Friday, March 23, 2012

Our Thrifty Wedding: We're Doing it Our Way

Some news I have been holding out on: Steve and I got engaged at the Grand Canyon. Hooray!

A little side note on how we met (seven years ago!) to give you a background of who we are. I was thinking about going to culinary school after my position as a managing editor of Washington news at a trade publication was "eliminated" - always a nicer way than saying "fired." After seven years there right out of college, I thought if ever there was a time to try something different, it was now. On the advice of a chef, I was told to ask other chefs on their opinions on schools and working in the kitchen. I asked one at a French restaurant when I was dining there with my parents, and he offered me an apprenticeship where the banquet chef just happened to be my heart's desire. I was drawn to him immediately. He does look so handsome in that chef's uniform, although my dad teases me I'm like the World War II brides who fell in love with the uniforms of the GIs. Steve's moved on from that restaurant and after extremely grueling hours with low pay and no benefits, I couldn't justify $25,000 plus for tuition at the New York culinary schools. After some temp jobs, a short waitressing stint (please never be ashamed of taking any honest job even if it's totally out of your field if you're reading this and are unemployed), I now have a cubicle job. Not a "dream" job saving the world with my political science degree, but a job I'm pretty grateful to have. Ultimately, I love what Robert Kincaid said in the film version of The Bridges of Madison County, "The old dreams were good dreams. They didn't work out, but I'm glad I had them."

While I gained a relationship from my job loss, I also changed my relationship with money as a result of my unemployment and times living on my very limited restaurant salary. Steve's very careful with money too. He's worked hard his whole life. He still does with one full time state job (which he often worries about losing amid our budget cut crisis times) and has a part time job at an Italian restaurant. We're about to move into another two family home (he's keeping the one we're in now as an investment). We're still waiting for our mortgage to arrive and right now the words "bank," "mortgage" and "mortgage broker" make my blood boil! But ultimately, a home, not a one day party, is really our top priority. Even if that wasn't in the picture, we'd still have a thrifty wedding. Here's what's in store so far.

The ring:
I told Steve DON'T buy me a new ring when we were talking about to get engaged. I definitely wanted something secondhand, preferably vintage. I don't want to contribute to questionable sources for diamonds (see Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond!) and we just don't have that kind of money. He proposed with an IOU for a ring! When I got back from the trip, my mom showed me my grandmother's ring from my father's side, and it fit perfectly. It's very modest and totally me. I grew up with my grandparents in Switzerland who I saw occasionally on summer vacations there, but with the distance and language barrier, I didn't have the same experience other children have, so I love being close to my grandmother in this sense, and that it's the ring my grandfather picked out about eighty years ago. I never did get to meet him.

The dress:
With great pride, I'm telling people happily: I got my dress at the Goodwill! I went to the Paramus, New Jersey location on another mission, and happened to see a display of wedding dresses. I had already made my purchases, but a gut feeling told me to go back into the store. The girl took the dress off the mannequin, and it fit perfectly. A customer passing by came up to me and said, "Get it" and when I told her the price, she said, "Definitely get it!" Since I was shopping alone, I thought she was one of those guardian angels at just the right time. I'll reveal the dress and the shocking price (two digits!) after the wedding (sometime this summer). It's from Hartley, an upscale boutique in Westwood, New Jersey. About a year or two ago, I admittedly was fascinated with the TLC show, "Say Yes to the Dress" where brides try dresses on at Kleinfeld's in New York City. First, I can't believe their "budgets." If you're spending $2,000 on a dress, that's not a budget in my book. Also, I wasn't about to make anyone pay for my dress. Even if my grandmother was alive, I wouldn't spend thousands of dollars of her money so I could get some retail high off a dress shopping experience. My parents are retired and their financial security is more important than a few hours at some catering hall wearing a dress I'll have on once for a few hours. I have some nice savings I've built up and have no intention of using so much of it for this one day.

