Voices of MainStreet: Harmony Fortenberry

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Tragedy Can Unite Us After All

Sep. 9, 2011

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was headed downstairs from my dormitory at the University of Texas. School had only been in session a couple of weeks at that time, and it was my freshman year. My roommate and I were headed downstairs for breakfast, as usual. On the way to the cafeteria, we walked by the TV room and saw several students watching the news. A plane had crashed but we didn't know there was a bigger problem going on.

I actually started thinking, "what is up with pilots these days," since recently an R&B artist, Aaliyah, had died in a plane crash; so, we kept on walking. The cafeteria was filled with students, with no idea what was going on either. My roommate and I departed, and I walked to my first class, playwriting, which was in the theatre building.

This is where I found out there was a problem.

In the center of the building there was an area with couches and several TVs, all showing the news, and this time I was able to see that the plane had crashed into a building. Everyone in the theatre program knows people in New York, so the whole building was in pandemonium: People screaming, crying, yelling, frantically trying to call people on their cellphones.

I still didn't know it was a terrorist act at this point, but one of the buildings started to collapse just as the bell rang. I went to class greatly confused. My teacher didn't even know why she was keeping us, half of her friends lived in New York and she was supposed to move back there at the end of her graduate program. Her mind was not on school either. School continued until noon that day when the president of the university shut it down. I spent the rest of the day in my dorm room watching the news.

Now at that time, I was not really a fan of George Bush. No comment on my thoughts now. But after seeing him with his arm slung around a firefighter saying "the whole world hears you" I was ready to kiss him, I was so proud of him. It's odd what good PR will do. Amazing really.

But Bush aside, I think September 11th united us. Sadly it was temporary, but we did all feel better connected for a while. And that's how life is. It takes really bad things for people to find the good in what they have and who they are. It's damn near impossible to see the goodness until it's staring you right in the face.

If something like this happened right now, would we all be united around Obama? Would his approval rating go up, just like Bush's did during that time? I don't want to find out.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

An Experiment in Extreme Couponing

Aug. 12, 2011

Let’s face it: We are still going through a recession, to some degree.  It might not be how it was a couple of years ago, but companies still are on salary freezes or have put salary caps in place, companies aren’t hiring as much, and that means that people need to be more careful with their money. How do we do this? There are a variety of options from the minimal – not buying your lunch every day and bringing it instead – to the drastic, switching to ramen noodles three times a week. In the search to save money, I decided that I wanted to try out coupon shopping.

By now, most of us have seen the show “Extreme Couponing”, or at least heard about it. And think that the people on it are nuts. Full rooms dedicated to newspaper inserts, garages stocked like a mini-mart. Seems like they might be preparing for a nuclear holocaust. 

But after watching the show a few times, I got intrigued. I never thought it would be possible to achieve the level of savings these dedicated women do; I just don’t have access to thousands of coupons and I don’t have a large family to feed. But even in my small family, myself, my husband, and our two cats, there is room for saving money. My husband and I used to spend $120-$150 every Sunday on groceries, and typically every two months or less made a $100 trip to Target.

My goal in all of this was just to get the total cost down.  Now, there are plenty of things my husband and I buy that coupons just don’t exist for such as fresh meat and fresh produce. We don’t buy a lot of pre-packaged things. But even on our strict diet, there are plenty of things that we can use coupons for and still get our overall total down.

On my first trip to the grocery store, I saved $40 right away, bringing my typical $120 bill down to $80. On the show, this bill would have been something like $2.00 or a nickel or so, but I’m realistic. Also, very few stores in my area double coupons. But 40 bucks is 40 bucks, and it’ll put another tank of gas in my car.

So then, I looked into it a little further, and found all of the great deals I could find at drugstores. I’ve bought $80 worth of stuff at Walgreens before and only paid $20. The first question my skeptic friends and family have asked was, are you buying stuff you need? I have never bought anything that I don’t or wouldn’t use, just to buy it or just to get it for free. Now, do I need a dozen razors right now, today? No, but I will. And if I can buy a dozen right now for what I would typically pay for one or two on a normal day with no sale and no coupon, why not buy a dozen now?  It’s kind of like my own insurance policy. If something unexpected happens and I have to shell out a lot of cash, I won’t have to worry about not having the essentials, because I’ve already bought them, and for dirt cheap.

There are so many skeptical people out there that just want to say this is crazy, these women are hoarders, blah blah blah. I think this is innovative and I think it’s great that some people have found a way to take care of their families for so little. And they take good care of their families, as coupons are usually out for the best products we have on the market.

I also don’t think it’s cheating the system, which some other people think. Only 3% of all available coupons are redeemed in this country. This is a small, small number, and stores are reimbursed by the manufacturer whenever a coupon is used. People forget about that, and just see it as getting something for nothing. But nothing in this world is free, just like couponing isn’t. No one is going to hand you free groceries. You have to work at it, get online, print out coupons, check sale ads, make a list, go to the store, sometimes more than one store. But if it could benefit you and your family, isn’t it worth it?

So that’s my spiel on coupon shopping. It’s my new hobby and I think everyone should try it, at least once.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Blockbuster Night
May 26, 2011

In July, the final installment of the Harry Potter series hits theatres.

I have been waiting more than a decade for this to happen. I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter series since I was fourteen, and the first movie came out when I was eighteen. I’ll be twenty eight in June.

Harry Potter is the epitome of a summer blockbuster: It's hased on a beloved book that was marketed to children and tweens, and has tons of merchandise accompanying it. As a twenty eight-year-old, I won't be buying Dobby dolls, or Harry Potter wands (at least until I have a house and have a separate room to put all that stuff in), but you better believe I’ll be buying the film on Blu Ray around Christmas when it's out.

