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.