Readers here know I am a big advocate of the reuse market, especially for clothing since almost none are made domestically, and am thrilled to have found a secondhand dress. Angela Barton has a "Thrifty Threads" column where readers show off their secondhand clothing on her "My Year Without Spending" blog and she featured a bride, Alyson, who got her dress on eBay for just $100. Angela also shared this site, Recycled Bride, which says more than 20% of brides bought gently used gowns last year.

Rehearsal dinner dress:
At the Goodwill again! On the same mannequin! A navy blue Jessica McClintock dress for just $30. Admittedly, I need to lose 5-10 pounds, which is my goal anyway. My wedding dress has more of a 1930s feel, but this is more 1950s. Very Mad Men!

The rehearsal dinner:
We have a restaurant in mind, and it's a BYOB which will save a ton of money. I think my parents will be picking up the tab.

The registry:
We aren't having one. Really, we just want money toward a honeymoon or the house. Steve and I are on the same page with consumerism. We both will tell you we love stuff and are constantly acquiring things (for me: homey stuff, books, and vintage clothes and such, him tools and odds and ends), but we get it almost entirely second hand. Our "new" television - from the trash. We feel ill at ease giving anyone's money (our own or our loved one's) to corporations for all their (mostly) Chinese made stuff when we can buy things already produced for a fraction of the cost. We're supplementing our household needs with finds at charity thrift shops and estate sales. I even rescued a nice white wicker nightstand minutes before the garbage truck was going to bring it to a landfill.

The reception:
If we ever get into our house and I don't have to hear Steve's "patience is a virtue lecture," we'll have an intimate dinner in our backyard. Steve wants to get married in his Catholic church (I'm Protestant, but neither of us are deeply religious). Since our new home has a tiled patio with a private backyard that looks out to a wooded area, this seems perfect. I keep thinking about the garden dinner party Juliette Binoche's character hosts in the film Chocolat with amazing food, candlelight and close loved ones, although we don't have a French farmhouse - it's a suburban home built in 1970. I love in that scene even the dog is savoring the food.

I also thought of the great backyard wedding scene in another Juliette Binoche film, Dan in Real Life, or when Rachel McAdam's character got married in the film The Vow in an unconventional pink dress in a rouge ceremony at a museum. Who says you need to spend money on a pricey catering hall?

Honestly, I started looking at locations and got getting queasy thinking about the costs. All of my relatives are in Switzerland which is too far to travel, and his are in Iowa (they have a family reunion every other summer there so we can celebrate later). We definitely don't want the gluttonous amount of food: big cocktail hour, four course meal, dessert buffet. It's too much! Only the catering sales manager really believes that much food is wanted by your guests.

Local flowers from the farm or even our garden or my mother's garden. I'd love to have a Lily of the valley bouquet since it grows in her garden.

So that's where we are so far. While I love sharing things about American culture and history, I also seek to challenge what's presented as the norm in our society in my blog about the American Dream. You don't have to live the life corporate America has spent so much time laying out for you. You can follow your own path. I don't make the best choices as a consumer all (or even most) of the time, but I am proud of the wedding we're planning, as it reflects us as a couple.

Did you know the average American couple spends $27,000 on their wedding?

Did you have a thrifty wedding or attended one? Frugal wedding tips? Please share your thoughts in the comments section on weddings in America, including your own.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

I Must See the Beekeeper

March, like the wind, has roared in with much turmoil. While we're still mourning the loss of our dog Scotty, a health scare looms over our family. My father, Henry, went in for a heart test this week, hoping it would be no more serious than getting a stent, but was told he needed open heart surgery due to major blockages. He needed a five bypass. His surgery went well, and after two days in intensive care, he will be off to a rehab center for possibly up to a week, or back at home with a home nurse three days a week. Recovery will take at least six weeks.

I don't know if you have a real gratitude for healthcare professionals until such serious care is needed. After it was done, I wanted to thank every doctor and nurse I passed by in the hall. Just thank you for being a healer. I even wanted to thank the guy delivering food and the security guard.