Needless to say, my husband and I see many more films during the summer. Two weekends ago we saw Thor, last weekend we saw Pirates, this weekend we’re seeing The Hangover Part 2, and next weekend we’ll see X Men, First Class

One thing I don’t like about the summer blockbusters is the crowded theatres and all the loud kids in them. We avoid this by going on Sunday mornings before the teenagers wake up, and before noon so our movie tickets are only $5 apiece. With movie tickets topping out around $15 around the country, we think it's a major deal.

I only see movies in the theatre if it’s a movie worth seeing on a big screen with tons of sound. So, no romantic comedies, no animated movies and no dramas. It's not that I don’t like these movies, but those can wait for $1 Red Box, Netflix or On Demand.

Summer movies are the ones that people want to see on the big screen, and with kids being out of school and people taking more time off during the summer, it’s a guaranteed money maker for theatres. Another thing: Summer blockbusters cost a lot to film, so releasing them in the summer is a guaranteed way to make a return on that investment.

If you get tired of sunbathing, swimming and all-around loafing this summer, there are many options available at the theatre.

Another film I’m really excited about is Transformers. I’m not happy Megan Fox won't be in this one, and the love interest in the trailer looks a little fake, or at least her lips do, but despite her blown-up lips, I’m sure that movie will make tons of money. People don’t go to see Transformers for romance, they go to see things get blown up.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Time to Unwind
May 20, 2011

Though there are tons of options in Houston for de-stressing, I can't say I've tried many of them.

I’m a very busy girl, and if anyone needs de-stressing, it’s me. But I never take the time to try and find balance. 

Writing this blog makes me think that perhaps I should add 'find balance' to my agenda. It's just that I’ve just been working so hard for so long that I've almost given up on trying to have a life that wasn’t stressful.

Some people work out to de-stress, and not just with Yoga or Pilates. My husband works out twice a day daily, and I know this gets the tension out of him. Weights, cardio, all of that helps, or so I’ve heard. But maybe he is so incredibly exhausted when he gets home that he just doesn’t have the energy to stress. 

When I lived in Austin I was very much into Yoga and would go twice a week. But I never thought of it as a de-stressing exercise. It was physical exercise that was quiet, which I liked. The second I left the gym and got into Austin traffic, however, that buzz was killed.

There are girls who get massages, pedicures, manicures and facials to find their center. But I’ve even taken the de-stressing out of that. I never (unfortunately) get massages from professionals, though every three weeks, like clockwork, I get my nails done. I have solar nails and they have to be maintained. It’s no longer a fun, girly thing to do, but rather a necessity for upkeep, so it’s more annoying to have to go every three weeks and pay for it. The whole time I’m there, I’m usually watching the clock, because I have something else to do once I leave. 

The same thing happens with the tanning bed. That can definitely be a way to de-stress, because you’re just lying there in the nice warm bed, but before my wedding, I had to tan so many times a week to achieve the color I was going for, that even doing that wasn’t relaxing. I guess once you start doing something for upkeep, it takes the fun out of it. 

Personally, I think de-stressing should be spontaneous. You should get off work, be really stressed, and then just treat yourself to time to relax. The closest I get to that is Facebook.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Managing Expectations

May 13, 2011

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2005. At that time, I had been dating my now husband for about a year, and did not want to leave him, so I started looking for jobs in the Austin area. With seemingly everyone there having a degree from the university, the job market is very competitive and employers can get away with paying people very little.

My first job was as an ophthalmic technician at an eye clinic, and I got the job because I had a friend who managed the place. I was an ophthalmic technician and my degrees were in English and religious studies. Go figure. I stayed in this field for about a year and a half, worked at the same clinic, then moved to its surgery center.  But it wasn’t anything like what I wanted or expected.

I thought by having a degree, I would be guaranteed a job somewhere. A salaried job, with benefits right away. Ha! Not so much.

I started off making an hourly wage, and did not qualify for benefits or time off until I had been there for six months. Even then, it was only five days of vacation a year, and if I needed to go to the doctor I had to take a vacation day, plus inform my boss two weeks ahead of time.

After leaving that place, I went to work for a retinal surgeon who was basically Satan incarnate, and I only stayed there for six weeks. Then I came back to Houston, my hometown, and started working as a claim adjuster for an insurance company – a complete 180. However, this job was salary-based, I had benefits right off the bat, no problems going to the doctor, plus I had my own desk and a chair!!! At the eye clinic, I was on my feet all day long. A chair was such a welcome change.

This is the job I am still working in, but at a managerial level, and I’m happy (for the most part) with it.

My job in the ophthalmology world was not my first job, however. I started working at 16 in the floral department at Kroger. In college, I decided I was tired of making minimum wage, and went to bartending school. That was a good change. Bartending was fun and I did make more money than most people I knew. Also, it’s a good topic of conversation now, and everyone thinks you’re a drink expert.

The job market is quite fierce right now. My company only recently started hiring again, and in my office the last person they hired was me, and that was four years ago. I’m glad that some companies are hiring again, it shows that things are now moving. Hopefully the job market will improve as time goes by.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

How Much Worse Can it Get?

May 6, 2011

On the morning of May 3rd, I woke up in Brazil at my new husband’s grandmother’s house. It was the last day of our honeymoon, and we were packing to come back home.  Though I was on a different continent, in a non-English-speaking county, Fox News was blaring through the flat screen. Osama Bin Laden is dead. U.S. travelers abroad should exercise caution. Crap.

When I celebrate, I don’t typically jump up and down, scream “U.S.A!, U.S.A!” or yell things like “revenge at last.” But even if I did, I wasn’t celebrating when I heard the news.

