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December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!! And, asked again on an airplane

December 31. Day 184.

Well now, so here we are: 2009.

And here's a riddle for you, gentle reader.

"I am the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end, and the end of every place. What am I?"

E-mail me your answer (no googling! ;) ), and the first person to get it right gets to be a guest blogger for 2009! Yes, you can use this page to write about anything you want for a day. As long as it doesn't get me kicked off Blogger. Happy New Year!

This morning, I repeated a request from a week ago that I will definitely import to my day to day life, once this project ends in July.

I was stuck in the last row of the plane, again, and had a tight connection, again. I asked the flight attendant if there were any empty seats in the front, or if she could ask someone in front to switch with me.

"I'll try," she promised.

A few minutes later, she returned to say there are empty aisle seats halfway up. I took my things and moved, and made it to the next flight in the nick of time.

If I seem paranoid, it's for good reason. Last year, when I was in Boston and Mr. A had just moved to San Diego, we did a year of long distance. Every month, we took turns visiting one another for a weekend. I can think of very few trips where the travel went smoothly for either of us. Part of it was bad luck, circumstances, weather, but part of it was trust -- trusting the airlines and airports to do a good job under pressure, to patch up the missed connections, to solve logistical nightmares effectively, and the like. More than once, sitting in the back of the plane led to awful delays and headaches.

This time around, I'm vigilant. I'll do whatever it takes to maximize my chances. There's a saying back in the old country: "Once you get burned sipping soup, you learn to blow into yogurt." (i.e. to cool it off...)

Gained: Watched the ball drop with the people I love.

I started at my aunt's house, for a family dinner. After the stroke of midnight, I drove to a friend's house for part two. I had been hesitating: My grandma and mom didn't want me to go. They were worried about the drive -- and drugs. ("Make sure no one puts drugs in your drink!" Mama cautioned on my way out the door.) And I was exhausted from this morning's red eye. But I'm glad I went. It reminded me that I'm almost 30, not 130.

On the drive over, something magical happened. I had time to think. I spend every New Year's Eve with people -- sometimes I force myself to do "fun" things, just because I feel that's what one does on the big night. More often than not, I end up over-stressed and underwhelmed.

Tonight the highway was foggy, so I took it slow, and on those 20 miles I turned the radio down and I coasted, reflected, emptied my mind and let it fill again, calmly, in silence. I was alone, yet not alone, and I felt content...

Best wishes to you all for health, success, and happiness in the coming year, and lots more asking,

La Roxy

December 30, 2008

Glamorous house tour... and use online coupon?

December 30. Day 183.

The house I made arrangements to see two days ago was as gorgeous inside as it was out. Here are a few pictures my dad snapped.

For a man who could talk an hour about the pros and cons of corbels versus lintels versus mantels, this place was a 5,000 square foot treasure trove. I used to grumble on family vacations that I didn't want to visit the Craftsman firehouses of Denver or the Bauhaus fountains of San Antonio (I'm making up the details, but not the grumbling), while he would have been happy spending hours with his camera wandering around an interesting building, watching how the shadows changed. It was nice end up on the same page, years later, as "tourists" in a familiar city.

Even more amazing than the decor and features is the owner, Grace. She's a mother of two boys, and while working as a nurse and getting a master's degree in nursing, she redesigned the house from top to bottom. She and her husband, a lawyer, bought it as a fixer-upper in 2002. Since then, she's drawn and implanted the mosaics and tile work with her own hands, selecting the fragments from here and there. Every detail, from the sconces under the bathroom sink to the recessed lighting in the kitchen to the preservation of the traditional cantera and the use of functional niches in the family room was her idea. Hearing her speak about balancing historical authenticity and organicity, I'd have guessed she was an architect, an art historian, some sort of restoration and conservation professional. Goes to show that love of a subject carries its own credentials.

When I asked her if she ever thought about doing this full time, she said she'd love to, but she also enjoys nursing. "I tell my friends, 'If you ever have a project, call me! I'll do it for free!' " My dad took her number, saying he occasionally gets projects in restoration design and/or artistic tile work, and she seemed open to that prospect. Whether or not it becomes a full blown career, I have a feeling I'll see her name and designs in a glossy magazine, one day...

After this visit, we went to Office Depot so my dad could upgrade his own fixer upper -- a telephone. He looked at a few models and settled on a GE cordless set.

"Hold on a second," I said on the way to the checkout stand. "Let me see if I can find a coupon online."

I did see a few options, for various percents off and with various exclusions. We were in a hurry, so I didn't read through each of them. Instead, I took my cell phone to the register.

"I have a few coupons here -- can you apply any of these?"

"We need the printout, and those don't work for technology."

The first excuse was b.s., since I've used my cell instead of a printout before and there's never been a problem. Could have argued around that, hands down. But I had nothing to reply to the second. The phone is, indeed, technology. But if I ever need 40% off of a $100 purchase of toilet paper and pencils, I'll know where to go.

Gained: A beautiful house tour, and a gracious new acquaintance in McAllen. Thank you, Grace!

December 29, 2008


December 29. Day 182.

The OIHTRNAAP (Official Inter-Holiday Topaz Ring Negotiation and Acquisition Plan), as you know by now, was to go back to Macy's and talk to the jewelry manager. Establish rapport, turn her into an ally. Appeal to her sense of sympathy, make her want to help me -- and make helping me easier, more logical, more appealing, than refusing. Slip in a complaint or two. Finally, wrap it up and slap on a bow by asking for a better price.

Only when I went back to Macy's, the manager was on a conference call. The saleswoman told me to return at 4 and ask for Angie.

After a snack from Chick-fil-A, strictly necessary to build up the appropriate sustenance for the impending task, I headed back. Meanwhile, I outlined my points of persuasion, imagined the discounted Macy's receipt floating in a cloud of white light, projected myself to the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, that haggler's mecca, and visualized the smiling countenances of Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (authors of Women Don't Ask) floating above and guiding me toward that white light --

"Hi! Are you Angie?"

"Yes, I am!" She looked like a manager. Sporting glasses, a no nonsense hairstyle, and suit. She was filling out some papers. Fortunately, the department was empty -- as it had been a few hours earlier. Slow day?

"Oh, great! I was looking for you earlier! Melissa told me I should come back this afternoon, since I wanted to talk to you about something. When you have a moment, could you show me a ring on this side?"

"Of course."

We walked over, she took it out and I inspected it for a few moments.

"And how much is it?"

"With the 60 and the 20 and the 10, $132.47."

"Mmhmm," I nodded. "You're going to laugh at me, but for weeks I've been trying to buy a piece of jewelry from Macy's and I've haven't managed to! I saw some beautiful earrings online, and when I went in, they were sold out. Then I saw another pair, and when I tried to get them they were sold out again! And then, I was interested in this ring, but I noticed it's the wrong size... You don't have any other sizes, right?"

"No, everything we have is displayed."

"I see..." I tried it on. "Yeah, it's supposed to go here, and it's loose. How much is the resizing?"


"Hmm. Do you think you could drop the price of the ring by 10 percent or so? I feel I've wasted so much time at this point, and now I'm going to have to get it resized."

"It's just that... we don't really do that..."

"I know it's not typical, but I would be inclined to get it... only I've wasted so much time, back and forth, back and forth, and now I'm going to have to get it resized... Even, like, 10 percent would help, or knocking off the sales tax?"

"I can't... I'm so sorry..."

"Could you do the resizing for free?" (It's not too loose, but I thought this could be something to "give up" in exchange for a discount.)

"No, I'm so sorry, I can't."

Then I got a little more honest, a little more, shall we say, blurty? "I just figured that with the economy and slow sales, maybe you'd want to sell it, even at a discount."

"They won't let me." She was as sympathetic as could be, but unmoved. "But... do you live here?"

"I do! I'm in town with my dad, but I also live in California." (I'd heard of "visitor's discounts," but what if there was a local's special? Wanted to play it both ways.)

