Sunday, September 24, 2006


You know how I spent yesterday hacking away at my front yard? I worked four hours in the morning, then I went out and did another hour in the evening, and then this morning I went out and raked and swept and made things pretty out there. I was feeling like pretty hot stuff. My father's bringing a saw when he comes for Thanksgiving, and then I'll be able to take care of the last two or three things.

Today I went and did some errands, then I got my mail from Saturday. And what do you suppose I have? A nastygram from the HOA. I know, they could not possibly have known on Friday when they sent the nastygram that I was going to spend all day Saturday doing yardwork. But here's the kicker. The nastygram isn't even ABOUT the front yard. It's about the back yard.

So I went out and spent four hours back there, doing what I could. I doubt it meets their requirements for "aesthetically pleasing" but it's at least obvious that I have made a good faith effort. I have ten days to fix it before they fine me, but I can't do anything else without buying equipment, so I'm thinking of just hiring someone to come and finish it. I know they'll overcharge me, but it will be worth it not to dick around with the HOA any more, especially since I'm so tired that I want to die, and I now have three bags of garbage that won't fit into my dumpster, which is already full of thorny bougainvillea refuse.

On the plus side, I'm sure I'll sleep well tonight. On the minus side, my laundry is not done, and I have a 6 a.m. flight tomorrow.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


I live in a townhouse, and in the front of my townhouse there is a plot approximately 18' x 5', which contains some plants. Five. Five plants. Since one of them is a tree and two are hideously invasive, it's quite the nonstop battle out there. Darwin in action, all competition, all the time. Come one, come all! Bring shears.

The population out front is:

1. Some kind of desert sage, clinging to life in a corner and trying not to mix it up with the more aggressive types.
2. One grapefruit tree, which is kind of like the big unpopular kid on the playground. No one's ever going to beat the crap out of him behind the gym, because he's bigger than they are, but "failure to thrive" is his middle name.
3. Some thorny ivy kind of thing with variegated leaves.
4. One dominant, alpha bougainvillea that spends its days kicking everyone else's ass and leering at the neighbors' dog.
5. One henchman bougainvillea that causes the occasional bit of trouble.

The alpha bougainvillea scares the crap out of me. I only went out there this morning to try to knock some sense into it because frankly, the neighbors' dog has enough to worry about and also the flowery crown of the alpha bougainvillea was increasingly visible from my bedroom at the top of the house, so I was afraid it might kill me while I slept. Earlier this year, the alpha bougainvillea tried to stage a coup by blocking the path to the house entirely. I had to hack my way out of the house one morning with a hedge trimmer. Since then, there's been an uneasy detente.

I've been going out there two or three times a week and hacking halfheartedly at this plant or that one, trying to make some sense of the mess my neglect has wrought, but now it was time for serious progress. I resolved to go out there and fill up my dumpster. I felt bad for the neighbors and bad for the grapefruit tree. Armed only with a hand clipper (having made as much progress as I dared with the hedge trimmer), I gloved up and went to work.

Bougainvillea is amazing. First of all, I come from New Mexico, where it actually gets cold, and where if you want a bougainvillea to live, you have to bring it inside in fall and tend to it with a blanket and hot cocoa and gentle encouragement. Not here, boy. Here the suckers grow no matter what you do. You could do ANYTHING to it, and in a year it'd be leering down at you saying, "you thought you could get rid of me? Never!" And then it would laugh like a Bond villain. Over and over today I'd pick some innocuous-looking, slender branch, and I'd think, "Well, this looks like it's headed for the grapefruit tree--I'll just head it off at the pass." I'd cut it off at the plant and then pull--and a branch ten or twelve feet high would emerge from the top of the grapefruit tree, forcing me to hack away at the thing until it fit into the dumpster.

