16 December 2006

O &@#$% Christmas Tree!

The annual ritual of getting and decorating a Christmas tree goes a long way toward imbuing me with holiday spirit. Over here at the Some Assembly Required household, we have achieved 2006's tree, but it wasn't easy. We are what my grandparents' generation would have called a "mixed marriage"--I'm of the Christian persuasion, the Mrs. is not. However, this is not a source of conflict: neither of us is religiously observant, and she does not mind having a Christmas tree in the house because its origins are pagan, and because it makes the house smell good ("Like a giant air freshener," she says, and it's true).

But the Mrs. is (understandably) not enthused about being involved in choosing a tree, bringing it home, or decorating it. In past years I could walk to a nearby park, where a local organization set up a tree sales lot every year, and with the help of another person, could carry the tree back to my house on foot in about ten minutes. But
you may remember that we moved several months ago, so that's no longer an option. I could not find a similar setup anywhere near our new home, so I enlisted the help of a friend. Last Tuesday after work we went to the nearby Home Depot, where they had lots and lots of trees, most for the reasonable price of $30. They cut the trunk, they put it through that funky machine that encases it in a net bag, they helped us tie it to the roof of the car. (Thanks, Home Depot person named Liz.)

But when we got back to the house with the tree, I discovered that in the process of moving, I had ethier misplaced or discarded my tree stand. I'm honestly not sure which, and I can't find any conclusive evidence to support either possibility. But it's fairly large, so there are only a few boxes it could have been in, and it wasn't in any of them. I figured it would be a simple task to just go out and get another one. Yeah, right.

Over the course of the next three days (keeping in mind I had to fit these trips around other silly stuff like working and sleeping), I went to the following places, none of which had any tree stands: one Brooks Drug
; two Walgreens (quite possibly the most depressing and useless stores on the planet); three different CVS stores (they had one advertised in their flyer, but I never saw one); Kmart (where I actually found a helpful human who told me they'd sold out), Bed Bath & Beyond (a long shot, I know); a Christmas Tree Shop (oh, the irony--isn't this why they exist?); the Home Depot where I'd purchased the tree (they had only outdoor decorations). By the way, all this time my tree was sitting in the garage, wondering what it had done wrong to be punished in this way.

Finally on Saturday, I knew I had to interrupt my regularly scheduled holiday shopping to find a stand before my head exploded. I know I should have just gone to Target, but the buses only run once an hour, so it's a tedious and somewhat out-of-the-way trip. So I decided to think strategically about where I would be most likely to find one. I ended up at the Central Square branch of a locally-owned store called Economy Hardware. They're a kind of one-stop shop for college living; in addition to all the regular hardware goodies, they carry everything from unfinished pine dressers to toaster ovens. And, mercifully, holiday decorations and accessories. As a bonus for running all over greater Boston, it was 40% off.

The Mrs. was kind enough to give me a hand getting the tree in the house and into the stand. We did that yesterday, but after being wrapped up for so long, I knew it would need at least a full day for the branches to fall open, so the decorating is going to take place tonight, perhaps while watching Monday Night Football (in our house, we root for the Patriots and whichever team is playing the Colts). After everything I went through, I'm thinking of keeping it up as long as it survives. Valentine's tree?

Now, to get working on those cards...

13 December 2006

Sneaker Flashback

Remember the 80's? Sure, who could forget? All those crazy fashions that (of course) are coming back. One thing that never really went away, but dropped below the fashion radar, was black sneakers in general and black Reeboks in particular.

The Ex-O-Fit (available in both low and high versions) was marketed to men as a general fitness shoe (years before "cross-trainers"). Not a running shoe, not a tennis shoe, not a basketball shoe. Just a general casual athletic shoe. Pure marketing genius. They were/are also made in white, but the black ones were much cooler. Just about everybody wore them; the women's version (which had come out first), called Freestyle, was marketed as an aerobics shoe.

I recently stumbled across the Ex-O-Fit at the web site Shoes.com. I don't think I had ever looked at the site before. It's a lot like Zappos and ShoeBuy: lots of brands, everything at pretty much list price, free shipping both ways in case you need to exchange for a different size.

But I didn't end up buying the Ex-O-Fits. Even though I like the overall design, I was on the fence about them because of a couple of small style details (typical). Then I found another classic, though less popular, Reebok style on the same site that had also been around since the 80's and was also available in black: the NPC tennis shoe. I had owned a pair of white NPC's and had really liked them, not least because they're almost entirely devoid of unnecessary detail. Some people would say that makes them boring; I say that makes them subtle. I've never liked the busy, overdone look of modern sneakers anyway.

I didn't know they were still available in any color, so I was pleased to see them and decided I needed a pair in black. But I have to be honest: I'm having a little buyer's remorse. I kind of wish I'd gotten the Ex-O-Fits after all. Maybe it's just nostalgia. Maybe I'll buy them anyway.

