Monday, August 05, 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The other day I had my first ever meeting with a financial planner. He asked why I had contacted him. My response was a verbal outpouring along these lines:

"I'm 34 and I am totally incompetent with respect to my finances. I have no budget. I don't even know where to start. I am terrible at saving, and great at spending. I definitely don't have enough retirement savings. I pay bills on time but feel totally clueless. I make far, far too much money to feel like I live paycheck-to-paycheck. I have no "emergency fund." I have school debt to pay off. Plus credit card debt from being in school. Someday, maybe in the next 10 years, I'd like to buy a house, I think. On top of all that, I have a major cashflow issue because I travel a lot for work and have to front the expenses - to the tune of eight to ten thousand dollars a month. I really just don't know what I'm doing and feel like an idiot about all of it. When I think about it all I get really overwhelmed and I need help. A lot of help. Like, really, a LOT of help."

His response to me was sort of like a gentle but serious verbal slap in the face:

"The first thing you need to do is stop beating yourself up about this." 


(Why do I get the feeling that's going to be the hardest part of this whole process?)

It made me think... We all tell ourselves stories about what we're good at and what we're bad at. Often those stories started in childhood - sometimes memorably, and sometimes not. A lot of the time, they make no sense. (I'm smart and I can do basic math so why should I be utterly unraveled by basic budgeting? And yet, I am.)

I have definitely been telling myself this story that I'm "incompetent at money" for probably my whole life. Or at least since I knew "incompetent at money" was something I could "be."

In fact, this is about the only area in life in which I feel incompetent. Why? I can successfully create and manage clients' budgets. I understand how to prioritize their funds given their goals and objectives. But once we turn the tables back to my own personal life...the wheels come off and the feeling of paralyzing incompetence takes over.

I should stop that. Why choose incompetence if competence is possible?

While I'm on the sofa having this little therapy session, here's another one:

I have been led to believe I am terrible at making salad dressing.
Indeed, I believe I am terrible - a genuine abomination - at making salad dressing.

How is that possible, you ask? (Yes, I realize you probably did not ask that but if you stuck with me through that whole money bit, this is the part where I start talking about food again, so hang in there for a little more, ok?)

It used to be my responsibility, as part of contributing to the family via chores and whatnot, to make our green salad every night for dinner. We always had a green salad. Every night. Typically it was comprised of romaine, carrots, tomatoes, and celery. Sometimes it would also have cucumber, or some green or red pepper. Very rarely, watercress or endive. Maybe alfalfa sprouts.

This was back in the dark days before salad greens came in a bag and some people in the household were VERY picky about the lettuce being hand-torn, not cut with a knife. And everything in appropriately-sized pieces that required only a fork, not a knife. This is just how it was done.

As you might have surmised, I'm at least partly a creative soul and "just how it was done" often didn't fly with me. Making this same salad every night practically bored me to tears. Around this time - I was about 10 years old or so - I also began reading cookbooks. For fun. You know, like a normal kid. [Snort.] I discovered a whole tab in my Mom's Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook dedicated to salad dressings. And I started to add a little creativity to my nightly salad chore.

The real problem was not that I couldn't make salad dressing by following a simple recipe. It was that we didn't have a lot of the ingredients the recipes called for on hand and I had to improvise quite a bit as our local grocery store was more of a walk than a drive. There were a couple of successful blue cheese dressings. Some terrible Catalina dressing (like a cross between Italian and French dressings). Some chokingly acidic vinaigrettes. And so on.

With those recipes, I learned the hard way that composing salad dressing is sort of like baking. It's about proportions and is therefore rather scientific. You can't just substitute ingredients and quantities and hope that things will turn out edibly. Indeed, they rarely did. And I quickly developed a reputation as being "terrible at making salad dressing."

So I stopped. Who wants to do something at which they're judged to be "terrible"? Not this girl. Not anyone, really. To this day - a quarter of a century later - I still feel a little anxiety swirl around in my stomach at the thought of having to make a dinner salad.

The other day a funny thing happened. I got brave.
I don't know where it came from. But there it was.

I was having the girls over for Ladies' Night Dinner. I wanted to make our family lasagna recipe and decided what would be just perfect with it would be a nice, big green salad.

Coincidentally, as I was thinking about the menu, I happened upon a recipe in a new cookbook I just acquired (thanks, Mom!) from Omnivore Books: Canal House Cooking, Volume No. 6: The Grocery Store.

Specifically, page 49: "Escarole Salad with Lemon & Parmesan"

I kicked aside my fear of possibly serving guests inedibly dressed greens and went for it. Worst case, they could just eat lasagna and dessert. Have a little more wine, nothing to see here.

It's a pretty simple recipe.

First, some garlic and salt gets mashed together in a big wooden salad bowl, with a wooden spoon. Diced up preserved lemon and some fresh lemon juice get stirred in.

Extra virgin olive oil gets added to the mix, and clean, dry greens get plopped on top.

Either escarole isn't in season or it was just out of stock at my Whole Foods, but I used a combination of arugula, kale, and romaine which worked great and had enough bite to stand up to the dressing.

Once that all gets tossed together, shavings of parmesan (via the vegetable peeler) get piled on top. A little freshly ground black pepper and that's it.

I love this salad bowl - a Christmas present from Mom & Doug.
So easy, and rave reviews.

See that, salad dressing? That's me OWNING you.

What are the stories you tell yourself?
Let's get brave and kick those stories to the curb. We are all better than that.

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