"Because, lemme see... I know we have a One Day sale coming up, I could see how much it would be then. You can come back for it, next week."

She pulled out the binder, took out her calculator, punched in the final savings.


"That's great! Thank you! Could we do that price now?!"

"I would get in so much trouble."

"I see. Well, thanks for your time."

I started moving away, and she didn't say anything. I'd already walked away twice. And it was only $4 cheaper. I'd really tried my best. And that wasn't good enough.

Gained: Nothing, except definitive proof, again and again, that I suck at retail haggling. New ideas: maybe I'm not buying enough. (If I had a few items and talked one down, or purchased a room full of furniture and asked them to throw in a free delivery, it might work. So, new OIHTRNAAP: go into debt, buy more than I need, to practice negotiating!) Also, maybe I shouldn't try to bargain down clearance items... since $132 on a $460 ring is the lowest they'll go. And yet, there's that next sale. $128.

Of course, I still bought the ring! Far more interesting, and in my price range, than diamonds. Wearing it now, in fact. As a reminder of Day 180 and the impulse to keep on trying.

December 28, 2008

Fear of asking... and free fajitas!

December 28. Day 181.

Leah Day discussed fear of asking in a comment Friday:

I plan to start asking questions immediately, starting with this one:

Do you ever deal with feelings of fear when asking questions? Has
anyone ever attacked you for asking for something?

Those two questions are a great place to start thinking about asking. First of all, no one has ever attacked me, rebuked me or given me anything more than attitude. And attitude is what I get just as frequently if I don't ask. In fact, I truly didn't expect people to be so open, friendly, generous, engaged, or up for anything. Especially when it comes to welcoming me into their world or showing me something new. If I was cynical, I might think they're flattered by my interest. But I rather believe they are ready and willing to share.

In financial, commercial or other transactional contexts, where I get turned down a fair amount, I suspect people simply don't need to be cruel or mean to refuse. They've mastered a different art: saying no. They've gotten so good at it that they know to blame "the manager," "the owner," "how things are" -- while keeping that permasmile on their lips. They've discovered the power of these five words: Sorry, I can't do that. (The only exception are two library guards at my graduate school, who are sadistic in their denials. See here and here. They're on par with Eastern European customs officials, and I've dealt with my share of those!)

My own fears and inhibitions are another thing. Of course I've been nervous. Asking for the raise was probably scariest, because a) I'd never done it before, and b) I felt I had something to lose. My career, unlike a discount on a skirt, matters. What if he viewed me as inconsiderate or ungrateful? But what if I sounded too sheepish or childish, and he lost some respect for me? I wrote out a script and imagined all sorts of possible responses, just to build up the courage to make the call. And my pulse was racing as I formed the words aloud.

Another occasional concern is how people I know will judge me. What if your friend thinks you're greedy or pushy or weird for asking her, or someone else? Strangers I could care less, as long as I know I've been courteous and fair; but with friends and family, I don't want to be repetitively pushy, or drag them along or waste their time as I try to negotiate, if they're not interested.

But perhaps I'm not frightened enough. Perhaps I should be taking more risks -- bargaining harder, or pushing more boundaries. Perhaps if I want a real challenge, I'll open it up to readers with poll: What should Roxy ask for? And go with the most popular, or most controversial, asking. Hmmm...

Today is actually a good example of getting over fear of judgement.

I went to Taco Palenque, the best Mexican restaurant on the planet. I'll probably lose my San Diego residency for saying this, but McAllen wins.

I noticed a young man wearing a kitchen apron standing in the dining area, so I sprang out of my seat and asked him if he could share any fajita making tips. (Ok, it wasn't that abrupt. First I told him I love this place, come here sometimes straight from the airport, nothing like it anywhere else.) He said he'll bring the manager. Immedately, I could sense my stepmother was squirming. It was her hometown, a restaurant she frequents, and perhaps she felt I was taking up people's time for a silly or self-indulgent purpose, or coming in and calling attention to our table.

The manager explained that the spices come from their supplier premixed, but that if I want good fajitas at home, all I really need is salt and lemon. No marinade, no preboiling, no fancy tricks. Just sprinkle and grill over low heat. He invited me to the kitchen and showed me how it's done (minus secret ingredients, unfortunately).

I thanked him, and when I sat down again, he returned to our table with a $10 certificate.

Gained: A free fajita plate. Muchissimas gracias, Felipe!

December 27, 2008

Voyeurism and consumerism in McAllen, Texas

December 27. Day 180.

In McAllen, Texas, a city of about 100,000 with no downtown and no uptown, where strip malls have swallowed fields of watermelons and the center looks a darn lot like the suburbs, La Plaza Mall is the alpha and omega of fun on a Saturday afternoon. Friends plan days ahead to meet up in the food court, and they dress up, way up, guys in their baggiest jeans or crispest polo shirts and girls peeping manicured toes through high heeled sandals -- just in case they run into boss, grandfather or secret crush in those air-conditioned hallways.

On the Saturday after Christmas, recession or not, it was hands down the center of the city. My father miraculously found parking 10 seconds after entering the lot (he's blessed that way), and we headed inside.

Just a few days ago, I was flirting with the idea of diamond earrings. But I've quickly sobered up. I did find my way to a jewelry case, though, and spotted a gorgeous smokey topaz ring.

"Now this is interesting," Tata concurred. "It's striking."

The ring was originally $450, reduced to $132. A great price. I had the Christmas cash on me. But now, NOW was the chance to apply all those lessons I'd learned in previous retail attempts: identify a flaw, complain, talk to the manager if denied, wait at the checkout stand rather than in the aisles, turn the discount into a trivial obstacle in making that sale. (See the comments on this post for advice from two enlightened readers.)

I asked for a specific discount -- 10% off -- which was denied. I asked for the manager, but she had left for the day. So I'll head back Monday and try again. It's not the money, at this point. The piece is beautiful and the price is right. But it's the chance to do everything in my power to obtain the elusive retail discount, and see what happens. It's an experiment.

Gained I: Nothing, yet.

I may diss this city for being provincial, but in truth it's an economic powerhouse. It's grown like a mushroom, and keeps on going.

On the way home from the mall, we drove through some neighborhoods with interesting houses and we gossiped -- architecturally. (The two sketches I've posted are his.)

"Look at the windows on that one," my dad scoffed. "They make no sense. Why would someone put them so close to the roof? I mean, those proportions are way off."

"I've always wondered who the architect is. That wrought iron work is gorgeous."

"Who would put a wall there? It needs a window, a balcony, a rosette, some kind of opening. It's oppressive. The window frames are nice, though. Works with the English cottage look."

I was listening, learning, commenting and (yes) asking.

We made a final detour, to his favorite, a hacienda-style rambler on Jackson Street.

"Man, I love this one," he said, eyeing it from across the street. "What an interesting mix of Mexican and Precolumbian -- "

And then, something strange happened. A figure in the giant creche on the lawn moved -- it was a person, putting away the statues. The owner?

"Tata, I have an idea. Do you want to take a risk? Ask them to show us the inside? It's for my blog... and you're an architect, it makes perfect sense. We won't seem creepy, I promise."

We pulled into their driveway and the woman walked up to our car and greeted us. "Hi..."

"Hi!" I started, and made my pitch.

She told us a little about its history and welcomed us back for a tour on Tuesday afternoon.

Gained II: An appointment to scope out my dad's favorite house in town. I'll take pictures!

December 26, 2008

The Daily Asker on NPR!

December 26. Day 179.

I just found out I'm on the radio today!

What: NPR's "Here & Now"
When: Local times vary.
Where: Click for a link to the segment.
If you're new to the site, welcome! You can read about how this project started or learn about the book that inspired it. So far, I've shopped with chefs in Seattle, requested a seatmate in New York to stop yammering, gotten my first raise, and saved wads of cash in discounts and upgrades. I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to drop me a line at thedailyasker at gmail or to subscribe, using the button to your right.
It was my first radio or media interview ever. I taped it a few weeks ago, and I was convinced when I hung up that I talked too fast. Thank God for sound editing technology, or the three valiums I popped beforehand (just kidding -- really. No, really.).

