Friday, June 12, 2009

"Real Housewives of Orange County" We're Not

Full disclosure: I do not watch "The Real Housewives of Orange County." Likewise, I've missed out on the accompanying phenomenon of "The Real Housewives of New York," "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," and the newest (I think) incantation "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." These shows make me roll my eyes in exasperation. Real people cannot possibly act the way the commercials portray them. So I've mostly ignored these shows, which I feel actually do more harm than good to the area they purport to represent. 

That being said, I am not a reality TV snob--one of my guilty (and I do mean guilty!) pleasures in life  is watching aging rocker Brett Michaels in "Rock of Love." In that case, I am the gawker on the freeway, hoping that a body will be pulled out of the twisted mass of smoking metal at the side of the road. And in the case of "Rock of Love" the show always delivers.

So moving on...two of my best friends, Jeanette and Jackie love the"The Real Housewives of Orange County." A morning coffee with the girls invariably leads to a discussion of the previous episode. So I (albeit rather unwillingly) know more about the shows than the average avowed non "Housewives" watcher. 

So last night I was channel checking and came across the "Real Housewives of Orange County" reunion show. After watching for a brief two or three minutes, I just had to turn the channel. These women were just so damn mean to each other. It was like watching "Mean Girls: The Middle Aged Years." But "Mean Girls" the movie is a hilarious send-up of high school cliches (think "Heathers" altho not quite as dark--or, hate to say it, as good). "Housewives" is supposed to be "real."

Yeah, yeah. I know. Mean makes for good television. If the housewives sat around telling each other how terrific the others are, no one would watch. What fun is there in hearing, "I really admire you for overcoming that terrible situation with your values still intact."?? But please--at what cost just to be on TV? For god's sake, isn't life difficult enough without actively trying to emotionally injure another person?

And yes, I realize I'm being a bit hypocritical. If you've seen "Rock of Love" (and it's okay to admit it, you can be anonymous here) you know that those girls can be both mean and physically violent. But the difference is between the two is that in ROL, the girls are forced to live in close quarters and  are given incredibly stupid "challenges" to win the love of a possibly-bald (why, oh why, does he wear that bandana all the time??) and undeniably over-the-hill ex glam rocker whose hey-day was a decade before these girls were even born. It's a total set up, obviously intended to create as much friction and drama as humanly possible. "Housewives" is pitched as "real" women, living their "real" lives. 

From the episode re-hashes I've heard over cafe mochas with Jeanette and Jackie, the "housewives" actively dislike each other. And make no bones about it. They set out not just to hurt each other, but leave deep emotional scars that won't heal without extensive surgery. But, Jeanette and Jackie insist, the women are friends. 

What the old saw? With friends like these who needs enemies? The phrase made flesh, truly.

So I don't watch the show. My choice. Gotta love the remote control! I'm sure there are plenty out there who feel the same about Keith Olbermann -- whom I love and would have hot, sweaty, (if imaginary) sex with in less time than in takes him to choke out: "Rush Limbaugh is the devil." (Reference the never-ending and rather hilarious battle between Olbermann and the right-wing radio personality)

Geez! I can really go off on a tangent, can't I? It's a gift. Actually, I really only do this in writing--I'm a total goober on the phone, rarely able to think of a thing to say. I'm  not even that good in person unless I feel very comfortable (or I've had copious amounts of alcohol, and then I mostly talk about how much I love you.) 

So anyway! What I intended this post to be about--and the topic I will now get around to--is my own friendships. Real housewives of Orange County we're not. A TV audience watching us would more definitely yawn, because we really are more likely to give each other compliments than sling insults. We don't even do those passive aggressive slams like, "Wow, that's a daring outfit." We all genuinely like each other. 

