31 December 2008

Once Upon a Job

I'm not going to recap the year, because everyone else is going to, or has already done so. We all know what happened: a lot of it sucked, some of it was pretty good. For me personally, it was actually a pretty good year in most respects, and for that I feel very fortunate. Instead, I thought I'd rummage back in the dusty archives of my mind and tell a vaguely holiday-related story.

For about a decade, I worked in the retail division of a fairly large local cultural institution. I'm not going to name it, but I'll make it obvious enough: it's on the waterfront, and it's not the ICA. Retail was never my chosen career path, but we all have to make a living somehow. In 1994 there was a change in management, and the person who took over as retail director made me the book buyer, which was a decent step up and about as far as I would be able to go. I had no interest in being a manager, fearing it would seal my fate to a career in retail that I didn't want.

For three years I made the most of the job, getting a fair number of free books courtesy of my sales reps, going to the occasional trade show, and enjoying the fact that I had a back-office job that rarely required me to work on the sales floor. In the spring of '97 the retail director announced that she was leaving. I was sorry to see her go, because I liked her as a person and we got on well as colleagues (fortunately, we are still acquainted), and because, as my grandfather used to say (in Italian), "you know what you've got, but you don't know what you're getting." How accurate that would prove to be.

The search for a replacement did not yield any particularly outstanding candidates, certainly not of the caliber of the person being replaced. In fact, those of us working in the store (who were, of course, not involved in the search) were under the impression that only one applicant had qualifications that were even remotely relevant, but even so were less than ideal. As is often the case, that person was the one hired, mostly because someone had to run the place.

In addition to dealing with the general learning curve of the job, when the new director started at the beginning of July she was handed a big-ass project: the institution's management had decided to open a satellite store at the airport. It had to be designed, built, staffed, and stocked by Thanksgiving. Some of this activity was already underway, but much of it still needed to be done. We started placing separate orders for the other store, which were stored in a trailer parked outside. The plan was for the merchandise to be trucked to the new store when it was ready, and for all the staff to be there to unload the truck. Over the next several days the stock would be unpacked, entered into inventory, and arranged on the sales floor.

This meant that most of us would have to work our regular hours at the store, then head over to the airport for several more hours of work for several nights in succession, for about a week. The problem was with how this situation was presented. We weren't asked to help, we were told we were going to help. We would be paid overtime, sure, but the way the whole thing was handled was indicative of the new boss's management style, which didn't sit well with many of us.

Shortly before the big move was to take place, the boss came into the stock room, where I had a desk tucked into an alcove. I shared the space with the inventory manager, who had been bearing the brunt of the work on this project, and the bulk of the unpleasantness as well. With no preamble, she announced to us, "The airport store is going to be open 365 days a year. All of us are going to have to work a holiday shift managing there. You can pick one from Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's Day."

I had to ask, "What happened to that store having a completely separate staff? The whole idea was that the people who got hired for there understood that they would be required to work holidays, so we wouldn't have to."

"Yeah, well, that was the plan, but we haven't been able to find enough people willing to do it."

"Well, that's not our fault, and anyway, why should we have to do it? We're not even managers."

"Look, I don't like it, but we all have to pitch in on this. I'll have to do it too."

We sat in silence for a few moments. I looked at my coworker, who gave me the most priceless what the hell has she been smoking? look imaginable. I knew in my gut that a line had to be drawn, so I looked at her and said, "I'm sorry, but I'm not going to do it." My coworker, perhaps emboldened by my declaration, shook his head and slowly said, "That's... not happening."

I don't exactly recall the boss's response. I think it was along the lines of, "Well, we'll see about that." She left the room, and we tried to keep ourselves from laughing too loudly. The store opened when it was supposed to, and someone got stuck working there on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I don't remember who it was. I wouldn't have given a crap about having to work on New Year's Day, but there was no way I was extending myself for someone who had so little respect for her employees.

Once I made it clear I wouldn't play her games her way, my fate was sealed. It took her almost another year to find a way to get rid of me, and when it happened I was on the verge of quitting anyway. She did me a huge favor because, in eliminating my position, it cost the institution more money (in severance) than it would have if I had left on my own. I had also, through work, established connections with a fledgling e-commerce company that offered me a full-time job a couple of months later. I have no idea what became of the boss, except that a couple of years later, the institution turned over the operation of the store to an outside company, and her services were no longer required. With luck, our paths won't cross again.