It has been four hours. I have blisters all over my hands. I have scratches everywhere, including my scalp. And there is still one giant alpha bougainvillea stump that's hanging from the grapefruit tree because it is so tangled up way at the top of the canopy that I can't pull it down without a ladder, which I don't have. But that's okay. It can dangle there as a reminder to the alpha bougainvillea not to overreach its bounds again. (And tomorrow, when the leaves have gone limp, it might give up its hold on the tree for me.) There is little more I can do without a saw and a pole trimmer. But sunlight can now penetrate to the floor of the garden (and can I just say, yeeeeuck--that's tomorrow's project).

Oh, and what do you know? There's a sixth plant out there. Hidden in the shade of the alpha bougainvillea was a trumpet vine. As God is my witness, that trumpet vine is going to get a chance to shine. Never again will the alpha bougainvillea kick our asses, trumpet vine. But grow fast, because the grapefruit tree looks like it's getting ornery.

Friday, September 22, 2006

I guess this means no more smiling Bob ads

This is a terrible story about a company that defrauded Americans of millions of dollars, and that's awful, truly. Especially considering that the ads were some of the most memorable ads on television without annoying the everloving bjeezus out of you. Well, at least, they didn't annoy me. Smiling Bob and his 1950's neighborhood cracked me up. And I selfishly enjoyed them, supposing that consumers everywhere were smart enough to know that if there were a genuine naturopathic remedy for whatever it is Bob has (impotence? locker-room anxiety?) it would be front page news.

(Also, it would probably kill you or cause cancer, because, ya know, everything that's good for you now is something that doctors will be warning you about in ten years, with the possible exceptions of fruit, vegetables, and exercise.)

Of course, those were some pretty glossy ads, so I guess I was kind of naive. Clearly they were making enough money to trump a lot of legitimate products--like the battery-operated "light bulb" or the magic broom--in the advertising department.

It was a brazen operation, and it's clearly good that these folks are off the streets. Too bad they didn't use their powers for good, because there are a lot of commercials out there that make me everlastingly grateful for my Tivo remote.

It's like ending a bad relationship that gave you a certain dirty satisfaction. Goodbye, Bob. You were a liar and a scoundrel, but I'll miss you.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Great Ways to Fire Employees

Instant Messenger
>RU Free?
U bet ur a$$ UR.

Set up meetings with all of your employees. The subject of the meeting should be something like, "Company Reorg." People who accept the meetings get to stay. People who decline them (because they "have work to do") should be canned immediately.

The "Thousand Rumors" Method
Spread rumors for ten or twelve months that employees are going to be fired, but that you've hired consultants to tell you exactly how to go about it. Eventually, you won't be able to stop the attrition--and you won't even have to do anything! Make sure they clean out their cubes.

Randomize Your Management
Fire half your managers and promote the other half. Allow no discernible policy to govern which managers get the axe--firings and promotions should befall a mix of incompetents and brilliant managers. Be sure that at least one manager who gets promoted has a history of HR violations. Again, attrition will work for you. Bonus: up-and-coming managers with fresh new ideas leave first.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Don't Do It!

Don't stop ANYWHERE on your way home from a business trip at 7:30. You're tired. You're frustrated. You're in a dangerous mood.

This is how you end up with a trunkful of novels and comfort food. This is how you end up with a Christopher Moore novel, despite the fact that you've repeatedly refused to be seduced by those colorful, spirited covers. This is how you end up with a Mary Janice Davidson novel, in the ultimate triumph of hope over experience (because the last vampire book that you bought was a real non-starter--no humor, no eroticism, nothing fun at all).

This, in short, is how you end up eating gorgonzola gnocchi and tandoori naan in front of "Project Runway."

It's too late for me. Save yourself!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Spain is Anti-Waif

Spain has banned rail-thin models from catwalks at Madrid fashion week. Models with a body mass index under 18 won't get to walk. (18.5 is the low end of the healthy range as determined by the UN.) Designers have until Monday let out their seams--fashion week in Madrid starts September 18. See there? "Project Runway" prepares designers for those last-minute challenges they'll face in real life.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The "Virtual Face-to-Face"

I missed my corporate shuttle flight this morning. I'll be doing penance for a while, but for now the main consequence is that I am attending a face-to-face virtually.

