Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Year's Best Bargains: A Personal Retrospective

Persimmon/Cerise with Camel and Mahogany by 3-Penny Princess

Well, we can all agree that this has been a most interesting year, economically speaking. Gas prices went through the roof to hit record levels, and now they're hitting record levels for recent years on the low end. Real estate sales finally went up after a stagnant year (at least in the close-in D.C. area) only to plummet following the credit crisis, then they rallied unexpectedly at the tail end of the year thanks to falling interest rates. Banks had quite a roller coaster ride themselves as the mortgage industry collapsed and one after another lending institution went out of business, which was followed by a massive flurry of refinances and an almost complete freeing up of credit to consumers at the eleventh hour of 2008. The automobile business is another story, as the Treasury just finished earmarking $358.4 billion out of the $700 billion bailout to save the industry.

Retailers in many other industries didn't fare too well either, with the retail industry as a whole now facing what many believe to be the largest rash of closings in 35 years. Here's just a sampling of major chains that have or are expected to close some of their locations, courtesy of AOL Money & Finance:

  • Linens 'n Things filed for bankruptcy protection in May '08, and several months after failing to find a buyer the company began a liquidation sale in October.
  • Foot Locker announced in March '08 that it was putting 140 more of its 3,785 stores on the chopping block in addition to the 274 it closed last year.
  • The Home Depot expects to close 15 underperforming stores in the U.S.
  • Ann Taylor announced plans to close 117 underperforming stores by 2010.
  • Circuit City stores filed for bankruptcy protection in November '08, while KB Toys followed suit in December.
  • Eddie Bauer is to close stores 27 stores and more after January '09.
  • Talbots, which also owns the J. Jill brand, closed 78 stores in 2007-2008. They also announced plans earlier this year to sell their J. Jill stores.
  • GAP is closing 85 stores.
  • Macy's is planning to close 9 stores after January '09.
  • Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, and Catherine’s are expected to close 150 stores nationwide.
  • Diamond powerhouse Zales announced in February that the company was closing 50 kiosks and 55 full-size stores by the end of July, as well as trimming its headquarters staff by 20 percent.

The Polka-Dot Cherie Cami In Black by FFM

Not one of these major economic forces, however, succeeded in keeping me away from the stores. I'm determined to get my shopping fix, come hell or high water. This year has been particularly painful for my pocketbook. In the past 12 months, I've brought home more clothing, shoes, and accessories than I did in probably the last 3 years. J.Crew became the primary source of my goods while Ann Taylor/Loft, Banana Republic/Gap/Old Navy, and Express/The Limited shifted into the background, warranting only the occasional visit. To be fair, I also shed a good 70% of my former wardrobe this year - even more than in previous years. The biggest beneficiaries of my obsessive closet cleaning were my new sister-in-law, my aunt, and the usual thrift store for the blind (though in much lesser quantities due to the first 2 recipients). I shipped a few extra-large boxes to my aunt, who - at age 60 - has the figure of a 40-year old and still dresses to kill. I literally sent my new sister-in-law home with close to 30 large shopping bags and boxes (over 3 visits). Lucky for her, she is also petite but happens to look good in all the styles and colors that don't flatter me.

After pruning like mad and completely re-organizing all of my belongings, I was able to build a truly exceptional wardrobe, one that I can be proud of. One that I can pass on to my children if I should die tomorrow (you never know!). I even went a step further and discovered the most helpful (and addictive) tool of all: Polyvore. It allows me to upload and add from the world's largest virtual closet all the goodies that are currently in my actual collection, plus all the great finds I bring home. Then, I set to work creating set after set of perfectly coordinated color combinations, outfits for various occasions, and even fantasy ensembles - right down to the jewelry, coat, and accessories. Again, the two J.Crew groups, J.Crew Aficionadas and J.Crew Fanatic! proved to be goldmines of inspiration, thanks to the talents of others who share their fashion ideas and creativity.

Now, I can look back and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I can get genuinely excited every single time I need to leave the house, because I know that I always have something to wear. I finally banished the "I Have Nothing to Wear" Beast once and for all. I have no excuse to avoid social functions, look sloppy at work, or not be ready for a last-minute getaway. Heck, I've even got glam outfits ready just for running out for a carton of milk. Take that, '50s sirens!

Pumpkin Ecole with Golden Roses Cherie, Watercolor Lydia by 3-Penny Princess

Granted, this monumental wardrobe transformation came at a price. A very, very hefty one that I'll still be paying off into the good part of 2009. The good news is, I did manage to save several pretty pennies while getting my hands on a lot of pretty pieces. After all, I'm not the 3-Penny Princess for nothing! Here are some of the retail acquisitions I feel most proud of this year:

1. Coach Leigh Legacy Satchel in Camel
Original Price: $598.00
Purchased For: $94.50

On an impromptu visit to the Coach outlet one early fall weekday, I picked up this gem of a bag that had retailed a couple of years ago. Always a fan of the legacy collection and the turnlock details, I certainly had my eye on it when it came out, and it was featured in several gorgeous shades to choose from. But I certainly would not have plunked down anywhere near full price for this pricey model. Therefore, I was absolutely floored to find it sitting on the clearance shelf all alone except for a black one in the same style. I pounced on it right away when I saw that it had been reduced to a mere $189. Then, to my sheer surprise and uncontainable joy, it rang up as 50% off the lowest price. Imagine the good fortune of finding this well-made, thick leather Coach beauty in the ultimate late summer-early fall shade for just a fraction of the original price. This was arguably the best buy of 2008.

2. J.Crew Double Cloth Tulip Coat in Deep Persimmon
Original Price: $330.00
Purchased For: $125.99

The compliments I receive on this coat are endless. The shape is divine and the petite cut keeps it draped close to the body and just slightly above the knee. The princess-like sleeves and slight A-line bottom drape nicely over curves, while the fine, almost silky wool fabric dresses up the plainest outfit. The color is truly heaven-sent - not quite orange, but a less severe tomato red that just makes my skin and hair radiate warmth even on a gloomy day.

3. J.Crew Cashmere Rosette Cardigan in Cantaloupe
Original Price: $188.00
Purchased For: $47.99

One of the thickest, softest, most fitted cashmere sweaters J.Crew ever sold. The color is a light orange reminiscent of a creamsicle. Very flattering on a light peach complexion.

4. J.Crew Amelia Espadrilles in Wild Berry, Gold, and Pewter
Original Price: $118.00
Purchased For: $17.99

I was so taken with these espadrilles that I bought 3 pairs: a madras fabric print called Wild Berry, Gold leather, and Pewter leather. The unbelievable comfort, pretty colors, and excellent quality of this ubiquitous yet better version of a summer staple was truly unexpected. They prompted me to write a rave review shortly after purchasing them back in August. And at this ridiculously low price, it would have been a crime not to swipe 3 pairs from the store. Read my full review here.

5. J.Crew Metallic Clea Herringbone Jacket in Deep Persimmon
Original Price: $325.00
Purchased For: $79.99

A J.Crew Collection piece from the fall 2008 season, this jacket is worth every penny in weight, literally. An extra-thick, plush wool boucle that apparently originated in a luxury Japanese mill, this is definitely not your ordinary tweed jacket. With its vibrant red-orange yarn and the slightest glimmer of metallic threading woven throughout, it's the ultimate "notice me" jacket for the girl who doesn't want to scream it. It mixes beautifully with ivory pants and a persimmon colored merino top for dramatic flair, or, take it down a notch with trouser jeans and a neutral sweater. When winter brings one of those mid-50s days when you don't want to wear a coat, this substitutes perfectly. It's bright for spring and cozy for fall, making it a stylish and utterly substantial herringbone jacket for seasons to come. Plus, like all other J.Crew Persimmon/Cerise/Cayenne/Bright Flame pieces, it looks divine with my complexion.