Happy New Year, everybody. I hope 2009 is a great year for all of us.

29 December 2008

A Synthetic Holiday

We had a very pleasant Christmas visit, and while it's always nice to get away, it's always nicer to come back home. Getting to Rhode Island was a bit of a challenge, though. At 4:30 PM on Christmas Eve, 93 south approaching the Zakim Bridge was barely crawling. Not exactly a surprise, but not what we wanted to see. (I'd spent a good hour that afternoon breaking up and clearing the ice at the bottom of the driveway, which delayed our departure.)

We noticed that hardly any cars were taking the Leverett connector ramp. A quick check with SmarTraveler confirmed that we were in for a long, slow creep through the tunnel and beyond, but Storrow Drive westbound was moving well, so we did some ad hoc rerouting (without benefit of GPS). We cut through the Fens and over to the Jamaicaway, then connected with route 1 south, which got us to 95 in Dedham. It had taken us nearly an hour to get that far, and about another hour to reach our destination, but at least we weren't sitting in miles of traffic.

We got some nice gifts, including restaurant gift cards that we'll enjoy. But curiously, my mother seemingly decided this was the year of polyester. I got a fleece scarf, some odd gray and brown fuzzy socks (which John Irving book had the prep school whose colors were gray and brown?), and polyester lounge pants. She kept saying things like, "Those are just to wear around the house," even though she's fully aware I rebelled against all forms of polyester 30 years ago.

I'm not really complaining, I just think it's somewhat strange. Polyester is generally unpleasant. It makes you sweaty and causes lots of static electricity. I guess it brings in lots of revenue for companies like L.L. Bean, but I don't even own a fleece jacket. I did get a nice Patriots jacket from my mother, but it's made of a sweatshirt-like material that's 80% cotton, and it's something I specifically asked for. Next year I may need to impose a "no polyester" clause on my mother.

24 December 2008

Traditions Old and New

Traditionally, my family has gone out to dinner on Christmas Eve. Well, that's not completely accurate. The original tradition was that we'd go to my grandmother's for a big dinner, a sort of scaled-down version of the Italian feast of the seven fishes.

When the prep work and cooking involved became too much work for her to manage on her own, she suggested going out to dinner. We went to the same restaurant every year, because it was one of the few that was open past 5 or 6 on Christmas Eve. Along the way, my brother started working there as a bartender.

After my grandmother passed away a little over a decade ago, we continued our tradition. Unfortunately, circumstances sometimes change, and a rift developed in our family that persists to this day. We no longer see our relatives at holidays, or any other time. But it doesn't mean holidays are gloomy. My immediate family gathers as it always has.

For the past two years we went to a different restaurant, after the other one suffered from a noticeable drop in quality. This year the new place is closed for renovations, so after some research my mother decided she'd rather stay home. We assembled a worthy Christmas Eve feast, starting with salad, stuffed mushrooms, and scallops wrapped in bacon. For the main course we had stuffed shrimp, crumb-crusted cod, and sole stuffed with lobster. For dessert, an assortment of holiday cookies and a peanut butter pie (that one was my choice).

However you choose to celebrate your holidays, I want to say thanks for visiting, and I wish all of you joy and love.

22 December 2008


With the double punch of snowstorms our area received, we didn't stray too far from home this weekend. The Friday-Saturday one was more typical, dropping about ten inches in our area. Yesterday there was more of a variation in temperature, giving us more of a snow-sleet-snow combo that then froze. We had heeded the Universal Hub French Toast Alert (that colored box over on the right) and gotten our grocery provisions pre-storm. I was sent home from work early on Friday, and we happily settled in for a Friday night of eating and TV watching.

We had haircuts scheduled for early Saturday afternoon, so I started on the shoveling while the Mrs. called to make sure our hair person, who lives in southern New Hampshire, had made it down to the salon. I spent about an hour and a half getting everything dug out nicely, including the back-breaking area at the bottom of the driveway, which had been packed by numerous plow passes. (Unlike in Somerville, where we lived on a dead end and were lucky if we even saw a plow, here we live on a fairly busy street that is always diligently plowed.)

