The Cost of Romance: Can You Afford It?


I don’t have to tell you that Valentine’s Day is approaching. From Kmart and Walgreens ads in your newspaper to Neiman Marcus and Louis Vuitton pitches in your inbox, retailers are quick to cash in on this made-for-lovers holiday. But do you really have to spend money to show your significant other that you care? Are you obliged to invest three month’s salary to prove your love? And in this month where all things heart-shaped are celebrated, must romance be measured by a dollar figure on a receipt?

As an experiment, I spent most of last week asking friends, family members, acquaintances, and—I’ll admit—more than one total stranger, “What is the most romantic (non-sexual) thing your significant other can do for you?” The majority of those I polled are long-married couples, though some are newlyweds, some are engaged or in a committed relationship, and a few are still single.

Pleasantly, I learned that the majority of answers had nothing to do with a purchased present. Instead, the masses (four dozen or so counts as “the masses”, right?) expressed more often than not that it’s “the little things” that they find most romantic. So what makes up the little things? Here are a few confessions about romantic actions—actions are the true gifts—that make the recipients’ hearts sing and stomachs flutter:

  • He goes for long walks with me.
  • She/he brings coffee to me in the mornings.
  • He leaves surprise love notes for me to find.
  • She’s an amazing mother to our kids.
  • He’s a wonderful father to our children.
  • She so strongly believes I can do difficult things that I begin to believe it, too.
  • He emails or texts me in the middle of his busy day, just to see how I’m doing.
  • She does my laundry.
  • He picks wildflowers for me.
  • She sometimes plans the weekend for us, so I don’t have to do it.
  • He talks to me—really listens and talks to me.
  • I overheard her telling someone how much she’s still attracted to me after all these years.
  • He dances with me in the kitchen.
  • She holds my hand in public, showing people that she’s proud to be with me.
  • He surprised me by painting the living room for me while I was at work.
  • She hugs me. You can never go wrong with a hug.
  • He holds my face in his hands and kisses my nose.
  • She/he sometimes cooks/bakes [my favorite meal].
  • He/she trusts me with his secrets.
  • She/he volunteers to run errands for me.
  • She gives me a kiss on the cheek to encourage me.

Out of all whom I polled, only three mentioned purchased gifts; one husband planned a honeymoon after a 25-year wedding vow renewal, one husband planted rose bushes for his wife in honor of each of their children; and a third husband took his wife for a Happy Meal as a warm reminder of one of her happiest childhood events—each a sweet, romantic gesture that had significant meaning going far beyond the typical florist delivery or satin jewelry box.

Gifts and surprise presents are wonderful, no doubt, and I’m sure they mean a lot to the recipient. Still, it’s important to recognize how much each of these small moments, these priceless gifts of thought and time, mean to those who received them. Yet in this crazy-busy world, those things seem to cost us more than whipping out the Visa, and that’s exactly why they’re so precious.

While I’m not suggesting you forgo the cards, flowers, candy, or perfume, I am absolutely advocating for a gift from the heart; one that doesn’t cost a dime, but will be treasured more than any trinket money can buy. Can you afford it?

When love is at stake, how can you not?

Please Be Nice

“Be nice to each other. You can make a whole day a different day for everybody.” –Richard Dawson


I wonder why it is that so many people find it difficult to be nice. I’m not talking about the Southern gentility of gentlemen opening car doors for ladies, or the young taking the arm of the elderly to assist in crossing the street. Nor am I talking about putting away your cell phone at the table to engage in polite conversation with the person sitting across from you—though these things are indeed nice.

I’m talking about niceness, as in the opposite of rudeness. I’m talking about keeping a civil tone of voice instead of screaming at someone. I’m talking about taking a breath and removing the venom from your voice before answering a simple question.

We all have bad days—I get that. Alarm clock didn’t go off, kid missed the bus, tire was flat, every traffic light turned red, coffee dripped on your suit . . . Murphy’s Laws are ugly laws. The person sitting across from you, however, or the person on the other end of the phone, didn’t cause any of those issues, and they don’t deserve the brunt of your anger. Tomorrow—or even a few hours from now—these things won’t matter. You’ll be on to the next predicament, and then the next, and the next one. What makes each of these challenges easier is to understand that, no matter how bad the moment seems, it will pass, and it’s true that somewhere, someone else is dealing with something much worse than a coffee stain on a new blouse.

But enough with the bromides—except this one: life is tough. Tough for you, tough for me, tough for everyone, but that doesn’t give any of us the right to be mean.