I listen to "Here & Now" whenever I'm in Boston, so how cool to talk to them about this project. Thanks for having me on the show!!


Most of the things I ask for are either impromptu or a natural development from that day's activities. But since starting this project, there are a few requests I've been planning -- either because my life is leaning that way (higher starting salary, new car discount), or because it's something I've long wanted to do (drive a stranger's cool car or see the inside of someone's beautiful home) or because it's a taboo/inhibition/hang up I want to get over (like trying on a stranger's shoe -- not exactly polite dinner party conversation, but what's the big deal, I discovered).

That last category included asking a physician for medical advice at a party. You know, sidling up to that neurologist and complaining about your latest headache, or telling the shrink standing by the stereo equipment about that recurring nightmare you have about that blog post where you can't find the space bar. Curses!!

I'd never want to be that kind of guest. And yet, I do. imagine having the balls to just go up to a specialist and get a free 5 minute consultation? Just to do it, once? Live a little?

Well, I got my chance tonight, since we had dinner at the home of a pair of doctors -- he's a cardiologist, she does internal medicine -- and their other guest was a doctor from Venezuela.

The conversation jumped around from diabetes to Obama, so it didn't feel at all weird when I spoke up about my deep, dark health affliction.

"How many colds do you think is normal for a person to get in a year?" I inquired.

"Here, or where? Depends on where you live," the Venezuelan replied. "Here, people are sick all the time. A lot of times, it's actually allegies -- mold, humidity -- "

"I don't live here.. So for a cold, for an average healthy person living anywhere, is... eight times a year too many?"

"Yes, I would say so. That's a lot."

"Five times a year? Three?"

"Maybe three is more normal."

"Because I keep getting colds," I pressed. "And they're not allergies. It's a recent thing -- the past year or two..."

"Then your immune system must be down. Get your sinuses checked out. It could be something chronic, that makes you more susceptible to getting sick."

Gained: $100 -- value of a clinic consultation. Or $10 -- value of my copay. Or an insight into my health. Or a realization that there are worse things than being the pushy party patient. It's a tossup.

December 25, 2008

Cut me a deal on a luau?

December 25. Day 178.

After the turkey and the stories and all the fixings, there was one thing left to do.

On days like this, when I feel like I lack for nothing or the things I most desire can't be bought (distant people, that is), and when stores are closed and asking opportunites seem few and far between, I always have... the internet.

I'm heading to Hawaii in two weeks, and I've been thinking of ways I could save or score. I got a great hotel room deal, but I'm still looking into a rental car and a luau. I found the email address of one of several luau coordinators and dispatched this request:


I'm going to be in Kauai for the first time ever, and like any newcomer to Hawaii, I'd be very excited to attend a luau. Based on recommendations online and from what my two aunts told me, I understand yours is the most wonderful and luscious

I see online that your price is $75 per adult, and I was wondering if there is any chance this price is a little flexible? Perhaps it sounds odd to be asking for a discount when I have the money for a vacation, but this is a rare splurge, as I'm a graduate student and on a tight budget. (If I didn't find a super special discount package, with a huge 24-hour discount off of hotel and air fare, I wouldn't have come!) I see you have a price for Kama'aina (locals, I believe?) -- is there any way you'd be willing to offer this to a literature grad student from Boston and her cousin (an interior design student)? Or, any other kind of coupon or discount that may not be advertised?

I would be happy to spread the word of your generosity, or keep the discount under wraps, whatever you prefer.

Thanks so much, and I really hope to attend your beautiful luau!!

Best wishes, Happy Holidays! Hau`oli Makahiki Hou!

La Roxy

Gained: TBA

December 24, 2008

TLC for TDA?

December 24. Day 177.

Before I left for Texas yesterday, I was still coughing up a storm. My Eastern European mommy has been checking up on the cough via email, phone and in person for the past few days, and she brought a homemade remedy to the airport: a tincture of boiled onions, lemons and honey. I took a few gulps while waiting in various lines. Sounds disgusting, but tastes like a slightly oniony lemonade. The security agents told me to leave it behind.

In Texas, still coughing, I turned to my daddy for the next round of remedies.

"Tata, can you make me a chaudeau? And please get me some medicine on your way home?"

Chaudeau is another Eastern European remedy, involving warm milk, sugar and egg yolks. Coats the throat. Works like a charm to soothe that nasty tickle. Don't read too much into this, but both Mr. A and my dad both make wonderful versions of this drink.

Then my dad called his doctor to ask her what would be the best medicine to pick up for me. And on his way home from work, he brought back some Tylenol Cold.

Hours later, I'm coughing less, my voice is creeping back, and I don't know if it's the Tylenol, the home remedies, or my parents' loving care.

Yes yes, the inner workings of some random chick's cold isn't blog worthy material. You wouldn't want to be reading this even if you were my friend, let alone a stranger living in Maryland.

But there is a method to this madness.

I'm almost 30. I've been living on my own for 10 years and self-medicated dozens of colds. Yet I can still turn to my parents when I'm sick, tired, broke or scared. Feel like a little girl again, once in a while. Curl up in bed and let someone else bring me medicine. That's not to say that I'm pathetic, a greedy Gen Y brat or a loser. Simply, that they're amazing.

Va multumesc, din suflet, pentru toate.

Gained: TLC from mom and dad. But there's nothing new there.

Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! And to all a good night!

December 23, 2008

Asking in the airport

December 23. Day 176.

"Look at all those people," my Mama pointed out as I was checking in at the curb. I was getting about to leave to Texas, to spend Christmas with my dad and stepmom. A line of travelers with suitcases was stretching all the way from the terminal to the parking lot, over the skybridge (pictured, line-free).

And then it struck us: Those people weren't waiting to check in upstairs. That was the security line.

For all the disadvantages of living "in America's biggest small town" (to quote a reader who commented here a few months ago) one of the big plusses is the airport. No. Lines. Ever. I've traveled in and out of San Diego at least a dozen times in some years, so I can say I've seen this airport from midnight to midnight in all seasons -- and there has never been a security line like that.

I asked the baggage handler if I should try to cut to the front: "My flight is leaving in 30 minutes!"

"You should be fine. It's moving fast," he answered.

No fast enough. From the looks of it, it would take at least 30 or 40 minutes.

So I did what anyone would do, asker or otherwise: When I got upstairs, I went to the First Class/priority lane. "My flight is at 11:30--" I began, and showed my boarding pass.

"G0!" she replied.

Gained I: Caught my flight.

The flight left late -- and landed late. I had a tight connection, with the next plane boarding in 10 minutes, two terminals away. And I was sitting in the last row.

I'd learned my lessons years ago, after so many mishaps and misadventures: Don't ever expect to make a tight connection if you're sitting in the back of the plane. Don't expect people in planes to move fast or get out of the way because others are in a rush. Don't expect the man with the connection clipboard to send you to the right gate or even right terminal. Don't expect the gate printed on your boarding pass to be accurate. Don't expect anything from anyone when flying.

So as the plane was taxing, I asked my neighbor to let me out so I could sprint ahead. When the plane reached the gate and people started getting out of their seats, I waited about a minute to see if the line would move, saw everyone standing still, and did what would have once been unthinkable: squeezed through the full aisle, saying: "Can I please get through? I only have 10 minutes to my next flight. I'm sorry. Happy holidays!"

People made room, some wished me luck, and I caught a go cart to terminal E -- and made the flight.

Gained II: happy holidays. Thanks, Continental passengers!

December 22, 2008

Santa, can I sit on your lap?

December 22. Day 175.

I haven't sat on Santa's lap in about two decades, maybe more, but as The Daily Asker, I can't really conceive of a holiday season where I don't talk with the big guy.

