Thursday, September 24, 2009

End of an Era

As I write this, there are only 4 days left until I start my new job, thus ending what has been one of the most rewarding and simultaneously frustrating five months of my life. Most of the time, unemployment leads people to hide under the covers or to dive into a bottle of some alcoholic beverage. And while I certainly had utterly shit-tastic days that led me to believe I would never again find suitable employ, let alone my dream job, overall I managed to keep some semblance of a positive attitude and earn some extra cash.

Since May, I have traveled to two foreign countries, led my friends on three culinary excursions, attended four weddings, put thousands of miles on my car, spent time with family and launched a freaking business! At this point, I can't even imagine where I would be mentally had I worked at my old job these past several months. Just as everyone predicted - I am in a better place in terms of my sanity, happiness, harmony with the universe and general satisfaction. Hopefully, I will be able to say the same thing after 5 months on the job.

People have asked me how I came up with the idea for my business and how I maintained a positive attitude after going through some tough times. Really, I can't offer any sage wisdom beyond the notion of simply choosing to take lemons and make a mean Tom Collins (with a dose of irony since I don't drink gin).

As the end of this astounding era approaches, I find myself more occupied with figuring out how I will adjust to actually working again. When will I get my oil changed if I'm at work all-day and I can't hire my own concierge services? How will I wake up every morning at a responsible hour or get myself to bed at night before the end of the Colbert Report? I've totally forgotten, how do office politics work? Will having a job be more exhausting than letting myself run around like a crazy person all day or less?

I wish I was just being glib about some of these concerns, but I really do worry and wonder about what this new chapter of my life will bring. Though I'm geographically staying put and working in a similar field, I'll be learning a whole new skill set and coming back from my longest vacation EVER. Who knows what adventures will come my way in the future but whatever happens I'm sure it will bring good blog posts.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Shana Tova 5770

After such a tough year for so many of us, when we were forced to re-examine our priorities and look at the world through a different lens, I hope we can all maintain our perspective and our senses of humor to face what lies ahead with strength and determination.

Wishing you, your families and all your loved ones a New Year filled with...
Health and Happiness
Peace and Prosperity
Blessing and Balance

Shana Tova U'Metuka!

Here's a little greetings from President Obama - he actually does a good job with the Hebrew!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Haveil Havalim Time

Here's a link to this week's Haveil Havalim, hosted by The Reform Shuckle. Check it out here and be sure to read some of the fantastic posts from across the Jewish spectrum.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Penny Saved is a Book Deal Earned

Back in my college days, I actually got paid to write about various topics ranging from escaped West African performance artists to Carl Reiner to the legalization of the abortion pill and interracial relationships. I also spent a semester serving as Arts Editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat with a shyly brilliant observer of human habits named Phil Villarreal.

A few years ago, he asked me to edit his first book, Stormin’ Mormon, which he went on to self-publish. One of the only copies sold now sits proudly on my shelf and I was honored to be included in the acknowledgements.

More recently, Villarreal (here's a link to his blog) released Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel: 100 Dirty Little Money-Grubbing Secrets to broad publicity including book signings, stories in newspapers nationwide and coverage on morning shows in his current home of Tucson and in the bigger market of Phoenix. And since shameless self-promotion is a habit the author and I share, I was all too happy to add my own critical take on the book to his list of clips.

Many of the suggestions are utterly ridiculous and yet incredibly logical if you follow Villarreal’s central premise that saving money is a noble goal unto itself. Into this category falls #33 about the psychology behind the dealer and customer when buying a car. Similarly, #35, advises readers at the negotiation table to simply ask for another $20 or $50 off the deal in order to get your name on the dotted line. Audacious as it is, when you think about it, why shouldn’t you ask for an extra $50 off? It’s a free night out on the town or family time at the movies and you earned that money!

The section of the book that I would seriously consider implementing, societal judgment be damned, was the portion covering Finance. Villarreal offers such logical suggestions of avoiding ATM fees, paying down debt and taking advantage of rebates.

He even manages to challenge fiduciary stereotypes while bringing an element of humor to the art (or tedium) of coupon clipping, “It saddens me that coupon clipping is viewed as the pastime of the desperate housewife…Here and now I want to start an effort to reclaim coupon clipping for men everywhere. I want Harley riders to start keeping plastic, accordion-style coupon holders in the back of their hogs. I want UFC fighters to tout the benefits of $1 off Raisin Bran coupons after bouts. I want John Wayne to rise from the grave, visit a Circle K, and push a buy-one-get-one-free Thirstbuster card over the counter.” Classic.

Also in Finance is #44 which offers Villarreal’s personal story of shaving $1000 off the hospital bills that came with the birth of his second child earlier this year. How did he accomplish this feat? By simply calling the billing department and asking for a 25% discount in exchange for paying in full right away. Audacious, but I will admit I trimmed $600 off my rent for the year just by making a phone call to my management company.

But back to those utterly absurd suggestions that other critics of this book have been so eager to point out. There’s an entire section of them that Villarreal prefaces with the following disclaimer, “Let me make clear that the advice from here on out is strictly for laughs, and I’m not held responsible if you actually enact any of this insanity. Try any of these heinous tactics and you’ll be in need of a soul cleansing, but you’ll also have a bigger bank account and great stories to tell at parties.”