Maybe has to do with my Appalachian upbringing, because where I’m from, we believe it’s our compulsory duty to help our neighbors—even if we don’t particularly like them or agree with their politics, religious choices, or lifestyle. Or maybe it’s because I was raised in a family where I’ve watched my father give the money he needed for his heart medication to a family who lost their home in a fire; or perhaps it’s because I lived most of my life in the South, where hospitality is the norm, and even the meanest comment is often prefaced with “Bless his heart.” Any of these experiences might explain why I’m always stunned, and sometimes even hurt, by rude behavior and meanness.

Recently I completed a simple real estate transaction, and during the very routine process of completing paperwork and legwork, I was screamed at (I’m talking about true, hold-the-phone-away-from-your-ear-to-preserve-your-eardrum screaming) by another Realtor who was angry about something over which I had no control; I was lied to multiple times by a contractor; and I saw a customer reduced to tears because a snappish title-company executive didn’t trust its own title agent (also a notary) to verify a faxed signature he witnessed and notarized. Each one of these upsetting incidents could have been rectified, or at least made easier to accept, with one thing: niceness, a.k.a. honesty and human compassion.

Look, I’m not asking you, or anyone, to jump on the free love, shirt-off-your-back, bow-down-and-kowtow bandwagon. I am, however, asking you to be nice. I’m reminding myself to be nice. NICENESS IS NOT WEAKNESS. Don’t ever mistake it as such. We all know someone in a position of leadership or power whom we can describe as “the nicest person you’ll ever meet”, and we’d never call them weak. Remember that even bad news is better received when it’s delivered respectfully, with kindness and compassion: knowing this puts you in a position of strength and power.

Do you remember the heartwarming, B-rate movie Roadhouse starring the late Patrick Swayze? If so, you’ll recall his lecture to the bar bouncers—the guys who have the job of throwing out knife-wielding, gun-toting drug-smugglers and riffraff—in which Swayze’s character repeats time and again, “Be nice.”

Really, folks, it’s that simple.

You’re going to encounter incidents out of your control today; be nice. You’re going to encounter someone who is arrogant and self-inflated; be nice. You’re going to talk to someone who may be experiencing physical pain, the recent loss of a loved one, a cheating spouse, or financial or emotional bankruptcy; be nice.

If we’re truly lucky, our niceness will be contagious.

be nice

Order from here: Be Nice Sign

Amateur Foodie Funday

About once a month, or most any time we’re traveling, my husband Randy and I enjoy our Sunday Funday with an amateur foodie fest. Our rules are simple: aim to try a different restaurant each time, or if we end up at one we’re familiar with, we must try a new dish. The final rule? Have fun! We believe we qualify as amateur foodies; first, because our waistlines prove we’ll try anything once (twice, if it’s yummy); and second, because a good portion of our home is furnished by prizes and prize money I’ve won in cooking contests. Neither of us is the new Tom Colicchio, but we know good food.

This Sunday Funday’s dining drive took us long Florida’s East Coast, so we could enjoy the sun and scenery after a rare week of chilly weather. We began our wannabe-foodie fun with a warm and filling late-morning brunch at the San Diego Grill, a casual, California-style eatery in Port Orange. Randy’s Border Omelet took up half of his plate—a three-egg omelet stuffed with bacon, not-too-spicy pico, jack cheese, and sour cream. The omelet was topped with four slices of ripe avocado and drizzled with a zigzag of sour cream. Toasted, buttered English muffins were his bread of choice, though rye and wheat toast were also available. I ordered the Ham and Cheese Quiche and received a large portion—a quarter of an entire pie. The buttery crust was homemade, flaky, and tender. Small cubes of ham and melted mild cheddar were ensconced in perfectly cooked eggs. Other offerings we passed on included peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip waffles, spinach and tomato Benedict, French toast, and more. Both of our dishes were served with fruit salad made up of sliced strawberries, red grapes, fresh pineapple wedges (no canned stuff here), and cubes of honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon. Here we gave thanks for Florida’s year-round growing season, as everything tasted garden-fresh.