I mean, duh. Of course we like each other. But what is so truly special about my close friends is how much they inspire me.  As broadly different as my friends are--different income levels, political persuasions, career paths, personal situations, life outlooks--they all share that commonality. Every single one of my closest friends--without exception--has a specific trait that I want to emulate: among them, determination, intelligence, grace, patience, creativity, open-mindedness, empathy, persistence. While I have these traits to a certain degree, being with my friends helps draw them out, hone them, sharpen them, perfect them. 

And another wonderful thing about my friends just occurred to me as I sit here on a Friday night, alternately watching the Tivo'd season finale of "Supernatural" and writing this post: we all support each other. We genuinely celebrate each other's successes. We are mercifully free of "frenvy." 

Oh, sure, I joke that I want Larissa's art career or Jackie's fabulous legs. And it's an open secret that Jeanette's gorgeous Villa Park home is the home of my dreams (I'd buy it and everything in it if I only had the $3 mill or so it's worth!) My bf/sister seems to have found the secret to keeping her man desperately in love with her--yeah, I'd love to know how she's managed that! Is it a special perfume?? Mel's laugh and blond hair can stop the conversation in a room.  Mo's self-confidence is impressive--as is her knowledge of most any subject you talk to her about, from politics to baseball to babies. And Bev has overcome a nightmare past to be one of the most genuine people I know. Give me free reign and I'd fill the page with the traits I admire about my best friends. But the point is, rather than feel envious of my friends, I strive to be like them--and I hope, in some small way, they feel the same about me. 

I would challenge a camera crew to follow us around for a while. Sure, they won't get the back-stabbing (we have an unwritten rule in our group about gossip--nobody does it) but they will get real people facing real situations. Supporting each other, and loving each other. You want drama? Two years ago I had to wean myself off a three-year Paxil prescription--a month of my life that I wouldn't have gotten through without daily, near-hysterical calls to my friends. Marriage ups and downs and ups--from "He's amazing!" to "We got in a fight" to  "I can't spend another day with that a--hole" to "Maybe it will work out" to "He's really trying" and back around again and again...anyone who has been married more than 5 minutes understands those!

And they'll get the fun stuff, too--like our summertime Pink Flamingos, a traveling party hosted by a different friend each month. Weekend get-aways--Jackie, Jeanette & my trip to Chicago two years ago--who knew a city could be so exciting?? My 40th birthday party. It was the best birthday of my life--what I remember of it, that is (wink, wink)--when we all jumped in a limo and went down to Laguna, had a great dinner, met cute boys (men, actually!) but still managed to behave (well, in my case, it was only thanks to my somewhat sober sister, who kept an annoyingly close eye on me so I wouldn't make a complete jack ass of myself around said cute men). Or hanging out at Jackie's 'till 2:00am, sitting in the jacuzzi and having extremely serious discussions over nothing in particular.  

In thinking about it, maybe that's why I find shows like "Real Housewives of (name your city)" kinda sad and why I don't watch them. The idea of women who are supposed to be friends (aren't they? Or am I missing the point entirely?) going out of their way to tear each other down. But then, they're the ones on TV and I'm not, so what do I know?

All I know for sure is that I'm lucky to have the friends I do. Now I want to know, when are we gonna get our own show?

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Dog Ate My Credit Card

I am lucky. And it is pure luck--no forethought or planning or even common sense has given me what so many out there long to have: zero credit card debt. That's right. I am one of those. Every month when the credit card bill comes (and there is only one card) it is immediately paid off. To the penny. 

And it is through no doing of my own that I am in this fortunate state.

I have to give my man props here. He is financially responsible to a fault. No money in the budget for a new couch? Forget it, man--you're living with sofa circa 1999. Want that cool round dining table from Pottery Barn? Save for it. You can do it--just trim the grocery budget a bit and put the excess aside (I've been trying that for about 4 years now, and still have only managed to save about 25 cents). Vacation? If the dough ain't there, it ain't happenin', baby. Sorry. Get use to the view from the patio.

