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A Valentine’s Gone Sour at $1.20 per Hour

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“Prepared I was not for such a business; therefore am I found so much unsettled…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, v)  

I’ve traveled the earth and survived for long periods in very remote places few people have ever heard of.  I worked hard over many years to earn multiple university degrees.  I’ve endured my share of bad bosses, bad jobs and bad relationships and learned many life lessons from all of them.

So it makes me very frustrated, after all that worldly learning over all those years, to end up in a situation where I find myself taken advantage of because of my own naivety.

But that’s what happened, and I blame mostly myself.  Two months ago, I had the thought of doing a Valentine’s Day pop-up shop for my floral business.  I don’t have a shop of my own, and just work out of my home for the most part, so I thought I’d hold temporary shop inside another existing business.  I started brainstorming possible locations, and reached out to a coffee shop that I’d visited a few times in the past few years to ask if they’d be interested in hosting my pop-up.  (I won’t name them here in this post but many of you already know who they are.)  They replied yes, they’d be very interested, and we set up an initial meeting for a few days later.

Mistake #1: I waited too late to start all of this.  Valentine’s Day is of course the biggest holiday of the year for florists, which means that we have to place our flower orders with our wholesalers several weeks ahead of time in order to get “pre-book” (lower) prices.  We had the initial planning meeting at the coffee shop on a Thursday, and my floral wholesale order was due the next day.  I therefore felt a lot of pressure to come to an agreement so I could get my order in.  I was so worried about booking a host location that I didn’t listen to my internal voice of concern when the owner proposed they take a 25% cut of the sale price of each floral arrangement in exchange for providing me a corner of space to sell.  I didn’t figure out until after I said “yes” that 25% of the sale price worked out to be almost 60% of the actual profit, once I factored in my costs of making everything.

I placed my wholesale order the next day for over $1,000 in flowers, but couldn’t stop thinking about that profit margin.  It seemed exorbitant to me, so I suggested in an email that we work on making the split more fair to me, since I’d be putting in most of the labor for the pop-up shop to make over 60 arrangements and to prep/de-thorn/wrap 150 single long-stemmed roses (that the shop had ordered).  I proposed sale price points that I thought were extremely reasonable for Valentine’s Day, that would help to sell the arrangements, and that would still leave us both with some reasonable profit.  The coffee shop countered with a payout offer that, based on the sale prices I had suggested, would decrease their share of the profits on the arrangements to 47%, but would still give them 64% of the profits on the single-stemmed roses.  I accepted their offer.

I’ve always considered myself to be relatively book-smart; I did well in school, placed high in my classes, and enjoyed learning.  But I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never had much of what they call “street smarts” – it’s hard for me to tell sometimes when someone’s taking advantage of me, or not giving me the whole story.  I don’t “get the joke” until it’s too late usually.

So I accepted their offer even though I still didn’t feel good about it.  I felt like I had to, I guess – I’d already ordered the flowers, and they had made what appeared to be at least somewhat of a good faith offer in reducing their profit margin to be more fair to me.  They were providing the space, and some marketing, and staff time to ring up sales (they made a specific point of telling me that they would make the sales at their registers, and then the customer would show me a ticket stub they’d been given – not their receipt – in order to pick up their flowers at my table).  But I still felt like I was going to be doing, by far, most of the work, for barely over half the profits.  I began to get upset and dejected, but I also tried to be positive, telling myself that if we sold everything, we’d both still end up with a tidy sum and that it was good exposure for my business – and so I began investing time and flowers into creating sample floral arrangements for their publicity efforts and to take into the coffee shop to display to customers two weeks before the holiday.

My flower studio at full capacity.

My flower studio at full capacity for the pop-up shop.

(Mistake #2 – all of these business arrangements were made via email and not, as I now know I should have done, in a signed contract by both parties with all the terms explicitly spelled out.)

I had agreed to make even more samples to try to sell during a six-hour pre-order time block at the coffee shop one week ahead, on the Saturday before Valentine’s.  I had also printed up some price signs to put on the table so it would be clear to customers how much to pay for the different arrangements (we had two different sizes).  This is when things really took a turn for the worse:  I had set up my table upon arriving that morning and had just put out the price signs, when the manager came over and seemed very surprised I had made my own signs, saying “Oh, that’s wrong – those aren’t the correct prices,” and took the sign out of the plastic holder.

I was confused and surprised – “What do you mean? Those are the prices we agreed to in our email,” I said.  She then told me that they had decided to raise the prices of the arrangements – of my product – in order to give themselves a “more even share of the profits.”  They had decided – without consulting, asking, or telling me – to raise the prices of the arrangements by 33% and 20% each, essentially giving them a much higher percentage of the profit margin than me.  She said she would re-print the signs with the correct prices, and disappeared into the back workroom, leaving me standing there in shock.  What had just happened?

I quickly did some math, figured out they were going to be taking well over 60% of the overall profits on everything, and my head pretty much exploded.  I stepped outside the shop and made some very heated phone calls to some family members to vent my frustration; the manager came back after quite a lengthy absence, and I noticed she had just slightly reduced the prices of the arrangements from what she had told me earlier (perhaps she had seen me through the window in head-explosion mode on my calls outside), but they were still higher than our originally agreed-upon prices (and still gave them over half the profits). Furthermore, I suspect they intended their price increase and higher profits to remain undiscovered by me – perhaps that was the reason for the ticket system (rather than me seeing customer receipts), and they hadn’t counted on me bringing my own price signs.

I was angry at what they’d done, but I was also suddenly very worried that this price increase would mean unsold stock for me; their new increased price points were not customer-friendly in my opinion for the arrangements we were offering.  I was now stressed that this pop-up shop would not only not be profitable, but that it would end up costing me money, perhaps a considerable amount.  I made no secret of the fact that I was very upset at this unexpected turn of events.  Someone that day told me “now Kristi, don’t have a bad attitude about this.”  That just made me even more angry – don’t have a bad attitude about someone raising the price of my product without consulting me, disrespecting me and my business, and putting my earning potential into possible jeopardy?  They were already going to make a huge percentage of the profits, but that wasn’t enough for them, they had to have more and potentially cost us both business?  I didn’t want to overreact, but yes, I felt I was allowed to have at least a little bit of a bad attitude about this.