"Are you up for an adventure?" I asked my friend M this afternoon, right before we met up for coffee. He's a filmmaker who lives in LA, and he came back to San Diego for the holidays.


He met me at my car and we changed course from Peet's Coffee to the UTC Mall. Destination: Santa's Pavillion.

On the drive over, I thought about what I'd ask Santa for this year. My thoughts started veering toward the kinds of things that are hard to wrap up and put under the tree -- good health for my mom, a job for my sister, job security for my dad, a PhD in the spring, my voice back. On the material side, a bunch of books I like, some quality coffee or tea.

We parked at Macy's and walked through the menswear section, where it appeared a stampede of ravenous girlfriends had made their way. Clothes were falling off tables, cashmere sweaters lay limp -- picked through like yesterday's seafood special.

"This is why I don't like malls," M said. "I did all my Christmas shopping this year online."

Once inside the mall, we walked past a small booth with what looked like an "upscale contemporary" living room inside. Did Santa get a makeover? Where were the tinsel and elves?!! But I was mistaken -- it was empty, a showroom.

And then, we spotted it. The pavillion. The red and green foil. His chair. The promotional photo packages. We took a place in line - somehow I had forgotten about the line, or didn't think I'd actually force a baby to wait to see his first Santa. But so it was.

The kid in front of us was about 5 and squirming in his father's arms.

"Did you know children find beards universally terrifying?" M informed me.

As we waited, we started talking to a grandmother waiting for her daughter and her infant to see Santa. She asked us if we have kids.

"No. Maybe next year," I replied, an inside joke with M since we looked like a happy young couple, but I'm with Mr. A, and M is currently unattached (and gay).

Then, the granny advised us one kid is best, none is better.

"A pregnant woman walked into my deli yesterday and her credit card was declined," Granny said, to illustrate. "She apologized and said it must be the Target purchases.

"Did you buy furniture for the nursery?" Granny asked, making conversation.

"No. $2,0000 in toys for my kids. Already have five. One more one the way," the woman replied.

Our turn was next. We wished her happy holidays and approached Santa. M went in first and sat on his lap.

"For Christmas this year, I'd like affordable health insurance."

"So would I," the jolly guy chuckled.

My turn. I took a seat, leaned in and asked.

"Ho Ho Ho! I'll see what I can do!" he promised.

Gained: hope my Christmas wish will come true.

December 21, 2008

Need jumper cables? And ignore your store policy?

December 21. Day 174.

Three quick thoughts.

1. I am so happy I moved to California.

2. I hope and pray I am never twice-removed from fame or infamy, like this woman: "Bristol Palin's boyfriend's mom arrested in drug case." There's something so depressing about that double possessive.

3. What if Romeo and Juliet didn't die young? This article presents a new twist on lethal love: "Man Pleads Guilty to Throwing Wife Off Balcony"

Well, I asked twice today, and ended the evening 1-2.

First, I asked a man who couldn't start his car if he needs jumper cables. After being offered this service by dozens of strangers (I have a history of driving sketchy cars), I was happy to finally lend someone else a hand. He declined, saying it wasn't the battery.

Second, I requested a cashier to let me return a set picture frames, even though it was past the 30-day mark. I spoke the truth -- didn't realize I was late, never even unwrapped them -- and she let it slide.

Gained: $17.00

December 20, 2008

Can I finish your coffee?

December 20. Day 173.

When I was a wee thing, my parents had a pair of friends who lived in San Francisco. He was a mouth wateringly hot bisexual South African hairdresser, and for a while his paramour was my parents' cougary college friend. Every few years, this couple drove down to visit us for a few days.

My sister and I adored him. He was younger than the adults, and he paid attention to what we had to say, played with us, made us feel like princesses. My sister, who was around 7 or 9 at the time, had a total crush on him. I viewed him as a buddy, an ally. He was awesome.

One day, he offered to give us haircuts. Fantastic Sams in our own back yard? Cooool!

I took a seat on the dining room chair, which was set up outside on a bunch of open newspapers, and he asked me what I wanted. I suggested some soft tendrils or a little layers around my face. I was in eighth grade, getting ready for graduation. That would make me look nice and grown up, wouldn't it?

Half an hour later, he held up the mirror.

I had betty bangs.

"Thank you," I whispered, and excused myself.

"You're very diplomatic," he replied as I hurried away, holding back tears.


That, in a nutshell, was middle school. Trying to fit in and failing despite every desperate effort. Holding back tears. Running away.


High school and college were the opposite. I went to a new school. Stopped caring. Grew a backbone. Spoke up. Chilled out.

Which is to say that when I met up with a bunch of people from high school for drinks at Whiskenladle, in a do-over over the offensively boring 10-year reunion from a few weeks ago, I was excited and curious to see everyone.

I found out one of the smartest guys in our class was a narcoleptic, a party animal carried on his legacy through college, running around his campus naked for six hours, an animal lover with interesting clothes became a hair model and veterinary student, and our class president is about to start teaching business at Wharton.

I also ran into Nietzsche, one of the few friends I've kept in touch with, largely by trading rambling voicemails every few months, and every few years getting together as if no time had elapsed in between. Since high school she's done a million things -- math, politics, business... while I've been pursuing my doctoral dreams (read: stuck in grad school.) For months, we've been planning Something Creative. We even chat on gmail about this, trying to figure out if it should be a movie, a documentary, a book or what? Burning Man? Organizing a California ballot referendum to make chai tea powder illegal in cafes?

For a while, it was rumored that Nietzsche was a spy, and someone confronted her about that soon after she arrived at the bar.

"Wait, didn't I hear you work for the CIA? Are you a spy or something?" one guy asked.

"Well, if I was a spy, do you think you would have heard about it?"

"So what do you do?"

"Various things."



I figured this evening would be a ripe opportunity for an asking, but there wasn't really anything I wanted to know. What did you think of me in high school? How have you changed since high school? Yawn. I had no scores to settle, no crushes to divulge, nothing.

I also had laryngitis, so anything I asked had to be short.

Close to midnight, I spotted one guy, Cornelius, drinking a shot of espresso by the bar. He said the restaurant owner, a classmate of ours, made him the coffee. Apparently, it's his signature drink. So there it was -- I should ask Arturo to make me one, too!

Only the moment I spotted him, Arturo was saying goodbye.

Next option. This is, after all, that this project is about: pushing boundaries, seeing what I can get away with. I turned to Cornelius and asked:

"Could I finish your coffee?"


Cornelius had a long pony tail in high school -- now cropped. He was the kind of guy whose value -- intellectual, social, human -- everyone recognized, and so that set him apart on the totem poll. He was a gentleman.

He handed me his demitasse. And so, like a bong or ceremonial tea, the espresso shot passed between us, as we smiled.

Gained: half a shot of espresso.

December 19, 2008

Me want sparkly sparkles!

December 19. Day 172.

For years, I've wanted a pair of diamond earrings. I've debated with myself, argued with all the arguments, hashed it out in every possible way. I know they present a complicated set of opportunities and horrific abuses for mine workers and their communities (e.g. this 2006 Times piece on the subject). I know they're a status symbol fabricated by the jewelry industry to prey on gals like me and the men who love them. I know as a lit grad student I should be thinking Derrida, not diamonds. And I know they're unoriginal, in the worst of ways. I know they're just chipped carbon.

And yet... they purdy!!!

Sparkle sparkle make me happy.

Me want.

So this afternoon, spurred on by promises of "great deals" for tough times -- more on that myth below -- I headed to a local mall to at least take a gander at the options, and perhaps let myself be seduced...

First stop: Macy's.

I'd read online about their "doorbuster" special for $199 a pair, but when I saw the earrings in person they were completely uninteresting. Not that diamond studs are ever interesting, unless Audrey Hepburn comes to life wearing them and invites you to have dinner with her at Harry's. But these were just dark and drab.

When I told her I wasn't convinced, the saleswoman explained that she's buying them for her daughter-in-law for Christmas, as if that were a selling point.