I guess you could say there are things to cheer about: Other families in other countries won’t lose lives because of that particular man ever again, but even that is not entirely true. Bin Laden was only one man, one man alone, with a regime that is not entirely gone. And besides that, I’m sure there are hundreds of other Bin Laden wannabes out there. The death of one crazy man does not help me sleep better at night.

When the September 11th attacks happened, I was in college. I had just started as a freshman, and was in the theatre department when the planes hit the two towers. Being in the theatre department, everyone knows someone in New York, so the place was a madhouse: People screaming, crying, running, praying. So very scary.

In the days following, we had a lot of discussion groups in our classes just so people could talk about what had happened and how they were dealing with their emotions since the events. So many people blamed us for improper airport security. I never thought that way, and I don’t think that way now. I think if people want to blow up a building, they’re going to figure out a way to do it, whether we let them travel with a bottle of shampoo or not.

Surprisingly, security was not increased in the slightest when I boarded my plane home from Brazil. In fact, it was lightened. Last summer when I came home from Brazil, right before I got on the plane (and this is after the x-ray), I was wanded with a metal detector, and someone went through my luggage in front of me with gloves, looking for God knows what. This time, I just walked on, no questions asked.  So much for retaliation.

I’m doubtful much will change with airport security, because I’m really not sure what they could possibly add. Unless they just refuse to let people travel with luggage at all, and that’ll never happen.

But then again, I never thought I’d have to go through a full body scan, and now that exists, so you never know.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Gifts From the Heart

March 18, 2011

When I think of giving to charity, I do not automatically think of giving money; I’m more of a time giver.  But as my life has become busier, the frequency that I am able to give time has become less and less, so money seems like an easier option.  Every year I donate to the same place, Planned Parenthood of Houston, and hardly ever deviate.  However, in the wake of the recent disaster in Japan, I do plan on giving some money to the relief efforts there. I don’t think there is much I can do in the states, as far as giving time that would help with that disaster.

In lieu of money, I do prefer to give items or supplies when I am donating to charity.  For several years I have lead the volunteer group at my work, and we have had several drives throughout the year for various purposes.  We’ve done toiletry drives for women’s shelters, food drives for the food bank, winter coat drives for homeless shelters, collected items to send to the troops overseas.  I feel that it’s easier to get people to participate when you ask for something specific, rather than cash.  It’s easy to pick up an extra toothbrush at the grocery store, or go through your closet to find a winter coat.  Also, I’m one of those people who wonder how the money gets allocated within a charity.  I’d like to hope for the best, but by giving an item, I know what the purpose of the item is and where it’s going, and how it will benefit a person directly.  With cash, you don’t always have that certainty.

I wrote a while back about the homeless population in Houston, and how that is something that needs to be addressed. As a resident of Houston, it saddens me to see so many people everyday begging for food on the streets. For them, I try to always keep bottles of water or food in my car so I have something to give to them. And occasionally I’ll give someone a dollar.

As far as tax benefits go, I never give enough for it really to help me.  When you’re single without kids, it’s difficult to get over the standard deduction, and even if I donated $1,000 to charity each year, I don’t think my taxes would be affected at all. So, in other words, the tax benefits are not really a motivator. I donate because I care about specific issues, and just plain want to help.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Uncle Sam Always Comes Through

March 11, 2011

As a relatively new member of the full-time work force, tax season is always a happy time for me. It’s the time to get caught up on bills, or go buy something I’ve been wanting, because I always get money back. And ever since I started working full time, I get a substantial amount of money back.

I know that won’t happen forever – next year when I start filing with my fiancé, all of that will go down the tube because he gets paid on commission. But this year, filing my taxes really helped me out.

Because I’m always guaranteed cash, why would I procrastinate? I sure didn’t this year; my direct-deposited refund was in my account by February 10th.  Every year, I use TurboTax’s free online e-filing feature, which works great.

One year I decided to go to H & R Block to see if they could get me any more money than I could on my own, so I did my taxes on paper first, and then went into H & R Block. I basically paid them $100 to confirm that I did my taxes right the first time.  That’s the last time I visit them.

Filing on paper is a fine option as well, and I did that for many years before it was so easy to just e-file my return online. It really isn’t that difficult; I don’t know why it confuses so many people. I have a lot of friends that pay a lot of money to go through accountants because they’re so scared of getting audited one day, but let’s be reasonable.  Does your lifestyle and income give the government any reason to audit you in the first place? If not, you’re probably fine to file them the old fashioned way and not spend an extra dime.

Granted, this is coming from someone who squeaked by with a “C” in accounting, so I’m sure some accountant in cyber-land could prove me wrong. But for the average American, the threat of audit is not too strong, and even if you were audited, as long as you keep your own records (and you’re honest), there shouldn’t be a problem. Really, having an accountant just gives the government another person they can hassle if your taxes are done wrong.  It’s still going to fall back on you though, if it’s done wrong.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I am getting married very soon – 44 days from now to be exact. My tax refund this year has gone straight to my wedding, and it couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Shall I say, yay for Uncle Sam?

Nah.

— Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

 

Spring Break? What’s that?

March 4, 2011

I do not have children. I am not a school teacher. Therefore, I do not take a Spring Break. The only “springy” thing I’m typically doing in March is a cleaning. Doesn’t sound like much of a break does it?

But even though I’m not going on Spring Break this year, I will be traveling in late April for my honeymoon! So I do have a little bit to say about traveling at this time of year and in this economy.

For my honeymoon, my fiancé and I are going to Fortaleza, Brasil. Yes, that’s an “s” – that’s correct Portuguese. We don’t have the option to drive for our honeymoon, obviously, so we have an all-night flight from Houston, a five hour layover in Sao Paulo, and another three hour flight to get where we’re going within South America.