That day, a week before Valentine’s, I took 20 arrangements to the shop and only five sold (that was Mistake #3 on my part, they had asked me to bring “several samples” and I ordered too many flowers, so ended up making 20…which no one wanted to buy a week ahead of Valentine’s & it cost me).  Only two people placed a pre-order for the following week, which also really concerned me.  The manager later agreed that perhaps we should have seen if they would sell at the lower original prices, especially since it wasn’t Valentine’s yet, but she never did lower the prices.

So what happened next?  I’d already agreed to exclusivity and that I wouldn’t have any other pop-ups for Valentine’s in any other competing establishments (so no coffee shops or restaurants), so I felt I couldn’t start approaching other venues to sell there instead.  And despite their (in my eyes) very dishonorable actions, I felt like I had to do the honorable thing on my part and follow-through with doing the shop on Fri 2/13 and Sat 2/14 as we’d agreed.  I spent 83 hours in total labor on doing all the arrangements and flower work, and my mom graciously also put in many hours to help me.  I made 63 arrangements in total, and we spent hours prepping all those single long-stemmed roses.

Roses getting ready for their big day.

Roses getting ready for their big day.

(Mistake #4: I ordered pre-book lots with the wholesaler, which means that for a reduced price, you get the types of flowers you want but you don’t get to pick your colors.  You do get to specify a “wish list” and I stated all Valentine’s colors, but that’s not what I got – the wholesaler sent me a lot of yellows and oranges and whites, more so than reds, pinks and purples…very spring-like but not very Valentine’s-y.  Mistake #5:  I should have used at least half of those long-stemmed roses to make all-rose arrangements instead of mixed-flower arrangements [which did include roses but also four other types of flowers]; people want roses on Valentine’s, and I messed up by not having all roses all the time, but I was trying to keep prices low.  Mistake #6: It’s WAY too hot inside a coffee shop for flowers, they immediately lost days of vase life in just a few hours.)

What I should have made for every arrangement (that I made for a family member's order).

What I should have made for every arrangement (that I made for a family member’s order).

Thank goodness I was rescued by family, friends, and coworkers who ordered and bought arrangements in advance of the coffee shop sales.  I took 41 arrangements (and all the single roses) to the coffee shop on Valentine’s Day.  Only 19 of them sold, so I left with 22 unsold arrangements.  And I think they probably only sold about 20 long-stemmed roses the entire weekend from behind the register.  About halfway through my 8-hour stint at the coffee shop, I discussed with the manager reducing the prices on the arrangements to try to sell more; she said she’d consider it but then disappeared and never came back (and never reduced the prices).

I think there were many factors for why so many of the arrangements went unsold: the price points, the rose and color factors, the weather and very low customer turnout (75 degrees in February probably lured people to go outside instead of hole up in a coffee shop), and lack of signage and marketing.  (My brother and nephew even showed up with a sign to hold out on the sidewalk to tell people Valentine’s flowers were for sale there, I really appreciated that; I also was very touched by all the friends and family that stopped by the shop to show their support.)  I didn’t lose money on the whole thing as I’d feared, but for the entire venture, I only made about $100 profit – which comes out to a whopping $1.20 per hour for my 83 hours of labor.  Which is so sad it’s actually funny.

Thinking back on the whole experience, I’m mostly angry with myself; right after I’d found out the coffee shop increased the prices, a friend of mine and I were talking about it and she told me “Just stand up for yourself!”  I guess I don’t feel like I did that, and I’m not sure why, but it makes me feel ashamed; I felt intimidated for some reason, and scared by the financial risk factor.  I was disappointed that something I really should have been able to enjoy and look forward to, instead turned out to be something I dreaded and didn’t enjoy at all.  I began to doubt my abilities.  I was cranky and pretty much intolerable that entire week, which I’m also not proud of.  And I was unsettled by how much greed comes into play for some people when it comes to business.  This was my first time doing a shop like this, and I certainly learned many – MANY – lessons for the future if I do one again. 

So…it wasn’t the greatest Valentine’s Day, but I’m sure other people had days worse than mine, so I try to keep that in perspective.  (And at least there were no overwrapped bricks of cheese this year, read that story here.)  I was pretty discouraged after I came home that day; I didn’t think I even wanted to look at another flower for a while after that.  And yet the next morning, the first thing I thought of when I woke up was the bucket of leftover withering flowers sitting in my workroom, and I felt bad that I’d neglected them.  Out came the clippers and I found myself working those stragglers into vases and their own arrangements before I’d even had breakfast.  

I have a lot of thinking to do now about future directions and next steps.  Stay tuned.

 À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Steady As She Went

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 “Quiet yourselves, I pray, and be at peace.” ~William Shakespeare (I Henry VI, IV, i)

I was just re-reading a few of my posts from this past year.  I didn’t write as many of them as I’d hoped, as I originally set out to make this a weekly blog.  But some weeks there just didn’t seem to be anything of import to write about, and I felt better once I lifted the expectation off of myself and just wrote instead when I felt like it (I also am happy to report I finally replaced my ID bracelet tag that used to read “Practice Makes Perfect,” so that expectation is now not always staring me in the face either).  Re-reading my posts from a year ago also reinforced the sensation of time passing at warp-speed – who was it that said the older you get, the faster time passes? 

Looking back on 2014, it was mostly a “steady-as-she-goes” year, I’d say.  The high point would definitely have to be my trip back to England during the summer – a solo sojourn around ancestral lands and a Yorkshire depart that gave me memories to last a lifetime.  The low points have been several months worth of annoying and nagging illness that I’ve already written about, so I won’t rehash it here, but feeling not-great for six months out of the year (or more) is not something I hope to repeat. 

A return to the mother land in 2014.

A return to the mother land in 2014.

The biggest change of 2014 for me was the self-imposed drastically revised diet that I’ve undertaken in order to improve my health; I’m still trying to get used to it and after three months, it’s still pretty difficult.  I used to love food and looked forward to a satisfying breakfast or a fun weekend treat…but now eating just seems more of a necessary chore, with not much joy in it at all unfortunately.  My revised regime is low-acid, low-fat, no-caffeine, no-tannins; this means very little tasty is left.  Not allowed is anything containing citrus or citric acid; tomato base of any kind; onions or garlic; carbonated drinks; cheese; chocolate; 99% of teas; anything with a cream base; the list goes on.  I’ve even had to give up most fruits except for melons and pears, and no juices are allowed.  I haven’t had one bite of pizza or chocolate or cheese, Mexican or Italian food, ice cream, queso, anything spicy, etc, for over 3 months now.  Office potlucks and family dinners have become uncomfortable and depressing.  Going out to eat is near impossible – so much is cooked with something that I can’t have. 