After our appointments, we did a few errands and headed back home. I was exhausted from the shoveling, and that proved to be a problem yesterday, because while we got only about four more inches, it was much heavier, and I didn't have enough energy to clear everything as thoroughly a second time. I made a half-hearted pass at the bottom of the driveway, which was a mistake because it solidified overnight, and this morning the Mrs. couldn't get out of the driveway. She's dutifully working from home, while I'm starting my two-week holiday break. I think we might need to walk to the hardware store and see about getting a metal shovel, if they have any left.

18 December 2008

Slim Fit

During my shopping trip last weekend, I discovered that there is now a Ruehl store in the Burlington Mall. Ruehl is another branch of the hydra-like Abercrombie & Fitch family of brands that starts with (lower-case) abercrombie for the youngsters, then moves on through Hollister for the teens and the original A&F for college kids. Ruehl seems to be for the post-college years; does this means that eventually they'll have a brand aimed at hipster senior citizens? And what does "Ruehl" mean, anyway?

(Does anyone besides me remember when A&F was just a store for outdoorsy adults, kind of splitting the difference between L.L. Bean and Orvis? Those were the days... their marketing people have spun this whole mythos around the various brands; the Ruehl storefront is supposed to look like a Greenwich Village brownstone, but honestly, when you're walking down the mall past stores with plain, ordinary plate-glass fronts, and you come upon what looks like a really fake soundstage backdrop from a 1940s movie set back several feet from the corridor, it just looks weird and out of place. Same for Hollister, which is meant to look like a beach cantina, which I'm sure is exactly where parents would want their teens to be.)

I first encountered Ruehl over a year ago, when I went to check out the Natick Mall's then-new addition with all the high-end stores. At the time I wasn't terribly impressed; the clothes seemed pretty similar to the merchandise available in A&F stores, only made with nicer fabrics and priced higher. At the time the Ruehl web site was not selling anything (it was nothing more than an online window display) and I never made it back out to Natick, so I kind of forgot about the store until maybe four months ago, when I happened to hit the site to see how many more stores they had opened. At that point I found that they were open for business online.

I still didn't necessarily think I wanted to buy anything from them, but I like to know what my options are. I saw a couple of things that were interesting, and thought I'd like to check them out in person. Okay, when I say "things," I mean shirts. I admit, I have something of an obsession with shirts. I have dozens of them. The Mrs. likes to periodically count them, just to know the number; I don't keep count myself. I just like shirts.

So, finding the store in the mall last weekend gave me the chance to get another look at the merchandise. I discovered, to my surprise, that they had a clearance section in a corner of a back room. I was surprised because, unlike most web sites, there was no sale section on the Ruehl site (A&F is notoriously averse to marking down merchandise, so I just assumed they hauled the slow-selling inventory out behind their warehouses and burned it), so I wasn't expecting to find any markdowns in the store.

Some of the shirts had been marked down more than once (a good sign for someone like me who's always on the lookout for a good deal) and were only $19.90 after starting at $78. Jackpot, I thought. But as I've discussed before, size creep has become pretty rampant, so I was wary. I pulled a size large shirt out of a pile to use as a sort of baseline gauge. I held it up: it looked like it might fit a 14-year-old boy, or one of the anemic-looking MassArt dudes I see on the E line.

I moved on to extra large, which has sort of become my default size even though my neck size still corresponds to a large. This one looked like it might actually fit, so I held it up against my torso. I could tell that it was barely wide enough to make it around me; I'd estimate that if I had about a 32 inch waist, it would have fit me okay.

But what was much more strange and surprising was that the sleeves came down to about the knuckles of my fingers. I wear a 34 sleeve in a dress shirt, so I'm not short of arm, which made this all the more ridiculous. I'm guessing that the thin dudes who wear Ruehl shirts are required to keep their sleeves stylishly rolled up at all times (the shirts on the site are all shown with their sleeves rolled), but it's pretty much winter now, and regardless of the season, sometimes I simply want the look I present to the world to be one that has its sleeves rolled down and buttoned.

I didn't bother checking out the XXL shirt, figuring the sleeve cuffs would probably touch the floor. But now I've gone and looked at the size charts on the Ruehl site, and looks like I may have been wrong. While the chest measurement on the XXL is slightly bigger than on the XL, the sleeves are actually a little bit shorter. Maybe this means I could wear an XXL after all. I also noticed that they now have a sale section on the site, but I'm not sure I care anymore.