I can tell you, our plane tickets were not cheap at all. $4,000 roundtrip total. When I told my dad he said, “I can fly around the world for that! I could go to Europe for half of that!” But Dad, we’re not going to Europe. Latin America is a little different.

When you go to Europe, most places have English speakers or signs in English. Not everyone speaks English but the majority do whether you’re in France, Germany, or Italy. It’s not so much like that in Brasil, especially not where I’m going. When you say Brasil, people typically think that you’re going to Rio de Janeiro, which I’m not, though I don’t think the English situation is any different there.

I would not recommend an American family to take a Spring Break trip to Brasil without a tour group; it’s too dangerous. When I go to Brasil, I am surrounded by locals whenever I go out. When we go to a club, someone has to come with me if I go to the bathroom. If I want to take a walk on the beach, I can’t go alone, I always have to be accompanied. I speak a little Portuguese, but not enough to get me very far. And even if I did, simply being able to get around is not enough, you have to be able to know where is safe to go.

From my point of view, I guess it doesn’t sound like such a treat. But it is. It’s great to get away from everything, and when you go to a place where your cell phone doesn’t work, you ARE away from everything. Being in a country so different from the U.S. has been very refreshing for me. It’s interesting to see how other people live, how other people get by with things I can’t even imagine not having. The only thing I miss when I am in Brasil is hot showers. Most people don’t have them, and I don’t care how hot it is outside, I need my hot shower. Washing my hair is a nightmare there; invest in dry shampoo if you decide to visit.

I’m very fortunate to say that I have gone to Brasil before, and will go again, since my soon-to-be husband is Brasilian and most of his family lives there. I chose to go there for our honeymoon because I loved it so much. A more honeymoon-type place like a Sandals resort might have been more appropriate, but I’m more than happy to spend my honeymoon in my fiancé’s home country.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

All You Need is Love
Feb. 4, 2011


Out of all the holidays, Valentine’s Day is my all time favorite. Not Christmas, not my birthday, but Valentine’s Day.  

Valentine's Day was first established in 500 A.D., so how could this be considered a Hallmark Holiday? Mr. Hallmark was not around back then, far as I know. And though the traditions of Valentine’s Day have certainly evolved, the sentiment has stayed the same. It’s a day to celebrate the person you love and the fact that love even exists. What’s wrong with that?

I’ve mentioned before that on Valentine's Day, my apartment looks like Walgreen's exploded inside, and this year promises to be no different: My V day placemats are out with my ceramic hand painted Valentine’s plates; there are dozens of heart-shaped boxes and even more heart-shaped candles strewn about.  

This year I didn’t put out all my stuffed animals, though I have so many.  Last year, Filipe bought me the cutest monkey holding a heart, so that one will make an appearance.

You might be asking, Why do I love this day so much? Well, I just love love! Cheesy as it sounds, I think that there is not enough romance on a daily basis in this world, and one day is not enough to let that cheesy romance shine through.  

You should really be romantic everyday with the person you love, but let’s be real: After working all day, cooking, cleaning, and watching "Jersey Shore," the romance meter has probably dropped to zero. So if we can only take one day a year to channel the romance, then this should be it.

Over the years, my fiancé has gotten much better at picking out Valentine’s Day presents, and last year was the best. He had flowers delivered to me at work ith a box of chocolates, plus a bear and some bath products. It was very sweet and that was the first time he'd ever sent flowers to my work.

Every year, I buy a box of the children’s valentines, usually about 50, and all day long on Valentine’s I hand them out to total strangers. The responses I get can be amazing, and people are usually so touched when I do this.

Last year for Valentine’s Day, I took my fiancé to a hockey game, so there were plenty of strangers around. I gave a valentine to the ticket person, the person who searched my purse for weapons, the door man, the hot dog seller and a couple of random people I met in the bathroom, but that’s just one example. I’ve also given valentines to waiters, policemen, bus boys, cashiers, colleagues and even someone standing in front of me in a line, and the responses were great.

I really recommend that you try this this year. It’s fun and you’ll feel so good about making another person feel loved--even if that person is a stranger.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

The Cost of Convenience
Jan. 28, 2011

Isn’t going to the bank just another daily thing? 

You have to wake up each morning, go to work, pay your rent, and you have to pay your taxes and you have to have a bank. 

It’s such an everyday thing, that I don’t even think to question it. 

I keep all my money at Chase, and it’s been there about four years. A different bank ticked me off one too many times with its extremely slow turnaround with check depositing. I haven’t had any problems with Chase to date, and I don’t have anything fancy with it, either. Just a simple checking and a savings account.

My investments are through my work 401(K), which I have a little control over, but I don’t deal with any specific bank for that.

I know I need my 401K and should be serious about it now, but I still have a lot to learn when it comes to investments and retirement. I can’t use the “I’m still young” phrase anymore, because I’m not, and I’ve been told it’s important to get a handle on your retirement early on in your career. Maybe that should have been my New Year’s resolution ...

My opinions about banks are blasé, but I know there are plenty of people out there who think differently.

For example, I once dated a guy who flat out refused to deal with any type of financial institution. He did not have a bank, nor did he have a retirement plan. He actually had no savings other than what he kept in a shoebox beneath his bed--and he was 29. He also didn’t have any credit cards, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but maybe it was because he refused to pay for the one he once had, and it had gone into default. 

Personally, I couldn’t understand this. How did he pay his bills? He couldn’t put a check in the mail, and he definitely couldn’t pay for his bills online. He couldn’t even pay them over the phone, because that too requires a checking account or a credit card.

For rent, utilities, and cable he gave cash to his roommate, and he went to the Verizon store once a month to pay his phone bill in cash. His car was already paid for, but then again, he didn’t have any investments, stocks, life insurance, or anything. Still, he made it work. But why bother? 

