Friday, January 13, 2017

Don’t worry Amazon, you’ve got me

A recent headline left me bewildered. I found it unbelievable. And it had nothing to do with U.S. politics.

In late December, the Wall Street Journal reported “Not everyone wants to shop on Amazon.” The subhead read: “Roughly 22 million U.S. households didn’t purchase anything through the retailer this year.” [While the full story is behind the paper’s paywall, the headlines and link for subscribers is here.]

Me? I don’t know if I could live without Amazon. I buy from the online retailer so often I’ve made it a line item in my accounting software. I can buy from my PC and from my smartphone. I even bought an IBM Selectric II typewriter ribbon for my mother within minutes of her request, even though the machine's heyday was the 1970s. Some days I make multiple purchases from Amazon, hours apart, although I have to check the shopping cart so I don't buy things my husband parks there temporarily.

I don’t have anything against bricks-and-mortar stores, and there are a few I frequent. But I have to admit I have always been a terrible shopper. I can walk into a store knowing exactly what I want and still spend an inordinate amount of time on the purchase because it comes in a thousand shades of the same thing. A list is only somewhat helpful, because I get distracted by shiny, new products I never knew existed. If I walk into a store with just a sketch of objective – maybe something to wear for a special occasion – I melt into a puddle of indecision within minutes.

Before there was online shopping, there were catalogs. I loved catalogs. I still do. I page through them while watching TV. I know I’ve seen the same activewear every week for years, if not decades. Those fresh-faced models must be collecting Social Security by now. Yet whenever a new catalog arrives, I have to flip through before dropping it in the recycling bin.

What catalogs used to do for me, and what online shopping does now – particularly with sites like Amazon – is show me the exact items I'm thinking of buying. There are multiple views, colors, and reviews from others who bought the product. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for a lot of smaller purchases and keeps me from running around town – unless it's to the post office to mail a return.

These days shopping trips to retail stores are something I plan. I might pre-shop online to get a sense of what’s available before venturing out into the real retail world. I try things on. I feel fabrics. I look for new arrivals. I peruse sale racks. And I make a bunch of purchases.

I’m still a terrible shopper, but now I can shop terribly both online and in my local stores. I guess that’s a win-win-win all around. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Homebound by reality TV

 My guilty pleasure is watching HGTV shows about home renovations. “Love it or List it.” “Flip or  Flop.” “Property Brothers.” “Fixer Upper.” “Tiny House Hunters.” Even my husband now watches, remarking on the strange and sometimes silly choices made, both by homeowners and renovators.

At this point, I’ve seen enough shows and refurbished homes that they’re all starting to look alike. I can predict with certainty that interior walls will come down, large islands will dominate new kitchens, hardwood floors will supplant carpeting, and subway tile will be the go-to choice for bathrooms and kitchens.

I could play house-hunting Bingo with phrases likely to be muttered by potential homeowners viewing properties:
  • “This kitchen is sooooo dated.”
  • “Ew, I don’t like the brick fireplace.”
  • “There’s no ‘wow’ factor in the foyer.”
  • “I don’t think having one sink in the bathroom will work for us.”
  • “White walls, how boring,” or “I don’t like the wall color; it all needs to be white.”
I get a lot of exercise rolling my eyes. Maybe it’s because decades of homeownership, and four houses later, I’ve learned that every single one needs work to make it your own. I’ve stripped my share of wallpaper, painted and repainted walls, changed out old carpeting for hardwood and new carpets, remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, and replaced windows, doors, and siding.

Still, I can imagine an HGTV host walking in the door and pronouncing my house dated. Corian instead of quartz countertops? A kitchen peninsula instead of an island? No shiplap or backsplash? A laundry area in the kitchen? How quaint and 1980s. They would definitely recommend ripping everything out and starting fresh.

“Have at it,” I’ll tell the next buyers, but I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. Rather than dated, I consider these timeless design elements. My house is functional, if not trendy. I did have subway tile in my first house, but after years of riding subways, I now associate them with the pungent smell of urine. So, no thanks, I won’t be choosing subway tile anytime soon.

The more I watch home shows, the less enamored I become of the result. Most look like showplaces or upscale hotels instead of cozy homes. Or they are the nth version of redesigns featured in previous weeks. Some even look just like the home section of retail stores. Maybe I would want a trendier look if I were buying my first house, but these days I’m content with tried and true.

My only comfort is knowing that today’s trends quickly turn into tomorrow’s outdated designs, which in time become vintage. All I have to do is wait.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Near misses and dodged bullets

'Tis the time of year when stuff happens – and not the kind of stuff anyone looks forward to. Most people have stories of an ailing parent or family member. Car accidents seem less accidental and more destined, especially with mobile-device-using drivers on the road. And there's always the unknowable and unexpected. If you’re lucky, the outcome is nothing terminal, chronic, or expensive to fix.

