Monday, April 25, 2011

Magical Thinking

New Orleans/Louisiana pictures can be found on my travel blog. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Treats

Easter, after Halloween, has always been my favourite holiday. Here's my contributions to Easter dinner:

Caramel Meringue Tarts, with Amarula cream liquor.

I found this recipe in Food & Drink magazine last spring and have been dying for an excuse to make it ever since. It was created by Dufflet Rosenberg for the LCBO. (I was much too lazy to actually make the Walnut Pastry the recipe recommends. I used Tenderflake instead, which, of course, I bought on sale with a coupon.)

The recipe made way too much though (both of the Amarula Caramel Pudding and the Meringue topping) so I turned the remaining meringue into cookies following this recipe.

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Favourite Kind

I already miss the symmetry.

(Photos of my Texan adventure is up on the travel blog. Louisiana to come shortly.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Prince of Serendip

He was good looking, in a Jack Johnson surfer kind of way that I didn't necessarily find attractive. But the Harbour House's typical customers were book club ladies and the wives of pilots--as possibly the only attractive male below the age of 25 who had ever set foot in the restaurant in the nine years I served there, it was hard to ignore him.

And I suppose for him, it was hard to ignore me--mainly due to the fact that in order to get food, he had to talk to me. But also because I was on top of my game: I wore a short ruffled skirt under my waitressing apron, a low-cut top and too much lipstick. It was a slow night (the only other patrons were my aunt and uncle) and the conversation was easy.

He wasn't a local, he wasn't military and he didn't work in the oil field. We both had summer jobs working for the government (me federal; him provincial) and plans to volunteer one day in Nicaragua. I was sold. We made a dinner date for the following day.

By the time our appetizers arrived the next night, we had determined that it wasn't a date. We were too much alike. "I never thought I'd meet the female version of myself," he laughed.

In the back of his car was a longboard, a guitar and a book about Jesus. We drove back to his temporary summer residence (a trailer on the reservation that wasn't burdened with the conveniences of modern plumbing) to watch Step Into Liquid. He lent me sweatpants and told me about the time he almost died. "Why didn't I meet you earlier?" I asked. (That same summer, I had celebrated the night of my 21st birthday by sitting alone at one of the Harbour House's tables writing scholarship applications. Happy birthday to me.)

And in those brief two weeks before I went back to Toronto and he went back to Edmonton, we became best friends. No, seriously. "I'm going out to meet my new best friend!" I would sing happily to my parents on the way out the door. We would talk on the phone on our lunch breaks, sending text messages back and forth throughout the day. We went to Sandy Beach on weekends, laying in the sun and sharing stories of sexual conquests. We drove to the north side of the lake to play flashlight tag with the kids, hiding high in the trees. Late at night, sitting on the playground equipment at Kinosoo, we reflected on how quickly the summer had passed.

And then it was over. He went back to Edmonton and I went back to Toronto.

I was never in love with him, at least not in the way one might conclude from reading this. It would be a lie to say there wasn't sexual tension or suggestions of romance, but it was clear from the start that we were meant to be just friends. (One holiday break, I drove four hours to Edmonton in the thick winter black just so we could go to the movies. That night we spooned, and in the morning he took me for breakfast at Humpty's. There was a near-kiss goodbye, but when debriefed months later, we agreed that it was never meant to be.)

And for the next five years, we exchanged emails, msn conversations, text messages, postcards, voicemails and--when we were lucky--the occasional real-life conversation over beer.

He would have said that it was serendiptous that we met, although I'm not entirely sure how. He really liked that word: serendipitous. He said it in a way that made you believe that yes, even in Cold Lake, magical things could happen.

The last time I talked to him was over a year ago. Actually, that's not entirely true--I've talked to him a lot this year. I've talked to him in emails. (He doesn't reply.) In Facebook messages. (He deleted me a long time ago.) In rambling long-winded phone messages. (He never picks up.) But the last time he talked to me? That was over a year ago.

In January he tumbled back into my life by way of a tumblr account. It's snapshots of someone I knew once. Snapshots of my new best friend's life that I can never be part of and maybe never was part of.

I want to say that the problem was that our relationship was independent from the realities of our everyday lives. We didn't have any mutual friends, we are both busy and we are both in relationships (he may even be married now). But that rationalization doesn't make it hurt less.

I know I should move on from this. It's not like there's a notable absence in my life. But there are the dreams: I dream that he calls me back. I dream that he casually comments on my Facebook status. I dream that he emails me. And I dream that to him, too, I'm still a friend.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Free Parking: How I Found Myself in Debt

Remarkably, I made it more than halfway through my university education debt-free.

It was a point of pride: I worked hard, I saved a lot, I earned scholarships and I was fortunate to have parents who financially supported me. But shortly before my third year, the game changed completely in just a four-month period.

Here's how I found myself in debt:
  • In 2006, I decided that I wanted to volunteer overseas, so I spent the summer in Vanuatu building a school. I have no regrets--it was an amazing experience and played a formative role in my career to date--but it was also very expensive.
  • Following Vanuatu, I spent an extended layover in Australia. In a three-week period I managed to travel from Sydney to Cairns and back again. I did it all: the Blue Mountains, Fraser Island, the Whitsundays and a week in Byron Bay. (For anyone who has done the Australia backpacking thing, you'll understand what a feat this was to accomplish in such a short time frame.) Again, it was well worth it, but it was also very expensive.
  • The cost of travelling itself wasn't necessarily the problem; I had fundraised and saved for a year in advance. Rather, the problem was that because I was in overseas, there was a three-month period where I had no income and no way to save for tuition.
  • Finally, although I had completed 3.5 years of school, I was only two years into my journalism degree. This meant that with two years left to go, the education fund my parents had generously created for me had depleted prematurely.
So what was a girl to do?