The good news is that these diet changes, along with my medication and lifestyle changes, are making a difference I believe – slowly but surely I have been feeling better, in terms of the symptoms I’d been having when all of this started in August.  It also helped that President Obama was recently diagnosed with the same issue I’ve been having (silent/airway reflux, or LPR in medical terms = laryngopharyngeal reflux); it made it more real somehow, that it wasn’t just a made-up thing I’d invented for myself. 

Getting back to the year in review – I think what was really most comforting about this year was the fact that despite some health issues and my ever-increasing debt burden, things stayed pretty steady for me this year.  I didn’t have to quit a job, or go through the stress of looking for a new one.  I like where I work at my part-time job, the people there are nice and I feel confident in my abilities.  It only pays about half the bills but it’s so nice to have an enjoyable job for a change.  Things on the flower front with my business have been pretty slow this year, but I’m not letting that stress me out too much yet.  I’ve had a few flower jobs here and there and I hope to grow the business in 2015 even further.

To that end, I branched out just a little from the actual floral design part of the business to start offering a side item:  floral art note cards.  I enjoy taking pictures of flowers, both ones that I work with when I design but also floral nature scenes or garden scenery seen on my travels.  I like editing my pictures with photo software to make them really pop, and wanted to share them with others in some fashion – so I decided note cards might be a good way to do that.  I started an online handmade craft shop through Etsy, where a LOT of other people also showcase and sell their handmade wares, it’s a great site.  If you’re so inclined, please pop over to have a look at my card designs, I’d be very grateful:  www.Etsy.com/shop/MuchAdoAboutFlowers.

(Here are a few examples of some of my designs:)

iris

“Blue and Blue” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

hydrangea

“Shades of Hydrangea” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

"Pink Hydrangea" Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

“Pink Hydrangea” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

I’m grateful that 2014 was also relatively calm and steady for most of my family members, although there were some bitter personal disappointments and some extended family health concerns that are still being dealt with.  The nephews are growing up so fast – with each new week they have gone through another change or struggle or triumph, and it’s interesting to watch.  I think 2015 may be a much choppier year in terms of waves of change for all of us in my little family circle, and I hope we’re able to handle it without too much stress.

And now I’m off to a quiet, and I hope peaceful, holiday here at home.  No travels for me this year (don’t want to add to that debt).  If you’re traveling I hope you have a safe journey, and thanks for continuing to follow me along in my UNunhappy meandering over the past year.  Wherever you are during this holiday season, I hope you also can find a little quite and peaceful time for yourself as well.   

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Growing Your Wings After You Jump

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“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie…” ~ William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, I, i)

Welcome to a rare Friday post of operationUNunhappy.  I usually only publish on Mondays, but I wanted to recognize this specific day with a few thoughts.  It’s a special anniversary:  one year ago today was my last day at my misery-filled, soul-sucking, toxicity-laden city government job.  And it was a glorious day indeed! 

I had made the decision to finally cut myself loose from a bizarro world of constant negativity, mind-numbing repetitive tasks, and maddening bureaucratic nonsensical red tape.  Why did I wait so long??  It was one of the best days – and decisions – of my life.

(If you’re a fairly new reader of this blog and want to read more about how I quit that job, click here.)

I didn’t have another job lined up when I quit.  I was giving up an extremely comfortable income, high-level health & dental benefits, and a nice little retirement nest egg.  I own a home, and have bills to pay like anyone else.  I have aspirations and dreams, many of which require a significant source of funding. 

And yet I had no doubt I was doing the right thing by walking away. 

You know that little voice deep inside of your gut that tells you what to do, but much of the time you don’t listen?  Well I listened that day, and I got out.  For my own sanity, for my mental and physical health, for my future – I jumped off the edge of the known into the unknown.

“Sometimes you just have to jump and grow your wings on the way down.” ~ Les Brown

I love that quote by motivational speaker Les Brown (the husband of Gladys Knight).  Some might interpret it as a message of impending doom: that if you jump without wings – without having a plan – your only directional option is down (and then the unavoidable *splat*). 

I think it’s the opposite: if you have the courage and confidence to leave the negative behind, as scary as the unknown future is, your reward can be a pair of anti-splat wings to help you get to where you are really supposed to be.

There was another day, in what seems like another lifetime, that I listened to the urgent voice inside me, so I recognized it this time when it showed up again.  Completely different situations, the two, but similar in the debilitating effect they had on me – and that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. 

The day before the one-year anniversary of my first marriage, my husband (and I use that term very lightly) yelled curses at me and called me names on his way out the door to work, telling me to not wait up and that he had no idea when he would be home, if ever.  This was not a new trend.  He’d only recently come back to our apartment after a 3-week booze-filled “break.”  And he’d already put a hole in the wall with his fist during an earlier fight we’d had, showing his true colors.

As he slammed the door behind him that morning, I stared at it through tears of anger, hands clenched into tightly-balled fists.  I shook with rage, and slid down against the wall onto the floor.  Then something happened that I’ll never forget: a voice inside me – soft but clear, faint but insistent – said “GET OUT. NOW.” 

And so I did.  I jumped that day.  I grew wings, and they took me and everything I owned out of that apartment in a matter of hours.  I was on a mission, getting on the phone to friends and family, and they came through for me with flying colors.   With all my stuff packed and in storage, family having flown into town on a moment’s notice to protect me, and a safe place to stay, he came home to an empty apartment.  And I started over.

It’s possible.  Excruciating sometimes, yes, but possible.  Screw that courage to the sticking-place already; chances are, you won’t regret it.  I don’t.  (Now go back and read the quote at the very top of this article, including the name of the play.)