From there we drove north along A1A Scenic Highway to Flagler Beach and Flagler Beachfront Winery, because what good is a sunny day on the coast without a wine slushie? Yes, you read correctly. A wine slushie! Flagler Beachfront Winery brings in grapes from all over the US, including from their own vineyards in Ohio. The wine is bottled by the owners and local volunteers in the on-site bottling room, right across the street from the ocean. Every visit to Flagler Beachfront Winery is different from the last, as different wines and wine blends are available each time, and the winery holds a variety of fun events to keep you coming back. Sunday’s event was a book signing featuring four local authors, but fun-runs, charity events, even chocolate-cake- and popcorn-tastings are on the event list. Tapas is available for noshing, including featured meat-and-cheese plates, breads and oils, flatbreads, and more. Randy enjoyed his favorite of their many wines, Flagler Beachfront Winery’s own Blueberry Sangria wine slushie, while I tried—and loved!—their new Very Berry Sangria wine slushie. We sat on the oceanfront patio and soaked up the warm winter sun while watching dolphins play in the surf. Yeah, being an amateur Sunday Funday Foodie is a pretty great gig.

flagler winery

Next we stopped in at Break Awayz at the Beach, another oceanfront spot that came highly recommended to us, and with good reason. Break Awayz’s local claim-to-fame is their extensive craft beer list, with nearly 200 different offerings. However, their food menu is nothing to ignore, as the offerings are fresh, flavorful, and hearty far beyond the “tapas” sign that greets you. We opted for the Warm Bleu Cheese Chips and were thrilled with our choice. The chips were crunchy, not at all greasy like some homemade chips, and they were smothered with a bleu-cheese reduction made with heavy cream, then topped with sliced, crisp, green onions and a balsamic glaze. Randy tried a frosty-cold Founders Breakfast Stout, a Grand Rapids, Michigan brew made with flaked oats, bitter and sweetened chocolates and two kinds of coffee. (Beer: it’s not just for breakfast, anymore.) A couple at the table next to us ooohed-and-ahhhed over their burger sliders, vowing they were the best they’d ever had. Other menu options include everything from fish dip and stuffed portabellas to tuna tataki and lobster ravioli. The co-owners, brothers Kyle and Nick, each came by our outdoor, oceanfront table to make sure we were happy and had everything we needed. Yes, Break Awayz, we will be back!

Break Awayz bleu cheese chips

 We then cruised south on A1A into Ormond-by-the-Sea, where we stopped at Lagerheads, which touts itself “The Best Dive in Town”. While it’s uber-casual, Lagerheads is far from a dive, as the menu alone attests. Fresh Cedar Key clams, seared ahi tuna, chicken piccata, and fra diablo mussels aren’t your typical dive-bar food. Since we were not exactly starving (being an amateur foodie is not without its challenges) we decided to share a crab cake croissant with a side of coleslaw. The crab cake arrived on a toasted, buttered croissant, and both were the size of a saucer. The sandwich was served with tomato slices, lettuce and a side of rémoulade sauce. Though we loved the moist, flaky crab cake, neither of us were impressed with the rémoulade, which tasted more like tartar sauce with a bit of ketchup stirred in. The coleslaw was tasty enough to make up for what the rémoulade sauce lacked, however; it was both tangy and creamy. Drink selections here included the usual soft drinks, mostly domestic beers with a few premium options, wine coolers, and a couple of red and white house-wine choices.

Blue Grotto deck

Finally, we rode farther down the coast and into Daytona Beach. We came inland, but wanted to watch the sunset over the water, so we went to Blue Grotto Waterfront Dining (outdoor seating deck pictured above) for dessert. It’s an excellent place to lounge and watch the boats come in, and on weekends you’ll be entertained with live music. We were surprised at how empty the place was, as only a half-dozen people sat among the dozens of unfilled tables outside, despite the warm evening and the acoustic guitar entertainment. Dessert options were limited to three; a cheesecake, pie and a fudge brownie sundae. We chose the fudge brownie sundae (sundae funday?), and again, we received an oversized portion—easily enough for three or four to share. My first thought when it arrived was that vanilla ice cream shouldn’t be pale yellow. Oh, and it should probably taste like vanilla, and truly, it didn’t. The ice cream tasted bland, and the fudge brownie had a mild chocolate flavor, far from what I’d call fudge. It was somewhat dry, but of course, as the ice cream melted, it moistened the brownie. Presentation—in spite of the pale-yellow ice cream—was lovely, as the entire plate was drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauces and dotted with whipped cream. In my opinion, this dessert will satisfy a sweet tooth, but I’ll likely go elsewhere the next time I want a decadent dessert. We finished our amateur foodie tour with mugs of hot coffee as we watched the sun slide toward the water—the perfect ending to Sunday Funday on Central Florida’s East Coast.

Blue grotto dessert

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