For me, last week seemed the perfect storm of potentially bad stuff happening. Respiratory symptoms recurred that should have been long gone. Friends reported strange ailments. Elderly moms (mine and others’) required immediate medical interventions. And our sports car took off on its own.

After a few worrying days, most things returned to near normal. Medical consultations occurred. Conditions  stabilized. And our car was successfully extracted from the neighbor’s backyard.

Oh, I guess that last one needs some explanation. It helps to know that my husband has lusted after this particular model sports car since age 14. Finally, in 2012, we bought a gently used 2005 Porsche 911. My one stipulation was that it be his everyday car. On Thursday he drove it to the store. Upon returning he asked: “Do you want the good news or the bad?” That’s never a good opener, and I opted for the good news. “No one got hurt.” The bad news? He had to show me.

I followed him into the garage, and I kept following him down the driveway, through the yard between two neighbors, down the terraced backyard of one neighbor, and to the creek bordering the local farm market. There it was. The Porsche. Looking perfect, but perfectly stuck in a ditch.

Funny thing about emergency brakes; when they fail, they cause their own emergencies. My husband had parked the car in the garage, set the brake, got out, and backed away. The car also backed away, slowly, on cat’s feet. My husband saw what was happening, but – luckily – didn’t make matters worse by attempting to stop a moving car.

He ran alongside until the car outpaced him. Then he watched it hop a curb, scamper down the neighbor's sloping lawn, and settle in the creek bed. It took 24 hours, three tow trucks and their operators, a winch, and the kindness of neighbors to get it unstuck. The professionals parked it safely on the flatbed and towed to the shop where the claims adjuster could have a look-see. Our insurance company, State Farm, couldn’t have been more responsive and even nice about the whole thing. And the neighbors were appropriately astounded and amused at our predicament.

We were lucky. Things could easily have gone sideways. Or, as the Brits say, pear-shaped. The car could have hit someone or something. It could have flipped or landed in the neighbor’s living room. Instead, it just went for a wander.

I consider last week one of near misses and dodged bullets. Things could have been a whole lot worse in a number of different ways. But they weren’t. And for that, I am truly grateful


Monday, November 28, 2016

Why I follow you…or not

There’s a lot made of the follows and likes on social media. Articles offer tips on ways to get more followers. Businesses of every stripe plead to be liked. Some social awareness marketing sites offer shortcuts to those who want to, in essence, buy followers, likes, and shares for their business, their brand, or themselves.

I started my blog in 2008 and joined Twitter in 2010 to see what social media was all about. I began to follow people I knew personally or professionally. I followed thought leaders and people who made me laugh. I looked for favorite news outlets and interesting sites.

There’s no great rhyme or reason to my following, or unfollowing, strategies. A follow or like doesn’t mean I’m a true-blue, faithful fan. And an unfollow doesn’t mean you’ve lost my confidence. There’s no analytic or deeper meaning here. I’m just a fickle consumer of social media.

I recently began following a number of local and national politicians on Twitter. No, wait. Don’t stop reading now. It’s not what you think. There’s an old saying, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” So I am testing a theory about listening to people I otherwise might avoid. I am trying to get more insight into differences, discover plans that may be in the works, and see if there is any common ground in uncommon areas.

So far, my experiment is proving only partly successful. I’ve had to unfollow a few who seem untethered to reality as I know it – and to those who post mainly platitudes and party lines, with little original thought to contribute. On the other hand, I am beginning to feel a little more informed about who is saying what or doing something for, or against, things that matter to me.

As social media has evolved, it has gained far more impact and influence than most could ever have imagined. Where it goes from here is just as unknowable. The only thing that seems certain is continual tinkering with technology so that today’s hot networking sites will one day be leapfrogged by something even hotter.

Me? I can’t wait to follow what’s next.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Driven to distraction by direction seekers

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published April 25, 2007, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

It often happens that when I’m running along the streets of Delaware County, people will stop their cars to ask for directions.

What they really need to do is pull into a gas station, but I guess that’s like admitting defeat. By asking someone on the run, they must think our more casual encounter doesn’t count against their navigation skills. What they don’t know is this: They’re asking the wrong person.

My running buddies and I meet in Media, in Upper Providence, in Springfield, in Swarthmore. Occasionally, we run in Collingdale, Aldan, or Secane. We know the courses because we’ve been doing them for years. What we don’t know are all the street names. Or where a certain business is. Or the nearest ATM.