07 December 2006

Strategic Shopping

Sorry for my absence--I had a couple of days off and spent much of it shopping. The Northshore Mall was busy on Tuesday afternoon, but not unbearable. It got me thinking about how I approach holiday shopping. I genuinely enjoy the holiday season, but the pressures of gift giving (and the infernal music in the stores) have a way of taking a toll on even the most enthused shopper. That energy is better spent on other things; you need to keep your head about you and face the task with tactical efficiency. And so I'm offering my unsolicited advice on how to be a ruthless guerilla shopper:
  • It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that the biggest stress-saver is to shop online. If you plan ahead even a little, you can probably cross off at least half the items on your list.
  • If your goal is a specific item, use a web site like PriceGrabber to search for the best price. Even if you plan to buy it in person, it can guide you to the local store with the best price.
  • Solicit ideas from your family members and friends: if you aren't sure what someone likes or needs or wants, ask. Try to get several ideas so there's still some element of surprise. If you don't want to ask directly, talk to another person close to the recipient; chances are they've already heard some wishes. (I always quiz my mother about my brother and sister.)
  • Look for inspiration: ignore the displays of junky "gifts" in the stores. Flip through magazines and newspapers. Read web sites and gift guides. Check out what other people are buying.
  • Avoid the places that are most likely to give you agita, like toy stores. If you need a gift from such a place, it can almost certainly be found online easily enough, and probably for less money.
  • Go to malls or big stores at odd hours. Early or late is best, and most stores have extended hours to accommodate strategic shoppers like yourself. Maybe you can squeeze in a stop at the mall before going to work, or do a late-night run.
  • Set a time limit so you don't exhaust yourself. Wear good walking shoes and drink water.
  • Divide and conquer: two can shop more efficiently than one.
  • Shop smaller, local stores: you are more likely to be inspired by the less-common items you'll find there.
  • Buy something for yourself. Yes, that's right. No one ever gets everything they want, so choose something and treat yourself. You deserve it. We all do.

02 December 2006

Guilty Pleasure of the Week: Ellen

(Yes, I stole this idea from Sidekick. If they want me to stop, they'll have to notice me first.)

I've never been one to watch daytime TV. Not in a few decades, at least. Sure, as a preschooler I can vaguely remember watching soap operas with my mother, and a few years later I used my younger sister as an excuse to watch Sesame Street for a while (until PBS started The Electric Company, which was geared more to kids my own age). A few more years down the line, I watched my share of Speed Racer and Gilligan's Island reruns on channel 56 in the afternoons after school, on a black-and-white TV in the bedroom I shared with my brother. But after age 12 or 13, I just wasn't interested anymore, plus I was starting to get more homework and needed that time to get it done. Even now, I wouldn't turn on the TV during the day, unless it was to check the weather. But then something happened.

Because of my work schedule, I'm usually home on Fridays. Our dog has a bed in the living room, and
when one or both of us is home it's where she spends most of her day, dozing in various funny positions. One Friday morning a few weeks ago, I turned on the TV to check the weather and noticed that, even though she never looks at the screen, the dog seemed to find the sound soothing, so I left it on and went to do some laundry.

When I came back into the room a while later, Ellen was on. I thought I had left the TV on New England Cable News, which is one channel above the channel that shows Ellen. I was about to change it back, but Ellen was showing pictures of herself, head shots from earlier phases of her career, and making fun of her clothes and hairstyles ("Check out that mullet!"). I didn't sit down, but I watched the rest of the segment. Since then I've seen a couple of other snippets, including Hugh Jackman performing a magic trick. I've never seen an entire show, but I've certainly enjoyed the bits and pieces I have seen.

I won't be making a point to watch it when I'm home, and I won't be setting my TiVo to record it, but I can appreciate it for what it is: entertaining daytime television. I always thought Ellen DeGeneres was a petty funny comedian, but I've also always been skeptical of the trend of celebrities attempting to do talk shows. Look at the track record; the list of "personalities" whose shows (daytime and nighttime) have failed is long: Chevy Chase, Dennis Miller, Jane Pauley, Magic Johnson. I didn't think Ellen's show would be any different, but it is, because she's such a natural entertainer, and I think that makes a huge difference.

29 November 2006

Crazy Gadgets Dept.

Holy hell, I love finding stuff like this. Manscaping gone mad! How'd you like to get one of these for Christmas? And remember, gifts say as much about the giver as they do about the recipient...

28 November 2006

And We're Back...

...after a brief holiday break filled with food, folks, and fun (is it copyright infringement if they're no longer using it?).

It was great to see everyone at my godson's third birthday party on Saturday. The battery in our camera was dead and we lamely couldn't get our act together to get a new one in time for the party, so the only pictures I have are in my phone. Since my provider intentionally cripples the Bluetooth in its phones, I can't send them wirelessly to my computer, and I'm not going to give them the satisfaction of paying to email them to myself, so sorry, no pix. But if you were there, you know how cute he is.

Regular programming will resume shortly...

22 November 2006

Black Friday Blackout

With my evident enthusiasm for shopping, you might assume I'd be one of those people lining up somewhere in the predawn chill this Friday, aching to get my hands on a "doorbuster."

Not a chance.

When I was young, like in my teens, I would indeed venture to the mall the day after Thanksgiving to start my Christmas shopping. But I never got out of bed before the sun was up to do it. (Actually, back then the stores didn't open early like they do now.) And I'm not about to start now. Why not? Numerous reasons: I don't like crowds. It's probably going to be cold. I like sleeping. I don't have kids, and toys are often the items that are offered at special prices for those few precious hours. But probably the most important reason: there's nothing I need badly enough to make me haul my ass out of bed in the dark and cold, the morning after stuffing myself into oblivion, on a day I don't have to get up for work, to queue up to worship at the altar of commerce.

(By the way, if you are into this sort of thing, this web site might be useful.)

I don't understand why people do this. I don't understand a lot of things people do: I don't understand why people would travel all the way to Italy to stand outside a hotel hoping to get a distant glimpse of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I don't understand why people flat-out worship Oprah. I don't understand why people shop at Wal-Mart, or eat at Olive Garden, or watch Ghost Whisperer. And because I don't understand the reasons, I reflexively look down on those
people and assume they are losers who need a life. Does that make me a cynic and a curmudgeon? Yup. A Northeast, liberal, elitist snob? I sure hope so, because that means I'm automatically disqualified from participating in the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.