6. J.Crew Stretch Vintage Cord Peplum Jacket in Ecru and Navy
Original Price: $118.00
Purchased For: $29.99

I first tried on this baby-fine wale cord jacket on in late July when the early fall collection appeared in stores. At that time, I agreed with the jacket, but not with the price of $118. Not because I didn't believe that a well-constructed, fully-lined blazer should cost that much, but because I wasn't entire sure of the fit. Topped over a diaphanous silk chiffon tank in the sweltering summer heat, I wasn't sure if the slightly boxy fit would flatter my slender shoulders. Also, to be fair, the price was a slight issue because there were dozens of competing cord blazers offered by other retailers for much less.

A couple of months later, as sweater weather kicked into full gear, I revisited this jacket, now at a much more palatable $59.99. This time, donning a rhubarb Cashmere Long-Sleeved Tee over a contrasting tank top, I tried on the Peplum Cord Jacket in ecru. Lo and behold, the fit went from too-boxy to just-right over the mid-weight cashmere sweater. I liked the jacket's slightly puffed princess sleeves and slightly shirred back below the waist. The rounded collar helped to soften the boxy cut and the 4 well-placed buttons allowed for a snugger fit where I wanted. I cashed in my 30% off and bought the ecru on the spot.

A month-and-a-half later, I realized how much my wardrobe could benefit from the navy jacket and kicked myself for not buying it before it sold out in my size. Luckily, while scanning eBay for Christmas presents, I came across 2 navy ones in my size: one was being hawked for $79.50, while the other one beckoned me at just $29.99 with free shipping. I didn't have to think twice - I bid on the cheaper one right away and got another great deal on a great jacket. While the ecru one goes well with bright colored tops and jeans, the navy one looks sharp with my numerous ivory pants plus red and pink skirts (as well as my rhubarb dressy Bermuda shorts from spring). The jacket is classic but not boring, and the interesting details will help keep it fresh for a few seasons. It's the perfect thickness for early-to-mid fall and mid-to-late spring.

7. J.Crew Cashmere Shrunken Shawl Cardigan in Soft Azalea, Fresh Clover, and Navy
Original Price: $185.00
Purchased For: $65.00

This luxuriously soft sweater debuted this past winter during J.Crew's Roman Holiday (see the February 2008 catalog). At the time, however, I thought $185.00 was not only exorbitant but insulting to those of us who had watched last year's cashmere pill like crazy. Also, when I tried it on in the store, I couldn't figure out what size was appropriate. The fit was definitely "shrunken" unlike many of the year's baggy sweaters (that frankly resembled sackcloth in their fit). Also, the colors that my store carried weren't at the top of my list. So, I eventually forgot about this cardigan. Apparently, others snapped them up following progressive spring, summer, and fall sales.

Enter November '08 when I started seeing them pop up every other day on the final sale online. By now, I had picked up a few high-quality cashmere specimens such as the Femme sweater and Rosette cardigan (above) that were not only supremely soft but didn't seem to pill. But still hesitant to take a chance on the shrunken cardigan during the fall final sale, I instead jumped at the chance to grab one on the J.Crew Aficionada Great Weekly Exchange.

Well, let me just say that it was love at first sight and touch! What sumptuous baby-soft yarn! What gorgeous, saturated colors! And what a dreamy silhouette for a petite figure! Finally, a sweater that looked as nicely fitted on me as it did on the models. After I wore the Fresh Clover one - the first one I had purchased - for a full day during a trip to the wineries, I immediately set out to add to my collection. Fortunately, every time I placed this cardigan on my weekly "wish list" on the Weekly Exchange, the same fabulous seller found me and sent me new colors.
Good thing, because these sweaters are like candy! You can't have just one. I ended up buying 3 from her (plus another cashmere v-neck bow sweater from the fall collection). I can't say enough about the Cashmere Shrunken Shawl Cardigan! The 3 are sure to be among my most-worn sweaters as we head into the new year.

8. Michael Kors Amherst Large Shoulder Bag in Vicuna
Original Price: $398.00
Purchased For: $156.00

My fondness for this bag only grows the more I carry it. It's a rich shade of saddle (the Coach equivalent of "whiskey") in a buttery-smooth leather that literally seems to melt in my fingers. It goes with virtually any color scheme, for any occasion. It can be tossed over your shoulder as you're running out the door. It can expand to fit your whole life but doesn't weight a ton. And it has so many bloomin' pockets! A large exterior front flap pocket, a hidden exterior back open pocket, 4 interior open pockets for cell phone/handheld/lipstick/mints/etc., and yet another larger interior zip pocket. What more could you possibly ask for in a bag?

9. Cole Haan Nike Air Fiona Mid-Heel Pump in Sand Embossed Snake
Original Price: $295.00
Purchased For: $151.96

First, let me start out by singing the praises of Cole Haan dress shoes. They're padded inside with Nike Air cushioning and a Nike Air rubber patch on the part of the sole that hits the pavement, making this dress shoe not only office appropriate but practical for walking. After you've been standing in 3-inch heels for hours, your feet will thank you for choosing these shoes that are contoured to hug your foot where it needs it without squeezing the parts that don't. If you've got high arches or need to be able to walk on concrete, Cole Haan Nike Air technology offers much more support than the average dress shoe. The beauty of these pumps (literally) is that they are highly fashionable and follow the right trends without sacrificing timeless elegance. I think they really elevate any outfit to a higher level, whether you're wearing a suit or just want to glam up jeans. The quality of the materials and the overall design and craftsmanship of the shoe is phenomenal. I'd pin this pump against a Manolo or Jimmy Choo stiletto any day in terms of quality and comfort. The best part? With Cole Haan's numerous sales this year, it's easy to catch most anything you've had your eye on for 30% off the sale price within a few months of it's retail debut. While not the cheapest shoe out there, it's still a great buy at $151.96.

10. Cole Haan Sierra Air Tall Boot in Chestnut
Original Price: $495.00
Purchased For: $258.97

Despite their 3.5-inch heels and uptown attitude, these boots were definitely made for walking, thanks once again to the genius Nike Air technology concealed within. With a nod to old-school equestrian styling, the D-ring horsebit (Cole Haan's signature) features prominently around the top of the calf. The shade, Chestnut, is blend of brown, British tan, and a splash of brandy. The leather is tough yet expertly tooled, lined in a second layer of leather inside the shaft. The sole, while leather, is double-layered and lightly hammered to keep it from sliding on slick surfaces (like the wood floors in my house that I have a knack for slipping on). With a comfortable almond-shaped toe and a full side zipper, these are a cinch to get on and off in a rush (which is every day). The calf width leaves just enough room to hug skinny jeans inside and still zip all the way up. With a skirt, the boots exude class with just a hint of rebelliousness, especially with the top of the shaft gapping just the right amount from my legs.

Again, not the cheapest boots I could have bought, but certainly among the best in this price range. Considering the alternatives for $200-250, I really feel like a got a much better quality product that will outlast many trends and many seasons. Although they were sold out on, I accidentally ran into a pair at my local Cole Haan store in my size - I knew at that moment that they were meant to be. They had been reduced to $369.95 and I got an additional 30% off, bringing them down to $258.97. Thank goodness, because I would never shell out for a $500 pairs of boots - not because I don't think great boots are worth it, but because I can't possibly afford it on my current salary. Maybe one day...