Before we left, my mom and I stopped by the hospital chapel to say a prayer. A Muslim man was in there kneeling in prayer. I thought about how universal all of our wishes really are no matter who the higher being is: Jesus, Allah, a nature deity. I think now of Mary's words in the Celia Rees' Sorceress about the Native Americans, "Both groups believed in dreams and portents...The scalplock moon shone down on all alike, and they would have looked back with equal disquiet. A time of trial approached, and both would look to great spirit for guidance and blessing. Be it God or Manitou, what did the naming of him matter."

I've been listening to a lot of Tori Amos, which is nothing unusual for me since she's one of my favorite sonic artists and I've always considered her "lyrics" more poetry. I'm drawn to her songs about nature lately and I've been listening to The Beekeeper, a concept album where she divided her songs into different gardens (desert garden, rock garden, roses and thorns and such). The title song is one of my favorites, and it's one which she wrote when she nearly lost own mother who had a heart condition to a health scare. She goes to see the Beekeeper to ask her to spare her mother's life, and the Beekeeper tells her,

"Do you know who I am? I'm the one who taps you on the shoulder when it's your time.
Do not be afraid I promise that she will awake tomorrow somewhere."

Tori said, "In the song The Beekeeper, I travel to see the master beekeeper who is really sort of the master shaman keeping everything together within the gardens, making sure that everything's pollinated, making sure that there's life, making sure that when and if there's disease that is extricated from the garden. I wasn't guaranteed my mother would survive but the master beekeeper explained that of course she will awake. Don't you believe in infinity? Don't you believe in the shape of infinity? That's the bees dance. That's what the worker bees do....because wherever she awakes she's still your mother, even if it's not on this plane. She will always be your mother."

In the end of the song, the Beekeeper says to Tori that she's passing her by this time, but "Don't be confused, one day I'll be coming for you." Events like this are always a reminder of how sacred and short our time is on this plane. Sometimes we're given second chances to appreciate our loved ones and our own lives, sometimes fate plays out differently. Here's to making the most of second chances.

"Flaxen hair blowing in the breeze
It is time for the geese to head south
I have come with my mustard seed
I cannot accept that she will be taken from me

"Do you know who I am" she said
"I'm the one who taps you on the shoulder when it's your time
Don't be afraid I promise that she will awake
Tomorrow somewhere
Tomorrow somewhere"

Wrap yourself around
The tree of life and the dance of the infinity
Of the hive
Take this message to Michael

I will comb myself into chains
In between the tap dance clan
And your ballerina gang
I have come for the beekeeper
I know you want my
You want my queen
Anything but this
Can you use me instead?

In your gown with your breathing mask
Plugged into a heart machine
As if you ever needed one
I must see the beekeeper I must see if she'll keep her alive
Call Engine 49 I have come with my mustard seed

Maybe I'm passing you by
Just passing you by girl
I'm passing you by
On my way
On my way
I'm just passing you by
But don't be confused
One day I'll be coming for you...
I must see the beekeeper
I must see the beekeeper"

Saturday, March 10, 2012

February Storytellers: A Month of Books

In my first book of the month, a children's book, there was an inscription to the recipient, "May books always be a vital part of your life." I found it an estate sale, and looking around the house, books were a vital part of the entire family's life. Books provide a soul to a house, I think.

This is just the way my February went: I only read two books, and my March - it's taken me nearly to mid-month to write about them. I've had a lot on my mind, like the family dog Scotty's declining health and departure and living in our frustrating limbo housing situation as we wait anxiously for our overdue mortgage to arrive to move into our new two family house. So I've been reading and blogging less. I hope spring brings rejuvenation on all fronts. Here's what I did read.

Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards, $2, an estate sale.

Part of why it's so appealing to go to estate sales and thrift shops is that things come into my life that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. I had no idea Julie Andrews, star of one of my favorite musicals, The Sound of Music, was a children's book author and such a popular one at that. An online reviewer said they could just hear her soothing voice narrating this book, and that's how I imagined it. Mandy is an enchanting tale about a young girl from an orphanage who discovers a secret cottage on her walks in the woods and steals away each day to lovingly restore the garden and house.