I'm not complaining--altho I must admit, that during the heady days of 2004 - 2007, I complained alot. Everyone I knew was upgrading this and refurnishing that, buying that shoe and going to that place. I remember bugging my husband endlessly for that round black Pottery Barn table, and protesting his "save for it" attitude angrily. After all, we were using (and still are, hardy-har-har on me) the table he and his first wife used  for the seven-plus years they were married.  

But in those same years, we upgraded the kitchen and put in a fab new pool, using funds he'd carefully budgeted. It was okay. It worked. And now, with daily newspaper reports of people mired in seemingly inescapable debt, I find myself eating a bit of financial crow. Had it not been for the clear-eyed pragmatism of the man I married, I could very well have been in that same situation myself. 

However, conversely, over the years we developed the habit of buying everything from gas to gum to groceries with credit cards. My husband insisted we use the card on any purchase over$10. In retrospect: huh?? If I spent $10.50 on Starbucks coffee for a meeting, I had to use the credit card. Movie tickets, mani/pedis, jaunts to the drug store, you name it. I got used to using the card for everything over time. But as you might predict, something happened--I began to lose track of a credit card as real money. I mean, what's $20 more bucks for a pair of sandals for the girls from Target, right? It's only $20 bucks. It wasn't like I was going about and spending huge money on something (like that Pottery Barn table...). Just a tiny bit extra here and there.

And as long as the bill was paid off every month and we earned the airline miles and special rewards, it was all good. Plus, with the cool Quicken computer program that enabled us to download our credit card purchases to our computer, we could easily see what we were buying--how often and how much it cost. The credit card company made it very easy to become very reliant on them--even for a financially savvy guy like mine who made sure the debt never carried over.

But the recession has changed things for us. Like many out there, my husband is compensated partly in bonuses. And like many out there, his company has cut bonuses. Add to that the  inescapable fact that I'm not making what I imagined I would by now as a freelancer (leave it to me to re-start my freelancing gig smack dab in the middle of the worst recession in 80 years), and you see a couple with decreased spending power but the same spending habits.

And for the first time ever, when the credit card bill came in, we were in real danger of not being able to pay it off. We did, but it meant a much tighter month. So I proposed to my husband an idea that he latched onto right away (something of a surprise, given that his opinion of my financial skills is pretty low).  

I suggested we go on an all-cash basis. Yup. All cash. He would give me a certain amount every two weeks to manage all the household/kids' activities/parties/pets stuff that I am in charge of. Everything but gas. I wasn't really sure he would agree to it; after all, he'd run things his way for the last 10 years and it had worked out pretty well, over all. But he recognized the same thing I did-- that those extra "$20" here and $30" there days had to end. It wasn't just me picking up a cute dress at Target for one of the girls, or stopping at Barnes and Noble spur of the moment to by the latest edition of "Writer's Market." It was him, too--a new game for the Wii here, a $300 trip to Cosco--you bought what?? Using the credit card made it waaaayyyy too easy to spend more on crap. I mean, really. You should see my daughters' closets. Does any kid under 10 really need 13 pairs of shoes? Really

So I took my credit card and stuffed it way down deep in my wallet, behind the store club cards, business cards I've picked up here and there, ancient receipts, and the like. I really jammed it in there, so pulling it out to pay for stuff is not nearly as easy as it used to be--either figuratively or literally. And I'm trying to organize what seems like a huge amount of cash (which I am keeping in a bank vault 10 stories underground at Gringotts, guarded by terrible and menacing trolls which will not hesitate to put a serious hurt on anyone besides me who comes close to my stash--including my husband. In other words, a bank account) Just seeing that amount of "real cash money"--which was determined by the average amount I spent each month on household "necessities"--was daunting. How could I possibly spend it all? Yet I did, with my good friend the credit card. Every month. Yikes. 

I'm feeling optimistic about the new all-cash plan. It will mean less spur-of-the-moment purchases, fewer spontaneous trips to the mall. But it may also mean that we save more--and that I may be able to get that cool round black dining table from Pottery Barn after all. 

check out these cool sites on budgeting, by the by. They've been a huge inspiration.

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