Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How To Make Christmas Work For You...

Some great ideas happen by accident.  Penicillin, the Slinky and even the Post-It Note all came into being as an unexpected result of an inventor's ambition.  I was hoping the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup was born the same way.  Sadly, the television ads from the '70's were inaccurate - after extensive research (Wikipedia), I discovered that the most amazing combination of peanut butter and chocolate was, in fact, planned.

Two Christmases ago, my wife and I made the decision to go fake.  No, not her boobs or my hair - our holiday tree.  This was an easy decision, but it wasn't.  As a family, we'd be giving up on the annual all-day search for a tree farm that, somewhere on its acres and acres of property, held our next very special Christmas tree.  Over the years, these searches became less of a positive family bonding event and more of a chore to be dreaded.  Several years ago, the rest of the family stopped going on these journeys.  I took these trips alone.  But instead of dragging a plastic sled and hand saw for miles in a quest to find the Holy Grail of Christmas trees, I got soft.  I started to cheat.  We all liked Fraser Firs.  Unfortunately, "real" Fraser Firs only come from the southeast Appalachian mountains.  Therefore, all the "real" Fraser Firs in Ohio had already been found and cut and shipped from places like Virginia and North Carolina and Tennessee.  Once I found this out, it no longer made sense to bust my butt to find the perfect tree.  What I really wanted wasn't in a field awaiting my discovery.  What I wanted was laying on it's side, next to a barn - for about twice the amount of the one living in the wild.  In the few years before going fake, I loaded myself into the minivan and drove a half hour to the best place for imported and overly-expensive Fraser Firs.  I was in and out in a half hour tops.  No complaining kids.  No long walks through snowy or muddy fields.  No dulled complimentary hand saws that didn't work for crap.  Two years ago I decided that even the simple task of walking over to a pile of lifeless, pre-cut Fraser Firs was too much work. 

It was then that we made the call to go fake.  I still like the idea of a real tree, I really do.  But the rest of them (my family) could care less.  So, the minivan and I made the ten minute drive to Costco.  Nothing makes you feel like you got a steal of a deal than when you buy something, anything at Costco.  From gallon-sized containers of hummus to minivan tires, this place virtually eliminates the by-product of overspending - buyer's remorse.  It's magic, I think.  Black magic.  But I love it.

After about five minutes of carefully inspecting the various artificial tree options, I settled on a nice nine-foot, pre-lit fake Fraser Fir for about $450.  After folding down the back seats of the minivan, the box fit in perfectly for the ride home.  I thought about assembling it in the parking lot and tying the tree to the top of the vehicle with twine for old times sake, but decided against it because - well, because that's just ridiculous.  Right?

Once home, I carefully navigated the large box through the front door, then unloaded the color-coded branches, trunk and base.  Within ten minutes our new tree was assembled.  No tipping.  No watering.  No needles to vacuum.  At the end of the holiday season, disassembly was just about as carefree, save for the fact it inexplicably wouldn't fit back into the box it came in.  Not even close.  Did it grow?  I made due, fitting what I could back in the box and the rest in a large black garbage bag.

One thing I will say about artificial trees is that they do take up a lot of space.  I kept it in the garage on a high shelf during the off season.

Last December, I took it down, re-assembled it, but noticed a portion of the pre-lit lights had gone out.  I planned to address this once I was ready to take it down.  As the holiday season went on, I noticed more of the lights had gone out.  That's when it hit me.  See, I could try to figure out what's going on, to carefully isolate the one light causing the problems on each string of pre-lits.  But that would be work.  In fact, more work than any other real tree could ever afford.  Costco has one of those no-hassle return policies.  It doesn't matter how long you've had the item or why you're bringing it back.  They don't ask questions.  They don't get in your face.  They just hand you your money back and you're free and clear. 

Now I didn't actually get around to returning the tree until this past July.  I needed to get it out of the garage because I didn't have the energy to hoist it on the high shelf.  So, most of it just sat there on the floor in a box with the rest of it stuffed into the same black garbage bag on top.  Despite Costco's liberal return policy, I did worry about returning a Christmas tree in July.  I got some well-deserved stares as I dragged it into the store on the back of a Costco flatbed. 

I was waiting for a comment from the customer service assistant manager who waited on me. "Whatcha got there?", they asked.

"Well, it is what it looks like.  Some of the lights are out and I tried like a bastard to find the source of the problem, but finally gave up."  It was a little white Christmas tree lie.

"Okay.  Would you like it in cash or on store credit?"  Costco customer service people are like the Buckingham palace guards of the retail world.  Nothing phases them.  They are trained to respond without emotion.

"Umm.  Cash would be great.  Thanks."

"No problem."

Hmmm.  So, remember when I mentioned great ideas and inventions that happened by accident?  That's what happened here.  I realized that I never really bought a tree from Costco, that they merely let me borrow it for two years.  I put a deposit down and when I return it, they gave the deposit back.

I'm going to try it again this year.  I'll borrow a tree from Costco, then return after the holidays, ideally prior to July.  No need to worry about getting it up on the high shelf or how strange the extra black bag might look.  I'll take it back to a very friendly Costco customer service person with no questions asked.

My wife thinks this is unethical.  I don't see the problem.  "They're going to catch you.  They'll see that you've returned a tree before."

"Really?" I argued.  "Do you think they remember me?  Do you think they look at my entire history of purchases and returns to see that I'm some kind of serial Christmas tree returner?  Are they going to risk losing me as a customer and the eight hundred gallons of hummus we buy every year by giving me a hard time?  No hassle return means no hassle return."

"Yes, but..."