Having a bank gives you conveniences that I don’t even think about. This guy certainly could have used them. You don’t have to write checks anymore, you can give a routing number or a debit card number over the phone or the computer. 

I’m sure people are scared to do things like this, since numbers get stolen and computers are hacked, but for a lot of people this works with no problems at all. You don’t have to carry cash, as most places take credit or debit cards. (Remember the Pulse machine?)

Perhaps I should question the bank’s authority more often, but with the conveniences the bank gives me, it’s highly doubtful I'd give it up entirely.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Reluctant SuperFan

Jan. 21, 2011

Oh, the Super Bowl. I must admit, it really doesn't interest me much. I am mostly a college football fan. However, my fiancé and all of our friends get together on Super Bowl Sunday, and despite my lack of enthusiasm I always end up doing something that dreaded day. Last year, we had about seven friends come over to our little apartment and enjoy the game on our brand new HD flat-screen TV. We had only recently updated to flat screen so it was a big deal for us.

As is my custom, I cooked for everyone: a bowl of turkey chili for the occasion was great; it fed a lot of people and was easy. We also ordered pizza in case people didn't want chili, and had your usual Super Bowl snacks as well, and beer. I don’t think you can even have a Super Bowl party without beer, it’s just not allowed. Now the funny thing last year was that three of us were working on homework during the Super Bowl! I was working on a class I’m taking to further my professional education, and was certain our friends would give me crap about it. But two other people were working on schoolwork for their college classes as well. I guess if your attention is only half on the game, you might as well get in some work if you’re going to be sitting in one spot for several hours.

This year, I think we’re going to a friend’s house to do something similar to last year.  And yes, I will probably bring homework again, or possibly work-work.  I am a huge multi-tasker. Also, I prefer going to someone’s house instead of out to a bar. The service typically takes longer, since so many people are there, it’s always insanely loud, and you’re stuck in one spot for several hours in an uncomfortable seat. Maybe I’m an old lady, but not really my idea of a fun time. I’d rather be home, or at a house where the bathroom is close, the couch is soft, and the volume is tolerable.

Since I’m not so much into the football, I do enjoy watching the commercials and halftime show. However, the halftime show just hasn't been as good as it used to be, ever since Janet had her “wardrobe malfunction”. Whatever that was, it was years ago, can we please get over it?  I remember when it happened: It was actually my first night working in a bar, in my first bartending job since finishing bartending school. This was during college, and I chose to learn bartending because I was sick of making minimum wage. Why they decided to start me on Super Bowl Sunday is beyond me.

Anyway, the crowd was huge, and full of very country-style drinkers, and you would not believe the uproar that flash of boob induced. Me, I didn’t actually see it right then, since I was like a deer in the headlights just trying to refill club soda and Dr. Pepper. (They didn’t really let me touch the alcohol the first night.)  But of course I saw it later on the Internet and knew right away that was a piercing and not a pasty. I think that it has been long enough, and the American public has suffered enough boring halftime shows to have something redeeming happen. This year, it’s the Black Eyed Peas, which should definitely redeem things a bit. They’re a bit more edgy and current than the most recent bands they’ve featured.

So, despite my lack of concern for the score on the screen, I will still be attending a Super Bowl soiree. It’s basically an American Holiday; shouldn’t we get Monday off of work?

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

 

Post-Recalls I Got a Deal

Jan. 14, 2011

In February 2010, I bought my first car all on my own, with financing. My first car, a Toyota Corolla, my parents bought for me when I was 16. My 2nd car, a Nissan Maxima, I bought with my settlement check I got from my insurance when my Corolla was hit by an 18-wheeler.  This new car, which was actually a certified pre-owned (so not totally new) is another Toyota Corolla, the S class (for sport, I think).  You're probably thinking, why would you want one of those, they were all recalled!?!?  Well, I thought the same thing at first.

I actually went to the dealership to look at a tricked-out used Mazda I saw online. I did, however, see lots of pre-owned Corollas with very few miles on them that looked great. I ended up finding out that (1) they couldn’t sell anything that didn’t have the recall problems fixed, and (2) the recall problem was really only specific to rentals, since the rental companies were flipping over the floor mats all the time, and the spikes from them were getting caught in the accelerator pedal.  I know since then other things have come up, but since none of them affect my Corolla, I don’t know about them.

Long story short, I got a great car, certified pre-owned, hardly any miles, for a great price. But a Corolla is a very economical car.  Because it’s a Type S, there are some features on it to make it look sporty, i.e. body kit, spoiler, dark interior, pretty paint job.  But it’s nothing show offy, and they last a long time.

My fiancé on the other hand.  2 weeks after I bought mine, he replaced his own Corolla with a Scion TC.  Very sporty indeed.  He kept it for 8 months.  He recently took a new job in sales, where he needed to upgrade his car to something the clients will like, and bought a brand new dodge charger.  Very expensive gas guzzler.  Isn’t that what we’re trying to steer away from?  If I could afford a Prius, I would have gotten that.  I guess that it doesn’t matter how much gas costs, if people want to look cool, they’ll put up with it.  Plus, he has to use premium gas, while I use the bottom of the line.  So you’re getting a much more expensive car, that costs more to drive, that won’t last as long either.  What people do to look cool.

In the future, I think it would be great if most cars were fuel efficient like the Prius, although I don’t know much about their engine.  I have heard however, that whenever you life the hood of those things, it looks quite odd inside!  Since not all mechanics know how to fix them, I’m sure it costs more to get them worked on, and people want low maintenance costs throughout the life of their cars, so that’s a negative.

For now, I’m keeping my Corolla type S.  It’s not the coolest car on the road, but it’s pretty, reliable, and I can always put some nice rims on it. 