I hated walking away from something that was 75% off the original price, but I think I'm just too old, too thick in the middle, and too unhip for this place. Upstairs at Martin + Osa, which is quickly becoming my favorite clothing store, I got a V-neck cashmere sweater and a great pair of gray jeans. Both fit me really well, they were at least 50% off their original prices, and I had a coupon for an additional 30% off. Also, one of the clerks said he recognized me from a previous visit, which was sort of nice. And their XL shirts fit me just fine.

15 December 2008

Tree Time

Yikes, more roller-coaster weather. A week ago, I was talking about (and wearing) flannel-lined pants and shearling-lined boots. Today it's already hit 60 degrees, and I didn't even need a coat when I walked the dog this morning. What fun...

Well, things have certainly been busy around the SAR household, as is typical of this time of year. We spent the weekend running around, shopping and doing other holiday-related stuff. I still have a fairly lengthy list of things that need to be done, and one important thing that I was supposed to take care of over the weekend was to get a gift for my office holiday party's Yankee swap, which is tomorrow. I tend to put off these things until the last minute, but maybe that's not so bad, because one of my coworkers said she bought her swap gift a month ago, and now she can't find it.

But I blew it. We went to the Burlington Mall on Saturday, which was kind of a psycho scene. Recession? Maybe so, but people were still out in hordes, and they still seemed to be buying things. Anyway, I'd been saying for weeks that I wanted to go to Crate & Barrel because they have lots of nice gifty things, many of which are attractive and also inexpensive enough to be swap-worthy. C&B has a large, lovely store that opened up at Burlington a while back, but it's a free-standing store outside the mall proper, tucked in a corner of the parking lot, so of course, by the time I was done in the mall I completely forgot about it. Bad brain.

Yesterday was tree-getting day, and we fared much better. We also needed dog food, and in the interest of combining trips we went to Wilson Farm in Lexington (yeah, they sell pet food there). A Proper Bostonian had gotten her tree there, though she ended up not liking it and, in a move worthy of awe and admiration, returned it.

I'm not as fussy about Christmas trees as she is; that's partly because she's been obsessing over them her whole life, but more because I'm not as good at choosing them. (We had an artificial tree when I was growing up.) The only real rule I have is that the tree must be taller than me, so the short, squat ones are out. Beyond that I'm fairly clueless, and the Mrs. grew up in a household that did not celebrate Christmas, so she isn't particularly invested in the decision-making process; she mainly likes having a tree because it makes the house smell good. So over the years I have made some unfortunate tree choices.

I spent about ten minutes wandering around among the trees at Wilson Farm until I found the ones that were at the more agreeable price points of $40 and under. I looked at some trees on one side of a row, then went around to check the ones on the other side. Not liking those much, I went back around to where I had been and saw a woman assessing a tall, beautiful tree. I thought, how did I miss that one? But when they're leaned over against the support racks, you can't always get a good idea of how it's really going to look, so she was doing the smart thing.

I edged over to her and said slyly, "If you don't take that one, I will." I was being facetious, but I meant it. She smiled and said, "I don't know how much it is." I could see the tag attached to the tree, about a foot above her head, so I stretched up on my toes and checked it for her. Only $30 for one of the nicest trees on the lot! She got the attention of one of the staff, who took it off to be bagged.

At that point the Mrs. appeared, having taken care of the dog food. A hunch told me we should look at some of the other trees in the immediate vicinity of the one the woman had just bought. We found two more good prospects in the same row, and eventually settled on the one that was right next to where hers had been. Perhaps some good tree karma rubbed off from that other one?

Once you have chosen a tree, a staff person tears off part of the tag, which you take to the cash register. There's a register outside in the nursery area, so you don't have to wait in line with the folks inside buying groceries. Your tree gets bagged and taken to a waiting area. You bring your car around and show your tag to the waiting staff, they find the tree with the matching number on the tag, bring it to your car, and tie it on for you. They then direct traffic so you can safely back out of your space and be on your way. Great service all around, and this may be the nicest tree I've ever chosen.

