Thursday, March 5, 2009

It stinks!

Ah, the mysteries of Egypt. How did they build the pyramids, are there more tombs yet to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings, and why the hell did I buy perfume?

With the money we’d earned processing fish one post-college summer in Alaska, my pal Dan and I took a six-week trek across Europe with a side trip to Egypt. When we got to Athens, we booked the Egyptian leg of the trip at a travel agent (this was the 80’s (so I assume Flock of Seagulls was playing in the background as our itinerary was planned)). Our package included a tour of Cairo in a private car, with stops at the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and a few other places of interest. One of those other places turned out to be a shop, conveniently geared to tourists, conveniently located just off our route, and conveniently owned by our driver’s cousin. The shop’s specialty was fragrances: essential oils (like lotus and lavender) and blends that mimicked popular perfumes (like Chanel #5, Joy (curiously spelled “Goy”), and Old Spice (I kid about that)).

There other parts of Cairo I’d rather have been seeing than the inside of some guy’s scent shop so I was a little irritated but I figured it wouldn’t last long or cost me anything. I was half right. We sat and were treated to tea and small talk, but after a few minutes out came the wind-up and the pitch (do they play baseball in Egypt?). Samples were brought out, we politely sniffed, they inquired as to our interest, we said no thanks. We were fidgeting and ready to go.

Then the hard sell began. The merchant asked us a number of questions, trying to get us to buy. Finally he asked “Isn’t there someone special back home that you could buy for?” I said yes. Dan gave me a funny look. Because there wasn’t. Unbidden thoughts of a woman on whom I had a little crush had emerged; we’d never even gone on a date. The Rational part me was wondering what the hell was happening while the abruptly Susceptible part of me was fabricating a relationship and really, really wanted to buy some aromatic products.

The seller asked if this non-existent sweetheart would like any of the fragrances. I said yes, selected Joy and lotus and handed over my credit card; Rational tried, but was powerless to stop Susceptible. In minutes, I was holding a padded box wrapped in tissue paper and tied with string, which contained two bottles of scented liquids I neither wanted nor needed and a 50 dollar charge on my card; I signed my name and put my card back in my wallet. When we got outside, Dan asked what happened. I had to say “I don’t know. ” Somehow the salesman found a lever that knocked over my will power and pried opened my wallet. I didn’t know why then, I still don’t quite know why now, but I’m working on it.

Science would have told me that dopamine was involved, I would have said it was a dope: Me. I wasn’t slipped a Mickey in the tea. I fell to a salesman’s tactics. But I’ve done some thinking and reading, and now know something similar has happened to many people who live in a retail-oriented world at some time in their lives. That experience was the first step in a process that lead me to start writing here: to think about buying, to be aware of what my weaknesses are, and to use that knowledge to try to make better decisions.

I hauled the damn stuff home and kept it for a long while, finally throwing it away after about 20 years. It was reminder to be careful, a self-imposed scented albatross that only I could see or smell.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The bigger the cushion

I needed gifts to impress my future niece and nephew, so I got them whoopee cushions*.

Fart noises make me laugh.

*Self-inflating ones are available. It’s the greatest advance in whoopee cushion technology since… uh... the invention of the whoopee cushion.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Chrome-plated love

I wanted to get my wife something romantic for Valentine’s Day. So I bought a faucet.

Some will be shocked that I’m not sleeping in the basement after giving my wife a kitchen faucet for such a romantic occasion. But she isn’t starry-eyed, is practical, and doesn’t need to have flowers or a big dinner out or constant reminders for proof of how I feel. Yes gentlemen, ladies like that are out there. And I got me one.

She wants us to contribute evenly to household expenses; when I think something needs replacing and she’s not in a financial place to contribute, I’ll sometime buy it and call it a gift; it’s fine so long as I don’t play that card too often (that’s our little secret).

The old faucet worked OK, but it was non-descript and it sometimes dripped if the valve wasn’t closed just so. Our sink also featured the ubiquitous black sprayer that didn’t have high-enough pressure; the new one has a built-in pull-out sprayer, which means better pressure and hands-free spraying. But that’s not all! We also got a soap dispenser which fits the old sprayer hole, so that means one less bottle on the counter.

While she was away for a few hours (on Valentine’s Day in fact), I broke out the tools and the Teflon tape, pulled the old faucet, and installed the new one (with my limited plumbing skills, it was a three-hour job (that’s why I waited until she was out)). We could have lived with the old faucet for a long while, it still dispensed both hot and cold water on command and we’re not that hung up on aesthetics of fixtures. But sometimes something looks tired or doesn’t work as well as you want it to; you get to the point where you need a change. I feel a little guilty, un-green even, for replacing something that still had life left in it; in the end I’m glad I did, and I was Mr. Home Improvement for an afternoon.