Ciao ciao.

Levi & Sons

For the next hour, I wove in and out of about half a dozen stores. Zales, Kay, Levi & Sons, Whitehall, Weisfield, and perhaps one more. Half had "CLEARANCE" and 40% to 70% off signs.

The first thing the first saleswoman asked me when I walked in and told her I wanted earrings was: "Are these for you?"

Odd question. Why would she need to ask? Was she trying to guess my budget? Did she want to confirm her hypothesis that I was selfish GenY-er?

I replied yes. She smiled and directed me toward a pair. Blinding pricetag.

Ciao ciao.

Next stop: Zales

Both sales women independently complimented my purse, and one asked to touch it. (It's soft eel skin.)

I strategically confessed that it was a thrift store find ($7, baby!) which got them in a tizzy. Good -- establishing rapport, even if it's fake, and showing I'm a dealhunter. They took turns bringing out a few styles, discounted to $450 to $1200, and offered no payments, no interest for six months. I asked for a discount on top of the sale, and the more senior saleswoman said she could knock off another 10%.

I told her it was still a big purchase, I needed to think about it, so she extended the payment plan to 12 months.

I seriously don't understand why such plans are appealing. For a car, a bed, maybe. You need it. NOW. Even if you're broke. But diamond earrings? On the other hand, who am I to judge others for having their priorities upsidedown. Especially under these circumstances.

The younger woman then explained that I can "trade up" -- purchase a small pair now and use them as partial payment for a heftier pair in a few years. And here I thought a diamond is forever.


At one store -- perhaps Weisfield, but I'm quickly losing track -- the saleswoman asked me what I'm looking for. I told her I didn't have my heart set on any one item, but if she had something amazing that worked with my budget, I might be interested. She showed me a pair that was similar in size and lettering (you know, EFG, S1-2, all that stuff) as something from Zales, for twice the price.

I was very direct: "To be honest, these are twice as much as something identical I saw another store."

"Sure you can find something cheaper at Whitehall, but they're not going to have our quality," she replied.

Whitehall? Good to know...

She went on explain that their diamond is guaranteed -- if it falls out or combusts in my ear, they'll replace the gem at no cost. Then, she tried to upsell: "We also offer an additional protection plan, which covers the gold. In case it gets bent, we can fix that at no charge." You mean for the exorbitant fee I paid up front to secure this free service.

Finally, she went for the kill: "Diamonds are like... cars. It's not a one-time purchase. You need to devote time and resources to take care of them, maintain them, polish them, clean them. That's why we recommend getting the additional protection plan."

Spoken to the woman who washes her car twice a decade.

Ciao ciao.


Thanks to her suggestion, I headed to Whitehall, across the atrium.

The store is shutting down and had huge 70% signs everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Screaming desperation. I glanced at the prices, only they didn't seem very desperate. $2,000 and up, for the most part. A saleswoman looked tired.

"Is there anything you want to see?"

"Yes, I'm curious about your studs. Is that 70 percent off the marked price?"

"No, what's marked is the discounted price."

"I see. If I find a pair I like, would you be able to go any lower?"

"Twenty percent."

I found a pair that came to $340. They were nice. But I wasn't feeling it. Truth be told, something at I'd seen at Zales, something bigger and sparklier, caught my eye. Was I that greedy? Or was I just making excuses to escape empty-handed?

Ciao ciao, at least for now.


Quick stop, nothing heartstopping.

JC Penny

The counter was overtaken by a throng of dudes, so I had to wait a bit. Nothing had a visible price tag, which was annoying.

About five or six minutes later, the saleswoman appeared.

She was totally relaxed, and seemed informed. Told me everything was half off. Yet it was still much more than the better prices I'd seen. And one of the most expensive pieces had a whopping black thing in the middle of it. And inclusion, she explained, when I pointed it out.

I'd call it an exclusion.

Ciao ciao.


With only a drop of effort I negotiated a maximum savings of $120 at Zales -- which would have dropped lower, I'm certain, if I went back and actually tried hard core bargaining.

Until I make the move -- or if I make it -- I can glance at this picture to remind me what it is I'm so anxious to purchase:

December 18, 2008

Free mini pastry?

December 18. Day 171.

A few months ago, I went to the Living Room, asked to sample their cheesecake, and got rejected.

So what did I do last night, when I happened to end up at the Living Room? Ask to sample their cheesecake, again, and get rejected.

This time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity: they had an entire tray of miniature pastries sitting on a shelf next to all these massive cakes. These didn't look like they were individually prepared -- just, tiny pieces of a larger cheesecake. So, I ordered my food and then inquired, "Are those little pieces down there samples?"

"They're .$75."

Case closed.

Grrr. I totally should have phrased it differently, for example "Could we also have a couple of those samples? They're not samples?! Could I try one anyway?"

Or: "Could you also throw in a mini pastry? It's $.75? Really? That's so funny... I'd never pay more that a dime for that puny handful of calories. I mean, if I could try one maybe I'd come back for more, but otherwise forget it..."

But I was meek, and asked expecting a no.


Gained: Nothing, again. Exactly what I deserved.

December 17, 2008

More chai latte shenanigans

December 17. Day 170.

Wrapped in the snuggliest scarf I have, a soft pink cloud on loan from my grandmother, I stepped outside for the first time around 9 pm.

Mr. A and I decided to get dessert and coffee at Cream, a hotspot in our future neighborhood.

He was getting over laryngitis and exhausted from sleeping two hours per night since Saturday. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. And I was coughing and feeling generally run down because of this virus.

We ordered a chocolate cake to share, and driven by my latest compulsion, I thought I'd get a chai latte. Plus, it would soothe my throat. But would it be drinkable?

"Hi! Do you make your chai lattes with powder?" I asked.

"Yes we do."

"Do you have the regular chai black tea, too?"

"Yeah, I have that."

"So, do you think you could make a latte with that, instead of the powder?"

"Old school? Of course. You're one of the few diehards. Starbucks totally ruined chai lattes. People want them all sugary and milky. I can make you one. It's nice to see someone still remembers what they're like."


The guy was quite tall, wearing black from head to toe, and once we got our drinks and sat down, Mr. A and I speculated about whether he had a PhD and in what. I suggested Russian studies, or nuclear physics, graduated in 1983. Instead of teaching or working for the CIA, he did the peace corps for three years and then hiked Mr. Whitney, and by the time he started looking for work, everything he'd learned was irrelevant.

(What a relief I'm studying something that's irrelevant, all the time.)

But we didn't talk long... a few seconds after the cake disappeared, Mr. A was asleep, and I needed to rest my vocal chords.

Gained: an old school latte. A potential hang out close to my future house. This was no monumental asking, but there's only so much I can dream about or aspire toward when all I really want to do is sleep and get this cold out of my system...

Since the obvious picture for this post would be Cream cafe or a drink, here's something else. I am opening the New Yorker to page 3, since it's 1:03, looking at word 17, for Dec 17, and posting the first picture I find on google images of that word. Ready?

Damn! Page 3 was an advertisement. Mary J Blige and her citi card. And... it's not on google images!?

Ok, now it's 1:06.Try page 6. Same thing.


December 16, 2008

Care to network?

December 16. Day 169.

I'm going to keep this short, since I'm typing between coughs...

Thanks to this lovely cold, I only left the house for 10 minutes to pick up Chinsese takeout 4 blocks away. I drove.

But between writing my dissertation and blowing my nose, I got an idea.

It was the same sort of impulse that led me to commit to a daily asking and blog, on a whim, almost six months ago.

I assembled a list of several really cool and interesting friends and professional acquaintances -- people with different backgrounds, different takes on life, living in different corners of the world. And then I emailed them, inviting them to connect to one another. Here's the message, in case you're curious:
Hi Ladies,

While dutifully procrastinating on my dissertation, I got an idea that I'm getting more and more excited about!