What I might do on Friday is go check out the Tower Records liquidation sale, which has finally reached discount levels that make it worth a look. Late in the afternoon, though, or at night, when things have died down a little.

And to everyone out there, especially my friends: Happy Thanksgiving. For real, no cynicism.

21 November 2006

Vile Media Whore Dept.

I didn't have any intention of mentioning this subject, but I just read this bit in Gregg Easterbrook's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" column on ESPN.com and thought it was a very apt take on the situation:

"And in sad, nauseating news, O.J. Simpson has confessed. There is no way on God's green Earth an innocent man, falsely accused, could put his name on a book in which he 'imagines' what it 'would' have been like to cut a helpless woman's throat. His acquittal might protect Simpson from jail, but it no longer protects his honor; Simpson himself has voided that by doing something that only a guilty man would even contemplate. Maybe at this point Simpson belongs in a treatment facility for the criminally insane--but he does not belong in the Hall of Fame or on the wall at Ralph Wilson Stadium. His bust must immediately be removed from Canton and his name pulled down from that place of respect. Take a crowbar to them today. The fact that Fox and its publishing subsidiary just canceled the book and associated television show does not create any excuse for the National Football League. Any other course other than the removal of Simpson's bust from the Hall and his name from the stadium wall will put the NFL in a state of disgrace. Once the bust and the name are gone, sandblast the areas to get the filth off."

Will it happen? Probably not. But it's nice to contemplate.

Premature Turkulation?

So I just went to get lunch, and I was thinking--is it weird to want turkey so close to T-day? (Yeah, my mind is on food a lot this week--so what?) I typically get a turkey sandwich about once a week. Of course, most places don't serve actual turkey that's been carved off a bird, but rather some processed lunch meat-type stuff, but it still originates from a bird so it should still count as turkey. But eating this sandwich won't dull my enthusiasm; come Thursday I'll be digging into the white meat and all the goodies that go with it. (And yes, I do like the cranberry sauce that comes in a can--so what?)

It's not like it's one of those disgusting sandwiches some places offer with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and even cranberry sauce, either on bread or in a wrap. I'm not making this up; I've seen this abomination recently, I just can't remember where. If you've seen this sandwich, which I think is usually called a "Gobbler," help me out.

19 November 2006

Monsters of Moo

One excellent perk that goes along with shopping for furniture at the Jordan's Furniture location in Reading, MA is that the store has a satellite location of Richardson's Ice Cream. Richardson's has been a Massachusetts favorite for decades and part of a family dairy farming heritage that goes back over three centuries. They raise the cows that make the milk that makes the ice cream. At any given time they have around 50 flavors at the main location in Middleton, MA (some are seasonal, like pumpkin and apple crisp for fall), while the Jordan's location has about 40.

Over the course of our furniture-buying odyssey, we made several visits to Jordan's, and each time we topped it off with ice cream. My current favorite is Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Twirl. The peanut butter tastes homemade to me; I should have asked if it is. The Mrs. keeps getting Toll House, which is vanilla ice cream with pieces of baked chocolate chip cookies. We're now at the point where we wil drive to the store just to get ice cream; it's that good. Fortunately the folks at Richardson's are smart enough to package their ice cream in quarts and half-gallons, so we don't have to keep going back. But we probably will anyway.

18 November 2006

Drawer Space

My wife's interest in a new dresser came out of the blue, as she hadn't said anything about it. In fact, it wasn't until a couple of days after we'd been to the furniture store that she mentioned it. We hadn't even looked in the bedroom section. But to be fair, the dresser she was using had been mine, and long before that it had been my father's, so she was overdue for an upgrade. I suggested we go back to the store.

I was a little surprised when she started looking at pieces that were not even close to our existing bedroom furniture in style or finish. She explained that her primary interest was getting the greatest possible amount of drawer space, and appearance was secondary. I should have anticipated this, because it's how her mind works in general. She spent an hour with a tape measure and a piece of paper, roughing out capacities in cubic inches, while I just sort of stood around, wondering how she could completely ignore aesthetics. Occasionally she asked my opinion of something, but I had the feeling it didn't really matter what I thought.

We went home; this had been merely an exploratory mission. Several weeks went by. Eventually I asked her if she had been thinking about choosing a dresser. She said she had, but she needed to go back to reconsider the various styles she'd noted on the previous visit. I understood this to mean it was finally time to consider appearance as a factor in the decision. Back we went. This time it wasn't as tedious, because she'd already narrowed the choices. The second look was eye-opening for her; once looks and style became part of the equation, I think she was a little surprised (and I was relieved) at how much she disliked some of the styles she had been interested in previously. (I tend to do the opposite: aesthetics first, function second.)

In the end, there was really only one good choice, and it happened to coordinate nicely with the pieces we already had. Of course it was out of stock, and the expected delivery time was five to eight weeks. But it turned out it took only three weeks before it was in stock, and it was delivered a week ago. Now, if I can just get the Mrs. to start putting her clothes into it...

15 November 2006

Get Comfortable

One of the great things about moving, from the perspective of someone who loves to shop (that would be me), is that you have a built-in excuse for buying new stuff. In our case that meant primarily items related to more effficient use of the storage space available to us. But eventually we arrived at the point where we had to consider some new furniture items.

Now, people who know me know that I frickin' LOVE furniture shopping. I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I definitely like being comfortable and being surrounded by nice things. I like going to the stores and seeing all the different styles available. I like sitting in sofas and chairs and imagining how things would look in my home. I like the idea that the pieces I choose are on display in my home, and that my choices communicate my style to my guests.