10 December 2008

This Year's Model

On Friday night I went to the auto show. I go almost every year, usually with an old college friend who likes cars as much as I do. I made the Mrs. go one year, but she really wasn't into it. She likes her own car, likes that it gets pretty good gas mileage and handles well, but that's about as deep a relationship as she wants with a vehicle.

I, on the other hand, have been into cars for my entire life (which is pretty ironic, since I can't drive). I can remember trips to get Matchbox cars from the drugstore, where they were displayed in a big display case with little compartments for each of the 75 different styles they offered. I built Lego houses to match the scale of the Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars I collected, then moved on to plastic models of classic cars from the 1950s and 1960s.

Growing up, I used to hang around and make something of a nuisance of myself at both a Chevrolet dealership near where I lived and at a hot-rod shop on the corner of our street that was run by a neighbor. I can still look at a car and tell you the make and model, and probably the model year (or at least a range of years, since the details of grilles and tail lights no longer change every year the way they did in Detroit's glory years).

So even though the auto industry's sales recently plummeted to lows not seen in decades, my friend and I and a bunch of other people still paid to get into the convention center last week to look over and climb inside all the 2009 models. (Well, almost all of them: Bentley, Maserati, and Aston Martin all had their offerings behind railings, and the Porsches were locked. Last year the Maseratis were uncorraled and unlocked, so maybe that didn't work out so well for them.)

That's part of the reason why people go to these shows: it's not too often that the average person gets the chance to sit in a brand new Jaguar, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz. I like doing that, but I also enjoy getting a look at the more ordinary cars. A Honda Fit goes for around $15,000, and it's a tiny bit of a thing; when you first look at it, it looks like clowns should be jumping out of it, but then you get inside and realize the outside is something of a deception because it's amazingly roomy inside.

I'm six feet tall, so I like to do sit tests. I get in the front passenger seat and slide it back as far as it will go, to evaluate the legroom. Then I get in the back seat behind where I was just sitting to see how painful it would be to ride back there. I also note things like how low I have to duck in order to get into that back seat, and how close my head comes to the roof when I'm sitting inside.

Some SUVs and crossover wagons now come with rear seats that adjust forward and backward as well, which is pretty clever. The fact is, even though the American auto makers are suffering for their years of bad choices and putting profits ahead of innovation, they are now turning out cars that are genuinely competitive for the first time in probably two decades. Not all of them, mind you--the Dodge Caliber, for example, is a junky, miserable penalty box--but many are the legitimate equals of their foreign competition.

If you are in the market for a car, the auto show is a convenient way to get a close-up look at many different models all in one place. If you're not in the market for a new car, it's a way to spend a couple of hours on a Friday night with a friend. Or maybe you're like me, and you just like knowing that the charcoal perforated leather seats on the new Nissan Maxima have contrast stitching in bubble-gum pink (though on the web it looks closer to red).

08 December 2008


It was brutal out there this morning. 15 degrees on its own might not be so awful, but when you add in the wind it was pretty vicious. Supposedly it's going to hit 60 on Wednesday, with a nice dousing of wind-driven rain, and we may see snow on Friday. Welcome to the New England weather roller coaster...

I've said before that I hope to never do a post that is solely about the weather (though my own exception to my own rule is that talking about blizzard, hurricane, or other similar severe weather experiences doesn't count), so allow me to veer off and offer some weather-related advice.

When our civilization is finally assessed in hindsight, one of its highest achievements will undoubtedly be flannel-lined pants. You may scoff at this notion, but if you stood outside waiting for a bus this morning, you are probably one of the people who isn't scoffing. It's easy enough to layer up the torso, but not so easy for the lower extremities. I have long underwear, and it does the job, but it makes me feel like I was drugged and someone dressed me while I was knocked out. Wearing another layer of warmth built into your pants feels more right to me. I'm sure there are people who disagree with me, so just go right on wearing your long johns.

I've had flannel-lined jeans for several years, but I recently got a pair of flannel-lined khakis on sale at J. Crew. (These look a little nicer at the office.) J. Crew hopes you'll buy them long and roll the cuffs so the flannel shows, but that isn't my style.

