Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Still scrambling for a last-minute holiday gift? Perhaps a Secret Santa offering for a colleague you hardly know? Then buy a scented candle, a decorative paperweight, a coffee mug with a stupid cartoon on it — buy anything except a gift box or basket filled with deluxe gourmet luxury versions of everyday foods. These make cruel presents, especially for recipients trying to be frugal about their grocery costs.
Recipients like me. My landlady sent me a gift box filled with pricey gourmet English muffins — $20 for 16 muffins, compared with the five bucks a dozen I usually pay. And I tried one of the designer muffins yesterday and OMG THIS IS FREAKING DELICIOUS, so now I’m guaranteed some unfulfilling breakfasts once the new year breaks: what will I eat after these upscale muffins are gone?
I am not replacing my household’s usual brand of English muffins with a thrice-the-price alternative; that alone would increase my grocery costs hundreds of dollars per year. But those ordinary mass-produced muffins I’ve eaten and enjoyed all my life simply don’t taste good to me anymore.
It reminds me of those dastardly drug dealers the schoolteachers of my childhood used to warn their students about: “First they will act all friendly, and give you some for free. Only when you’re hooked do you learn how expensive it is! And if you want any more, you have to pay.”
Yeah, that really is a business model. Except drug dealers aren’t the ones who follow it. Drug dealers don’t offer free samples of their enticing wares anytime I try innocently going about my business. No: It’s the gourmet-food pushers doing this, and hellafino how to visit a supermarket or shopping mall this time of year without running a gantlet of them.
In my broke-student college days, eating cheap English muffins, I was perfectly content to cover them with inexpensive margarine-based dairy spreads. But those have tasted bad to me for years now, ever since “they” got me hooked on real butter. Still, a pound of real butter every month is a small indulgence compared with tripling the cost of the muffins I spread it on.
Meanwhile, someone else gifted my husband a bottle of incredibly precious microbeer with a name like Pretentia-Brau, costlier even than my luxury muffins because those were handmade by ordinary people (who just happen to work in the gourmet breakfast biz), whereas the beer was handmade by monks living in a remote monastery under a vow of silence, and the beer is delivered on the backs of donkeys reputed to be direct male-line descendants of the original Christmas-story beast that carried Mary and Baby Jesus into Bethlehem.
Or maybe I’m confusing this year’s monastery gift beer with last year’s monastery gift jars of jams and jellies. Either way it’s the thought that counts, like how I once thought my mass-produced English muffins with margarine spread and store-brand strawberry jam all tasted good, until these luxury handcrafted gourmet food boxes thoughtfully showed me I was wrong.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Hell Hath No Furries
Face Crimes (the TSA/BDO story)
Public Service? (the DMV story)
Who do you call to get a better job?
Selling Out For Free
Jennifer's archived columns from the Guardian
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The Great Unwashed: Venturing into the Shampoo-Free Life
first published in Healthy Life magazine, Autumn 2009
I shampoo my hair once a year whether it’s dirty or not.
Just kidding. It’s only been three months since my last shampoo, but I’m seriously thinking that – barring some extreme filth emergency involving bird poop or a headfirst tumble into a mud puddle – I’ll never shampoo again.
Before you crinkle your nose and say “eeew,” let me remind you that “shampooing” is not synonymous with “washing.” I still wash my hair almost every night; I just changed my old “shampoo, then conditioner” routine to “conditioner-only.” Three months into this experiment, it’s shaping up to be the smartest hair-care decision I’ve made since I outgrew my Goth phase and quit dyeing it black.
People have been washing hair for centuries, but modern shampoo – made of synthetic detergents that remove oil from your hair (along with whatever dirt the oil has absorbed) – has only been around since the 1930s. Early shampoos were so harsh, their own manufacturers recommended using them only once a week (hence the classic anti-date excuse “I can’t go out because I have to wash my hair”).
In the 1970s shampoo formulas became gentler, and daily shampooing became standard in America. But maybe that standard is wrong.
“It is good not to wash your hair every day,” said Ellie Canuteson, manager of the Complexions Spa and Salon in Albany. “It’s good not to shampoo it every day, too.”
Overshampooing causes two problems: it can dry hair out or, paradoxically, make it greasier than if you never shampooed in the first place.
Hair is dead tissue; that’s why it doesn’t hurt when you cut it. It also can’t produce its own moisturizing oils though your scalp does, a substance called “sebum.”
When shampoo removes sebum from your hair, your scalp compensates by producing extra sebum. So you wind up in a vicious cycle: the more you wash your hair, the more sebum you generate. But if you avoid shampoo altogether, eventually your sebum levels balance out and leave your hair healthier than ever before.