Beyond all the aesthetic reasons, furniture is so expensive relative to most things we buy that it triggers the need to feel like you're getting a good deal while still buying something of quality that is going to last and serve you well, which ties in very nicely with the bargain-hunting impulse that I've cultivated for more than two decades.

But you don't want to take that too far, or you can end up furnishing your entire home (if you happen to live in the northeastern part of the country) with cheap, scary stuff from the
Christmas Tree Shops. Don't get me wrong, "The Tree" is useful for mundane household things (just ask my mother), but their furniture selection is limited and of questionable quality and taste. Besides, do you really want to have to assemble every single piece of furniture you own? I actually love putting stuff together, but It's nice to feel that you've reached a point in your life where you can buy something that's fully assembled, and will be delivered for you, instead of having to recruit (and bribe) your buddies to help you fetch it.

This is the frame of mind we were in when we set out in search of a new TV stand and coffee table. (The table got back-burnered in favor of a new and larger dresser for my wife, but we'll get back to it eventually.) The item I was looking to replace was a
piece of wood-grained, particle-board crap that my roommate Sandra and I had bought for about $30 some time around '89 or '90 at the now-defunct discount store Bradlees. (What's really frightening is that, even though Bradlees went bankrupt and closed all its stores years ago, the company that made the TV stand still sells basically the exact same style of stand with a slightly different finish. Yikes.)

Why it was still holding up my television nearly two decades later is a question I can't give a satisfactory answer to, but I decided that after we had moved I was going to replace it. The Mrs. wanted to shop at Jordan's Furniture if possible, because they do a lot of great work in support of local adoption and foster-parent programs, so off we went to the insanely large indoor amusement park that is the newest Jordan's store, in Reading, MA, a few miles north of where we live. We had no trouble finding several styles we liked, but nothing really wowed either of us, so we agreed to keep looking.

Around the time we started shopping, we hit 20,000 points in our American Express rewards program, and I wanted to see if we could cash in those points toward the imminent purchase. I found we could indeed get a $100 AmEx gift card for the 20K points, but if we chose a gift card for a particular store, the same number of points would get us $200. Unfortunately AmEx offers only national retailers' gift cards, so we would have to look elsewhere. I happened across Crate & Barrel's Cadence plasma stand and was immediately attracted to its clean lines and warm finish. It was made
in the US of real wood, was on sale, and we could get a $200 Crate & Barrel gift card from American Express to put toward the purchase. Beyond all that, I'm gearing up to get a new TV, and it's wide enough to hold up to a 50" plasma or projection set. Sold!

14 November 2006

Movin' On Up, Part 2

Having committed to move, we knew the toughest task was going to be de-crapping our life of a great deal of excess stuff. Fortunately, we had over two months between lease-signing and moving day to get it done. Eleven years is a long time to live in one place, and we had a lot of stuff we had accumulated during that time that fell into the category of "excess."

A quick trip down to the basement served as a rude reminder that when we'd moved into the house in 1995 there was a lot of stuff that had been indiscriminately dumped down there and had never been seen or heard from again, so in 2006 it probably wasn't very important to us. The new apartment had ample basement storage, but it would be stupid to move a bunch of stuff we didn't care about just to stash it in another basement. Some people are very good at weeding unnecessary stuff out of their lives on a regular basis, but sadly my wife and I are not among those people. So it was very emotionally healthy for us to have to assess
and cull our belongings in preparation for the move.

Of course when moving day was a few days away, we still weren't where we needed to be, but is anyone ever totally ready to move? (Probably those same people who weed out their unnecessary stuff on a regular basis.) The movers were due at 7:30 AM, so there we were at 6 AM on moving day, making a massive trash pile out of stuff we no longer wanted or needed, couldn't manage to give away, or that was just in such poor shape it was destined for the trash anyway. To be sure, I would have preferred not to throw away so much, but sometimes it's inevitable.

We hired Father & Son Moving, based on their estimate and the fact that the Mrs. had used them for a work-related move. When they arrived (on time) they couldn't get the truck into our dead-end street because of a car parked on the corner. One of the movers went to the nearest house; the owner was home, but the car had no gas. She was willing to go and get some, but for whatever reason, she couldn't do it until later in the day. The movers decided the best course of action was for them to do their other scheduled job for that day first, then come back to us. That was actually a good thing for us, because it gave us several more hours to finish packing (like I said, we just aren't those people...). The car was moved, the movers got the truck into the street and did a terrific job, and
eventually (before dark) we were in our new home.

13 November 2006

Enjoy Dessert, Help Others

It's time for a holiday-related public-service announcement. During the Thanksgiving season I like to support the organization Community Servings. From their web site: "Community Servings is Greater Boston’s free, home-delivered meals program for individuals and families ill with HIV/AIDS or other acute life-threatening illnesses."

Each year at this time, Community Servings sponsors a fundraising event called Pie in the Sky. Pies are baked by local chefs and sold at various locations around the city. The $25 contribution provides a week's worth of meals to one client. In case you need any further persuading, the pies are delicious.

You can order a pie online until November 16th, and select the location where you want to pick it up. I just ordered mine. I encourage everyone to support this very worthy cause, and get your Thanksgiving dessert at the same time.

06 November 2006

Not Fare

The public transit system here in the Boston area is operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or MBTA, but most people refer to it as the "T". This year the system is undergoing one of the most significant changes in its history, an updated fare collection system. Gone are the old-fashioned turnstiles into which riders would drop tokens (there was also a slot on top to read the magnetic strip on monthly passes). Riders no longer have to line up purchase tokens at a single fare booth in each station; multiple machines are being installed which sell fare cards that can be "refilled" with additional funds, and sturdier plastic passcards are scheduled to appear this month. (I'm still a little unclear on why they felt they needed two pass formats that do the same thing, and the explanation on the T's web site doesn't do much to clarify things.)