11. J.Crew Merino Lili Ruffle-Chiffon Cardigan in Cerise
Original Price: $110.00
Purchased For: $41.99

Just days after this flirty cardigan hit my store, it was already on promotion along with many other new sweaters, reduced to 59.99 with an extra 30% off. I kind of grabbed it absentmindedly as I started to hunt for all the other things that had been on my seasonal wish list. After all, the color "cerise" looked to be a new fresher relative of the long-running "persimmon" shade that had proven to be hugely successful in my wardrobe. So, with arms full of motley finds I waddled into the fitting room and proceeded to try it all on. Many of the other garments looked better on the hanger than on me. This delicately woven thin merino wool creation, however, looked like it was made just for me. The mouthwatering hue - ripe tomato mixed with clementine - was wildly appealing and brought out the best colors in my face, including my favorite Fresh Sugar lip gloss in Pin-Up (a shimmering golden coral). The sun-drenched shade screamed Capri, or maybe Morocco (J.Crew's spring 2008 destination). The ruffles were unique too: horizontal rows of cascading chiffon that wasn't too frou-frou but still channeled an undeniably feminine vibe. I knew immediately that it would become one of most beloved 3-season sweaters.

What I didn't know, until I brought it home and started trying it on with everything, was how well it layered under other sweaters and especially jackets. Peeking out under a structured brown glen plaid jacket, it brightened up an otherwise staid suit. The feathery red-orange ruffles also danced gracefully under both last year's chocolate velvet Bella blazer and this year's ecru Peplum Cord jacket (see above). Whether I paired it with jeans or camel trousers, it lent a warm glow to the ensemble. While I'm not sure I would even picked it up if it had been full-price, it was without a doubt a brilliant purchase at $41.99.

12. J.Crew Zebra Hinged Bangle Bracelet
Original Price: $68.00
Purchased For: $17.49

I have to admit that I've been slowly won over by much of the past year's jewelry collection at J.Crew. The unique designs and always workable colors somehow manage to be the perfect little finish to many stylish outfits. Some of the hand-painted jeweled cuffs and enamel bangles have been quite stunning, and their substantial weight along with the sturdy craftsmanship made me more confident to invest in them. Nevertheless, I still balk at paying anywhere near full price for what is - despite its exquisite design - non-precious costume jewelry. No matter how they try to spin the story of a rare yellow bead that was manufactured in Japan before the war and now found in limited quantities, I am simply not going to shell out $98 for a brass chain-link necklace because it contains a handful of Czech crystals, or $65 for plastic-looking 70s beads - even if they are hand-knotted and fitted with a French wire wrap at the ends.

That's why I was pleased as punch when the striking wide Zebra Hinged Bangle Bracelet not only re-appeared online after I broke an earlier model (from another brand), but was priced at a truly can't-miss $24.99. With my 30% discount, I snagged it immediately for an ultra-satisfying $17.49. It matches so many items in my wardrobe, it probably would have been worth the full price in retrospect. Fortunately, I got it for a steal and can now feel less guilty about buying another one (on sale, of course).

13. J.Crew Frances Blouse in Cherry Blossom
Original Price: $98.00
Purchased For: $29.99

When this blouse came out this past spring, this print flew off the shelves. I didn't think I'd even find it until one random day in mid-summer when I visited my store and accidentally saw it on the clearance rack in my size. I heard the angels sing that day, because it was definitely meant to be. This delightful and incredibly versatile blouse is as perfect by itself for the dog days of summer as it is layered under a cashmere cardigan. It really punches up an all-white skirt suit, and the subtle ruffling is a nice contrast to the straight lines of a traditional lapel jacket. It looks great with shorts, jeans, skirts, and under just about anything. The cherry blossom print is entirely flattering and feminine without being over-the-top saccharine.

14. Soia & Kyo Ines Houndstooth Coat in Grey
Original Price: $375.00
Purchased For: $220.00

Hands down the warmest coat in my closet. Knocks all my J.Crew wool-blend coats right out of the water. Made by Canadians who know the meaning of cold and don't mess around with winter coats. Based in Montreal with offices in Toronto and New York, Soia & Kyo designs marry a tailored European aesthetic with one part English street mod. The result is a well-fitted classic that has equal parts playfulness, equal parts girliness, and loads of grown-up sophistication.

The wool is thick as can be, and it's the only coat I bother with when the winds gust right through and chill you to the bone. This material stands up to the weather while standing up to life on the go, where I spend much of my time. My second find from this brand, I am highly impressed with the excellent materials and expert tailoring. It's also a nice treat to find that the sizes run a bit closer to European, so an x-small is truly for x-small people. No hemming was required, and there's not much wiggle room underneath, so only buy an x-small if you wear a size 0-2 in clothing.

The Ines style actually came in 2 other houndstooth color combos as well as solids and tweeds. I opted for the grey houndstooth (pictured) because black and white looks too severe on me. Bright colors go well with this pattern as do most neutrals, including camel and, of course, many greys. I actually contemplated buying this coat for about a month right after seeing it on the racks at Macy's. I tried to shop around to find the best deal, but I didn't have any luck. Only Macy's actually carried it in-store, and the online retailers who had this style didn't carry it in the grey color pattern.

Shortly before my birthday, after surviving a particularly blustery November stretch with unusually cold temperatures while spending a lot of time outdoors, I finally bit the bullet and coughed up full-price. The only consolation was my usual 20% off that I've come to expect as a Macy's cardholder, which brought the price down to a slightly more swallowable $300. Within 10 days, however, I was thrilled to see that the price had been marked down to $275. I confidently marched up to the counter - while wearing the coat - and (very nicely) demanded a price adjustment plus the 20% off (a discount I never seem to run out of). They were happy to oblige, and I ended up with a much better deal on a truly fabulous, incredibly warm coat. Since I've had occasion to wear the coat this month on the colder days, I've gotten many compliments on the print and the unique neckline, which can be work as a funnel or as an open collar. I highly recommend the coat and the brand overall.

15. Amazing Styling Advice and Ideas from Extremely Talented and Creative People:
Retail Value: Priceless
Purchased For: $0

Fabulous Florida Mommy (FFM) has been a tremendous asset to all of us in the J.Crew Aficionada community. Other Aficionadas and Polyvore-ites have inspired me greatly too. It's really amazing when people put their heads together to create beautiful ensembles and brainstorm the perfect outfit for whatever the occasion. It also feels good knowing that I have inspired others with my ideas. Sure, we're not creating artistic masterpieces or finding a cure for cancer. But we are helping to make the world a more beautiful place, one person at a time. And, we're giving each other always-needed confidence to get out there and make something special with our clothes instead of just settling for the tried-and-true or the basic black. So I want to thank FFM, JCrew Chick (aka Slastena) , Naomi*, and Busy Mom in NY (among many others) for both challenging and inspiring me daily with your styling talents and fresh ideas.

I wish everyone a fabulous New Year, and may you have a happy, healthy, fashionable, and bargain-filled 2009!!

Slastena brought to my attention that the Cole Haan Sierra boots in the model photo are actually styled with the J.Crew Metallic Jacquard Mini from earlier this year. What a fabulous pairing! I guess J.Crew and Cole Haan were meant to be together. I couldn't find a picture of the skirt anymore, but below is a bigger photo of the page from the Cole Haan Fall '08 catalog, still online.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Have Yourself... a Nostalgic Little Christmas

It's easy to get swept away in the fervor of the holidays. Between the incessant ramblings of news reporters about the weekly shopping totals, the frequent shots of long lines at various retailers, the marathon to buy the neverending list of presents (just when you think you've finished, you remember the neighbors, your child's teachers, your spouse's co-workers, etc.), the mountains of boxes to wrap, the race to decorate and light up the perimeter of the yard, and the hectic schedule of holiday parties to attend, it's no wonder too many people associate the holidays with one big month of stress.