Or so I read on the Internet. A few months ago I searched for advice about my own hair, which alternates between wavy and curly (depending on the weather) and is just over two feet long with its curls and kinks straightened out. It also had dry, split ends no amount of conditioning treatments could eradicate.
I found entire chat forums dedicated to the care and feeding of long hair. Many members have hair falling past their knees (if their avatar photos are accurate), and they talked about shampoo the way Christians talk about the Antichrist. So I took their anonymous advice and cut shampoo out of my life.
I asked Ellie Canuteson what she thought of the no-shampoo scheme.
“I’m not a huge fan of it, the reason being your scalp does need to be cleansed … [it] does produce a lot of oil.” However, she says, “If you don’t produce too much oil, you can maybe go two weeks without shampoo.”
Coincidentally, two weeks after I quit shampoo is when my hair started looking like hell. The long-hair forums warned that if you stop shampooing, it takes anywhere from two to six weeks before your sebum levels reach equilibrium.
I needed three. The first week wasn’t bad. The second week, I looked exactly the way you’d expect when you hear “I haven’t shampooed in two weeks.” The third week was even worse: my hair was oily at the scalp and a frizzball everywhere else.
By week four I almost gave up. But then – it was almost like a fever breaking. I took a conditioner-only shower after another frizzy, oily day, went to bed that night ... and when I woke up next morning my hair looked fine.
Better than fine, in fact. Compared to my shampoo days, my hair is shinier, wavier and curlier than ever before.
“That would be because you’re not taking moisture out of it,” Canuteson said. “The more moisture you have, the more wavy, more curly it is … when people tell me ‘My curls aren’t what they used to be’ it might be because they’re stripping hair of its natural oil.”
That loss of oil also causes dry split ends. If you have long hair, see if this sounds familiar: when you wash your hair and let it dry naturally, most of it stays damp for at least two hours but your ends are bone-dry in minutes.
That was the case with me, until I quit shampoo. Now that my ends can finally retain moisture, I’m finding one or two split ends per month, as opposed to several in a single day.
My hair also gets less tangled. In my shampoo days I needed as much as 40 minutes to comb out my hair after shampooing.
“Great news! Global warming has ended!” my significant other said one night, after a typical shampoo job. “Advancing glaciers grip the earth in a new Ice Age, while civilizations collapsed and rose again.” He paused for effect. “All this happened while you took your shower.”
Despite the sarcasm he had a point – I did take ridiculously long showers, because I needed multiple applications of water and conditioner to comb out the post-shampoo snarls. Now, detangling is easy and my water bill has been cut in half.
Despite my enthusiasm for the no-shampoo regimen, the stylists I spoke to had reservations. Ellie Canuteson recommends at least two or three shampoos per month, and Colette Cristafulli, retail manager at Albany’s Jean-Paul Day Spa, was even more skeptical about my experiment.
“I do have clients who don’t wash their hair often, due to the curl issue or the frizz issue,” she said, but thinks switching to a gentler shampoo is better than cutting shampoo altogether. Cristafulli recommends formulas that are “sulfite-free and paraben-free.”
If you follow in my shampoo-free footsteps, there’s a few things you must remember. First, you will go through a period when your hair looks absolutely awful. Don’t quit shampoo today if there’s any event in the next month for which you need to look your best.
A boar-bristle hairbrush is excellent for redistributing oil from the scalp to the ends. And use the lightest conditioner you can find; those heavy moisturizing formulas are for shampoo users with low sebum levels.
Perhaps the best advice of all comes from Ellie Canuteson: “I think probably, if someone wants to do this, consult with your stylist.”
Thursday, January 20, 2011
We met Dennis Lorenzetti late on a Monday afternoon, as he sat on one of the granite benches by the bus stop on Bank Street. As we walked past he waved a small, faded photograph at us, obviously trying to get our attention. There’s no particular reason this homeless man should have caught our notice when so many more seem invisible, but we stopped to chat.
The photo showed his parents. Lorenzetti said his father died of Alzheimer’s and his mother of breast cancer. He also said his sister Lori had died in a car accident the night before (though we found no mention of her when we searched online). Lorenzetti said he used to live in Bristol, but now sleeps in New Britain since he lost his job two years ago.
We asked if there was anything we could do. He started to cry. “Give me my sister back,” he said. “Can you do that?”
No, but we could give him two dollars we had on hand. He said he didn’t want the money, though he did eventually put it into his battered wallet which, except for the photo and his social services card, was empty. Otherwise, his total possessions consisted of the clothes on his back and a filthy plastic shopping bag filled with aluminum cans salvaged from garbage bins.