In the past year, I’ve had many ups and downs but the positives have far outweighed the negatives.  I started my own business – it’s been a little slow-going so far and there’s still so much I don’t know, but it’s mine (www.MuchAdoAboutFlowers.com).  I found a part-time job that I truly enjoy with kind and competent managers and people who are nice to work with – with no benefits and only earning 30% of what I did before.  I’ve had more time to spend with family and on de-perfectionizing myself.  None of which would have been possible if I’d stayed in that dead-end job.

I started this blog just two weeks after that last day on the job a year ago, so on the approach of my blogiversary, I’d like to say thanks for sticking with me through 45 posts so far!  Thanks for reading and the positive comments and the support.  My wings are stronger because of all of you.

Wings

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Forays and Flowers in Fourteen

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“How joyful I am made by this contract!” ~William Shakespeare (Henry VI Part 1, III, i)

I hope this post finds each of you at least a little recovered from the whirlwind holiday season, with all of its chocolatey temptations, superfun family time, and shocking credit card statements.  Back to reality we go now in the new year – a depressing letdown for some, but a chance at new starts and a fresh slate – a blank contract – for others. I don’t make resolutions anymore, but I do make plans – and I have a brainful of blueprints that are itching to be put into action.

I actually really enjoy taking down all the Christmas decorations each year and getting back to the minimalistic, uncluttered normalcy of things again.  It feels refreshing, like when you have a big garage sale and get rid of some of the extemporaneous stuff that seemed nice at the time but now you can’t figure out why you hung onto it for so long.

For me, 2014 will bring some big changes and exciting voyages that I’m really looking forward to.  Things are so different for me now than they were a year ago at this time; a year ago, I was sick as a dog (in urgent care on Christmas morning actually) from my germ-laden job and saw no hope in anything that the immediate future held, professionally or personally.  The new year brought no joy, only more resentment and desperation at having to return to a workplace I despised and job duties that were literally sucking the life out of me.

I started this blog six months ago at the end of June as a way to document my journey towards a less miserable (UNunhappy) existence.  And one month before that, I finally quite that horrible job as the first concrete step on that path.  Since then, I feel a little like I’ve been speedwalking in slow motion – I have so many ideas and so much I want to do (and write), but I’m purposefully taking it slow so that I don’t get overwhelmed and burned out before I even really begin.  I have pages and pages of to-do lists, but instead of burning through them at record speed, I’m allowing myself the time to appreciate each accomplishment as it happens.

I have two main focuses (foci?) this coming year: one will be the launch of my new floral design business, which I have aptly named (drum roll please) “Much Ado About Flowers.” Its namesake play (Much Ado About Nothing) is one of my Bard favorites and considered by many one of his best, and it just felt right to name my business after something I’ve also held dear for so many years. I filed all the necessary contract and business/license/permit fees with the city, county and state a few months ago and finally have it all in working order to be able to officially do actual business. I’ve established accounts with all of the floral wholesalers in town and am establishing networking contacts.  Yes it’s terrifying and I feel like I’m stepping off a cliff sometimes, but I’ve decided it’s better than feeling dead inside.

I will still keep my part-time job at the university, but will spend a good amount of my remaining time on building up my supply and workspace inventory, developing online and social media resources, learning about how to run a small business, and expanding my knowledge of all things flower-related.  I do have some ideas in mind for how I would like to see things develop, but I’m also open to new and different opportunities along the way. I’m leaving the definition of “success” for this business open for now, and not boxing myself into any pre-set expectations or obligations.

Untitled

Click on the photo to be taken to the Facebook page for
Much Ado About Flowers.  Please “Like” if so inclined!

For about a month between November and December, I watched in awe as my handyman (also known by the clever alias of Dad) gutted and converted the small storage shed in my backyard into a walk-in flower cool room.  The boardwalk was put into place first so that feet won’t be muddied as trips are traipsed back and forth:

IMG_0081IMG_0236Then he basically turned the inside of the shed into a super-sized foam-insulated cooler (literally, there are huge sheets of Styrofoam between the insulation and the finished walls), complete with electricity, A/C unit, work bench and sink with running water:

IMG_0181

IMG_0198

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One step, board, and floor tile at a time, I’m getting closer to another realization.  (My handyman got paid by the way in many thank yous and several loaves of pumpkin bread, and I hope he knows how grateful I am for his help).  I’m pretty intimidated by how much I still don’t know, and by how long of a road I have ahead of me, but at least I feel that I’m on the right road for a change.

And speaking of roads, the other focus of 2014 for me will be getting back out on the road and across the pond to take England by storm again.  I was there in 2012 (right before the Olympics) for the World Shakespeare Festival, and had a great experience.  This time, I’ll be volunteering for the organizing group of the Grand Depart of the 2014 Tour de France!  This is a huge deal for the UK & Yorkshire, with 3 days of racing in England before they head back to France to continue the Tour.  I’ll be in Leeds and York for the first two stages, but that’s just one part of my trip. I’m hoping to also get to several other corners of the country that I missed last time.

Tour-de-France-2014-map

I love planning a trip like this, and I’m in the thick of it right now; for me it’s half the fun.  The challenge and satisfaction of finding just the right little B&B within my budget; the process of mapping out my itinerary along the maze of train tracks and bus routes that crisscross the countryside; and the anticipation of real life forays into the places I’ve read about and seen in my favorite legends, movies and TV shows.

Although I have big aspirations of ogling a whole slew of sights during this trip, I’m also determined to try to enjoy it more than the crazed pace I set for myself last time.  I want to slow down, spend more than one night in most places, and really let myself relax into the English way of life if possible (while still hitting the highlights, of course). 

In addition to travels to new towns, I look forward to going back to Shakespeare country for the historic 450th anniversary celebrations of his birth this year, as well as hopefully meeting a few new Twitter friends I’ve made since my last trip there.  I’ll be avoiding London during the pricey time of Wimbledon, but will manage to spend some time there before I leave.  I will no doubt rack up a pretty penny of debt with this adventure, but what’s that saying about not being able to take it with you once you’re gone…

So those are my blueprints for now.  No big deal.  Just completely changing course in life and taking leaps that may or may not work out.  Thanks for continuing to read along as the path winds through it all.  Here’s to a great Fourteen for all of us.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Healthcare.Govin’MeAHeadache

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“He doth me wrong to feed me with delays.” ~William Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus, IV, iii)

Last week I finally took the plunge into shopping for health insurance through the infamously inoperable http://www.healthcare.gov marketplace website.  I already waded through the world of health insurance woes back in June when I quit my job and had to buy a private/individualized plan.  Texas is one of the states that refused to set up state-run networks, so we have no choice but to go through the federal marketplace.  I think I will be able to get a subsidy to assist me with one of the new insurance plans due to my much-reduced income now, but that’s only if I can actually manage to enroll.