To make matters worse, the list of things to buy seems to always get longer, while many peoples' wallets are undeniably shrinking. In a time of heightened foreclosures and increasing layoffs, even the reasonably well-off are feeling anxiety about going overboard in spending. Ironically, some of the items on our list are actually cheaper to buy this year than last year as wave after wave of sales and discounts force retailers to whittle away at their profits. On the one hand, people are just plain scared to part with their money. On the other hand, stores that offer deep price cuts plus excellent savings are clearing out their inventory.

The worst part for me isn't even the spending -- I'm likely to overshop in any economy. No, the things that stress me out are all the things to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. How am I supposed to find the time to buy presents for 30+ people, box and wrap everything in time, bake 5 dozen cookies, write 80 Christmas cards, clean and decorate the house inside and out, plan and cook a feast for 15 family members, attend more than 10 holiday get-togethers, and bring over all the donations of food, gifts, and clothing collected by churches and charities -- all in just over 20 days while holding down a job and managing a household?

To be sure, the sights and sounds of a more appealing holiday season beckon me: the free concerts at churches, the caroling in town squares, the holiday lights shows, the children's recitals, the cooking demonstrations at Williams-Sonoma, the baking parties, and the call to volunteer at local food banks/soup kitchens/hospitals/retirement homes/other great causes. Or, just to duck into Starbucks and lounge peacefully with a steaming Gingerbread Latte while listening to my favorite holiday tunes. Now that would be a holiday worth looking forward to.

My husband and I recently watched a special holiday episode of one of our most beloved travel shows, Rick Steves Europe. Rick took us on a tour of the Old Country through storybook Alpine villages, charming English towns, rolling Tuscan countrysides, and chic Parisian boulevards complete with smartly dressed children. As we watched the beautiful Christmas season unfold at Advent and culminate in a joyous New Year's Day, we witnessed many time-honored traditions still being followed, even in the widespread digital society that is much of Europe today. What really struck us -- amidst the mesmerizing lights spectacles, angelic choral melodies, painstakingly crafted religious figurines and nutcrackers, crackling chestnuts being roasted on street corners, and lovingly decorated homemade gingerbread houses -- was the determined focus on family, friends, and an overall appreciation of the season's natural wonders.

Sure, we saw the bustle of pedestrians toting bags of gifts for their families. We saw plenty of oversized pine trees lugged home then dressed in either fine ornaments or simple white lights. We saw wreaths hung on doors, candles lit on windowsills, and stockings hung by fires. But we also saw children hand-dipping taper candles in German shopping malls to give to their parents. We saw English moms teaching their sons and daughters to make traditional plum pudding. We saw Swiss friends inviting each other over for an evening of fondue, hot mulled gluwine, and singing by the piano. We saw Italian toddlers distributing freshly baked panetone bread to their elderly neighbors. We saw French households everywhere displaying a unique "creche" or nativity scene with little clay saints. We saw Norwegian girls young and old donning white robes and a crown of evergreens 12 days before Christmas then waking up their parents to serve them coffee and buns to honor Saint Lucia Day. We heard teenagers all over performing centuries-old musical renditions of religious stories and choral concerts.

During a season that has so much to offer in the way of sights, traditions, and religious messages, many of us choose (or feel forced) to succumb to the stressful and sometimes superficial elements of the holidays. It's almost unfair, as I would much prefer to sit with friends around my fireplace, sip peppermint cocoa, and just catch up. Or just call up 10 people that I haven't spoken to in a year and find out what's going on in their lives rather than buy, write, address, and mail 80 Christmas cards. Instead of buying loads of new toys, clothes, and gadgets for family members that really don't need them (not to mention racking my brain to come up with creative gift lists), I'd rather buy and deliver more gifts to the poor, widowed, and abandoned in my community. Most of all, I would love to just enjoy a full week of cooking delicious meals and baking heavenly cakes for me, to enjoy myself, without worrying about cleaning the whole house or setting up buffets or taking down and putting back dozens of pieces of china.

Granted, there are a few purely pagan rituals that I do enjoy during the holidays. I like to go to the local nursery -- not the temporary lots set up along the side of the road or at churches -- and pick out a tall, fresh tree. We usually opt for a Douglas or Noble Fir, since we like longer, softer needles and a fuller, leafier body. We pay a little more at the nursery, but the trees are well-nurtured and full of life, plus they have beautiful wreaths, poinsettias, and other colorful winter plants you can pick up with your tree. After we take it home, unwrap it, and stand it up as the centerpiece of the living room, my favorite part is spending the next few days simply inhaling the heady aroma of the fresh evergreen scent that permeates the entire main level of the house. I think I revel in the actual woodsy ambiance the tree creates even more than the numerous boxfulls of ornaments and tangles of lights that eventually adorn it.

Another pagan pleasure I partake in is decorating the fireplace, toasting marshmallows or chestnuts in the fire, and watching holiday movies. Most of the year, the fireplace sits neglected and bare, with the occasional fire roaring forth on a particularly blustery day. But during the holiday season, I like to decorate it with lots of colorful stockings (even though there are only 2 of us plus 1 cat) and line the mantle with candles. It really becomes the hearth (and the heart) of the home, and it makes us want to sit together to stay warm and watch the crackling fire. Day in and day out during the year, my husband dominates the big rec room television and all the entertainment systems with his shows, games, and music. But when we sit in front of the fireplace, we sit closer together on the living room loveseat rather than the sprawling rec room sofa and watch the smaller television next to the fireplace. Whether we're watching the old-time animated Christmas stories or the plethora of recent cheesy flicks, warming our feet at the fire while sipping mulled tea or cocoa hearkens back to the simple enjoyments of a quieter era.

Like many of the European traditions we saw in the travel show, my ideal holiday season would be filled with 4 equals parts: 1 part religious themes, 1 part charitable acts, 1 part nature appreciation, and 1 part low-key friends and family time. What I could definitely do without is sending 80 Christmas cards, racing around the yard and rooftop to outdo myself in lights and decorations, fighting for parking then standing in long lines with unhappy children and frantic shoppers to buy 3 dozen presents (then agonizing about whether I spent too much, too little, or got the right gift), boxing and wrapping like mad in the wee hours before Christmas, and having to prioritize which friends birthdays to celebrate in December (there are surprisingly many) while trying to make it to family dinners, friends' cocktail parties, office functions, and the few worthwhile charity events that need to be squeezed in.

I can also do without the 5,000 or so solicitations for money that I receive during the holidays from every possible organization on the planet that seems to repeat itself under different names. This especially irks me since I tend to give throughout the year and find it difficult to open my wallet when I've just spent about a grand on the holidays (plus the many friend's birthdays that fall during the holidays) and the few charities I already chose for my holiday giving. Yet it brings a nagging guilt to my conscience when I open up envelope after envelope and find lovely packets of Christmas cards drawn by terminally ill children, address labels sent by organizations that feed the hungry and support wounded veterans, or (my biggest pet peeve) the prominent nickel or quarter glued to the front of the solicitation offering me "free money" in exchange for my modest monetary gift. This, added to the endless phone calls and announcements in the church bulletin about all the suffering, poor, and persecuted -- both nearby and across the globe -- that need my help makes more depressed, not joyful, that I can't help them all.

So how what can we do to enjoy the holidays more, and cope with the many stresses that seek to control us? My thought is, if I can at least mix in at least one traditional, soul-pleasing event per week, then I can feel as if I accomplished what I really wanted during the holidays.

Here is my Chicken Soup for the Soul-esqe wish list of things to do during the 7 weeks between the day after Thanksgiving and the January 6 feast of Epiphany:

1. Roast chestnuts over an open fire. Even though the chestnuts I buy at the grocery store aren't worth waiting an hour for by the fire - let alone waxing poetic about by the likes of Bing Crosby - they still remind me of a time when the simpler foods and simpler pleasures were enough to warm one's heart.