Reflecting on how many wonderful new friends and professional connections I've made through my friends, I thought of assembling a narrow list of people I wish I could introduce, and then putting everyone in touch via email. Some of you already know one another, but most do not -- and it's sad to think of all the conversations that aren't happening because of distance, circumstance and inertia.

So, I'm sending this email to about 30 brilliant and enterprising people I'd love to connect across three continents, from the worlds of journalism, law, art, business, nonprofit, academia, and science.

I don't know where this could lead. Maybe a reporter could find a source through the list, or a filmmaker could find the right location for that elusive shot, or scientists on different coasts could trade ideas about cancer, or a tourist could have a nice dinner in someone else's hometown, or someone looking for a career change could learn about a new field, who knows?

(I didn't explicitly intend for this to be women-only, but since most of my super duper friends happen to be women, that's how it turned out.)

What I'd like to include:

[I told them to give me preferred contact info and a phrase or two about their specialties and interests.]

Participating means you should feel comfortable asking anyone on the list for an opinion, feedback, contacts, or advice about her specialty. You'd likewise do your best to reply when someone writes to you -- given you have time and it's a relevant question.

We must also promise to keep the list private, and use it with discretion.

One last thing: we could extend this, where you each make your own list, and include me, then those people make a list and include you. Then the network would broaden in interesting ways for each of us. But that risks being chainletter-y, so I'm not convinced. Just bringing up the possibility.

That's the gist. Facebook is so huge, Linked-in sucks, so why not resort to good old email?

If I don't hear from you by Jan 1, I'll assume you're not interested. Otherwise, please send me your info or let me know if have any concerns/suggestions, and we can go from there!

Ok, back to Baudelaire...


La Roxy
A day later, more than a third have replied! One made this great point: "I find it so interesting that our generation is resorting to conscious networking, using of course the tools of our times. More and more, I hear about people making efforts like these to meet new people, even to date."

No wonder golf courses are struggling.

Gained: While I have nothing to gain -- since I'm already lucky to have these individuals as my friends -- maybe they do. I didn't plan for this to be an official asking, but why not include it? It's not something I'd normally think of doing, and it's about women and their careers.

December 15, 2008

Dish all your professional secrets?

December 15. Day 168.

Ever since moving to San Diego, I've been thinking of branching out and trying to do some freelance writing, before and/or after I finish grad school. Maybe marketing & PR, white papers, trade publications, websites. Maybe something online, since the print world is currently imploding. Basically, anything that would combine words, a keyboard, and a paycheck. Because I love writing, and I need money. Simple. (I have some experience in this domain -- wrote for my college paper, wrote copy for a cosmetics website, and various other gigs. So, why not explore this further?)

A few months ago I called a local freelance writer I found on the Internet and left a voicemail introducing myself as a new kid in town who was interested in learning about her career. (She was one of the people I contacted back in August.) She immediately called me back and left a message. I called her back and left a message. Somehow, we played phone tag an entire month, until we (well, I) stopped trying.

Today, pushed by I don't know what force, I impulsively picked up the phone and called her again.

She answered.

In the span of 23:06 minutes (as my cell phone timer attests), I learned so much about this biz that my head is still reeling. She was so forthright and generous. Every time I thanked her, which was often, she said it was no problem -- she was once a jittery newcomer, too, and people call her all the time for advice.

She told me her most recent rate, six years ago, when she switched from freelancer to in-house: $85 an hour.

She told me that for projects that come to more than $500, I need to ask for 50% up front, due with the signed contract.


Yes, she has her clients sign contracts. She said she'll email me hers.

She told me to trust my gut about people who approach me, since if I suspect they won't pay up, it's probably for a good reason. She's spent too much time chasing charlattans, and hopes I won't make the same mistake.

She recommended two books and a website about how to make a living as a freelancer, all by Peter Bowerman. His site, The Well-Fed Writer, explains that "the words 'starving' and 'writer' are never seen together" -- Excellent!

She told me to get as much experience as possible writing web copy and that Facebook is great for finding contacts and work.

She told me that having a technical background isn't necessary for lucrative technical documents, but it's boring as hell.

She told me about loyalty and ethics -- I shouldn't write about the same topic for different publications or overlap PR with journalism on the same topic.

She gave me the email of an editor at a small but well-paying magazine and told me to include her name in the subject line.

Then she asked for my email and said she'll send work my way.

At the end, I offered to return the generosity however I could. If not professionally, then with translations, or cat or baby sitting, or rides to the airport. She laughed and said we can meet for coffee one day and go from there.

Gained: Where there was darkness, now there is light. And, equally important, I got an example of the kind of professional I hope to be, whatever field I end up in: successful, generous, transparent, resourceful, and busy enough to pass work on to a newbie.

December 14, 2008

Whip my butt into shape?

December 14. Day 167.

The answer was a no brainer. I was sure Mr. A would say yes. But asking? That took a little courage...

"Can you help me get back in shape?"

Since I've gotten to San Diego, I've gotten lazy. My joints crack randomly. My back is stiff. And my jean miniskirt -- a far more faithful indicator than any scale -- has gone from tight, yo to... tight.

Almost every other city I've lived in or passed through, walking everywhere just made sense. I had time, and it was a pleasure. Seattle, which is very spread out, and Boston in the wintertime are the big exceptions. In Boston, I routinely drove five blocks, into the traffic infested Harvard Square, and happily circled for 20 minutes to find parking -- just to avoid walking in the snow. What can I say... California girl to the core. Besides that, my feet plus a metro pass were the way to go. (Here I've posted a picture of Salamanca, which I visited for a single day when I was 11 and still remember vividly. It was the happiest summer of my childhood, and that was one of the highlights. See! Happy people walking!)

In San Diege, walking is considered reactionary, a critique of the American Dream. People might stop to get a better look at the subversive, or speculate charitably that her car broke down. That's just fine, but my destinations are so far apart I'd need to bring a sleeping bag just to make it from my mom's house to downtown. And, save for a few fun streets here and there, the urban texture here is hardly enticing. Thank you, Eisenhower.

One more thing. I haaaate going to the gym. I find them to be gross and depressing. I did set foot inside one once, in 2005, in a moment of self-doubt. Turned around as soon as I saw all those endorphined beauties heaving at the elliptical machines or flipping through magazines and (am I making this up or was it really thus? I can't tell) law text books while they cycled. On TV screens above, CNN and Seinfeld, to make it more bearable.

Bottom line, I like it when exercise is a natural part of my day, not ritualized and compartmentalized. That leaves several options. Tennis, biking and hiking, when it's not cold out. Dancing, anytime. Maybe I can try Pilates. Fortunately, as I've explained before, Mr. A is in great shape and an ideal workout partner. Patient, and pushy in the right way. He agreed, of course.

Gained: A pact to get active.

December 13, 2008

Happy Hour price on a Saturday?

December 13. Day 166.

Mr. A and I made a date to talk about my career post grad... San Diego or another city? Something full-time, corporate, lucrative? Teaching? Something unstructured, creative, exhilarating?

What kind of options does a lit PhD have these days, anyway? And how do they mesh with those of a long-lashed, brown-eyed, curry-concocting, mountaing-scaling, tango-dancing technical type?

All that brainstorming made me hungry, so I scoped out the menu at our outpost, Zanzibar, and noticed a flatbread pizza, which comes with a happy hour price of $6.50 -- Monday through Friday, 4 to 7. Small discount off of the $7.25, but what the hell. It was 7, and I could save a few quarters and strike off my asking for the day.

The waitress said she's not sure they can offer such a discount.

"I don't want to say anything one way or another, but I'll ask."

"Thank you for asking." I made a point of repeating that word. Don't know why.

She came back and, still very congenial, said it was not doable.

Nice waitress. Baaaaaad, Zanzibar.

You don't want encourage riffraff like myself from thinking you're a discount diner? Worried I'll get the word out about this place? Worse, give all my homeless friends the scoop?

"Have you been to Zanzibar?" I might ask my posse in the park.