So what falls into this odious section that has raised the ire of humorless columnists and morning show hosts? Let’s just say some of the suggestions involve posing as an illegal immigrant, turning your pet in a foundling, scamming bartenders and the ever-popular Dumpster diving. The book advises against ever attempting these money-saving tactics for fear of incarceration, but my hunch is that many of us have pondered such schemes, generally under the influence of booze or various hallucinogens. Besides, as a Netflix user I’m a big fan of #76 and I’m pretty convinced my last two boyfriends used #82 on me.

Ultimately, anyone who’s been poor, merely felt poor, gone through unemployment, gone through college or who doesn’t mind losing a few points of social grace for the same of saving a few bucks will thoroughly enjoy Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel. If you loyally adhere to the tips contained therein, you will more than make up for the $9 price tag on Amazon. Avoid the shipping fees to make Scrooge and Villarreal proud.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

No Reservations Indeed

Blessed with approximately six weeks between accepting my new job and actually starting my job, I decided in classic Shtetl Fab style to keep busy by embarking on some spectacular adventures. Aside from the usual coffee dates with friends and catching up on my Netflix, I decided to take advantage of my close geographic proximity to some of the most diverse ethnic neighborhoods in America.

I conducted a little research on Wikipedia and made a list of six destinations representing a range of global cuisines and then began the recruitment process as I decided these dining and shopping destinations would be best enjoyed in the company of friends.

A group of nine intrepid souls embarked on our first excursion, which I've dubbed "International Culinary Staycations," this past Friday night in the Middle Eastern/Turkish neighborhood of Paterson, NJ. Some of the people were old friends, others were new acquaintances, but we all had a love of food and tremendous stomach capacity in common.

Our first rendezvous point was Toros Turkish Restaurant off Hazel Street. There we enjoyed a rousing course of appetizers, all of which were vegetarian-friendly and all of which proved quite tasty. I highly recommend the spinach and yogurt hot dish and the cheese-filled sigaria. Coming here with a big group was fantastic as we all shared the different items in tapas fashion. Just as we prepared to leave, a man began to play a sitar in a roped-off casbah area of the beautifully ornate restaurant. It felt really authentic and was just a great way to send us off to our next destination.

Just across the street is Taskin Bakery, which has been supplying traditional Turkish breads and bagels to the Paterson community since 1997. The aroma as you enter this modest bakery is worth the trip alone and our brigade of eaters quickly snapped up pitas, simit (bagels), acma (knish) and borek (savory or mildly sweet pies). Taskin's products can be found at many local restaurants, including Toros, and it's clearly a neighborhood favorite as we encountered many people stocking up for the imminent breaking of the daily Ramadan fast.

Next, we walked about half a mile to the main drag of the Paterson Middle Eastern community, appropriately enough called Main Street. We passed umpteen markets, restaurants, an Islamic fashion center where we all declined trying on the latest hijab styles and even a houkah store. We saw a small group of men praying in a grassy area on the side of the road, my first time encountering such a sight. Meanwhile, our ears were treated to a typically American melting pot of musical styles and we heard everything from an imam's chants to the Notorious B.I.G.

My personal highlight came in the Istanbul Market (931 Main St.) where we encountered an incredibly friendly man. He wanted to know why we had come to Paterson and then he freely gave out advice on the best products and even offered samples of delicious Turkish olives. I asked him how long he'd owned the market and he confessed that he was not the owner, but merely a very loyal customer. You have to love that.

Another market yielded succulent dates, a shuk's worth of spices, drippingly-sweet baklava, cheeses, jewelry and these bizarre candies that tasted like the miscegenated child of M&Ms and chickpeas. One girl balked at buying a water pipe in the aforementioned houkah store and we sallied forth to our final Paterson destination.

As we entered the AlBasha Palestinian/Lebanese restaurant, the nightly breaking of the Ramadan fast was in full force, but luck was on our side and the establishment had a ten-seat table ready and waiting for us. I suppose in these parts, you could call that kismet. Here, we were clearly outsiders as practically the only non-Middle Eastern diners, and while there was a bit of a language gap, it did not dampen the hospitality.

Everyone chose the buffet - apparently a common offering during Ramadan judging by the proliferation of posters advertising "Special Ramadan Buffets" along Main Street - and by some astonishing gastronomic feat, we crammed more food into our already full bellies. The buffet was less vegetarian-friendly, but after so much nibbling and feasting, it hardly mattered. While the food at Toros was more refined and clearly catered to more visitors from outside the neighborhood, but AlBasha offered a glimpse into a typical restaurant where local families go on a regular basis.

Throughout the evening, I marveled at the fortitude of my friends who like me really love food and who like me really love being adventurous in the process. In our all-too-often segregated world, where we allow stereotypes or fear of the unknown to keep us in a behavioral rut, it is amazing to see how food can breakdown barriers and build common ground. I could wax rhapsodic about the incredibly big smile this night put on my face, but the simple fact is that Anthony Bourdain (part of the inspiration for these adventures) has done it far better. There's also a segment on WNYC that similarly cajoled listeners to take their taste buds on a little trip.

If you live in the Tri-State area and want to join our next International Culinary Staycation, please comment with your email and I will add you to the Evite. If you live elsewhere, please start exploring the delicious options in your area today. You won't be disappointed and you probably won't need reservations.