2. Bake . Now, everyone who knows me knows that I simply don't bake. I can whip up a mean 3-course meal, knock out 10 sensational hors d'oeuvres for a party, or throw together a divine last-minute brunch for surprise company. But I do not bake. Not bread, not cookies, and certainly not fresh-from-scratch pies. My sister-in-law, that's another story. She makes 3 pies for the Thanksgiving dinner alone (all on homemade crusts). For the holidays, she bakes literally hundreds upon hundreds of cookies for friends and family, which she keeps stored in giant tool-sized plastic bins. But me, I'm not good with dough or any derivatives of it. During the holidays, however, that doesn't stop me. I strive to make at least one homemade sweet. Last year it was fudge (technically not baked, but still a sweet). The year before, it was pumpkin pie (okay, I didn't carve the pumpkin, but I still pressed in my own crust and doctored up canned pumpkin
with my own unique blend of spices, which I topped with freshly-whipped cream. This year, I'm going to try to make decadent cupcakes, my latest rave. I guess around the holidays, the oven beckons me enough to throw my inhibitions to the wind. Even if I'm the only one who ends up eating my unique creations.

3. Drink mulled beverages. Whether it's mulled cider, spiced tea, or mulled wine, I eagerly anticipate bringing home fresh mulling spices (not the horrid milk carton sugar-based ones) and brewing up a piping hot vat of an aromatic beverage. It also makes the house smell divine.

4. Sing along to every single Christmas album I own. I like to do this in the car and at home while wrapping presents. Since my husband is vehemently opposed to the tradition of caroling, it's the closest I come to belting out all my favorite hymns, carols, and holiday tunes.

5. Tour a festival of lights nearby. I'm actually going to do this after Christmas this year, because I can't find any time to fit it in during the coming weeks. Fortunately, there are several parks, historic sites, and peoples' houses on the tour list this year. Although I would never go through all the trouble of hanging intricate rows of lights to illuminate an entire scene, I really do appreciate the effort that others go through to bring visual beauty to the rest of us during the season when the days are short and dark comes all too early.

6. Attend a holiday musical presentation. When I was younger, my parents always took me to see The Nutcracker ballet (can you believe it was scorned on its opening night performance in St. Petersburg more than a century ago?). Now, I often opt for a classical choral concert of Handel's Messiah or a symphony of bells. Our local historic church, which was once attended by both George Washington and Robert E. Lee (and now George W. Bush on December 21) offers a beautiful selection of musical masterpieces. They range from old European madrigals to traditional English carols, as well as string quartets and choir concerts. It's so uplifting to escape the business of one's day and simply get swept away by majestic voices heralding the glory of God. Of all the enjoyments of the season, traditional Christmas music is probably my favorite.

7. Watch or hear the real story of Christmas being told. I don't mean 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, either. I mean the real account of the birth of Jesus, the reason for the season. Whether it's a biblical re-creation at a children's pageant, or a prelude read aloud before a Christmas concert, the simple story of the nativity from the Gospel of Luke - with it's humble description of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus swaddled in a manger - makes me remember the whole point of Christmas, which also has the effect of making me feel more at peace:

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

So have yourself a merry and nostalgic little Christmas, and may you and your family experience the full peace and wonder of the season!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

12 Reasons to Avoid Black Friday

As I sit here with my pants not only unbuttoned but unapologetically unzipped following the overeating marathon that is Thanksgiving, I can only imagine the frantic preparations that are taking place in retail stores everywhere in anticipation of the hordes that will beat down the doors in mere hours.

Yes, as the boys battle out the forces of good and evil on the X-Box while the older folks trade valuable tidbits of gossip (mostly about how to score free medication or where to stock up on the cheapest salmon per pound), I can finally slouch over in front of my computer, catch up on emails, and give my overstuffed gut some room to breathe. After 2 Thanksgiving dinners at 2 different family members' houses -- complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, and various assortments of pie -- I look forward to nothing more than snoozing late the day after Thanksgiving and slumming in my bathrobe and slippers. Maybe catching a few deals online with the couple dozen coupons that inundate my inbox daily. Or, maybe just trolling the silent halls of eBay to see if I can find that obscure J.Crew sweater from seasons past or an unloved Coach bag that someone is trading up.

Probably the last thing on my mind, as I yawn and stretch luxuriously in my favorite chair in the pleasantly serene office that I share with the dining set and the cat's sun chair, is bolting out of bed in just a few hours, rushing out into the cold, and making a beeline for an overcrowded parking lot at the nearest mall. Yet, that is exactly what tens of millions of Americans do every single year. Beginning in the bitter, dark, wee hours of the pre-morning, mobs of rabid shoppers pumped up on caffeine and possibly amphetamines camp out in front of strip malls across the country waiting for the air horn to sound the alarm at opening hour. At precisely that magic moment, the feeding frenzy begins. Masses upon human masses literally swarm in through all accessible entrances and proceed to ravage the interior of the retail establishment, filling up carts and hauling armfuls of bargains to the checkout until only crushed boxes are left in the shell of a store. That's just in the first 10 minutes.

In the 10 minutes that ensue, you can witness a deliciously naughty array of psychological experiments gone awry as 3000 sleep-deprived, cranky people lose all sense of civility and effectively start to beat each other silly over the last free iPod or $500 Sony television. That's when it gets really good. Intelligent people start grunting and hooting like orangutans and and normally docile PTA moms rip each other's hair out while fighting over Wii games and Wonder Pets “This is Serious!” Ming-Ming from Fisher Price - both on this year's "Hot Dozen" toy list. People have been known to bite, stab, and break each other's limbs. It goes without saying that many have been trampled almost to death. Even Canadians and Mexicans join in each year as thousands drive across the borders to partake in our version of the running of the bulls. If you haven't experienced it, you're missing quite a spectacle. Wal-Mart and Best Buy seem to bring in the most festivities. Just observe some of the Black Friday madness on You Tube:

Clearly, there are those who would disagree with my assessment. The early bird gets the worm on Black Friday, and to many, it's worth the Olympic tribulations. According to Wallet Pop, here are some things the winners hope to score in the coming hours: At Wal-Mart, "doorbusters from 5am to 11am include $15 Blu-ray discs, $2 DVDs, a $15 Shop-Vac, $10 toys and a $199 X-Box." At Target (among my perennial favorites), "the big price drop is on a 26" HDTV from Westinghouse for $299, but there's also a $99.99 GPS system, a $69 digital camcorder, video games as low as $7 and $44 iPod dock." Best Buy -- never one to disappoint -- will be offering slashed prices on HDTVs and doorbusters like "an $899 50" Viera HDTV... a $59.99 digital camera, a $379 Toshiba laptop and Guns n' Roses new album for $11.99." Wow, the new G 'N' R album, really? Just for that, I might stay up all night and camp out with the rest of the foaming-at-the-mouth population. Not to be outdone, Circuit City will be doorbusting out "a 42" Samsung HDTV for $699.99 or a $79.99 Samsung digital camera or $2.00 DVDs and CDs."

Fighting, screaming, gnashing of teeth? No thanks, I'll take Purgatory. Heck, I barely get the nerve to go to Wal-Mart on a slow day. And it's almost impossible to find parking at Tysons Corner Center (our version of Rodeo Drive) on any given Saturday. Even the 2 weeks before December 25th is the Nightmare before Christmas in the stores. Between the long lines, impatient shoppers, crying children, and nauseatingly cheerful music, my eyes see stars and my head just spins.