"The capital of Tanzania?" one chick might reply (its beach is pictured).

"No silly, the cafe. They gave me a sweet discount last night. 75 cents off of a flatbread pizza."

"Lovely! Let's all hang out there tonight. We'll occupy the tables at the front of the restaurant and demand that amazing discount, too."

Or maybe, to be less dramatic, it's just policy. That's cool. Free country.

On the flipside, your place was e-m-p-t-ee. One other couple, 30 tables or so... on a Saturday night. All I asked for was a $.75 discount. I think it was a reasonable "shift" -- not a random 20% off a steak, but simply, to apply the happy hour price, at at happy hour time, on a Saturday. You would have gotten $6.50. Two satisfied clients. Perhaps someone who would have liked your food enough to come back and splurge on the salmon.

Gained: Nothing. You and me both, baby.

I don't normally do this, but I'm emailing Zanzibar this link. Is that asking for trouble? As I've said before, I'm treating every word on this site as something the subject might read... And I think they should know one eater's take. Please feel free to reply!

December 12, 2008

Tour of Santa Barbara and wine country?

December 12. Day 165.

Through a random twist of events, I found myself at the Starlight Lounge having cocktails with a group of musicians from the San Diego Symphony.

Okay, not that random. The soloist at last night's performance was the acquaintance of an acquaintance of an acquaintance, and after the show Mr. A and I went back stage to say hi. He invited us to go out with the gang.

And so a harpist, cellist, French horn player, two violinists, and two groupies ended up at the Starlight.

Between conversations about violins, musical mothers, symphony auditions, Manhattan (see: cocktail), foosball, and propulsion physics (i.e. would a thrown napkin fly further if it had been doused in ketchup?), the soloist at one point mentioned that he doesn't like blogs.

"I'm a blogger," I said.

"Really? What do you blog about?"


He processed this for a moment. Perhaps this seemed unlikely to him, since I had told him I'm a grad student and occasional writer. Did I mediate cross-border labor treaties in my spare time? mend broken marriages? broker corporate discounts for group health care benefits? help bratty twins share a bedroom? "Negotiation..." he checked.


"What do you mean by that? What aspect of negotiation?"

"Basically, every day I try to negotiate something, ask for something, see what kind of deal I can get. For example, right now I'm asking you for a tour of Santa Barbara. When you're up there next summer." (A few minutes earlier, he'd told me he and his wife spend every summer there and it's his favorite city in California. I've never been, despite driving up the coast a few times. )

"You're asking me for a tour of Santa Barbara?"

"Yes! I'll just ring you up in six months and say, 'I'm standing outside'!"

"Okay. But it's not really a negotiation. It would be a pleasure."

Gained: a "voucher" of sorts for an insider's glimpse of SB.

For once, and only once, I went against my rule of not revealing my identity as a blogger before asking. I wasn't planning on phrasing it that way, or even asking for that, but so the conversation evolved.

Actually, this works out great. Except for certain situations -- purely self-indulgent vacations, Hawaii-style -- I avoid "tourism" as much as possible. It's fun to snap pictures on historic bridges and gawk at buskers while eating eclairs, especially when you're traveling with the right person, but really, what beats living in a place for a while, talking to the people who serve your steak or sell you the newspaper, adjusting to its daily rhythms, ditching the idea of "getting lost" along with the map, learning to listen for your neighborhood's particular sounds, becoming a regular, if only for a month or a precious week, at the cafe downstairs... No such plans for Santa Barbara, but a local's take will make it that much more memorable.

December 11, 2008

Are you lost, or am I?

December 11. Day 164.

A few feet from my car, on an empty street corner near downtown just after nightfall, I noticed a man. He was standing by himself and rocking from side to side. As I walked down the block, he didn't advance at all. Just stood there, rocking gently. As I got closer, I thought he seemed old and fragile.

Was he okay? Lost? Waiting? Just chilling?

A small laminated plastic card, hanging by a string around his neck, reflected the light of a street lamp. Was it an ID? The address of his nearest relative? Or perhaps a fashion accessory or his favorite baseball card?

Maybe he noticed I was watching him, because as I got closer he suddenly started walking. I sat in my car, following him in my rear view mirror. It was a slow stroll, relaxed, like anyone's grandpa would take after dinner. Then, he ran across the street (though no cars were approaching), and continued walking slowly.

Something seemed off, but I wasn't sure if he was disoriented or just a little eccentric. Didn't want to automatically assume he has Alzheimer's, but didn't want to let him get more lost, if he did. I started following him in my car for a few blocks, parking once in a while so it wasn't too obvious, and then catching up. Then, an idea occurred to me: Pretend I'm lost.

"Excuse me," I called, from my car. "Do you know where 5th Avenue is?"

"Fifth? That's over by the park."

Good sign, but not good enough.

"So am I headed the right way? I'm so bad with directions."

"No, you need to turn around. First You'll hit Fifth, and then Sixth, which borders the park."

"Oh! Thank you!"

"You're welcome."

Gained: Directions.

December 10, 2008

Meet me in my hood?

December 10. Day 163.

Final lease-related question, I promise.

We were supposed to take care of the lease a few days ago, but the property manager has been busy. We finally got in touch, and he invited me to his office.

In East El Cajon.

East El Cajon is an intriguing area. Lots of strip malls and mom-n-pop stores that have miraculously survived since the 70s and 80s. Loads of personality. Reminds me of Mississippi or South Texas, not San Diego.

It's also 15.6 miles away.

15.6 miles that seem much longer since there's almost always traffic. 25 km, which seems even further!

I drove out once, to drop off the application.

I drove out a second time, to drop off the security deposit.

But a third time? Not exactly charming...

I phrased my question diplomatically as possible.

"Is there any way we could do it somewhere else? Near your house, or if you have any errands to run? ANY PLACE but East El Cajon?"

He chuckled.

"Sometimes, I meet people for signing leases in Mission Valley [which is 2 miles from my house]. We could meet at the Starbucks next to Target. You can also bring me your security deposit, if it's easier."

Interesting. So apparently, he routinely meets people in Mission Valley -- but doesn't advertise it. And, I could have skipped the second drive... if only I'd asked! At least I avoided one trip.

Gained: An hour, and a gallon or two of gas.

December 09, 2008

Final sale? Shminal shmale! And, an aesthetic manifesto!

December 9. Day 162.

The scene at Empire Beauty Supply in La Jolla at 3:30 on a sunny Tuesday:

Woman in a snappy suit and a beautiful knotted strand of pearls has a few items on the counter. She's looking in her purse for a frequent buyer card, so she can collect another stamp. Then, she exclaims, "You know what? I'm not going to get these. I can't find my card, and frankly, I've seen these products for less at other stores. I don't need them now. Sorry to have wasted your time."
And leaves.

She's not at all reproachful or rude. Simply, states the fact that she's not willing to shell out the extra bucks, and she's sorry to have imposed. Buh-bye.

After she leaves, I ask if sales have been slow lately. There are good days and bad, the cashier replies, but overall -- yes, things have slowed down considerably.

Well... I'm kind of hoping this economy will lead to a new aesthetic. I've heard theories about hemlines adjusting to stock prices and read about "recessionista" fashion -- codeword for pleather, according to the NYT.

But what about a simpler, less self-conscious or -- no offense -- offensive look? Celebrating the natural? Opting for grey hair in the salon chair? Wrinkles over restylane? Verity and clarity over vulgarity? (As long as people still invest in deodorant and steer clear of grunge. Just think Paris, not Paris. These examples are from Easy Fashion, Creole in DC, and Facehunter, top to bottom. At the same time, I realize even a natural or "romantically undone" look can cost big bucks... just ask Marcel, that hairgod who made me look almost the same, yet so much better, for 130 euros, that year in France...)

Even as I praise natural and affordable beauty to you, resplendent reader, I confess that I'm as much a slave to, er, facades as the next hypocrite. I shelled out $21 for a new skincare item.

