the shift from manuscript to print culture. These studies are relevant today as we move from print to on-line culture--such as the present blog.

I am here to tell you that not only is the audience always a fiction, but the writer is as well. I mention this because a student who reads this blog now and again said "I know so much about you and your family."

Oh REALLY? You think so? This writer--even if you do know her name--is a fictional character.

I commented on a few blogs this morning, and everything I said was true: I did put our son on our Amex account; I did pay off my mortgage early; I did get new kitchen cabinets in August.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Free is not Frugal

No, that is not a typo. You are not hallucinating. Free is not frugal. OR not necessarily frugal.

About a year ago, I began to discover the wealth of frugal tips on the internet. Neat-o. Even though I did not, do not, and will never subscribe to the Grocery Game (a business that tells you how to combine coupons with store specials for "rock bottom" prices) or any of its free counterparts, I started perusing the Message Boards. Lots of "Hot Tips" abounded on various freebies. Tipsters and tippees recounted hitting the road in search of the goodies.

From these Boards, I also learned that you could send for free samples of this and that: oatmeal! aspirin! shampoo!

Add to that the fact that I already had figured out that you could get more than a lifetime supply of free shampoo and make-up and the like from CVS and Walgreens. So I did.

After a while, I noticed that the samples of oatmeal and aspirin were overpackaged. All that wrapping, not to mention shipping, not to mention human labor to send me 2 little aspirin.

Then I noticed that I had a plastic bin full of shampoo, body wash, soap, conditioner, toothpaste. Some of the Grocery Game ladies, exulting in their savings, sent in pictures of their stockpiles and claimed that they and their teenagers went through 5 bottles of shampoo a month. But my family goes through this stuff pretty slowly.

It occurred to me that free stuff encourages over-consumption. And I realized that the free stuff wasn't all that free in the largest sense. Driving around town to "score" a bunch of free shampoo takes time, not to mention gas.

So, Dear Readers, I went cold turkey. Even though CVS and Walgreens are offering free toothpaste yet again, I will not avail myself of it. And I no longer check out the sites that enumerate the "free" samples that are yours to request.

What think you of the concept "free is not frugal?" It's so hard to resist all the freebies out there; but I'm trying to stay strong. Wish me luck.