"What?" my friend barks upon hearing that I'll be sitting this wrestling mania out. A bargain princess like me miss such valuable shopping opportunities so I can rest in bed, read magazines, watch movies, and enjoy a perfectly percolated coffee? You betcha!

To add insult to injury (literally), the Black Friday madness has started to spill over into Thanksgiving Day, a previously hallowed day of family bonding in relative calm. While I sit here and write this, I am alerted to frequent update reports that 18 major retailers have now pre-empted the Friday frenzy and started giving away deals online. As we speak, Wal-Mart peddles the X-Box 360 Thanksgiving Day Value Bundle starting at $288, a $60 savings (too bad it's already sold out). Target is throwing out Guitar Hero World Tour Bundle for Wii at a rock-bottom $59. Or, you can get a real, bonafide guitar for just $69. Take that, Nintendo.

Truthfully, after perusing the promised land of doorbusters and online bargains, I'm not hugely impressed. A few of the deals look tantalizing, but some of the deals, like $100 off a $1700 HDTV, doesn't make me jump out of my seat. That's why I've always held out for the after-holiday sales. Combined with the feeding frenzy that promises to ensue, I can think of better ways to spend the day after Thanksgiving.

Stop the insanity! Don't give in to the madness of Black Friday! Celebrate "Do Nothing Day" instead. I promise your world won't come to an end. Folks, you heard it here first. Need more reasons to avoid the malls tomorrow? Here are 12:

1. You can sleep in and still catch a matinee with the whole family or friends who are in town. With the money you'll save off current movie prices, you can buy a tub of popcorn and a family-sized box of candy with no guilt whatsoever!

2. Two words: homemade waffles. They're not just for breakfast anymore.

3. Sure, beating the crap out of the next-door neighbor (the one who always lets his dog poop in your yard) for the last doorstopper digital camera deal at Best Buy is satisfying. Even more satisfying is sneaking over the fence before he returns from the stores and installing a giant dartboard pattern in Christmas lights right on door. Score extra points for relocating a family of gnomes to his rooftop.

4. Instead of spending money, why not invest what you would have spent at the stores? In 2007, the average Black Friday consumer spent $347. If you invest that amount and it earns an annually compounded interest rate of 9%, you'll have... a whopping $821.48 in 10 years! Okay, maybe the Jimmy Choos on sale are a better investment.

5. You can get a head start on writing Christmas cards. You'll need all the goodwill you can muster when people find out you're not getting them presents this year.

6. Another J.Crew discount code will come around sooner or later. If you can swallow the monstrously indecent shipping charges, you can finally buy those ridiculously overpriced but beautiful and perfectly-printed heels you've been eyeing. Oh, and maybe pick up some shearling earmuffs and Fair Isle sweaters for you pooch.

7. I'll bet the DMV is is eerily empty the day after Thanksgiving...

8. Can you think of a better time to catch up on all those missed episodes of The Office?

9. You're still paying off your credit card from the whole year's worth of "bargains." Sheesh!

10. If you're dying to run like hell and sweat it out with your arms full of heavy objects, at least put on some superfly workout gear and get your butt to the gym. Something tells me the proportion of hot buff men to women will be about 20:1 on Black Friday. The low-hanging fruit is ripe for the picking, gals.

11. eBay is always waiting for you with a can't-miss deal. You might even edge out the competition if you swipe the unwanteds while everyone else is out shopping.

12. You value life and limb, and you'll need both to shop the after-Christmas sales.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest (and Other Marriage Myths)

My gem of a husband and I just celebrated 2 years of wedded bliss and almost 8 shared years together. What an accomplishment! We have no doubt already outlasted many Hollywood couples. There's no question we've been through an awful lot over the past 8 years. Births, deaths, 2 house moves, 6 new jobs, and countless ups and downs of various sorts.

To be sure, we had a rather challenging few years just getting used to each other. While we were never two peas in a pod in terms of our personal preferences, it was the major life issues that often threatened our compatibility. Take, for example, our views on religion. He was raised an Episcopalian in his early years but settled into a stern atheism which has remained his core belief. I'm no saint, but I feel guilty when I miss church on Sunday. The thought of bringing up our future children without a solid religious foundation terrifies me. In a perfect world, I'd send them to a fine Jesuit institution where they can receive a strong Catholic upbringing along with a stellar academic education. But at this point, I'll settle for making sure they attend Sunday school.

And then there's the difference of opinion about the roles of our families. He would be perfectly happy to see his family (all of whom live within 2 miles of us) on holidays and birthdays. I, on the other hand, can't imagine life without frequent visits to and from my family. Being an only child makes you really close to your parents, and I was thrilled to have most of my immediate and extended family settled in the same geographic area just an hour's drive away. I took calls from my mother every day. My husband didn't return his mother's calls for weeks at a time. I visited with my family as well as with his. Now that my family is no longer in the area, I spend even more time with his. I envy the fact that he has a sister and a brother, and that both are nearby. I wish my parents were closer so they could babysit my future grandchildren like my in-laws babysit my nephew on a regular basis.

Our social behavior doesn't exactly click either. I'm a social butterfly while he's a stay-at-home couch potato. We've agreed to live and let live. I only force him to come out once in a while and only with people that he has something to talk about. I go out with the girls for lunch and make dinner dates while he watches football. My friends are accustomed to missing him and try not to be offended by his constant absence. Occasionally, I bring the party home so we can both play host.

Our diets and his smoking habit don't exactly grease the wheels. I adore seafood. He (and much of his family) won't touch it. I can't eat a meal without greens. He (and much of his family) only like green in their wallets, not on their plates. He's a chocoholic and can empty a box of chocolate donuts in one sitting. I call take it or leave it, and most of the time, I leave it. Which effectively means it's going to be taken that day by him. He loves coffee, and I like tea. Fortunately, we both like (and say) tomatoes the same.

Despite these obstacles, we came to the realization at some point that neither the similarities nor differences in our personalities and beliefs were going to make or break our relationship. Love could truly conquer all. As long as there was love -- and an untiring commitment to uphold and improve the relationship -- we could stick it out together. The rest could be argued out.

In addition to love, we have another secret weapon: slight dishonesty. Or little white lies, if you prefer. To tell the truth is human; to spin a bit is divine. After all, who wants to hear the ugly, bitter reality every day? When you ask your spouse if you look fat, do you really want them to say "yes"? Medicine usually goes down better with a spoonful of sugar, and most relationships need a steady stream of harmless little embellishments to keep things on an even keel. Reality isn't all it's cracked up to be. Sometimes, it is better to leave the lights dimmed and let the imagination paint a rosier picture. Besides, a few well-selected pieces of the story are more effective than all the gory details.

Take, for instance, his exes, which seem to pop up everywhere. When I ask about their history, I don't really want the Cinemax version. A simple "she's an old friend" will suffice. Or the extent of his vices. I know that when he's hanging with the boys, he probably smokes a pack and drinks half a case of brew, not to mention the other recreational things he might be partaking in. Don't get me wrong, I don't like it one bit. But being the stubborn soul that he is, my nagging is only going make him more determined to spite me. So I have to bite my tongue and accept his tall tale about "bumming a few smokes and having a few bottles." I don't want to know the rest.

The same goes for my vices, the majority of which can be grouped under a large umbrella that we call "shopping." My husband and I have developed a code language for the various types of misdeeds that I often find myself up to. It translates like this:

Going to Run Errands - Generic label for going out shopping without no definite plan in mind. Useful for just getting out of the house without too many questions asked. Can incorporate actual errands and possible food shopping if necessary.

Going to Return Something - More specific plans that involve an actual geographic location and often a name of a store. Understood that returning something also means buying something, and implied that more than one store will be visited.