But when I got to my car, it occurred to me to check a few reviews online. It was immediately apparent I made the wrong choice! Terrible reviews. Didn't seem at all like a good match.
Empire has a "final purchase" policy, which they reminded me of with a red stamp on my receipt. And especially these days, I doubted they'd be flexible. But it was worth a try.

"I know you don't accept returns," I blurted, back at the counter, "but could I just exchange this for my normal product? I just looked online and it seems to be a bad match."

Gained: $8 price difference since I got a cheaper item -- and a product I trust.

PS: The word "gained" is a misnomer of sorts. In this case, it's an offset loss. But eventually, I hope to shift gears from merely minimizing looses to boldly boosting earnings. A goal for 2009!

December 08, 2008

Manic Monday

December 8. Day 161.

A jet crashed in San Diego. My aunt, who lives in the neighborhood, heard the booms. Two fatalities, so far. A dark day. Here and elsewhere: terror, biological warfare, recession, hunger (shiver inducing story at that link), amplified by arrogance and ignorance and arrogant ignorance.

If I don't react to news or to much beyond my narrow sliver of the world, it's not that I don't care, or don't follow. Please believe me. But I spend enough time on news sites and thinking about all the muck that The Daily Asker is my daily dose of something else.

So, I bring you one piece of good news: My dad found a job! What a relief. Thanks to everyone who sent kind thoughts and helped out these past months.

On the housing front, I talked to the property manager today about a few issues. I don't recall asking for changes or improvements before moving into a new place, even when it was warranted, because I was an easy sell. This time, things are different.

--I requested that the $50 application fee be used toward the first month's rent. He said no, but will give me a copy of both of our credit reports instead. Fine.

--I asked him if we could choose the color of the paint in the bathroom. They're replacing the wallpaper, and why not have a say, if I'm the one using it? He said they're leaning toward off-white or neutral, and I pushed for blue. Works with the garage door and gate, and could be cute. He'll talk it over with the owner.

--I asked to get the verbally promised changes (fixing a few cracks in the plaster, that bathroom wallpaper, etc) in writing. He said he doesn't like to do that, and I pointed out that "it's easier for all of us if we have that in writing." Actually, it's easier for me. But he agreed.

--I asked him to revisit the wallpaper in the back bedroom in one year, and add that to the lease. It's a discreet pattern, not offensive in any way, but if it starts peeling or looks gross, I want it gone. He replied he doesn't put things that far ahead, but said the owner wants to keep the house in good shape. (If the owner didn't want to, would anyone admit that? But, I do believe this. The owner, that NPR reporter, told me he's keeping the house because he wants like to move back when he's done covering the White House. Also, I presume, the current real estate market may be a factor in renting over selling... In any case, I got a good vibe from him. He cares about the place. Plus, he's a respected reporter, not a slimy developer. Good credential, I'd say.)

The rent was already great, so no need to adjust that. I find that it's getting easier and easier to ask, and sound comfortable asking. At the same time, I'm still not needing to negotiate anything very valuable, like a major salary boost or four figure car discount.

I'm 20 days away from the midpoint of this project. Must invest in a few negotiation books, broaden my scope and gear up for some bigger challenges in the second half!

Gained: Capital improvements.

December 07, 2008

Spreading out at The Gathering

December 7. Day 160.

As I drove a friend to the airport this morning, a former grad school colleague, I asked him if he thinks I can finish by this spring based on how much I've written.

"Depends how long your next chapters are," he replied. Code for: Don't get your hopes up.

After we parted, I found myself strangely itching to get some work done -- I can't imagine why...

By now, I'd estimate that Mr. A and I have been to about 80 percent of the viable cafes in central San Diego, laptops in tow, I writing and he reading.

Today we stopped at a new Starbucks in Mission Hills (new to us, that is), but were thwarted by a horde of preteens in soccer uniforms -- boys? girls? no idea, I just noticed they came up to my shoulders and were very noisy. So we walked a block due west, to The Gathering, a restaurant that's been a neighborhood institution for ages and recently survived a scary fire.

The plan: spread out at a table and work-o-rama until dinner time.

The question: would they mind? We weren't exactly a high-net-worth table, and it was close to dinner time, and it's a nice restaurant (not technically a diner or cafe). Would a couple of coffees and dessert, at best, cut it?

I walked in, candidly stated our intentions and asked the bartender if we could set up camp somewhere out of the way -- if it wasn't conflicting with their dinner schedule or whatever. He zoomed to the back area, looked for plugs, and welcomed us to the biggest table there. A waitress brought us endless cups of coffee and two oversized bread puddings with gooey tequila sauce. And... I made major headway on my chapter! In fact, in about two hours I finished this section. The same section that's been killing me since September.

And at a certain point during this cramfest, I turned to Mr. A with this revelation: "Once I'm done with this dissertation, I'll be able to come home after work, open a book and read for hours and... not feel guilty!!!!"


a) I feel the end getting closer


b) apparently, I'm looking forward to doing the exact same thing as I do in grad school -- reading around the clock -- only without the deadlines. Way to think outside the box, Rox.

Gained: A comfy, welcoming restauroffice. And a dash of hope. (And, just now, a new word! Restauroffice? Only one "valid" usage when I Googled it. Would you use it?)

December 06, 2008

Tango, at last...

December 6. Day 159.

When I was growing up, December 6 was a very important day: St. Nicholas Day. My sister and I used to put our shoes by the fireplace and so many magical things used to appear in them. Chocolate oranges, jump ropes, scissors, pencils, a magnifying glass, a tape measure. (Those are the cool treats you get your dad is an architect!) First there was blind and absolute belief in a supernatural power (i.e. St. Nick himself) and eventually came the knowledge that my parents were responsible. But I don't think it went from one to the other abruptly; rather, it shifted over a year or two. And in those years, when I no longer took the magic for granted, nor had a real and rational answer, that's when the whole affair was suspended in the most delicious air of mystery, and that's the feeling I most associate with that holiday.

St. Nick's day this year was just as mysterious and every bit as magical!

Not only did we dance, but we did so in an amazing location: Tablao Flamenco. I've posted pictures, but they're really bad. So sorry! I will invest in a small camera one of these days, but for now it's just my cell phone.

This intricately adorned building used to be a restaurant and flamenco performance venue. Then, suddenly, about 15 years ago, it shut down. Its beguiling facade -- of several gigantic dancers in bas-relief, stretching their arms up to the highway overpass -- was preserved, a stucco chrysalis, a mystery that resurfaced every time I drove past the building on the highway.

For years I'd wondered what happened. No one dared buy it, or sell it, or tear it down. I wondered if it wasn't a success; maybe the prices had to be too high to cover the construction costs, or its location (visible but not obviously accessible) meant the loss of valuable foot traffic, or people simply didn't appreciate Spanish culture? All tragic options.

This tango society somehow had the keys to this place, even though there was still a For Sale sign outside. And inside, 'twas truly gorgeous! Seemed unchanged, actually. So strange.

I told Mr. A about the building's history, and he also got curious about the owner.

"Do you think he ever comes in the building when no one is around?" he asked.

"I do."

"And how do you think he feels?"

"He cries," I speculated. "I think wonders why he couldn't make it work. It was his dream. He poured every waking minute, every penny, into these decorations, hoping to make this the heart of Iberian culture in Southern California, and still, people didn't come. Maybe he's here now, dancing, and no one even knows him."

Before we left, one of the tango dudes approached us to say hi. He works for the society, so I had a chance to get some answers.

"How did you get a hold of this place? Isn't it for sale?"

"We bought it. We're about to redo everything -- get a liquor license, fix the bar, add food. In a few months."

"That's amazing! And what about the old owner? Do you know why he had to sell?"

"He's crazy. Old guy. He just closed the doors one day. The place was doing great, and he just shut it down."


He told us about upcoming events and I gave him my email.

Gained: Tango con mi tanguero. And, satisfied an old curiosity!