The transition is not yet complete, but about two-thirds of the stations have the new gates, and a similar system is being added to the T's buses. None of this matters to me, however, because I don't pay to ride the T. That's because, as I mentioned previously, I am legally blind, which entitles me to a special pass issued by the state's Commission for the Blind. I've had one of these passes for almost 20 years, and it's certainly been very useful, especially when I had a job about 25 miles from my home and I had to ride the commuter trains.

In the past I had to go to the token booth and show my pass, which has my picture on it, to the person inside, who would unlock the turnstile next to the booth to allow me to pass into the system. The new system is essentially replacing the token sellers inside the booths, so clearly I was going to need a new pass. Last winter I received a letter explaining that I would be getting a new pass with an embedded chip that would allow me to use the new system. I'd like to give credit to the T for handling this transition very well: I did not have to do anything. The pass was mailed to me well in advance of the new fare system's implementation.

After being shown how the pass worked (a panel on the turnstile "reads" the chip inside the ID card), I started carrying the pass and using it daily. One morning the turnstile area was more crowded than usual, and a mother with a couple of small kids and a stroller was attempting to go through the gate designated for wheelchairs (and the folks like me with special passes), because the wider gate made it easier for her to maneuver. Being a fast mover in general, and not wanting to miss the next train, I stepped to the side and pressed my pass against another turnstile. Nothing happened. I kind of guessed what was going on, and one of the T's "ambassadors" standing nearby confirmed it (none too politely, I might add): "You have to use the handicapped turnstile!"

Now, I want to be clear: I don't have an issue with being singled out as handicapped (though I can appreciate that there are those who might). I've lived with my disability my whole life, I'm fortunate in that it's not outwardly obvious and doesn't prevent me from leading a more or less normal life, and I do not have any special equipment such as a wheelchair that would require me to pass through the wider turnstile. But I feel there's a disparity in the system because, while
my pass (and presumably those of the other riders who have them) can be used only at that one special turnstile in each station for handicapped riders, any T rider can use the "special" gate.

I'm sure the percentage of riders with special passes must be very small relative to the total number of riders, but since my pass is permanent and does not have a stored value that needs to be refilled, what difference does it make which turnstile I use? In the interest of keeping things moving (and of fairness), it would be much more efficient and convenient to be able to pass through any turnstile. I could probably make the argument that it's discriminatory, because I honestly believe it is. I sent an email to the T's general manager and the manager of disability services asking about it, but I never received a response from either one.

01 November 2006

Images Not Available

Public transit, for all its flaws, makes it possible for me to live pretty independently, which is one of the main reasons I choose to live in a large metropolitan area. How does that converge with my shopping desires? Generally, pretty well. There are several decent malls and shopping areas within the city, and several more within the reach of the transit system. But those tend to be fairly well out in the suburbs, and getting there isn't always easy; often the trip involves multiple legs of travel on subway and bus. Frequently the final leg of the trip is a bus that runs only once an hour, so trips have to be timed carefully and can end up taking the better part of a day round-trip, even with good connections. So I tend to plan ahead, and usually have a specific reason for making the trip.

Of course, the internet gave us a new and convenient way to shop, one I love and take advantage of frequently. But I've found that often, the reason I'm making the trek to a mall is to see something in person that I've found online, but don't feel comfortable buying without examining in person. This is kind of silly if you stop to think about it, because it negates the supposed benefit of online shopping. But sometimes it's an item that needs to be touched (clothing), sometimes it's something that needs to be tried on (see my previous entry about shoes).

Some products just shouldn't be bought without a visual assessment (TVs, diamond rings). But the most typical reason I feel I need to go inspect something in person that I've seen online and am considering buying is...because the web site's pictures of it are so lousy, I can't make an informed decision. I spent some time working in e-commerce, so I know what I'm talking about: you can't skimp on the product presentation, verbal or visual.

Sadly, I have on occasion felt the need to send an email to an online retailer asking if there were any additional or better images of a specific product. The answer is inevitably the same: sorry, no. The most recent instance was when I was looking for a new messenger-style bag a couple of months ago. I found a leather one at Fossil that looked nice, but there was only one picture. I could click on it for a slightly enlarged version, but there was no picture of the back, and worse, no picture of the inside.
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. I'm not going to pay nearly $150 for something if I can't assess whether or not I think it's going to meet my needs. If I can't get a good enough look at it, and I can't see it in person anywhere, there's no way I'm going to buy it, no matter how interested I might be.

28 October 2006

Monsters of Falafel

I had planned to inaugurate my periodic random food coverage by discussing a bakery and its goodies, of which there are many above-average examples in my area. But lunch got in the way. Specifically, a place I go for lunch about once a week that made me decide it deserved to be my first food entry. I work in the Longwood Medical Area along with thousands of other people, and everyone has to eat. Sure, there's a McDonald's and a Subway, but these days folks often favor healthier and more diverse culinary choices.

Since 1979, a whole lot of them have been eating at Sami's Wrap & Roll. Originally Sami's operated out of a catering truck, then a stand on Longwood Avenue near Children's Hospital that was open around the clock (where I first encountered it, in the mid-1980s). The area's development eventually caused the stand to be moved to a spot just off Longwood near the corner of Avenue Louis Pasteur. Later they took a permanent indoor location in the food court of the Longwood Galleria building, but kept the stand open to better serve the area.