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

It Must Be A Droid Thing
Jan. 7, 2011


The other day, I was about a third of the way to work and realized I left my cell phone at home.

Without another thought, I turned around to get it and when I arrived, I texted my boss to let her know I'd be late. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t even care and I’d just leave the phone home all day. Those days are gone. 

My cell phone is a Motorola Droid, powered by Verizon, and though I wouldn’t leave home (intentionally) without it, I really don’t even like it that much. The primary use for a cell phone is, of course, to make phone calls. This phone does not do a great job of that. My voice drops, people can’t hear me and sometimes I have to call people back multiple times. I received a replacement phone due to these problems, but they haven’t stopped with the new phone. It must be a Droid thing.

Despite these headaches, my Droid alerts me of e-mails, Facebook updates and it also can function as a free GPS with turn by turn voice navigation. Since I work on a computer all day, but don’t want Facebook or Gmail up nonstop, it’s good to have the handheld device to see any new e-mails or updates.

The phone is also a great camera, so I never have to say, "aw, I left my camera at home." Plus it even has a flash. Other perks include neat applications like a flashlight, Ebooks and coupon search.

Now while I can imagine my life without a handheld coupon searcher, I can’t imagine it without everything else. Never again will I be lost, due to my pocket GPS. Never again will I have to wait till I get home to check my e-mail. And never again will my flashlight run out of batteries, because my phone is always charged.

Now some new features of technology I find rather stupid. For example, you can now let people know exactly where you are at any given point on Facebook. "Hi, I’m at Subway. Hi, I’m at a gas station." Are we all such stalkers that we really care that you’re filling your car up with gas?

I recently got an iPod touch and one of the top 25 free applications is a Pimple Popper game. A pimple popper game? On a phone? I read America loves it so much, that Apple rates it in the top 25? Geez!

Here's another technology I think is a little bit sad: I was at the store the other day and this poor mom was trying to shop while her kid was bawling for God knows what. She finally said, "Do you want to watch a movie on mommy’s phone?" Then in about two seconds she downloaded some kid’s film from somewhere, or found one on You Tube, and the kid was silent, watching away. Of course, Mommy was happy, but what does this say for us and our child rearing? When I was a kid (and I’m only 27, so it wasn’t in the dark ages), if I didn’t want to shop with my mom it didn’t matter. I had to be there, stay still and keep quiet. Really, my only entertainment was myself. I really don’t know if this technology is an improvement, or a disaster.

As I’m writing this, I received two Facebook alerts, a text message and three e-mails, all while getting directions to an appointment I have this afternoon. I think it’s safe to say that without this little piece of plastic, I would be lost.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

My Recipe(s) for Fighting Boredom

Dec. 31, 2010

In Houston, the high this week is 72 with a low of 36 on the weekend.  To me, this is really cold!  To someone in the Northeast, this is springtime weather! Go figure.

In the “winter” of Texas, I love taking advantage of the fashion possibilities.  I am finally able to wear scarves, hats, mittens and furry boots. But only for a couple of months, then the weather is just way too hot to warrant such outerwear. As a cook, my recipes do change a lot as well, and my dishes are a lot heartier. No light salads or cold pasta salad for me. Comfort food is a must during the cold weather season. I make a lot of homemade soups, which may seem like a daunting task on a weeknight, but it really isn’t; if you know the tricks.  On today’s post, I’m going to share my version of Chicken Tortilla Soup. TexMex food is, of course, more than abundant in Houston, but I’m not even going to pretend that this recipe is authentic.  It’s not spicy and you won’t find any jalapenos here.  It’s just homey, delicious and comforting; a nice addition to your weeknight menu.

Harmony’s Chicken Tortilla Soup

2 tbs. Extra virgin olive oil

1 lb chicken tenders, cut into bite size pieces

2 tbs. poultry seasoning

1 tbs. cumin

½ tbs. paprika

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 medium onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1- 1 ½ cups of frozen corn kernels (whole corn may be used as well, 3 ears should work)

1 28 oz. can of stewed tomatoes (may substitute diced)

1 8 oz. can of tomato sauce

3-4 tbs. of sugar, to taste

3 cups of chicken broth (chicken bouillon may be used as well)

Additions:

Tortilla chips, lightly crushed

Avocado, sliced

Mexican blend or cheddar cheese, shredded

Corn is delicious when grilled.  Using a grill pan (George Foreman or otherwise), grill up the corn kernels or ears.  You can do this while you are making the soup.  If using ears of corn, once grilled scrape the kernels off the cob and into a bowl.

In a large stock pot over medium heat, add extra virgin olive oil and chicken tenders; sauté until almost done.  Add poultry seasoning, cumin, paprika and salt and pepper; stir to combine with chicken.  Add onion and red bell pepper; cook until onion is translucent.  Add stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce and chicken broth.  Bring to a boil.  Now is when you want to taste the soup and add sugar.  This might sound odd, but tomatoes are quite acidic, and the sugar helps to tone down the acid and not let the tomato overpower all of the other wonderful flavors.

Try this sometime when you’re making spaghetti. Start with adding 2 tbs. of sugar to the soup, and go from there.  You will be able to tell when there is enough sugar; you don’t want this tasting like a tomato covered lollipop.  Add grilled corn to the soup and let soup simmer for about 10 minutes.  During this time, I get all of my additions together, and put them out in small bowls on the table.  Ladle soup into large bowls.  When I make up my soup, I sprinkle about ¼ cup of cheese on top and stir it into my soup, then top with chips and avocado.  Enjoy!