Depending on where you live, you might be able to find these in a store with an additional percentage off the sale price, though some stores are offering higher percentages off than others. I first saw these pants a couple of weeks ago at the Northshore Mall in Peabody, MA. At the time they were offering an extra 50% off markdowns, but they didn't have them (or anything else good) in my size. Last week I went to the Copley Place store to return something else, and they had an extra 30% off markdowns, which wasn't quite as good, but they did have my size so I grabbed a pair, and I'm very glad I did. I still paid only about half of the original price.

(FYI, I find the description I linked to above a bit misleading. At least in the case of the pants I bought, they do not have the grinding and fraying that is common to J. Crew's broken-in pants. The fabric is definitely broken in, but not beaten up. YMMV, though.)

I also have on a pair of shealing-lined boots that I picked up super-cheap last winter from Banana Republic. They're a dark brown leather with a slightly distressed look and side zippers for easier on and off, made in Italy. I found these on their web site right after Christmas, and a couple of days after I got them, the price dropped again. Not everyone knows this, and they certainly don't go out of their way to advertise it, but BR has a price adjustment policy: if you buy something and the price drops within a certain amount of time (14 days, according to their site), they will refund you the difference, if you ask. So I ended up getting the boots for about one-third of their original price, and again it's money well spent.

Stay warm, everybody.

07 December 2008


Wait, it's already Sunday? How did that happen? I guess I've been a little deeper in my work than usual lately, and now that I have the better, stronger, faster computer at work, I have my substantial amount of mp3's on it, so I tend to spend a good portion of the day under my headphones, which seems to make the time go by even faster, so... Anyway, I had a few thoughts along the way that I obviously didn't sit down and write about at the time, so I guess there's no time like now.

There was a lot of hubbub in the Boston media this week about the T's plan to create additional room during rush hour by running trains on the Red Line with seats removed from two of the six cars. I don't ride the Red Line these days, but I rarely get a seat on the Orange Line, particularly in the morning, so I don't think the change is going to make much of a difference in the daily commute for most Red Line riders either, other than packing a few more of them onto each train.

During my Friday morning ride, I looked around the car (while standing) and noticed some examples of how a bit more awareness of personal behavior could make life easier for everyone. First are people who insist on crossing their legs. I was attempting to stand next to a doorway, but the guy in the end seat had his left foot hanging off his right knee, making it impossible for me to move out of the way of other people. (I don't even see how it would be comfortable to sit that way on a train, but that's just me.) I didn't bother trying to get his attention, because he was busily engaged in some obviously important activity with his iPhone. At the next stop I was able to switch to the other side of the car, where I was able to observe the guy continue his ride in oblivion.

Then there are the people who find it necessary to read their newspapers while hunched forward. This is a peculiar affliction, but one I see more often than you might think. I have on occasion been seated between two people of larger size, making it somewhat difficult to sit up straight and hold up the paper or a book in front of my face. I may have had to sit slightly forward in my seat until someone got off the train, but I see people who have the paper on their knees and are leaned all the way over to read it, thus putting their heads and torsos in the space where bodies could be standing.

And then there's my favorite, the torso-sized backpacks and body-sized duffel bags. What do people carry that is so huge? I know that some of those guys with the giant duffels are hockey players, but they can't all be. And do people still lug giant textbooks around? It seems like we would be at a point where there's an electronic solution to that. If you are wearing a monster backpack, it seems reasonable to expect that when you get on a subway train you take off the bag and keep it at your feet.

But that's probably expecting too much. Bottom line, most people are selfish and clueless and don't pay attention to what's going on around them. For the record, I am very conscious of how much space I am occupying relative to other riders. I carry a messenger-style bag that I wear across the body, because it doesn't stick out as much that way. There was another thread on Universal Hub yesterday about a T rider getting bumped by another rider's messenger bag. The fact is, the type of bag matters less than how much you have crammed into it, and whether or not you are considerate enough of others to keep it out of the way.

03 December 2008

Feedback Loop

So let me see if I understand this correctly: the Grammy Awards is having a live nominating concert that's on TV right now. So it's a live prime-time show to announce the nominees for awards that will eventually be presented in a live prime-time show two months from now?

Who's performing, you ask? Let's see... Celine Dion, Foo Fighters, Mariah Carey, B.B. King, John Mayer, Taylor Swift (who?), and Christina Aguilera. Kind of says it all, right there. Poor B.B., how'd you get roped into this disaster? Maybe you'll class up the joint a little.