My company is so used to dealing with each other at a distance that we have a special name for meetings where you are physically in the same room as the other people at the meeting. They are face-to-faces. Remind you of online dating? It's kinda like that, only the other people in the work face-to-face will reliably be there. Unless they're me. But that's another story.

So this is my opportunity to see a whole bunch of people I work with all the time but never actually see. And instead I'm attending from my dining room table. They're in the room eating truffles and cookies and getting actual meaningful social interaction. I'm at home, dialed into a bridge and hooked into NetMeeting and wondering what I can eat for lunch.

In my relentless pursuit of saving money, my household of one has moved to a just-in-time food acquisition model. I wasn't planning to be here today. So I have...milk, cheese, flour, and tequila. I'm thinking I may need to run to the store. If I bought eggs I could make popovers. Hot popovers and cheese are just about the best lunch on earth.

I know what you're thinking. But I'm saving the tequila for the weekend.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

An Ideal Boyfriend

Dating is rough.

No, really. I know this isn't news, but every once in a while, something reminds us of the essential truths of life.

Just ask my acquaintance whose boyfriend got rip-roaring drunk this weekend, picked a fight, and came home and peed all over the sofa.

I have to say, I would never have considered this when gazing out the window, compiling a mental list of traits my ideal boyfriend should or shouldn't have. My list is pretty general. I'm lookin' for someone reasonably solvent, reasonably responsible, and entirely non-violent. There are some other essential traits--intelligence, a sense of humor, a sexy voice. And yes, okay, I'm partial to someone who makes me crazy hot. But it would never have occurred to me to sigh dreamily and add, "And you know what else would be great? If he never peed on furniture."

Now, we know. You leave that off the list at your peril.

Just goes to show that when you're gathering requirements, it never pays to overlook the bleedin' obvious.

And by the way, the dating scene in Phoenix is SO bad. How bad is it, I hear you ask. The dating scene in Phoenix is SO bad that peeing all over someone's sofa isn't even a dumpable offense.

Do you hear me, world? The dating scene here is so bad that, officially, someone who pees all over your sofa is still considered a catch.

What's that I hear? I'll tell you what it isn't. It isn't the sound of someone urinating on my sofa. Sometimes there are compensations for being single.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Saving Grace

I established a goal a while back of trying to save roughly a quarter of my take-home pay by the end of the year. Originally, I was just saving for a trip, but then sometime around the middle of the year I decided that it was time to come up with that "safety net" that everyone keeps talking about, just in case I get laid off or pull some crazy, blockheaded maneuver. I have substantial savings, but they're not the sort of thing that would help me out in an emergency. They're squirreled away in "don't touch this" accounts that I really don't intend to pilfer.

I already had a savings account, and I was already siphoning off regular amounts from checking into savings, in that whole "pay yourself first" strategy. But the problem with the pay yourself first strategy is that you can't pay yourself nearly enough. You're constantly worried that you'll have to come up with some extra cash (what if my electric bill is $150--I do live in Arizona, you know). So you don't "pay yourself first" nearly enough to come up with a quarter of your take-home pay by December. Well, I wasn't.

The obvious solution was to pay myself not only first, but last as well. And in order to have anything to pay myself at the end of the month, that meant a budget. I suck at budgeting. I used to be good at it, but then I had a marital experience where I got out of the habit of writing everything down. (Did you know that writing down what you spend makes you a shrill harpy? Yeah, me neither.) I've never really picked the habit back up again for more than a few months.

I have, however, worked in finance for far too long. So I started a chart. Here was my proposed spending (i.e., everything left in my bank account), and here was my stretch goal for saving (the amount I'd have to save every month to have the right amount at the end of the year). Finally, here was the gap between what I'd already saved and my goal. What ingenuity could I employ to move money from the proposed spending pile to the proposed saving pile? Watching my money in a sort of ad-hoc budget could get me close--some months closer than others. Getting the rest of the way to the desired figure required a little more grifting.