I’ve mentioned my love for peppermint schnapps before, here is my special hot chocolate recipe, perfect for chilly nights:

Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix

3/4 cup powdered milk

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

3/4 cup sugar

4 oz. finely chopped bittersweet hot chocolate

A nip of Peppermint Schnapps

Combine all the dry ingredients. This powder and chocolate mixture makes 4 servings. To make one mug of hot chocolate, add 1 cup of water to 1/2 cup of mix. Heat in a saucepan over low heat while stirring, until chocolate has melted. Add schnapps last, after you have put the hot chocolate in the mugs. I have to have marshmallows on mine, always.

Tips:

- These are great to give as gifts. I know Christmas is over, but maybe Valentine's Day???

- This mixture can be stored in an airtight container for quite awhile, so feel free to make a bunch of servings at once so you have a supply.

- Some people use milk instead of water to make it richer, you don't have to do that here; the powdered milk will make it quite creamy.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

An Opportunity for Others

Dec. 23, 2010

I could be really negative in this blog post, and write about how I never set resolutions for myself. I never keep them, so I don’t like setting myself up for failure. But that’s the thing about New Year’s, it gives everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) a chance to regroup and start over. Even though it’s just a silly little holiday, somehow it gives people inspiration to make things better in their lives. Do we have many other holidays that create so much influence?

Go frequent your local gym around January; it’s always going to be packed, as many people make fitness or weight loss goals for the New Year.  You can visit the grocery store as well and see more people shopping, since people make healthy eating goals as well, to assist with the diet and exercise. Obviously, though we may not follow through on the resolutions, the inspiration is still there in our community.

One of the growing problems in my community is the amount of homeless people.  I cannot drive home at night without seeing five or six people on the street carrying signs. When I see homeless people, I typically give them food, or a bottle of water, whatever I happen to have in my car. But that’s not what they need. They need shelter, someplace warm, with food, and with help. My community would greatly benefit from an outreach to the homeless population.

There are shelters in Houston, don’t get me wrong, but easier access or free transportation to these shelters would be beneficial. We give a lot of our money to huge foundations such as AIDS research, Breast Cancer Awareness, American Heart Association, and sometimes we forget that change can be made right in front of us. All of those organizations are very worthy causes, but as a patron of many causes, I would like to see an impact with the money and time I devote.  In the New Year as I set resolutions for myself, I hope that my community will follow suit and try to make change happen locally.

As for next year, I hope to be able to just manage my own finances, plain and simple.  With my wedding coming soon, I will have so many additional bills to juggle, I’m not goning to know what hit me. I will have help from other sources financially, but managing the billing with all of the different vendors that go into a wedding, alone, is quite a feat. We’ll see what the New Year brings.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

'Tis the Season for Saving? Not really.

Dec. 3, 2010

This year, I am definitely spending less on holiday gifts due to the fact that I’m getting married in April, and have to put lots of money toward our wedding and honeymoon. However, Christmas is very important to me, and I don’t want to “short change” anyone, so I’ll have to figure out some creative ways to get nice gifts and still stay under budget.

I'm not a fan of gift cards, they seem like the easy way out. I understand the convenience; you don’t run the risk of the person not liking whatever gift you pick out for them and then having it collect dust in a closet somewhere. And I don’t really mind receiving them, either. But still, there’s that disappointment when you don’t have any presents under the tree on Christmas since they've yet to be bought. It's a little ridiculous I know, but everyone loves opening actual presents on Christmas.  Also, I’m a pretty good shopper when it comes to finding sales and deals, and if I can get someone a nicer present for cheaper, I'd rather do that then splurge for a gift card.

For example, for my brother, I'm going to buy presents all related to working out, since he recently decided to start doing this. This will include a workout outfit, some type of equipment such as resistance bands, maybe a book or two and some sort of monitoring device (heart, pedometer, etc). And as you see, the gifts are in different price ranges, and they all go together as a “theme." This might be too complicated for some people, but I think it’s a good idea, and a creative way to buy someone several gifts without spending too much.

For my fiancé, things are a little more complicated, as he wants specific electronics, specific video games, and a specific watch. Also, all of the items are brand new, or recently released, so the price is not going to be too different wherever I go, which at least helps save time when I’m shopping; I won’t have to go from store to store looking for a better price.  Most of my money will be spent on him, but that’s the way it should be.

One way I do plan to save money is by giving edible gifts. It's taken me years to find recipes that I am able to make in copious amounts and still taste good, but I do have a few that I’ll package in pretty tins and give out as gifts. I always throw in an edible gift for my mom, dad, stepmom, and future in-laws in addition to their regular presents; food is like my signature. These are also great for co-workers and neighbors.  If you are going to do edible gifts, I suggest testing out your recipe ahead of time; this is extremely important. You'll want to make sure your item travels well (especially if you’re shipping it), and if you’re making lots of gifts, you’ll need something easy to duplicate.

Good luck shopping in this economy, and don’t forget the peppermint schnapps.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Don’t Forget Your Christmas Spirit

Nov. 29, 2010

I can’t believe the holidays are already here.  Another year I promised myself to not leave holiday shopping until the last minute, and another year I failed.

One thing I never delay is my holiday decorations. I like to decorate my home for Christmas right after Thanksgiving. I live in a two-bedroom apartment, and every room has some sort of holiday décor in it. As for holiday lights, we do a few outdoor decorations around our windows and such, and on our balcony. My apartment neighbors love to decorate, and my apartment complex hosts a Christmas decoration contest every year.

Christmas only comes once a year, so I try to take advantage of it, and enjoy my decorations for as long as I can. We don’t buy a real tree since we’re in an apartment, but as soon as we have a house that fake tree is going to the Salvation Army. I usually hit up Garden Ridge after Thanksgiving for a few extra decorations, but I’ve compiled quite a collection since I started living on my own. I really don’t need anymore; you can only fit so much in a two-bedroom place! But I always find some nook and cranny to stick an extra Santa Claus or Nativity scene. You should see my apartment during Valentine’s Day - it looks like a Walgreen’s (or a Duane Reade to you northerners) exploded in it.