If you somehow felt that the Grammys still had any relevance and hadn't already jumped the shark (which, in case it wasn't clear, I believe they have), this eliminates any confusion about it.

Where Men Fear to Tread

Not long ago I found myself in alien territory. But I didn't leave the country; I went to a craft store.

Seriously, this is a realm where men rarely venture. Why was I there, then? I was following the advice of the Mrs. I recently acquired a Mad Men poster on eBay, and it's a slightly unusual size, 11" by 17". I wanted to get a frame so I could display it at work, but I didn't want to spend a fortune on professional framing for something so small and mundane.

We were at the Gateway Plaza in Everett, home of our local Target, as well as Costco, Home Depot, and about two dozen or so other stores and a couple of "casual dining" restaurants. She suggested I check Bed Bath & Beyond or the craft store, which I think is called Michael's (I know it's a chain of some sort).

At the time, we happened to be closer to the end of the strip with the craft store, so I decided to check it out. Naturally the place was in full-on holiday mode; it was as though Christmas had thrown up, but it sure smelled nice. Lots of potpourri and candles, lots of holiday cheer-in-waiting, ready for an artistic touch to bring them to life.

I didn't know exactly where to start looking, and there was no floor plan or directory that I could see, so I began walking a clockwise loop. The Mrs. sews and does some other crafty stuff, so it's not like I've never seen a glue gun or a package of Fimo clay, but some of the stuff in there, I couldn't even tell you what it is or what it's used for. There are some things that men just aren't supposed to know.

I found the frames at the back of the store. Along the way, I noticed that I was the only male in the place who was not with a wife or significant other. (The Mrs. didn't need anything craftish and was in another store down the way.) And the men I did see, whether they were keeping an eye on the kids or just following dutifully behind the wife, all had the same blank, dazed expression on their faces: what am I doing in here? There must be a game on that I could be watching instead of this.

Anyway, they had just what I had in mind. The frame consists of a piece of clear plastic and a backing made of something like particle board. The actual "frame" is four pieces of U-shaped black plastic that clamp tightly onto the sides of the clear plastic and backing board. You take it apart, put in your poster, and put it back together, giving you instant framed art for only $9.99 (for the size I wanted).

Then I had to negotiate the gauntlet of the checkout. It was like one of those really busy lunch hours at CVS, only stupider. Everyone has a coupon, everyone argues with the cashier about what the coupon can or can't be used on, everyone leaves sulking. The person just ahead of me had some difficulty with English, so that slowed things down a little more. The bottom line was that her coupon was usable only on the items she was buying that were not already on sale (which is admittedly a fine distinction, and one that you'd think maybe the company's management might consider temporarily waiving at a time when every customer counts).

Just as that person went on her way, the only other open cashier called to the cashier whose line I was in, and she abruptly left her register to go assist hr colleague. I waited around while they puzled over how to fix a mistake made while ringing, wondering why such a situation wouldn't be the responsibility of a manager. (The mind tends to wander in these moments.) Eventually the cashier made her way back to her station and rang me up.

I don't think I'll be in any hurry to go back. Men don't do crafts, but they also don't have the patience for such retail nonsense.

01 December 2008

Technical Difficulties

So, you thought today would be a good day to do some online holiday shopping on your lunch hour, huh? Eh, think again. The entire Gap family of sites, including Old Navy and Banana Republic, was down for about two hours, though it appears that they are now back online. Hilariously, they all posted pages claiming the sites were down for "scheduled maintenance." Maybe it really was scheduled, but somehow I doubt it.

The J. Crew site is still showing a "stay tuned" page after about three hours, with a pseudo-apology that says "even the best sites aren't perfect." Um, is that supposed to be some sort of excuse? Because it's only one of the busiest online shopping days of the year (which companies like you have helped create and promote), and it's not like you can say you didn't know your site was going to see a lot of traffic today.

But I'm not exactly surprised; J. Crew made some changes to their site several months ago, and it's been kinda verkakte (to borrow a Yiddish colloquialism) ever since. Just this weekend, I was still coming across products on their site with images that were not displaying properly. (I actually used to get paid to find and fix such errors for a much smaller company, so I know they gotta have at least a couple of people on the payroll somewhere who are supposed to be doing the same thing.)

If any of you come across other sites that are down, let me know and I'll post it here, as a public service.