Over the last few months I have sold things, traded things, tracked down money people owed me (there is one of these left, but it's a humiliating experience, and I'm avoiding it), traded in a gym membership for a treadmill, and canceled my massage membership (this is like leaving the mafia, I kid you not--I think I had to threaten to leave a horse's head in someone's bed). I have stopped using my long-distance account. I have changed (but not eliminated) my cell phone package. I have started checking out books from the library, and I have been saving all my change. I have taken out a credit card that gives me cash back on various purchases. I have turned my thermostat up to 80. (I'm freezing all the time, so this is not as bad as it sounds. I'll turn it down when you come over. Honest.)

I have not started cooking for myself. There are limits, people. No one should ever have to eat things I cook. (Unless it's a breakfast casserole. My breakfast casseroles don't suck.)

Right now I'm on track to get to 92% of my goal by December. I thought I'd start throwing out info on some of the good deals I've found, in case anyone else was in the mood for saving some cash.

Blockbuster Video is running a promotion where if you rent a movie, they give you a card good for a free month of rent-by-mail membership (street value, $18). You get as many DVD's as you can cram into a month, three at a time, for free. You also get coupons for in-store rentals. You owe nothing if you cancel within a month. They ask for your credit card, but theoretically they won't charge it until you lose a DVD or until your "free" period expires. Cancel after a month and spend nothing. Alternatively, keep the membership if it meets your needs and you rent more than four videos a month (otherwise you're better off renting from the store). I plan to use this mercilessly to catch up on "Oz," which I recently discovered on DVD. I really want to know what happens next, but $4 for 2-3 episodes is as devastating to my current budget as a crack addiction.

ING Direct is offering a sweet deal on their savings accounts. Open an account and they give you $25 to help you along. Do you really want to open one? Ask me to refer you--then I get $10 and you get $25. Pressure your friends to open accounts. Pssst! Save money! Everybody's doing it! And the account pays 4.35% interest. My bank was giving me less than 1%. ING Direct is particularly good for the computer-savvy--everything can be done electronically, and they have more robust security than my regular financial institution, which has been in the news in recent months. To get $25, use code D256P while opening your account (or e-mail me and I'll refer you, then I get $10--come on, you know you wanna). To get $10 for referring a friend, open your own account first, then click on the megaphone at the bottom of your "View My Account" screen--the one that says, "Earn $$$, Refer a Friend."

That's it for now. I'll probably review the new credit card at some point. My mother has made money on cashback credit cards, but I'm still skeptical. We'll see.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Genius for Sale

Don Hertzfeldt, the delightfully morbid and sinfully cynical animator behind such sweet, sweet madness as "Billy's Balloon" and "Ah, L'Amour," has finally managed to put together a DVD, now available for pre-order. The DVD will also include "Lily and Jim." If you want to see a short film depicting the horrors of dating, look no further. I laughed until I cried.

A warning, Don's website admits that the DVD will also likely include "intrusive trailers for other DVD's you are not even remotely interested in." Having purchased other animation DVD's for the express purpose of viewing Don's work, I will just say that this may not be as funny as it sounds. Some of the intrusive ads and trailers on those previous DVD's made me want to stick a fork in my own eye. Seriously. I vividly remember the sensation of blood vessels throbbing in my temples, willing my heart to explode. "I just want to watch `Lily and Jim!' For the love of all that is holy, stop making me watch the fast car in the incredibly loud commercial!"

That said, Don Hertzfeldt's humor is just what the doctor ordered for many modern ailments, including heartbreak, career discontent, and general malaise.

Not Only Are Kids Reading...

they're reading carefully. Persnickety readers caught an error in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Are you ready for this? Hermione gets top results in 11 subjects, even though she's only taking 10.

Where were these readers in my English 102 class? When I was teaching, you could ask them a question about the book that made it clear they hadn't even read the cover of the book, let alone paid close attention to its contents.

Then again, I must admit, Fields of Writing is not exactly Harry Potter.