He talked about many things: how he spends a lot of time in Central Park because he has no better place to go. The unfairness of the police who, he says, sometimes kick him out of the park although he has a legal right to be there. People who would kill him because he knows too much.
“I have problems with alcohol, I don’t deny that,” he said, though when we met him his eyes were clear rather than bloodshot.
We asked where he sleeps. “I sleep on a couch,” he said. “An old Puerto Rican man — I don’t know his name — he said he owns the building. I asked him if I could sleep on the couch, and he gave me a blanket and a pillow, too. Then he said ‘Wait right there, don’t move,’ and I thought he was going to call the police, but instead he came back with a big platter” — he held his hands more than a foot apart to show how big it was — “filled with chicken and rice and beans and bread and soda.”
We realized he was talking about an outdoor couch. We asked if we could see it. The question surprised him, but he led us through a few blocks of downtown streets to a litter-strewn alleyway between some old brick buildings. There we saw an incongruously colorful sofa with a blanket and pillow on it. The sofa hadn’t been there long; there was none of the rotting or waterstains you’d see had it been in a rainstorm.
There was no tarpaulin or waterproofing over it. We didn’t ask what he would do the next time it rained.
“I keep it clean,” he said, and sure enough the litter strewn through the alleyway stopped a couple feet from the sofa.
He wouldn’t let us take his picture, though he did let us photograph his bed. As we walked out of the alley some church bells started chiming.
“It’s like the voice of the Lord,” he said.
We turned in one direction to go back to our office, and he turned in another to go wherever he goes.
It rained the next morning. We returned to the alley and found no sign of Lorenzetti. His sofa and bedding were ruined.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Do you find your wallet depressingly light compared to a year ago? If so, take heart in knowing it’s not just you; the whole state’s broke these days. Connecticut’s facing a budget deficit of $8.7 billion over the next two years, and that deficit will only grow deeper after what I did last week.
Before discussing my responsibility for the state’s budget woes, I’ll point out that the human brain has a hard time grasping such abstractly huge numbers as “eight point seven billion.” Maybe this will help you picture it: If you made a million dollars a day, weekends and holidays included, amassing $8.7 billion would take almost 24 years.
How did a rich state like Connecticut wind up in such a fiscal mess? Charles Dickens figured it out over a century ago, when he had Mr. Micawber tell David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
In other words, don’t spend more than you have. But if you change pounds to dollars and make the numbers exponentially bigger, you’ll describe what happened to us. During the go-go bubble years, when property values and the tax assessments on them reached the stratosphere, not one local government — neither the guys running my town, nor the guys running yours — thought “Hey! Let’s take this opportunity to pay down some debt and build up savings.” Instead, they spent every dollar they had and borrowed even more, with the vague idea of paying off this debt sometime in the future.
Which would’ve been a fine plan, if not for the future’s nasty habit of eventually becoming the present. In Connecticut’s case, this happened at the exact moment the bubble popped. Now the state faces bills much higher than the twenty-ought-six Mr. Micawber warned against, and these revenue problems are compounded by my decision, last week, to stop paying state cigarette taxes.
There’s multiple ways to do this. You can buy tax-free smokes on New York State Indian reservations (disclaimer: this is extremely illegal if you get caught), or you can buy tobacco and roll your own, but I took the simpler method known as “Buy nicotine patches and quit smoking altogether.”
Naturally, this made my non-smoking friends turn Supportive with a capital S. “Congratulations!” they gushed. “Statistically speaking, you’ve just increased your lifespan by seven years!”
Which, in turn, only intensifies the government’s budget woes. The problem with increasing your lifespan by seven years is that those years are added to the wrong end of your life. I won’t get to spend seven extra years in my 30s; instead, I’ll spend additional time in the “retired old person collecting checks from the government” phase of my existence. I did a quick calculation on the back of an envelope: assuming Social Security and Medicaid still exist, then between lost cigarette tax revenues and increased old-age payouts, my decision to quit smoking will cost the state and federal government over 600,000 dollars, not counting inflation.
So, to all you people suffering in the wake of severe state budget cuts: I sincerely apologize for making your troubles worse. I was tempted to keep smoking, for the sake of The Children, but ultimately I’m just too selfish.
originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 8, 2009
“Hey, you!” I said to my boss. “Yeah, I’m talking to you. You know the money you’ve been paying me? It’s not enough. I want more.”
“Sorry, no can do,” my boss said apologetically. “We can’t afford more than we already pay. You know how dismal the economy’s been.”
“Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem,” I insisted. “My problem is, I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”
These are serious consequences. Most people, when told “Gimme more money or give up your house and driving privileges,” have no choice but to pay. Not my boss, though. He only laughed, and after a few confused moments I realized why.