"Yes, but nothing.  I pay them for a tree that I then own.  When I decide I don't like it anymore, I just take it back.  It's as if it never happened.  It's a lot like having a marriage annulled."

"Don't give me any ideas."  She won't give up.  I appreciate her moral compass, but maybe just this one time she can look the other way.  "But, what if everything works?  You're just going to take it back anyway?"

"Right.  That's the beauty of this program."

"It's not a program."

"It is now."

"Oh really?"

"That's right.  For years I've been getting absolutely screwed by the Christmas tree industry.  I pay almost a hundred bucks a year to use a tree for two weeks.  It's an agonizing process that always ends with me being pissed off.  I just found a work-around.  Listen, it's the perfect deal.  We get to hunt for a new tree every year.  That's fun right?


"But, we don't have to walk around in the snow.  We don't have to drive all over creation.  It won't be cluttering up our garage.  Do you think Costco is going to go out of business because of my one little return every year?"

"Probably not, but that's not the point."

"Well, I'm doing it and that's that."  I really am quite the debater.


I can't wait to get on over to Costco to pick out our new tree.  I'll bring the whole crew with me this time.  My kids will sample strange meats and veggie dips while they wait for me to check out.  And dammit, I'm bringing my twine.  Because this year, that sucker's riding on top.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pump Panic

My daughter has been on the road as a licensed driver for about six months now.  So far (knock on wood), so good.  Not having to be a passenger anymore is the best part of her passing the driver's test.  Riding alongside her while she still had her temporary permit has easily shaved five years off of my life.  I could be upset about it, but I figure my last five years are probably not going to be all that enjoyable anyway.  So if I'm missing out on my time in the old age home where the nurses drop me on purpose and draft me in the first round of their death pool, who cares.

Whenever my wife complains that I do nothing around the house except mow the lawn and produce dirty clothes, I point out that the duty of having to train our daughter for the road and maneuverability portions of the driver's test can never be matched as agonizing parental duties go.  Add in the high level of danger, and no amount of laundry or bill paying could even remotely come close to what I put myself through during the months leading up to her exam.

Okay, so my daughter has her license.  She has a car that my brother-in-law donated to the cause.  For the most part, she's only driving short distances - to and from school and to work mostly.  It's all good, right?  Not so fast.  See there's this little issue of filling up her gas tank.  First, she stressed about when to fill it up.  A couple of month of months ago, the conversation went like this...

"Dad," she said, "I need to get gas." 

"Uh, really?  We filled it up last week.  You don't go very far anyway, so I'm sure you're good Starsky."  I started calling her Starsky right after I noticed her affinity for parking in our driveway kind of cock-eyed, like she hurried to a stop to get out chase some bad guys on foot - just like my personal television cop heroes from the '70's, Starsky & Hutch.

She brushed off the Starsky comment like it wasn't even made.  "No, I really need gas.  I don't want to run out."

"What does the gauge say."

"Like only little more than half."

"A little more than half of what?"

"A little more than half a tank."

"Are you serious?"

"You're freaking me out.  Just please fill it up for me.  I don't want to run out and be stuck on the road.  That would be so embarrassing."

At first, I figured the purpose of her asking me to fill it up for her was to extract the cash necessary from my pocket rather than her own.  So, I offered her $20 from my pocket.

"Can you just do it?  Please?"  She seemed desperate.


"I don't like to do it.  It's scary."

"Listen.  Prison is scary.  Taking a test you are unprepared for is scary.  Sometimes your mother's cooking can be scary.  Going to the gas station?  Unless it's the gas station in the movie Jeepers Creepers, filling your tank up should not be scary."

"Everyone is looking at me when I pump gas."  Now this was getting downright ridiculous.

I was tired of debating the subject, so I jumped into her 1992 Acura Legend, drove to the station and filled it up -- for $7.34.  That's not a typo.  Seven dollars and thirty four cents.  I've filled up gas cans for more than that.

Now, most of the time either my wife or I go to the gas station for my daughter.  At some point she needs to learn.  One time I followed her to the gas station down the road to see why she was having so many issues.  Turns out she's afraid to get too close to the pump.  I'm thinking she thinks she's going to knock the pump over and cause a massive explosion or something - like in an old Smokey and the Bandit movie (but she's too young to ever have seen it).  She literally gets no closer than a car's length away from the pump.  Now I know why she thinks everyone is looking at her when she goes to pump gas - because they are.  I ended up getting out of my car and pulling her car up to the pump myself. 

Then it hit me.  She's obviously not prepared.  For all the driving and maneuvering we did, never did I have her practice pulling up to a gas pump and let her do her thing.  Maybe the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles should have had us focus less on driving around a series of orange cones and broom handles and more on navigating a busy gas station.  If you know how many times my kid knocked over the orange cones as we practiced and practice and practiced maneuverability, you'd understand how much more intimidating a pump full of combustible gas is than a broom handle.

I have no idea if other parents feel like I do.  And, I have no idea if other new drivers, like my daughter, feel the way she does.  However, I do know that neither the driver's test or the standardized education that comes before it is about to change.  So, we are left to fend for ourselves. 

This aversion to gas pumps needs to change.  What if something tragic happens to my wife and I and there's no one to go to the gas station for my daughter?  She could run out of gas on the way to our funeral.  Even worse than missing the funeral or running out of gas, she could become embarrassed.  I must help her start to change today - to break the cycle of fear.  We'll practice day and night by pulling into every crowded gas station we can find, the busier the better, even if it means me jumping back into the passenger seat.  If we hit a pump or two, so be it.  And, as quickly as we slide our car next to a vacant pump, we pull away on to the next station.  Practice will make perfect.  I will not die in vain.

And if that doesn't work, she can always take the bus.