Yup, I’m one of the masses of people who is stuck in the healthcare.gov snafu.

The website let me create an application and I entered in all of the multiple pages worth of required information.  Then I signed electronically and submitted it, but had to step away from the computer for a while.  When I logged back in later, it told me that my application was incomplete and asked me to re-enter all the same information I’d already entered earlier.  Yet in another link on the site, it told me my earlier-submitted application had been received and was complete.  It said I had to view my eligibility results before I could shop for a plan, but when I clicked on the link to do so, nothing happened.

So, I re-entered all the required information again. Five more times, actually.  Because each time, when I got to a certain point, it took me to an error screen saying the system was down and to please try again in 30 minutes.  I’d wait that amount of time and try again, only to get the same message.  I finally clicked on the Live Chat Support button and was instructed by an agent named Jacob that he would take note of my frustrations and concerns (really?), but that to get any actual assistance, I needed to call the support phone number on the website. (Apparently their Live Chat option really is meant to just chat, rather than help.)

error

“Temporarily,” that’s funny.

So I called the support number, and after going through the automated phone tree that couldn’t understand anything I said (and refusing to complete a customer survey at the end of the call), was hung up on before even getting to a real person.  I called back again, this time agreeing to complete the end-of-call survey (hmmm), and lo and behold a real person finally came on the line.  Shaneece listened to my situation and then told me “Ma’am it’s because the system is down again, mine is too.  In order to proceed you need to clear all cookies, bookmarks, and browsing history from your computer, then restart the whole machine, or else it won’t even think of letting you do anything.”  Huh?

Nothing on the healthcare.gov website had even mentioned cookies or browsing history being an issue or a recommendation if having problems.  But, I did what Shaneece recommended.  And nope, it still didn’t work.  Nine hours later, I was still getting the same error message and was still unable to view my eligibility results.  In 2013, the most technologically-advanced time in history, it looks like I’m going to have to go fill out a paper application at a help center, turn in it, and wait weeks to hear back on what plans I might be eligible to enroll in.  Which I still probably won’t be able to do online.  I may even have to go hunting for an actual STAMP at some point in time (do they still sell those?).

Yup, this is about right. (From US News)

Yup, this is about right. (From US News)

Many of you probably also saw a recent news story about a few guys in California who, in a matter of HOURS, created a completely functional website (www.thehealthsherpa.com) that would let anyone instantly compare premiums for the different health insurance plans available through the marketplace, as well as find out how much of a subsidy you might be able to get.  Very few can even get past the initial bugs in the federal site to view this vital information, but these guys were able to throw it together in less than a day’s time and it actually works all the time.  You can’t enroll for a plan on their site (YET), but you can do your plan shopping and get all the pertinent information you need to then try to somehow enroll through the government’s archaic system.  Why in the world aren’t these guys being employed by the government (and paid lots of deserved money) to make the main site WORK?  Baffles the mind.

I’m not one of those people who gambles on not having health insurance.  But then I’ve never really had to worry about it until now; I was always lucky enough to have it provided through my employer for the past twenty years.  It amazes me to run into people my age who decide to run that risk though; the last few months, I’ve encountered quite a few of them.  And I realize it is a significant cost; I guess if you can’t pay for it, you can’t pay for it.  But in the land of healthcare-cost induced bankruptcies, it’s too scary to me to not budget for it and make sure I have coverage for that just-in-case scenario that may pop up as I get older.

One of the most frightening aspects of quitting my job six months ago was the thought of not having employer-provided benefits.  Deciding to cut loose that safety rope (noose?) was extremely difficult, but it was my choice all the same.  I must reap the consequences, but I also believe that there should be other realistic and affordable options for people who want to break free and try to make it on their own.  Isn’t it ironic that we shake off the suffocating company ropes just to then be metaphorically strangled by constrictive government red tape through a system such as healthcare.gov?

red tape

I’ve worked for all levels of government in my life: local/city, state, and federal. I’m fairly used to red tape actually; not much about it surprises me anymore. Getting bogged down in bureaucratic nonsense is frustrating but feels weirdly familiar, which is a little discomforting. Have I gotten too accustomed to the static non-pace of life as a public employee?  Going forward, can I wear the half-cloak of public service while also stirring the pot of privatized entrepreneurship? A tangled web indeed.

I hope the President and his team can get this embarrassment figured out soon.  Actually, I think he just needs a whole new team – there are a few guys in California who I think may be ready to step up.

Hope some of you are having better luck than me if you’re trying to enroll for a plan.  I’d say keep your fingers crossed for me, but I wouldn’t want you to develop arthritis as a result, which may or may not be paid for by your insurance plan.  Just some good mental mojo sent my way will suffice, thanks.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Swimming

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“Upon a time, -unhappy was the clock that struck the hour!” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, V, v)

It took me until the age of 42 to finally make a conscious decision to stop being so dang miserable all the time.  To quit my miserable job, to stop hanging out with miserable people whenever possible, and change course to do things that actually interest me and speak to me in terms of meaning and significance.

Have you ever met someone who just seemed inherently and generally a happy person by nature, practically all the time?  Nothing ever seems to get to them, they’re overly optimistic about everything in their lives, everything seemed to go their way, and they were always smiling no matter what?  I’ve known a few here and there.  I was always kind of annoyed by them, to tell the truth.  They seemed unreal, like a character in an X-Files episode.

jose_chungs_from_outer_space

Lately though the opposite has been true for me: I find myself even more annoyed by those that are miserable and grumpy and cantankerous all the time, especially those that are doing nothing to change the situation that is contributing to their negative state of mind.  Assuming they are not all suffering from low blood sugar at the same time, there’s a lot of the dejected and downtrodden out there these days.