For the first time ever, I applied for student loans and maxed out my student line of credit.

I tried to assure myself that it would be okay. And it was. Sort of. Throughout my third year of university, I valiantly tried to eradicate the debt I had suddenly accumulated. I wanted my debt-free bragging rights back. In addition to my job at the university, I took on a second job and then a third. So there I was, in school full-time, with three part-time jobs on the go. It was a solid plan, until my health began to decline. I could barely make it to class for six weeks, let alone to work. The debt was here to stay.

The summer before my forth year, I saved enough money to pay my tuition in full. Again, with the help of my parents, I didn't have to take out additional student loans. And this time, I was a little more sensible--rather than struggle to maintain my multiple part-time jobs, I just had one. School became my priority.

Where I Am Now

Five years after I took out those first student loans, I'm still in the red. And although I've written about my debt a lot on this blog, I've never put a number to it. I didn't want to open myself up to criticism about my lifestyle or spending choices. But I'm beginning to think that publicly putting a number to it will shame me into getting my finances sorted out. So here goes:

Since 2006, my debt has hovered around $10,000. (Note: This does not include an undisclosed but substantial chunk of change that I owe my Dad for his assistance in South Pacific adventure.) Sometimes it's a bit more, sometimes it's a bit less. But it's always around $10,000. (Not surprisingly, $10,000 is around how much I spent in Australia and Vanuatu combined. I'm confident that had I not volunteered overseas, I would not be in debt today.) This wouldn't be such a terrible admission, except for this final act of divulgence: I have no savings. None.

So basically, I'm $10,000 the hole and have no assets.

This is a problem. A very big problem.

How did this happen?

For the last three years, I've been in a constant cycle of attempting to pay off my debt too quickly, not having enough money left for spending, dipping into savings to cover the difference and subsequently getting further into debt. It's a nightmare that I've created for myself.

And then, last August, I was laid-off. Any budgets or debt repayment plans I had created were suddenly useless. I applied for interest relief on my student loans, but that still left me with three credit cards and a line of credit.

So, why don't I just get a job?

Before the haters start in on me, I'd like to clarify that since my lay-off there has only been one month where I haven't been employed, either through a part-time job, a freelance contract or a contract employer. However, my income isn't yet consistent enough to create a solid debt repayment plan.

So why don't I get a regular guaranteed-income job? A couple of years ago, when my brother was on EI, he explained to me that he received more in government support than he would make at a reasonable minimum wage job. Instead, it would be more profitable in the long-run to spend the time working on his portfolio.

At the time his argument didn't make any sense to me. But now that I'm in that exact position (that being the position of someone who previously talked down about people who "worked the system" but am now "working the system") I completely understand. Every day, I scour job banks looking for part-time employment that will allow me sufficient income to continue working on my portfolio and my freelance career. Sometimes I apply. Sometimes I go to interviews. But every time, I realize that minimum wage or similar is just not enough. And unfortunately, with upcoming contracts and travel plans, applying for full-time positions isn't an option.

I feel imprisoned by my debt. . .if only there was a "get out of debt free" card.

But there's not.

So in the meantime, I'm going to do the next best thing:

Jay and I watched the documentary Maxed Out last night. I knew instantly it was time to break up with my Mastercard. (AMEX and Visa? Don't think you're safe. You're next on the cutting block.)

In April and May, I'll move into Phase 2 of Year of the Deal: tracking my overall spending and creating a budget.

Friday, April 01, 2011

March Savings: Year of the Deal

Yesterday at Metro in the organic dairy section, I spotted a coupon for Earth Balance margarine that someone had tucked neatly in front of the tubs. Its expiry date read 31/03/2011.

It sparked hope in me for two reasons: Some kind generous soul wanted to share their coupons before they expired--I may begin to do the same. And secondly, there are coupons for organic and natural products out there? Maybe there's a resolution to my biggest personal conflict with Year of the Deal, after all.

However, all my research has only turn up the following:
  • ethicalDeal, a group buy website. (It appears to be set up like FabFind, where there doesn't need to be a minimum number of purchases for the deal to become "active.") I just signed up today, so I'm not sure what the deals are like.
  • E-code discounts for ordering products online.
  • Printable coupons for eco-friendly products like Seventh Generation. (However, printable coupons, in my opinion, are pretty much useless unless you're really familiar with store coupon policies. Personally, I have no idea where you can use them. I'm not going to bother arguing with cashiers that they're valid manufacturer coupons. The only printable coupons I've used to date are for bonus Airmiles.)
  • The Healthy Shopper coupon book, which you can pick up for free in health food stores. There will be a new one coming out in May with 2011-2012 coupons. You can also order it online, but it will cost $4.50. (If anyone sees one of these in their local stores, grab it for me!)
  • In stores right now there are tearpad coupons for Green Works cleaning products as well as Sunlight Green Clean laundry detergent.

Year of the Deal: March Savings

Grocery Purchases: $279.74
Pharmacy Purchases: $44.38
Total Spent: $324.12

Coupons Used: $65.20
2011 Total Coupon Savings to Date: $111.45