All the food at Sami's is first-rate, both healthy and delicious. But my favorite, the one I go back for again and again, is the "combo #1," falafel and tabooli (Sami's spelling). It's served with lettuce and tomato and tahini sauce. Couldn't be simpler, but the combination of those ingredients and flavors is nothing short of heavenly. And it's a big sandwich too, so it's really satisfying. The folks who work at Sami's are friendly, and they know people are busy so the food is served up quickly.

If you live or work in Boston, you owe it to yourself to try Sami's. If you do, you'll probably want to go back.

26 October 2006

Movin' On Up

The Mrs. and I moved several months ago, after living in the same place for almost 11 years. A lot of that was inertia: the rent was cheap and the apartment was comfortable and in a decent location. But it came at a price: an annoying, nosy, borderline-OCD landlord with too much time on her hands. And we couldn't have any pets. Mrs. SAR is quite the animal lover, and had been yearning for a pet to love for a long, long time.

I was the one who suggested it might be time to move. I liked the idea of having a dog, but I wasn't necessarily in a hurry. But beyond that reason, I was just tired of where we lived, and I thought a change of scenery would be good for us. I mean, when we moved there, Clinton was still in his first term, we weren't yet married, we didn't have cell phones--we didn't even have dial-up internet service.

Moving is a difficult enough undertaking, but finding the right place is just as trying a task, especially if you're renting and want to have a pet. Some property owners say their rentals are "pet-friendly" but don't really mean it. Some of them impose weight or size limits for dogs. Some of them want an additional security deposit. I don't necessarily think those things are unreasonable or unfair, but they make the process of finding a suitable home more difficult. We were lucky: we only looked at three apartments before we knew we'd found one we wanted to live in.

The first one was in a good location, but it was a cramped third-floor space, and everything was really old and worn. An adequate starving-grad-student place maybe, but not for us. The second, though in a somewhat less convenient location, was very clean and well-kept, but walking through the front door was like passing through a time portal: the entire apartment was straight out of the 1970s.

The dining room had pale green paneling and a classically baroque hanging light fixture; the bathroom had those tiny floor tiles and the old-style fluorescent light fixtures on either side of the mirror; but the kitchen was the worst. Gold-brown linoleum, brown paneling, and darker brown cabinets, topped by eye-searing yellow Formica countertops. Strangely, there was also a brand-new, gleaming black gas stove. The Mrs. summed it up by saying, "I couldn't stand having to get up and look at that every morning. I would just hate myself."

The guy had owned the place for a decade, and he obviously cared about the property, but I got the impression that he wasn't willing to forego a couple months' rent in order to renovate and modernize. But maybe I'm wrong; maybe he thought it was fine the way it was. The lesson we'd learned: if people don't bother to put pictures in their listings, there's usually a reason why. I have no doubt he found someone to rent the place. It just wasn't going to be us.

Then we went to see a place that did have some pictures in its listing. The owners had a baby, but no pets. They didn't seem too concerned about what sort of dog we might get. Their attitude toward a dog was basically, "Do what makes you happy, we trust you." That was refreshing. That, along with the fact that we really liked the apartment, was enough for us to make the decision. I said to my wife, "We can keep looking if you want, but I don't think we're going to find another place as nice as this one in the price range." We thought about it over the weekend, and submitted the application on Monday. Having found a place to live, we had to prepare to move, which meant contending with the accrual of stuff that comes with living in the same place for 11 years...

24 October 2006

Cold Comfort

You've probably already figured out that I do a fair bit of shopping at L.L. Bean. It's a New England thing; it's practically in the blood. At this time of year, people like me who live in the northern tier of the country start thinking about the coming winter, and about warmer clothing. I have a good parka for the serious winter weather, but around here you also need something for the in-between days. I have a field coat from Bean that I've had for years and love. It's a sort of weathered red, with a wool lining that is attached with buttons and can be removed (although I never removed the lining except when I needed to wash the coat). With appropriate layers, it's good down to about 40 degrees, maybe 35 if it's not windy. But it's cotton, so it's not much use if it's snowing hard or pouring.

Anyway, after many seasons of use, the cuffs of the thing have frayed to the point where I didn't feel right wearing it out in public anymore. I decided it was time to replace it. Bean stopped making the color a while back, and I don't care for any of the colors they're offering now, but I like the coat so much, I decided to try to find one in the same color on eBay. While it's true there's a ton of stuff on eBay, you can't always find exactly what you want. After a few weeks of fruitless auction browsing, I decided the color wasn't so important, and I would just buy one that was cheap and in good condition. I soon found one that was unworn, in a boring but innocuous khaki, that had no bids. I was able to get it for around $25 plus shipping, quite a bit less than the $120 they sell for new.

But I made a mistake. My old one was a tall, and I decided that wasn't important. I'm on the borderline between regular and tall, so I took a chance. But really, I should have known better, because I'd deliberately bought it in tall previously. Oddly enough, the length wasn't the problem; it was tolerable, but the overall fit was too tight through the shoulders and torso. It seems strange that that's what would be different, but with any more layers than just a shirt, I couldn't stand wearing the thing.

Later, when the new Bean store opened nearby (see "Cruel Shoes" below),
I went there and tried on both the regular and tall versions of the coat. The regular still felt wrong, but the surprise was that the tall was too big in those shoulder and torso areas; apparently they'd changed the cut at some point, and now neither one would work. I went back to eBay and bought a Woolrich coat, basically their version of the Bean garment. I took a chance, because I hadn't ever tried one on, and they aren't sold in many stores anyway, at least not around here. As it turned out, it fits just right, and I didn't even need a tall. As for the Bean coat, I'll probably try to resell it on eBay.