It Was On Sale - Not a fabulous price but I really wanted the item and got at least 15% off, so I feel less guilty about buying it. Would have gotten it anyway.

I Got a Great Deal - Actually, I got an okay deal on a great item. I would have held out for a better sale but I'm sure my size would have disappeared. And I really didn't want to miss it. So I'm willing to accept that some bargains are better than others. What's really important is that I got something I loved and I didn't have to give up my firstborn for it.

I Stole It Off the Rack - I got it for at least 50% off and it was priced reasonably/on sale to begin with.

I Committed Highway Robbery - It went on sale for half off and I used another coupon to get an extra discount, resulting in 65-80% off the original retail price. Can apply to quasi-expensive goods as well as those priced reasonably to begin with.

I'm Just Going to Look - Every once in a while, I get put on a severe shopping curfew where I'm really not allowed to buy anything. This phrase is used convey my sincere effort to not buy anything at all. But we all know that I don't go out window shopping, so it really means I can't spend more than $40 total. Usually results in bringing home reinforcements of hand soap, shampoo, or "stuff for the house."

Kills - My husband's word for what I bring home from my retail adventures. The first thing he says when he sees me walk in with shopping bags is "Let's see your kills." Also used when he brags to others -- like the ladies in his office -- about my shopping conquests as in "My wife got some great kills yesterday at Nordstrom."

Playing - Trying on new clothes and putting together outfits. Usually involves extended periods of absence from my husband while holed up in my room (the guest bedroom) with the door closed and the cat clawing at the door. Analogous to his breaking in a new video game.

Going to Therapy - Going to the J.Crew store when my favorite manager and associates are working so I can shoot the breeze, catch up on valuable news, gossip about the latest husband tales, and get complimented to high heaven on a new outfit I put together. Also creates expectations that I will come home with a small prize that was a "gift" from the manager, ie. a secret discount on something. The equivalent of his going to his favorite watering hole where everybody knows his name and getting a beer on the house.

Going to Buy Presents - I'm going to buy a gift for an upcoming birthday, a gift for a past anniversary, a gift for someone I haven't decided yet, and a gift for me as a reward. I work hard to buy good presents.

My Birthday Present - I've so over-budget from previous months, it's not even funny. Please, let me buy this and let it be a birthday present from you. Or my birthday present to me. Nevermind that I already used the birthday and Christmas card this year. It can be my half-birthday present. Or next year's birthday present.

We also have frequent conversations that go like this:

Her: "New? No, I got this a while ago, I just haven't worn it yet." No, I didn't just bring home that shirt. I brought it home 3 weeks ago, so it doesn't really count in this month's purchases.

Him: "But you just got a new bag!" Her: "No way, I got this bag last year!" Even though it's September and I bought it at the end-of-season in February, it feels like it's been a year because, well, you know how quickly handbag trends change. Two seasons past is effectively a full year behind in fashion.

Her: "But I just gave away 12 pairs of shoes!" I bought 4 pairs in the last 7 weeks and have my eye on one more pair before my mission is accomplished. I needed the space to put them. Can also be combined with "It's the change of seasons and I have no warm boots/summer sandals/rain shoes to wear."

Her: "But I just cleaned out my closet and donated half of my clothes!" Honestly, my closet was getting so overcrowded that the cat was getting lost in there and I couldn't get to anything myself. And yes, I admit that I got a little carried away with the J.Crew clearance rack lately and now have too many sweaters that I can't return. But it looks much better since I gave a bunch of stuff away, wouldn't you agree?

Her: "I haven't actually spent anything this month because I returned so much." The truth is, I bought 10 things last month which is 5 over my budget, and I bought 5 things this month. However, I did return 5 of the things from last month today, and because I bought the same number of items, it ended up coming out even. Do you want to see my receipt? If feeling brazen, I would add "In fact, I even made some money because I got back more from the returns than I spent."

Her: "I bought you some new things, and you didn't even have to ask." For my altruism, I hope you consider letting me keep a few things that I threw in for me.

Him: "I see you got a package today." Honey, I think you're taking advantage of this work-at-home thing. It's a good thing I came home before the UPS man showed up this time. How many more packages are you expecting this week? Tell the truth now.

Her: "Oh, it's just a replacement for the pants I bought last week that didn't fit." Plus another pair of the same pants in a different color because I love them so much and you know how hard it is to find pants that fit. And a few other things that went on sale this week that I really couldn't miss, especially since I was already placing the order... You know how murderous those shipping charges are!

Him: "What are all those boxes sitting out by the trash for tomorrow's pickup?" Her: "I was going to keep them for selling eBay stuff but I decided not to sell now." Um, yeah, I got a lot of packages this week because I needed to try several pairs of shoes to see which fit. There were actually 4 more boxes but I already sent those back.

Her: "I think it would be a great idea if you ordered that server/video component/game/electronic part you've been looking at." Because the UPS man thinks that you never get packages and that I spend all the money around here. Go ahead, it can be your birthday present from me (with your money). Besides, I have my eye on a new coat but I'll feel guilty about ordering it unless you order something too.

Anyway, you get the idea. It boils down to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. My husband knows that I always under-report my spending and the number of purchases I make. Is this good for the bank account? No. Is it good for my perpetually overloaded closet? Not really. Is it good for our overall relationship? Heck yeah!

We figure, if couples argue about money more than any other topic, let's just avoid it unless it's absolutely necessary. As long as the mortgage is current, the bills are paid, and the credit cards are carrying a modest balance, I'm usually in the clear. The important thing is, we accept each other's weaknesses and we don't try to change one another. Isn't that the secret to domestic bliss? It worked for my mom, and she's still hiding her shopping bags from my dad almost 40 years later.

Here's to another great year together!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stylists: Not Just for Celebrities

This year I have come even closer to evolving into an adult woman. Though I have yet to complete my transformation entirely, I feel much more like an adult than I did one year ago. Some of the maturing occurred in personal relationships, others in attempting to find a work-life balance. Still others remain to be achieved.

Fortunately, my image has seen dramatic improvement, being the natural easier focus of my efforts. It's less troublesome, after all, to revamp one's wardrobe and get a new hairdo than to actually learn the art of compromise or tackle anger management. But hey, it's something. Here are 3 things I accomplished this year for my appearance:

1. I purchased at least 20 pair of bonafide high-heeled shoes (and learned to walk in them).

2. I resolved to stop coloring my hair and embrace my (light) brunette spirit.

3. I hired (semi) professional stylists to create a collection of career ensembles for me.

All 3 had powerful effects on my ego.

Mastering the art of walking in high heels felt the most empowering. I had often envied women who could strut confidently in stilettos, my mother one of them. But for the vast majority of my life, I lived in flats, only stepping up to kitten heels in the past 5 years. Then, I nudged my way up to a mature 2-inch heel before finally diving into real, grown-up 3-inch-plus pumps. The height increase alone was a tremendous rush. This cannot be understated for a girl of petite stature. For a person who has spent most of their life observing people from down below, what a difference 3.5 inches makes! Now, I find myself having more face-to-face discussions at parties. And, others no longer have to peer down to the floor to make eye contact with me. Don't get me wrong -- I'm still short compared with a good portion of the population. But now, I'm acceptably petite, not microscopically miniature.

My hair has seen a serious overhaul too. In just one year, I went from being reddish-brown to golden-blonde to ash-blonde to almost-black to a happy acceptance of light-medium ash-brown. I realize that I'm never going to look as dramatic as my naturally redhead mother (at least in her younger days), nor am I fit to be a blonde beach bunny any longer. Also upsetting is the realization that my natural roots aren't nearly as dark and sultry as the Mediterranean climate that I dream of escaping to daily. Alas, I've accepted myself as a pale, middle-of-the-road brunette. The kind that doesn't get noticed for her hair color, but one that doesn't have to dye her hair anymore to be content. Maybe that's why I doubled my efforts to glamify my closet.