So I’ve been thinking: is the state of happy one that happens by nature, or by nurture?  Is one born generally happy (or unhappy), or does one have to constantly nurture the factors of their life to bring forth opportunities to experience a positive state of mind?  And if it’s the latter, isn’t that then saying that life is inherently negative and unhappy, and that we then have to swim upstream and make conscious choices to not let it all get to us and to try to be happy and move forward in spite of everything that is happening to us?

OR – is everything that is happening to us, especially the negative, the daily grind of life that brings us down, brought about by our own decisions (be they conscious or unconscious) over time to either do or not do something about the state in which we find ourselves?

Yes I’m getting philosophical.  No I don’t know the answer.  I do know that I haven’t run across very many happy people in most of the jobs I’ve worked in.  Which is really unfortunate, because we spend the majority of our waking hours at our jobs.  When we are miserable there, it tends to have a cumulative effect over time…on ourselves, on our friends and families, and on the other people we work with.  There have been many times when I’ve looked at a coworker (or at myself in the mirror) and wished I could say out loud: “If you hate this job so much, why don’t you quit and do something else?”

Yes yes I know that most people do not have the luxury of choosing their idea of the “perfect” job to pay their bills and occupy their time.  It’s apparent and common, but very sad and unfortunate, that most of us are not living to work, but working to live.  For those lucky few of you out there who get to do what you want and enjoy while also earning enough money at it to live comfortably: I’m convinced you’ve hit the real lottery, even if you don’t realize it.

I just received my first paycheck at my other job – the one I’m actually really enjoying, the first job in practically forever that I actually look forward to on the days I go in.  My paycheck for an entire month’s work (it’s a part-time job) is a mere 60% of what I used to earn every two weeks at my previous miserable city government job.  So over the course of a month, I’ll be earning only about 30% of what I used to.  And of course that’s with no benefits.

And yet despite the belt tightening on my bank account, and in spite of the recent ups and downs of my recent forays,  I’d estimate I’m about one thousand percent happier and more satisfied than I was at this time a year ago.  Would that my satisfaction level could magically pay my utility and insurance bills, and all’s well that would end well.  I’m fighting going into debt with every responsible fiber of my being, but as this amusing (and eerily accurate) articleGeneration X Gets Really Old: How Do Slackers Have a Midlife Crisis?says, “maybe midlife is about figuring out how to accept the limitations.”

Or maybe it’s just about staying afloat the best way we know how, while swimming through and then past all the fish poop in the water. 

Now where did I put my water wings and nose plug…

Dory

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

A Week In The Life

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“Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains, let me remember thee what thou hast promised, which is not yet perform’d me.” ~William Shakespeare (Henry IV, Part I – II, iii)

Seven weeks into my nine-week internship, I thought it might be interesting to document a week in the life of a floral design company intern…give you a glimpse into the daily toils that take place behind the scenes in order to make the magic happen, as it were.  And as I begin to write this post, it serves another purpose – to prop my eyelids open and keep me awake until I have to report back to work for a late-night cleanup at 10:45 PM tonight. 

(Work schedule background: usually we work 9:00-6:00, but some days are shorter, some longer, for reasons described below. Most days that I work at the floral company, I start the day by waking at 5:45 AM and doing an hour on the treadmill before getting ready for the day; the only days I don’t do this are when I know I’ll be doing a late-night cleanup and need all the sleep I can get to prepare.)

Alright, so here’s the Sunday-to-Sunday lowdown on the inside scoop of working for a high-end floral design company (specifically, this past week, which has been pretty challenging)…including what it looks like when a bride spends $15,000 just on her wedding flowers.  Yes, $15,000 – that’s not a typo. 

SundaySundays are anything but relaxing in the floral world; they are usually heavy-duty clean-up & prep days.  On this day, I:

  • Traveled back to Saturday’s venue site in one of the company vans with coworkers;
  • Unloaded dozens of empty boxes and crates and carried them back into the venue;
  • Loaded and re-packed the dozens of vases (and the flowers), candles, candlesticks, candle pillar vases and all other materials back into their boxes/crates and into the van;
  • Unscrewed hundreds of mini-light bulbs from the bistro-style string light cords and placed them back in their cases (I only broke one);
  • Upon arrival back at the studio, unloaded everything to bring it back inside;
  • Threw away used candles, stored away the votive containers;
  • Sorted through all the leftover flowers to pick out the good ones to arrange for a wedding planner’s photo-shoot request and threw away most of the rest;
  • Cleaned and packed up the vases and candlesticks for pick-up post-honeymoon by the bride (they were her containers that she provided, which is not common as we usually use our own containers);
  • Windexed dozens of candle pillar vases and other glassware for next use and stored away;
  • Swept the floral studio at least twice and took out several full garbage cans;
  • “Pulled” (got out of storage and set aside for use) materials for upcoming weddings, which can include vases, containers, ribbon, candles, etc.;
  • Cut flower foam (“oasis”) to fit vases/compotes for the next weekend’s arrangements;
  • Helped to label and set out over 100 buckets (in a small work space which used to be a two-car garage) for the next delivery of flowers, put powdered flower food in each one, and filled with water from the hose outside (this takes FOREVER by the way);
  • Made several paper flowers to use for wall decor in the newly-renovated “bridal bathroom” at company HQ;
  • Participated in company brainstorming/planning meeting for a styled professional photo shoot the following week using leftover flowers from one of the weddings.
  • I worked the full 9:00-6:00 day this day.

Monday & Tuesday – OFF! (But not really, I work at my other job on my days off, so…)

Wednesday – Wednesdays are flower-shipment receiving/prep days. On this day I:

  • Opened & unpacked many cartons of flowers that were shipped to the studio (which by the way are usually NOT packed in water; rather they are dry-packed with sealed bags of ice and water just tucked in around the stems, and remain this way for sometimes up to two weeks from the time they’re cut by the grower to the time they finally arrive at the designer’s or shop – it’s amazing isn’t it?!);
  • Removed (by hand) all foliage/leaves from the lower parts of stems (the part that will be underwater) and then cut the stems from many dozens of flower bunches before putting them (still bundled) in the water buckets; this can take a very long time for each bunch, especially for the very thorny roses;
  • Swept the floral studio at least three times and took out several full garbage cans.
  • Worked 9:00-12:00 this day and then left to work at my other job for the second half of the day (ate lunch in the car on the way).