19 October 2006

Train in Vain

I thought it was time for me to talk about something other than clothing; I'm sure everyone who's bothering to read was getting pretty bored with my denim difficulties. You may have noticed that little string of non sequiturs above, under the title. All things I care about, all things I plan on covering here.

One of the defining facts of my life is that I am unable to drive. I've been extremely near-sighted since birth, and thus no DMV in its right mind would issue me a driver's license, and rightly so. So I depend on public transportation for most aspects of my daily life. In a good-sized city this is not so unusual; every morning I see hundreds of other people doing the same thing. But the major difference is, pretty much all of them have some degree of choice. You can choose to live outside the mass transit coverage area but drive to a train station. If you've bought something large online and the delivery requires a signature, you can have it sent to where you work and drive in to get it home. If you just don't want to deal with parking and insurance and all the other hassles of owning a car, you can rent one when you need one. But I can't do any of those things.

Now, I don't want to paint an inaccurate picture. I'm married, my wife has a car, and she does her share of driving on my behalf. But I've had to turn down jobs because they were inaccessible to me, and I've had my share of difficult, tedious, convoluted commutes. Since I graduated from college, everywhere I've lived has been an area that required taking the bus in addition to the subway, which adds layers of time and increases the likelihood of a delay somewhere along the way. My point is that, after more than two decades, I feel I'm thoroughly qualified to discuss (and criticize) the transit system I use every day, and going forward I intend to do that.

14 October 2006

Jean Therapy: Postscript

L.L. Bean now has "Adirondack Jeans" for $19.50, compared to their "Double L" jeans for $29.50. The main difference seems to be the weight of the fabric, and that they come in colors other than denim washes (though the colored ones are actually twill and not denim). I've looked at these in the store but have not tried them on, so it seems like in the interest of the public good, I should get a pair and try them out. More to come on this.

Jean Therapy, Part 3

Even if the jeans are a normal fit, other things can happen. One recent pair of jeans (I can't remember the brand) had such narrow leg openings, they had trouble fitting over a pair of work boots I wore a lot in the winter. When I bent over or crouched, the cuffs would catch and pull on the padded collars of the boots, then pop off them. When I stood up I would have to fix the cuffs while trying to bend down in such a way that I could create enough slack to prevent it from happening again, but the next time I had to bend, it started all over. If I didn't fix them, I looked like I didn't know how to get dressed properly. It wasn't much better with other shoes or sneakers; the legs would get stuck on tongues or heel tabs.

When you're trying to get dressed and out of the house on time on a daily basis, it's kind of ridiculous and annoying to have to think about what jeans can or can't be worn with what shoes or boots, and as a result I usually forgot. After a few rounds of that, I decided the solution was to
retire and donate those particular jeans, and I realized I would have to pay more attention to the leg opening in the future. But that didn't mean I would be buying any boot-cut jeans, because those tend to have leg openings that are much too wide, and they flop around.

I'm thinking It might be time to look into the custom-made services offered by Lands' End and other companies. But in the meantime I've found my new jeans. Don't laugh: Arizona Jean Co. from JCPenney. Their stores are much improved from a few years ago (though there's still some merchandise that's a little scary), and they've done a good job of developing house brands like Arizona. The denim fabric is sturdy and good quality, the fit doesn't pinch or chafe (when you work sitting on your ass all day, this is important), and if you hit a good sale you can probably get them for under $20 a pair. One of the three pairs I bought was only $15; the other two were $18.

11 October 2006

Jean Therapy, Part 2

So what do you do when you have to find a replacement for something you've used for a long time? I tried a bunch of different brands and wasn't happy with any of them. Along the way I ran across a Consumer Reports comparison that said Polo Jeans Co. jeans were among the most comfortable for adult men. I was intrigued by this, as at the time I thought it was just a cheapo line meant to give the brand some traction with younger guys in department stores.

Eventually I got around to trying on a pair, and I was pleasantly surprised. The relaxed fit became my jeans of choice. I even found them in Costco for some pittance, maybe $20. For several years everything was fine. Then they revamped their entire lineup of jeans: new names, new fits, new washes,
and my little bubble of jean comfort burst. Everything had that pre-destroyed look, with the whiskers and the tinting that made them look like they'd been dipped in motor oil (had they?). It meant I'd have to go through it all over again.

This is probably a good point in my demin saga to mention that I have no use for any of the super-expensive, high-fashion jeans. Aside from the ridiculous cost (last time I was in Bloomingdale's, they had a whole section of men's jeans selling for $150-$200, and I certainly have better things to do with that kind of money), they invariably have some ugly stitching on the pockets, and they're heavily faded and distressed to look like they've been dragged behind a combine harvester for a month or so. The idea of someone being paid, regardless of how much or how little, to attack jeans with a grinding wheel to artificially age them, so that a premium price can be charged, just makes me...wish I'd thought of it first.

Then there's the matter of fit. As you get older, you tend to lose the desire to have your jeans look like they were painted onto you, and of course all the fancy brands like Juicy Couture and 7 for All Mankind are cut snug and low-waisted. Great for Iggy Pop, not so great for average guys.
These jeans are fine if you work in a used CD store or tattoo parlor and need to look hip, but at my age I'm after something a tiny bit more respectable looking. And that's a big part of it: age. I'm not the target audience for these jeans, because I'm too old. Might as well just give up and go straight to the elastic-waist pants, as far as the marketers are concerned.

07 October 2006

Jean Therapy

Like a lot of people, I've spent a good chunk of my adult life in jeans. I've been fortunate in that for most of the past decade, I've had jobs where I could wear whatever I wanted (except for a couple of stints in places that required uniforms, but those were merely brief, involuntary departures from the master plan). So that meant jeans pretty much year-round, and shorts in the summer. As time has gone by, it's gotten much harder to find decent jeans. Some would say this is probably because I'm getting older, but the available product has changed as well.