By far the most measurable (I mean that literally) area of improvement has been my wardrobe. I painstakingly pruned it month after month, leaving only the very best. I gave away truckloads to friends, relatives, and complete strangers. In place of the dearly departed I brought home shopping bag after shopping bag of fresh fabulous finds, some from long loved labels and others from new sources. J.Crew carved out a generous portion of my closet space, while much of Ann Taylor/Ann Taylor Loft that survived the purge was demoted to the space behind. Previously sweater-heavy, my wardrobe started to see more sweater jackets and jackets in general -- sans suit. Jeans of varying fits, from trouser to bootcut, received extra doses of glamour thanks to my newfound love for heels as well as an influx of bright camis paired with deconstructed jackets. Bold jewelry and accessories completed the transformation from ho-hum to va-va-va-voom.

So pleased was I with my handiwork that I let it go to my head. I started getting facials and booking regular massages. I splurged on a fancy, grown-up car (used of course) to match my new sophisticated image. I even hired someone to mow my lawn on a schedule, knowing that the neighbors might actually take notice of me now. I felt not unlike a celebrity. So much so, that I woke up one day with the bright idea of acting like one for a day.

I decided that it would be swell to do what all the fashionable celebrities do: I hired a personal stylist. How, you might ask, did I find such a creature in the oh-so-unglamorous political center that is the Washington, D.C. region? Well, the same way one finds just about anything else local these days. I went on Craigslist. Having searched for styling services but not finding what I was looking for, I set out to compose my own want-ad. Although I was prepared to be pampered and primped for success, I was not quite prepared to pay up like a real celebrity. True to my bargain hunting nature, I figured I would track down an aspiring stylist -- before they made it big. Here's what I posted:

"Are you a wannabe creative stylist or a fashion design student? Do you want to build your styling portfolio while earning a few bucks?

I need some wardrobe inspiration. I have an enviable collection of strong staples, cute shoes, and some great accessories. I shop like nobody's business and love to collect cute pieces. Sometimes though, too many choices can stress me out and leave me short on time with no fabulous outfit to show for it. I need someone to help me discern the top winners from each category, put them all together with cool accessories, and create several ready-to-go outfits that I will be excited to wear and feel stylish and confident in. Basically, I need a creative eye that also understands a city working girl's everyday needs.

My style right now is more modern classic than bleeding-edge trendy, but I welcome a little mixing-it-up as long as it doesn't compromise my petite figure or get too complicated. Ideally, my new look will be:

*put-together yet creative
*sophisticated while feminine
*clean-cut with a touch flirty
*classic but not forgettable

Once we put together a nice collection, I need you to photograph me and catalogue the outfits. The idea is to wake up, find my mood, and pick a fab outfit that is already complete -- right down to my shoes. This way, I have a fighting chance of making it to my appointments on time.

I'm willing to pay $60 for up to a 3-hour styling session. And, you can take photos for your portfolio if you want.

Female preferred. Please email me if you're interested. Also, let me know what (if any) experience you might have and what your fashion style type is.

I look forward to a fun styling session! I'll provide champagne and bonbons."

I received no less than 40 responses. So whom did I choose? A very down-to-earth, friendly sounding local student who had worked some fashion shows and was studying design. She brought along her assistant (how awesome to have a stylist with an assistant hovering around me!). Just for the heck of it, I also invited a sweet little Asian girl who didn't have any professional experience but was an avid shopper with somewhat similar tastes.

After sipping some bubbles and enjoying a few snacks, the 4 of us set about turning my (thankfully) large bedroom into a veritable warehouse sale. I had pre-hung all my beloved belongings on a movable wardrobe rack and filled my remaining floor space with shoes and accessories. While the girls debated the virtues of this or that shoe with various outfits, I tried on over three dozen ensembles in my dressing room. While I scrambled to change into each new getup, a stylist was busy laying out each completed look to photograph all the individual pieces together, including jewelry and accessories. Modeling each creation in front of the scrutinizing panel while they snapped away with a digital camera, I felt no less than a local superstar.

Four hours, a bottle of champagne, and a memory card full of photos later, we produced a fair number of winners. Some were for everyday work, some for high profile appointments, others were for social functions, and still others took me from place to place as I mixed errands with work with dinner on the town. Finally, I could look equally fabulous while I attended meetings, took my cat to the vet, visited in-laws, and shopped for groceries. Or, what if I needed to do lunch with a client, dinner with friends, and a getaway with the honey? Life requires so many outfits, yet there is so little time to choose... Now, I wouldn't have to. The choices were made, the ensembles were picked out and accessorized. All I had to do was flip open my personal "Look Book", pick an occasion, pick a mood, and voila -- I had a guaranteed hit.

Nine months later and with two-and-a-half closets bursting at the seams, I realized that I once again needed to revisit my wardrobe decisions. The fact is, I had added so much to my collection that I didn't know exactly how to incorporate everything. Many of my newer purchases became my go-to pieces while some of the older ensembles hung unappreciated and virtually forgotten. It was time to reassess and reorganize. Wanting to call in the stylists, it occurred to me that they may have graduated from college and moved on to loftier career positions. Also, I was placed under a severe shopping ban due to my latest unapproved overspending, so I knew that a $60 styling session (plus a bottle of champagne) wouldn't go over well on the home front. Especially when I had to ask for money to help pay the mortgage.

Enter a marvelously unexpected find on my recently discovered daily read, J.Crew Aficionada. One of her recurring posts is labeled "Dear FFM: Help Put Together A J.Crew Outfit For Me" and features an uber-talented blogger, Fabulous Florida Mommy (FFM), as she composes dozens of stylish ready-to-go outfits for various requesters in the J.Crew Aficionada forum. With her fun creativity, impeccable sense of color balance, and meticulous eye for just the right detail, FFM transforms a motley assortment of simple threads into a punchy, totally put-together package that's chock full of visual interest yet completely flattering on the girl next door.

The beauty of FFM's styling creations is that they are customized to work for a person's specific lifestyle needs, using items that you may have recently purchased or can easily add to your wardrobe. Need comfy toddler-friendly gear that also channels sophistication? Looking for the perfect thing to wear to an October wedding? How about a posh but not over-the-top ensemble for a girl's night out? Or a go-anywhere casual chic outfit that works in the classroom and for mornings at the farmer's market? Great vacation multitaskers that pack a lot of wear? Check. Elegantly tailored dresses that can go from boardroom to bedroom? Check. Indoor/outdoor jackets that can be dressed up or down? Double check. It's all there -- just seek and ye shall find. Can't find it? Ask and ye shall receive. It's as simple as that.

Utilizing Polyvore's mix n' match tools to combine images of clothing and accessories available on the web, FFM artfully constructs the perfect ensemble using the season's top picks. A bonus for those of us on a moderate budget is that most of the items come from affordable, easily attainable mass retailers like J.Crew, not obscure labels known only to Hollywood stylists with large shopping allowances.

Needless to say, I'm brimming with inspiration. So many incredible outfits in one place! One for every occasion and all completely season appropriate. I can't really choose my favorites -- I would love to wear them all. I've included some ideas throughout this post to get you started.

Want more fabulosity? Visit FFM's designs on Polyvore and observe the secrets of the most stylish celebrities. You're guaranteed to be the best dressed in town!

Follow Up on 10/25:

FFM now has her own fabulous blog to showcase her beautiful Polyvore creations. Check out Fabulous Florida Mommy on Blogspot and get your daily dose of fashion fabulousness!