But why now? Why didn’t I wait until the faucet broke? Or make it a Christmas present instead? Like many people, I delude myself into thinking my buying decisions are generally rational and well-thought, but if I scrutinize them later, they often aren’t (as anyone who has seen some of the crap on my CD shelf would attest). What I’m trying to get at is that buying a thing can do something for a purchaser that goes beyond meeting the obvious need. Why and when I finally take the purchasing plunge is a jumble of whim, procrastination, price, plus a few other urges I’m not quite in touch with yet. I’m scratching an itch I can’t quite define; examining these impulses/needs/drives is the reason I started posting, so this will be a recurring theme. In the end I want to know why I buy, and use that knowledge to make better decisions.

This Valentine’s Day I proclaim my love for my wife through plumbing. For next year, I’m thinking the TV in our bedroom is looking a little dated.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Some more Samoas, or thinking about Thin Mints

Camp Fire Girls sell lovely candy, which is good, but it ain’t Girl Scout cookies*. Like many people, I look forward to Girl Scout cookie time (which, apropos of nothing, coincides with Free Beef Days at Les Schwab Tires here in the American Northwest).

Why buy from the Girl Scouts instead of getting other cookies, which are available year round and probably cheaper?
  • They are iconic. Oreos and Fig Newtons** are too, but GSCs have that “available for a limited time” cachet that has done so much for infomercial products and the McRib***.
  • Some of the money goes to a good cause**** and the whole process help the girls learn some skills.
  • I get to buy them from an actual Girl Scout, not from a parent at my office. A neighbor’s daughter comes to our house to take our order and returns with the goods a couple months later. It isn’t exactly instant gratification, but the cookies are worth the wait.

My only complaint: I always try to freeze some Thin Mints to eat later in the year, but I haven’t got the will power; if only the GS had lay-away or offered scheduled delivery similar to milk or produce vendors.

I could be eating healthier cookies, but my overall diet is pretty nutritious (thanks in big part to my wife), so having some less-than-ideal treats is OK now and again. Michael Pollan might disagree, mostly due to his five ingredients/pronounceable ingredients rules, but you can have my Girl Scout Cookies when you pry the crumbs from my cold dead lips.

Apologies for the footnotes, but I’ve been reading Infinite Jest and it’s rubbing off on me.
*And why don’t Boy Scouts don’t have a fundraising product?
**No special allegiance to Nabisco products, they were the first cookies that came to mind.
****On a imprecisely related note, there’s also no controversy with Girl Scouts that I am aware of like there is with Boy Scouts and their policy toward gay men or atheists and agnostics.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Not quite sweeping me off my feet

I like a clean house. But I’m lazy. So we bought a Roomba. It sole task is sweeping, but that’s one less task we have to do. It's a pretty basic model, and it’s not perfect.
  • Sometimes it’ll miss a spot; the programming is algorithmic rather than adaptive.
  • It can’t get into corners (it’s the round robot in a square hole problem).
  • There’s some prep work required: throw rugs, wires & cables, and the chairs we have in the dining room have to be picked up to prevent the Roomba from getting stuck.
  • It doesn’t always sweep up what’s right in front of it, but that’s a problem of perception, it eventually gets the job done.
  • It’s noisy, and a little intrusive so we usually start it as we’re leaving the house.

As long as we’re willing to live with those limitations, we’re happy with the Roomba and the results. It’s a matter of accepting that “good enough,” as opposed to perfection, is what you’ll get. We could have spent a lot more money for another model or brand, but the cost wasn’t worth the possible improvements (hey, the econ class I took as a freshman DID teach me something!).

When I was growing up, the future promised a plethora of labor- and time-saving devices. For the most part we’re still waiting. We thought we’d get Rosie the Robot, instead we got Roomba. But Roomba’s a pretty good start.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Middle age is a bitch. Joints aren’t so limber, hair's a little thinner, and eyes don't work so well in dark places like restaurants. After a few too many meals where I used the table candle for extra light (luckily, no menus went up in flames), moved the menu back and forth hoping to find a sweet spot between blurriness and illumination, or sheepishly asked someone to read to me, I decided to get help. (I could bring my glasses but forgetfulness is my nature (and I can't blame that on getting older).) My options were a magnifier or a light. A light made more sense, I could get a small one and put it on my keychain (I always remember my keys); as a bonus it would have other uses.

The internet is a great thing, you can find a lot of stuff to meet your needs. What sucks for a hands-on person is one can't always make the best decision based on photos and descriptions (I know I'm stating the obvious) so I procrastinate or over-think small decisions. After way too much surfing/research, I went to my local REI and bought the only light they had that fit my criteria:
  • Fairly small.
  • Don't have to hold the switch.
  • Not too expensive.

It worked well, the light level was good, but after a couple weeks, the switch broke (but not because it was old, Mr. Costello). It was partly my fault for futzing with it too much (pressing the on-off switch multiple times made it strobe, and I am easily amused). I don't remember the brand. I replaced it with a Garrity K001G. I had it for a couple months, but it didn’t stay on automatically and it wasn't as bright as I'd hoped. But it's a nice size and the battery has lasted a long time. So I kept looking until I saw the Streamlight 73001 Nano. I am impressed. Twist head like a Maglight (I have a few around the house of various sizes, another fine product) so it’ll stay on, very bright (almost a little too bright but that's better than the alternative), very small, and looks cool (a bonus).

So I found a good solution. And finished my first post.