Thursday

  • Removed all remaining leaves and foliage from all the flowers (by hand) and unbundled the packages of roses and other flowers for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday weddings.  This is extremely tedious and took several hours even with many of us working on the task.  (You will rarely see any leaves on any roses or other flowers used in wedding floral arrangements unless requested – otherwise those stems are as naked as we can get them…)
  • Made two bridesmaid’s bouquets for Friday’s wedding: 

    photo-6 (2)

    One of the bouquets I made.

  • Wrapped all the bouquets in ribbon and attached with pins;
  • Attached “bling” (clip on crystal earrings that remind me of my grandmother) to tall stemmed votive cups wrapped in champagne-colored chiffon ribbon;
  • Made 15 boutonnieres for one of the Saturday weddings; this involves putting together very small pieces of foliage and small flower buds (in this case we used astilbe, silver brunia and scabiosa buds), wrapping them with floral tape, and then wrapping them with ribbon; 

    This is silver brunia - it's a weird but textural foliage with silver gray buds and alien-like tentacles.

    This is silver brunia – it’s a weird but textural foliage with silver gray buds and alien-like tentacles.

  • Continued to “pull” and prep materials for the weekend’s weddings;
  • Swept the floral studio at least four times and took out several full garbage cans.
  • I worked the full 9:00-6:00 day this day.

Friday

  • Made several large “drape-y” centerpieces for one of the Saturday weddings; making each one of these can take 30 minutes or more each.  You have to check the list of what goes in each one, pull those flowers & foliage from the buckets, cut each flower & foliage piece to size, then arrange it in the foam and container accordingly.
  • Made more centerpieces for the other Saturday wedding, this time in trios of gold-leafed compote vases;
  • Wrapped more bouquets in more ribbon, attached with more pins;
  • Accompanied small team to the Friday wedding venue to deliver those flowers & set up; for me this involved delivering the bouquets and boutonnieres/corsages, placing centerpieces and candles on all the tables, etc.  It was an easy set-up, compared to most.
  • Returned to floral studio and began making centerpieces for one of the Saturday weddings; each of the 15 or so centerpieces was a trio of mint julep containers, and each was to get a certain number of different flowers and foliage.  The easiest way to do this is to assembly-line it: foliage first, then hydrangea, then we each take a flower type and start placing them: cherry brandy roses, pink spray roses, rococo tulips, mango calla lilies.  When there are a lot of these, it can take quite a while – and takes a lot of space for all those containers.  Which we don’t have.  We are literally tripping over each other, floral buckets, already-made arrangements, boxes of materials, and trash cans all day long.
  • As arrangements get made and flowers get used up, I consolidate the remaining flowers into fewer buckets and haul heavy buckets outside to empty the water; I can do this a dozen times a day, easily.  I keep waiting for my back to go out as I’m in the process of dumping a bucket in the rosemary for the 500th time.
  • Swept the floral studio at least five times and took out several full garbage cans (on a day like today when we are prepping for three more weddings, the floor of the studio quickly becomes a mish-mosh carpet of stems, leaves, petals and trash as we just rapidly cut and discard, cut and discard…the trash cans fill up within minutes sometimes and the rest of it goes on the floor…);
  • Examined multiple boxes of crystal candelabra parts to make sure intact and ready for Saturday wedding, load into van;
  • This day we all worked an hour later than scheduled to try to finish most of Saturday’s arranging, so I worked 9:00-7:00.

Saturday (I’m tired just remembering this one. I make it a point on Saturdays to caffeine up at Starbucks, wear moisture-wicking material and apply extra deodorant, but it seems to be a losing battle.)

  • Allowed myself to sleep in until 7:00 because I estimated I wouldn’t get home until 2:00 AM this day; two big weddings today, both downtown, and flowers still need to be made for Sunday’s wedding.  I’m on duty for the biggest one – the one where the bride has spent $15,000 on her flowers.  Extra help is called in today from two ex-staffers to manage the madness, bringing the total team number to eight.
  • Helped load two vans for each of the two weddings with supplies, materials and rental equipment.  Flowers won’t go until later, closer to the wedding start times.  Headed downtown for Trip #1 to wedding site to begin set up:
    • Unloaded all items from vans to carry up to third floor wedding site, either by narrow, un-air-conditioned staircase or in tiny, slow service elevator (which we use only when have heavy items on a dolly/hand truck).  I’m guessing that between five of us at this site, we make approximately 8 trips each up/down.  The sound of my crunching knees up and down the stairs provides a consistent and cheery soundtrack to the team’s manual labor marathon. 
    • Assembled ten lead crystal candelabras, which come in 12 pieces per carton and cost over $400 apiece.  Then you have to attach votive cups to the arms and place the candles in each cup.  This takes quite a while for each one, as you have to work extremely carefully and gingerly (or least you do if you’re a clutz like me). 

      Crystal candelabra in process of being assembled.

      Crystal candelabra in process of being assembled.