Andrews says on her site,

"In the summer of 1968, my husband and I were making a film on an old estate in Ireland. The great manor house was enclosed within thick walls and had its own stables, kennels, dairy, cemetery, vegetable gardens, and bird sanctuary, plus a lake with a weir and glorious beech woods with abundant wildlife. There were also several small cottages on the property, including one decorated entirely with seashells. The moment I saw it, the seed of a story lodged in my mind. Sometime later, I was playing a game with our children. I lost and had to pay a forfeit to our eldest daughter, Jennifer. What should my forfeit be? 'Easy! Write me a story,' Jenny replied. I thought to dash off a couple of paragraphs – but the image of that shell cottage came back to haunt me, and thus "Mandy" began. Two years later it became my first published work."

This book came into my life at just the right time, when I long for a garden and home of my own the way Mandy did. I've been an apartment dweller for more than a decade and we're in a very cramped two-family house. I can't wait to be in our new house and see my laundry hang drying on a line in the sun, bring out the coffee grinds to compost, plant a garden, maybe get a book on bird watching to identify the visitors in our yard that looks out to woods. I'm so excited to have a nice kitchen and dust off my cookbooks, take a nap in our lavender colored bedroom and do some writing in a room I hope to decorate with Southwestern decor with such happy memories of my trip there. I happened upon one of those hanging planters made of seashells that the homeowner was going to discard. I rescued it from a sad fate in a landfill, and will always think of Mandy's shell cottage.

I often wonder, "Whatever happened to just being a kid and not a consumer-in-training?" when I see all these young (really young) kids clutching phones and even "designer" handbags (both made in China). Even at restaurants, gadgets are replacing the simple joy of a crayon and paper. What will happen if children stop having creative outlets, and don't explore the natural world like Mandy did?

"She was looking at a whole new world: hundreds of trees stretching as far as the eye could see - most of them with that soft, silvery-green trunk and fine-textured bark that make the beech tree so easily recognizable. Sunlight filtered through the leaves in bright patches. The woods were open and clear - not dense at all. It looked wonderfully inviting and explorable."

Mandy is a recommended read for readers of all ages, and will make you want to go into the woods for your own adventure, and plant a packet of seeds and watch it grow.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, $3, Cinema Verite thrift shop, New York City.
I'm not sure why New York City keeps calling to me this year in literature. There was an article in the New York Times about how reading on a tablet can be distracting because of the temptation to look things up online. If I read Rules of Civility, set over the course of a year in 1938, on a tablet, I'd be looking things up all the time, whether it's the restaurant Katey Kontent dines in La Belle Epoque, now shuttered, to the Agatha Christie novels Katey starts reading (I can't believe I haven't read any Agatha Christie!)

This book very much reminded me of Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, but we're not following a real-life Hadley Hemingway looking back on her life, we're with Katey looking back on her own, with her friend Eve and the well-to-do Tinker who the women meet on New Year's Eve. I thought the major plot twist was a little underwhelming, but the language of this book was so beautiful.

I love the witty writing, like after hearing a story, one character remarks, "That's a Grand Canyon of a tale!" to after eating a iceberg salad with bleu cheese so divine, Katy remarks, "If I was a country, it would be my flag," to more contemplative passages, like this,

"Anyone who has ridden the subway twice a day to earn their bread knows how it goes: When you board, you exhibit the same persona you use with your colleagues and acquaintances. You've carried it through the turnstile and past the sliding doors, so that your fellow passengers can tell who you are - cocky or cautious, amorous or indifferent, loaded or on the dole. But you find yourself a seat and the train gets under way; it comes to one station and then another; people get off and others get on. And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, your carefully crafted persona begins to slip away. The super-ego dissolves as your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades."