Decorating for Christmas can seem like an obligation, but it’s all about your attitude.  Sometimes you have to consciously make it a fun event.  I insist on taking a couple of hours one night, turning off the TV, and putting on some Christmas music while I unpack the boxes and put everything out. That way it’s all done at once, and I’m not slowly unpacking boxes throughout the month.

It’s the same for me with Holiday baking. I always buy special ingredients and decorations to make baked goods for everyone, but in the end it seems like an obligation. Here’s a tip: Try to get some of your holiday gifts delivered, by mail or by hand, early in December; that way they’re done and out of your hands. This is good for coworkers, neighbors and your kids' teachers. People will appreciate holiday gifts all month long, even early gifts, trust me.

It’s very easy to get stressed out during the holidays, but before you know it, they’ll be over. Try to take some time and enjoy what is actually going on around you, instead of worrying about all of the things you have to do this month. And if you need some kind of de-stressor, I recommend hot chocolate spiked with peppermint schnapps.

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Black Friday? Try Ballistic Friday

Nov. 22, 2010

You could not pay me to enter that chaotic hell called Black Friday. I think any type of savings you get would be offset by the irritation and anxiety it would cause. However, I do know lots of people totally disagree with me, and there are benefits to braving the masses. I have a friend who does the Black Friday thing every year. She wakes up at 3:00 in the morning, or earlier, and heads to Best Buy to stand in the cold to hope that she is able to get her low-cost computer or whatever electronic device she wants. (And I live in Texas, so I can’t even imagine having to stand in the real cold, like you northerners endure.) But of course, the stores only have so many of each, so depending on your spot in line you may only get one or two or none of the items you are planning on. It’s a crapshoot.

I have another friend, a mom of three, who does Black Friday every year as well. In her experience, she does not spend less money, but she is able to give more gifts. That is always great, especially when you have lots of kids. If you are willing to get up really early and fight the crowds, more power to you; it’s just not for me. There are very good sales that happen all during the Christmas season. Macy’s, Sears, and other stores have coupons and special days with extra savings. These sales I do take advantage of. But I just can’t do it the day after Thanksgiving, my sanity is more important.

I will, however, be online on Cyber Monday to participate in some of the sales; most likely Amazon.com. It didn’t work out for me last year, but this year I might have better luck. Last year, I wanted to buy my fiancé a Playstation 3 on Amazon on Cyber Monday, because it came with two free games. However, I came to find out, the games that were free were kind of stupid, and did not interest him in the slightest. Had I got them they would have collected dust on a shelf somewhere. I ended up getting the Playstation at the same cost (minus the games and the shipping charge) at my local Game Stop a week before Christmas with no problem. So you have to think about what you’re really getting with a sale. A lot of the gaming systems have bundle packages that you can get on Cyber Monday, but is the bundle really worth it?  Are you getting anything additional you (or the person you’re getting the gift for) really want?

In addition to Amazon, Harry and David has a great 25% off deal on Cyber Monday, and is a great place to buy gifts for people at work, your clients, or neighbors. A lot of sites offer free shipping on Cyber Monday, and I know shipping costs have kept people from buying online before. One you might not think of, Ace Hardware, offers $10 off a $100 purchase. You have to buy your Christmas lights from somewhere, right?

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

Recession? What Recession?

Nov. 15, 2010

Hear me out. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy theory. I’m just saying recession is a relative term, and believe it or not there are different ways to look at the current state of affairs.

I am an American. Raised in Houston, Texas since the age of seven by very Republican parents. You better believe that I am aware there is something called a recession and that its effects have been unfavorable. Personally, I have only been out of college for a few years, and my 401(k) is my personal link to the Great Recession.

Don’t get me wrong, I watch the news, and I work in corporate America, so I am not blind to the troubles our world is going through. But on a day-to-day basis, I watch my 401(k) and it makes me weary seeing my paycheck money go into something and then just disappear. What is the point in that?  About a year ago, I stopped putting money in my 401(k) altogether when it was reduced by 50% due to a bad stock market. I have since begun putting money back into my 401(k) because it seems stupid not to, with my company providing a generous match. Other than my retirement plan, I haven’t changed much or had to adapt in terms of spending. I do not own a home, and I just bought my first car this year. Once I do get married, become a homeowner, or have children, I’m sure all of that will change.

I am actually about to be married to the love of my life, who happens to be Brazilian. He was born and raised in Brazil until the age of 6, when his parents brought him here to America. All of his family still lives in Brazil. His family thinks it’s comical that we Americans whine all the time about this so-called “recession”. His mom has told me stories from the late 80s and early 90s in Brazil when she would have to go to the bank every day to check her bank account. The value of the Real (Brazilian currency) changed on a daily basis. Similar to my 401(k) disappearing, but this is a person’s everyday bank account. Can you imagine? On Monday you have $1000 and on Tuesday you might have $750.

So you see, going from such a brutal economy as that, they don’t find many things to complain about in our current economy. His father, a doctor of internal medicine working for the city, and his mother live comfortably in Austin, Texas. They are able to visit their Brazilian family several times a year, and take at least one trip to Europe every year as well. They might live in the same country as me, but they’re not experiencing the same recession as we hear about in the news.

We might think that if you aren’t aware that we’re going through a recession than you must be living under a rock. But apparently that’s not the case. Perhaps the recession has more to do with a person’s attitude, or personal experience than we think?

—Harmony is a young professional who loves to blog about cooking at Dreaming of Kumquats.

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