Back in the day, it was Levi's, and only Levi's, for me. I remember at one point thinking to myself that I could not imagine wearing any jeans other than 501's for the rest of my life. But it was over 20 years ago when I had that thought, and as with a lot of other things, my feelings on the subject have changed. Button fly? Kind of a nuisance, especially when you really have to go.
I have been meaning to go to a store and try on a pair of 501's just to see if I would still want to wear them, but I haven't gotten around to it. (Might be good to do that for a future entry.)

I'd guess I haven't owned a pair of 501's since the early 90's, and I haven't owned any Levi's at all in about four years, since whenever it was they changed the pocket stitching and made that curly V much deeper. Go look and you'll see what I mean. I know, I know, it's absurdly trivial, but I don't like it; the old way was fine, and I don't see why they felt the need to change it.

But even before that happened, I'd been down on Levi's for a more important reason: their financial problems had caused them to shift more and more of their production out of the US. I wasn't happy about that (I do try to buy American when I can, but it isn't always easy), but the real issue for me was that the foreign-made Levi's, even the ones from Mexico, didn't fit as well as the US-made ones, and didn't wear as well either.

Having made the decision to give up on Levi's, I had to find some other jeans to wear. You wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but when you're used to something, it can be very difficult to find a satisfactory replacement. (In the future I'll be talking about this regarding non-clothing items.)

02 October 2006

Cruel Shoes

I decided to begin by talking about shoes, because it's a universal topic; everyone needs shoes, everyone has to deal with finding shoes they like and that fit properly. I have a hard time finding shoes. I don't just mean styles I like, though that is true. I also mean the right size. It's not that I have freakishly tiny or clownishly large feet; on average these days I wear an 11. But the key words in that sentence are "on average." At the moment I own shoes ranging from size 10 to 11.5. It wasn't always this way; at one time I always wore a 10.5, except for sneakers, which generally run a bit smaller than non-sneakers; those were always an 11. Somewhere about a decade ago I found (by accident, if I remember correctly) that wider shoes were more comfortable, so when possible I would buy a 10.5 E or EE. Of course not all styles are made in wide widths, so I learned that if I went up a half-size I could get some of the extra space of a wider shoe.

Then things started getting a little weird. I was thinking about getting some Pumas, so I went to a store to try them on. Turned out I needed an 11.5. I learned later that Pumas traditionally run even smaller than most other sneaker brands. About six months ago I purchased a pair of Double H harness boots from a web site. In my experience boots tend to run a little truer to size, so I ordered a 10.5 wide. Turned out they were too big; not the width, but the length. I exchanged them for a 10 wide and was happy. I decided it must have been because they're made in the US, where we like everything big.

(As an aside, this sort of problem is a very good reason to buy shoes from a site like Shoebuy. They pay shipping both ways, so that if something is too big, or too small, you don't have to go out of pocket to exchange it. That's called customer service, and Shoebuy gets it.)

But then about a month ago I bought a pair of loafers from L. L. Bean. I was excited because Bean opened a store in Burlington, MA, not far from where I live, which meant I could try on the shoes (without having to go all the way to Maine), rather than take a guess and risk having to exchange them. Of course, because the store had just opened, they did not yet have the specific style I wanted in stock. I was told if I ordered them through an operator from the store phone, I would get free shipping, so I did. Since they were available in wide, I decided to go with the 10.5 EE. And once again they were too big.

When we shop for shoes, I think we've come to expect them to run smaller than their designated numerical size, so it's still something of a surprise when they are in fact too large. But is it a good thing or not? Any online or mail order shoe purchase involves some risk, unless you're replacing shoes you already have with the exact same style, or are buying a brand whose sizing is always consistent, which is rare. It makes me wonder if there is any sort of standard for how shoes sizes are assigned. It seems like there should be, but the evidence in my closet says otherwise.

29 September 2006


If you've found this little corner of the internet, it must have been by accident, but thanks for dropping by anyway. When I told a friend I wanted to start a blog, she asked me why, so I thought I should have an answer to the question. First, because I can: technology has made it possible for anyone to accomplish what was once the province of a select few lucky enough to have a newspaper or magazine column. Of course the audience is far smaller, but so what? A soapbox is a soapbox. Second, for my own amusement. Third, to put my money where my mouth is and demonstrate (to myself, at least) that I really do have something to say. I've been thinking and talking about doing this for a while, so it's time to stop talking and start doing. And finally, to attempt to make my existence about more than just an innocuous but not especially fulfuilling job.

But really, is any justification required? Does anyone care what the reason is? I'm doing it because I believe I have a point of view on certain subjects that others might share. Because, unlike most adults, I don't have a choice about how I get to and from work--I must rely on the public transit system, as flawed and inadequate as it is. Because I make no apologies about the fact that I like TV, though I am choosy about what I watch. Because I don't think it's bad to want nice things in your life (watches, gadgets, furniture), and I think it might be interesting to look at the process behind certain purchase decisions. Because, as much as I enjoy GQ, I believe the men's fashion industry (like the women's) is a joke; there are plenty of men over 35 who have taste, interest, and money to spend but don't want to look like either kids or copier salesmen from Cleveland, and I believe they are not being well served.

Get the idea?

I know myself well enough to say it's unrealistic of me to think I'll post every day, but I expect to make two or three entries a week, depending on what's going on, what I'm obsesssing over or thinking about buying that week. I'll do my best to be sincere, relevant, and (hopefully) entertaining. See you soon...