At my tea party at Alice's Tea Cup, one of my dining companions brought up the stunning beauty of language found in the letters of Civil War era, which had been recently on my mind. Ken Burn's Civil War soundtrack came into my life at Cinema Verite thrift shop and a letter had been read on it from a soldier who died. Even if we did write letters to our loved ones, I don't think our ability to express ourselves in that written forms exists. A mother of two teenagers bemoaned that her kids are talking like they text. More than just a threat to book stores, books, and civility (how uncivilized society seems since these handheld phones appeared), our language faces the greatest threat of all.

I get e-mails where people abbreviate anything and everything, and I hate when people call me "C." There's no abbreviations in Towles' book, only a love of the written word, and of books, which Katey devours and the author references so often, everything from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations to Thoreau's Walden.

Mandy loved books too. "She exchanged books at the local library at least once a week. The wonders of Robinson Crusoe and Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels were very real to her...

On Saturday morning, she helped out at the local grocery store. She was given a small sum of money, and she used it as she pleased. Most of her money was spent on her precious books and some paints, crayons and paper for painting and drawing."

I hope you love books too, and are reading something wonderful, creating something magical or are going to enjoy something in the natural world. Maybe it's just taking a moment to listen to the birds chatter or observing animals, plants and even people slowly start to awaken from their winter slumber, although old man winter has been pretty tame in 2012. Now if you will excuse me, I'm off to France, at least for some literary arm-traveling.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Best in Our Show: In Memory of Our Rescue Dog, Scotty

Have you ever experienced love at first sight?

I'm lucky enough to have twice in my life. First, when I met my sweetheart Steve, then again when I laid eyes on Scotty. Here he was on that fateful day in July 2009 when my mom and I visited him at his foster home. We found him through Tenafly PetResQ on We knew immediately he was our dog. At that first meeting, he already wanted a belly rub, one of hundreds he'd get in our too short time with him.

It's with a very heavy heart I tell you our beloved family member Scotty passed into the next world. He was diagnosed with a heart murmur a few months ago, and his condition rapidly deteriorated. He was just a shadow of his former self. He collapsed on Friday afternoon with my sister by his side. His poor heart just couldn't take it anymore.

Here is his story.

His bio on petfinder said he was given up for financial reasons by the family. We suspect he may have been abused by a man based on some behavioral issues which the vet and others think as well, but time and lots of TLC made for a big change in Scotty. We were told he was seven. The vet thinks he might have been a little older but we can't ever really know. Adoption was the only option for us. We would never patronize a breeder or pet store when so many dogs are already in this world waiting patiently for a loving guardian to come along. An older dog was a good match for my parents who are seniors. When we went to meet him there were all these pennies by my car and my mom always thought it was a sign. Pennies from heaven. On the last day of his life, my sister found a penny. We think heaven was calling him back.

Here he is on his first day at what rescue advocates lovingly call his forever home. "Home, home where I wanted to go," Chris Martin sings wistfully in the Coldplay song Clocks. Scotty was home at last.

Pets teach us about the underrated power of touch.

They so enjoy the simple pleasures, like a lazy nap on the grass on a summer day.

Never had we been such frequent park goers, and when we did go we never said more than a "hello" to those passing by us. Now, we interacted with fellow dog guardians all the time. Even on the snowiest winter days, Scotty craved the smells, sights and sounds of nature.

Scotty at one of his favorite parks, Van Saun in Paramus. We loved him so much, and he loved us. He never judged me for superficial reasons like putting on a couple of extra pounds.

I still remember a scene from the sitcom Family Ties when Nick had to say goodbye to his best friend, and also welcomed a new friend. I suspect my family will adopt again and give another dog his or her forever home, but we're still mourning Scotty. Like Nick's dog Scrapper, he was a special little soul.

I love all the seasons, but summer felt particularly pleasurable. After a day in my cubicle, how I enjoyed going to my parents' house for a veggie burger or dog off the grill with some lemonade, a swim and then a stroll with Scotty.

This is how I will always remember my dearest friend. His paw print is on my heart always.

Do not mourn me when I pass into the next life, for I shall be greeted warmly in the afterlife with a wet kiss.