    • Placed dozens of votive cups with candles around the ballroom and ceremony site;
    • Headed back to floral studio, scarfed lunch down in a brief 15-minute break;
  • Loaded both vans up with all flowers and remaining materials for Trip #2 to wedding site:
    • On the trip down, in the van, wrote out all the corsage and boutonniere ID tags (this makes me slightly carsick);
    • Couldn’t use dollies this time to transport crushable flowers, which means carrying all the heavy crates and bins full of arrangements up the three flights of stairs.  Did I mention the stairs are un-air-conditioned?  (It should be a crime in Austin for ANY publicly used space to not be air-conditioned.)
    • Filled up huge four-foot tall hurricane vases with water up to the brim, for centerpieces (this means filling up the watering can about twenty times in the ladies bathroom and going back and forth to fill the vases on tables, as the vases are too big and would be too heavy to carry if you filled them up in the kitchen first);
    • Placed all those centerpiece trios of mint juleps and gold compotes on all the reception tables and other areas; refill with water to make sure flowers thrive and survive (my only real mistake of the night came at this point, when I accidentally tipped over a vase and all the water spilled out and completely soaked an entire cocktail table’s rented linen…I tried to soak some of it up but then left it to evaporative nature and the wedding planner to deal with);
    • Affixed all the ID tags to corsages and boutonnieres to give to wedding planner; the most uncomfortable moment of the afternoon comes when I have to walk my odoriferous bedraggled self into the room of perfectly manicured groomsmen and ushers to deliver them to her.  Eye-contact is avoided at all costs as I scurry out.
    • Tucked the “blinged” stemmed votive cups and regular candles amongst draping liquid money (otherwise known as Phalaenopsis orchids) on the fireplace mantle in the ceremony ballroom and light them just before the “First Look” photo moment (don’t get me started on that).
    • Loaded all empty boxes/containers to take back down the stairs to vans, head back to floral studio.  It’s 5:30 PM – we get to go home now for a few hours before late night cleanup.  I take a shower (the best shower of the whole week), eat dinner, watch an episode of The Office to decompress, and start this blog.
  • Left my house in a torrential rainstorm, arrived at floral HQ at 10:45 PM call time to find one of the vans has gotten stuck in the mud and we can’t get it out.  We unload the van of some of the heavier items in hopes that will help, but it doesn’t.  We try to pull it out using a truck, but the tow strap snaps from the force.  It’s for the other team, and they leave it behind, taking a personal car instead.  Our team heads down to our site for Trip #3:
    • The rain gratefully seems to abate as we arrive at the hotel.  We unload and carry up all those empty cartons, crates and boxes to load everything up.  The wedding reception is still going in full force, but the ceremony room has been emptied and we use this as a staging area to start bringing things in to pack up.
    • This is one of the most bizarre parts of cleanups to me; we try to dart inconspicuously between guests to gather up candles and flowers and vases, gently pushing the sea of empty beer bottles and drink glasses aside as we go and skirting around wobbly-heeled dancing women.  No one ever acknowledges us or says anything to us; it’s as if we’re this weirdly invisible force of hunters and gatherers, and our camouflage is the spirits-induced blurry vision of the patrons.  We’re not the only ones; hotel staff is stacking chairs and pulling linens, musicians are packing up instruments, but the hangers-on are determined to look through us in order to party past their allotted time.
    • I spend almost an hour disassembling all those lead crystal candelabras, packing them back up, and wrapping each votive cup in packing material to protect them. 
    • As we take the first loads back down to the vans, it starts raining again – pouring, actually.  And the service alley that we’re parked in has become a river, for this is where the roofs of the hotel and neighboring buildings drain: we sludge through several inches of water on the ground and walk under waterfalls pouring off the roof to get the materials to the vans.  We quickly all look as if we just crawled out of a swimming pool.  We have to carry and load dozens of cartons, huge wooden risers, crates of flowers, and everything we took in the previous two trips back into the vehicles.
    • We head back to the floral studio to unload all of the flowers in the van – we’re using them for a styled photo shoot on Monday and we have to save them.  The heavier huge centerpieces that were setting on top of the hurricane vases weigh about 50 pounds each and there are seven of them to carry inside, plus all the other smaller centerpieces we brought back.
    • We finish unloading at 1:30 AM.  I get home at 1:45 AM.  I fall into bed at 2:00 AM.  And then by some cruel joke of the “clean-up second wind” phenomenon, I lie there awake for another hour, unable to sleep even though I’m exhausted, and every muscle aches, and my head pounds from dehydration.

Sunday  – Oh Sunday, how I used to relish thee…now I just dread you and your clean-up requirements.  We arrived back at floral HQ just a few short hours later at 11:00 AM as required.  The van is finally unstuck from the mud.  We take all the vans back to the floral studio where I:

  • Unload several trips worth of flowers from the other Saturday wedding, vases, greenery, supplies, buckets, and rental equipment;
  • Toss used candles and store votive cups;
  • Throw away leftover flowers from the other Saturday wedding;
  • Windex many glass vases tall and small;
  • Scraped wax out of the candelabra votive cups with a kitchen knife and loaded them into the dishwasher;
  • Begin disassembling the 50-pound centerpieces to sort them into flower-specific containers for use in Monday’s photo shoot;
  • Delivered all flowers and rental materials for the Sunday wedding to the venue site and along with a coworker, set everything up; I did not make any of these flower arrangements, they were made on Saturday by one of the extra staffers that was brought in to help while the other teams were setting up.  It was thankfully a smaller job with not many arrangements or materials.
  • Swept the floral studio at least twice and took out several full garbage cans;
  • Hobbled home at 6:15 PM to collapse on the couch.

Whew – so there you go.  I’m afraid 95% of it isn’t very glamorous at all, despite the outward flowery appearance of the wedding industry.  Most of it is dirty, sweaty, manual labor.  It’s crawling in and out of vans over and over, it’s lifting and carrying and packing and unpacking (and this wedding described above was the first one in seven weeks where we used the dollies/hand trucks, prior to this weekend we carried every single thing by hand no matter how heavy).  And I only get to actually “make” flowers (arrangements) one day a week usually, although I understand this is the nature of the floral work week that revolves around a wedding.  There is much more to the floral industry that does not revolve around weddings, and I also hope to experience and learn about some of those other opportunities as well as time goes on.

There are also a LOT of flower items that have been made by the more experienced staffers during my internship that I’ve wished I could observe and try my hand at – like those 50-pound massive centerpieces, floral head wreaths, huge foliage tree-type arrangements that are built on-site, floral cake decorations, garlands, and bridal bouquets, to name a few.  Most of the time however, it was just so crazy-busy with me assigned to do so many other duties that I didn’t get to observe how those items are made or have the chance to try them myself.  The learning aspect was unfortunately and significantly overshadowed by the sheer labor requirements, at least during this experience.  Maybe it will be different in the future with other outlets…we’ll see.

I haven’t forgotten that I promised you pictures of the wedding I worked on and described above, so here you go.  Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like when the client spends $15,000 on their wedding flowers & table designs:

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photo 5-5 (2)

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What do you think?  It looked beautiful, but it sure was a ton of work. 

And with that I’m off to work again – most of those flowers you see above are being used again today in our styled publicity photo shoot.  It’s rare for wedding flowers to get to serve a dual purpose; usually it’s just a sad toss into the trash bin, so I’m glad we got to save these ones.  Eleven more work days left in this internship – I’m taking wagers on how many more times I get to sweep the studio floor and empty the trash cans in that time.  Winner may just get a free bouquet of flowers, on me.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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