“Oops,” I said meekly. “Never mind. For a moment there, I thought I was a government worker and you were ‘My Boss’ only in the sense of being ‘The taxpayers who fund my salary.’ But I forgot: unlike a taxpayer, you have the right to say ‘no’ when folks demand more than you can afford, don’t you? Dang.”
I blame my mistake on geography. I live in Connecticut, where towns and cities get most of their money from “property taxes,” which is the tax people pay if they want to own property. Unfortunately, owning “property” doesn’t always mean you have actual “money,” especially in today’s economy.
For the past umpteen years, Nutmeg municipalities had the habit of passing annual tax increases equal to or greater than the rate of inflation. When the economy was expanding and people’s wages rose each year, this was merely an annoyance. But nowadays, taxpayers facing pay cuts or wage freezes (if not complete loss-of-job) simply can’t afford higher tax bills. Yet their local councils are inflicting them anyway.
Even worse, tax bills are an all-or-nothing proposition. Most living expenses can be cut one way or other; turn down the heat to lower your utility bill, or buy cheaper cuts of meat to slash grocery costs. But if your city assessor says “You owe $7,000 tax on your house,” you can’t counter with, “How about I seal off the den, and you knock a thousand off my bill?”
Municipalities don’t write budgets the same way you do. When you plan a budget, you count how much money you have and then decide what you can afford to spend. Government does it backwards: count how much money they plan to spend and then set tax rates so they can afford it.
And if you say “Sorry, I can’t give you any more,” the government (unlike me with my boss) really can tell you, “Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem. I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”
I’ve lost count, these past few weeks, of how many stories this newspaper has printed about city-government workers getting wage increases while their private-sector counterparts do without. The rationale seems to be, “A basket-case economy is no problem when we can force taxpayers to fill the basket with money.”
Enjoy your pay raises, guys! I’ll be subsisting on oatmeal and memories so I can afford to fund them.
originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 1, 2009
Behold what a badass I used to be: One weekend, back in my wild and tempestuous grad school days, I bought a bottle of bourbon at 9:17 p.m. And Scotch, and mixers too.
“I don’t get it,” you might say if you live in most parts of the country. “What’s badass about an over-21 adult buying liquor so early in the evening, then taking it home to share with age-appropriate friends?”
But if you live in Connecticut, as I do, you’ll recognize the rebellious nature of my youthful actions. Bottled alcohol sales here are illegal after 9 p.m., and all day on Sundays. Even 9 o’clock is permissive by historical standards; in my school days, alcohol’s witching hour fell at 8 p.m.
Of course, you can still buy liquor until 1 or 2 in the morning, if you go to a bar and drink it there. You just can’t take the safer option of driving home before drinking what you bought.
That’s what made my student self such a badass party hostess by Nutmeg State standards: I bought those bottles an hour and 17 minutes too late.
But I’m not confessing to any crime here. I obeyed the letter of the liquor law even as I violated its spirit — I simply crossed the nearest state line to a still-open liquor store. That’s easy in a tiny state such as Connecticut, where the border is rarely more than an hour away and usually less than that.
Ah, nostalgia. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Good Old Days, when I was younger and the economy hadn’t started doing cliff-diver impersonations. Now with everything in freefall, some Connecticut lawmakers — even the governor herself — are suggesting we dismantle certain laws, such as the alcohol ones, written solely to make it harder for in-state consumers to spend money — and pay sales tax — close to home.
To that end, three state representatives from the border town of Enfield have proposed legislation allowing liquor stores open on Sundays, while Gov. M. Jodi Rell suggested allowing Indian casinos to serve alcohol far into the wee hours of the morning.
Naturally, there’s opposition to both proposals. Some argue the state has a moral duty to prevent alcohol purchases at certain dates and times. Others say the law should be changed only if it makes money for the state, and there’s no evidence expanded alcohol hours would do that. Sunday openings are even opposed by liquor-store owners far from the border towns, who enjoy taking time off with no fear their competitors might make sales in the meantime.
I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I rarely drink, never gamble, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything as bureaucracy-intensive as getting a liquor license. But I support these proposals all the same: Let the stores open Sundays, let the casinos serve drinks all night. Heck, let bars and restaurants do it too, if they wish.
Would this make money for the state? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not the question to ask, unless you like the implication “Citizens should only do things if the state makes money off it.”
Of course, I belong to the demographic old enough to engage in nostalgia. Maybe that’s why I get all crotchety at the suggestion I’m just a revenue source for the government, rather than the ostensibly free citizen of a democratic republic.