Even if I did know, it would take a few minutes for that knowledge to break through the mental fog as I get my bearings. I first have to catch my breath, figure out where I am, see if I know where the target location is and then try to simplify the directions between Point A (where I’m standing) and Point B (where they really want to be).

I might be able to do all that given enough time. But when traffic piles up and horns blare, my mind jams. Even if I do know the way, I have a hard time translating my backstreet routes and shortcuts into the roads most traveled.

What drivers don’t seem to realize is that if I’m running, I’m not going to be too happy about unplanned stops. Yes, it’s nice to help strangers find their way, and I’m most eager to be of service when I’m walking around town. When I’m in mid-run, it can be hard to stop and equally hard to start again. 

That’s not just a personal problem, that’s the law. According to Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, the natural tendency is for a body in motion to remain in motion—and a body at rest to remain at rest—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. I don’t know how balanced these drivers are, but they certainly are clueless.

Never before in history have there been so many tools available to help people find their way. Haven’t they heard about the online mapping sites of Google, Yahoo or Microsoft Live? Didn’t they stock up on printed maps at AAA? Can’t they navigate by satellite with GPS? There are now global positioning systems available for any car, motorcycle, boat, laptop computer, mobile phone or wrist.

When you consider the near ubiquity of mobile phones, there’s really no reason to ever be lost. I’ve seen people use their phones to find loved ones on crowded streets in Singapore and busy arcades at the Jersey Shore. You would think drivers could pull over and call their destination for directions as easily as stopping a crazy runner on the street.

Some coast-along drivers won’t even take “No” for an answer. They follow you at low speeds, even as you shake your head and shrug your shoulders—the universal sign for “You got me.” There are times when I don’t even slow down for drivers’ questions. I’m not being rude, I just know that I won’t be of much help. There’s also the strong possibility that I would end up sending them in the wrong direction—unintentionally, of course.

There are no take-backs once the driver pulls away and you’ve suddenly remembered that he should be on Route 252, not 352 or 452. A simple misspeak in numbers can put someone miles off course. The only bright side is that by the time he realizes that he’s way far from his destination, he won’t be able to find me either.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Yes, wardrobes have expiration dates

It has been more than 16 years since I left the corporate environment. And it has taken me about as long to purge my closet of corporate attire.

The first few passes culled items that showed wear, poor buying choices, and extremely out-of-date clothing. (Think shoulder pads.) The next few passes were harder.

It was much easier to make choices when, as a kid, I simply outgrew things. No such luck anymore. Growth spurts stopped in my teens. And, luckily, I’ve been relatively consistent in weight, so my wardrobe still fits. It just may not fit the latest style.

It’s not that I’m a fashion maven or trendy. I buy for the long term, preferring pieces that mix and match with what I already own. What I rarely think about is expiration dates on wardrobe items. And I should.

Case in point: I recently attended a wedding wearing clothing of different vintages and a pair of pumps that had seen many a corporate hallway. It wasn’t until I sat down at the ceremony that I noticed a chunk of outsole missing from my shoe. I quickly shifted my position to hide the flaw and all was well. Or so I thought.

At the first dance, the harsh reality of shoe failure hit. Just a few step-touch, step-touch moves and both soles cracked and crumbled. Chunks of sole resembling cake icing were left in my wake. I beat a hasty retreat to the table and, soon after, to the car.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the great pantyhose failure a few years ago. I had tapped my stash of stockings, a holdover from when they were a corporate necessity, for a night in the city. Things were fine through the movie and dinner, but quickly unraveled on the walk back to the car. (For those of you old enough to remember Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, think of the Ruth Buzzi old-lady character with stockings pooling around her ankles.)

They say things come in threes, so I can only imagine what my third wardrobe failure will be. I can only be more vigilant in inspection whenever I pull something out of the closet to wear.

I have long respected expiration dates on medicines, food, and beverages. Now I’m adding shoes, stockings, and other clothing items to the list. Apparently wardrobes have expiration dates, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

It's my race, and I'll cry if I want to

#ThrowbackThursday: With the annual Delco RRC Cross Country Championships this weekend, it seems appropriate to republish this column, which originally ran December 1993 in the Road Runners Club newsletter. 

Some people get more out of running than others. Devotees go on at length about the many advantages, both physical and mental. A few even talk about a spiritual side of running. But you don't often hear about the crying.

I don't know whether crying makes you run faster or if it just takes your mind off the mindless repetition of left-right-left-right-left-right. I've never tried the crying technique because I've had such success with my "bitching and moaning" training program (where you run while complaining about everything and anything.)

I was first introduced to crying runs a few years back at the annual Delco RRC Cross Country Championships at Rose Tree Park. Each year, I've seen the number of disciples grow until this year it reached a new high.

I'd like to avoid saying that crying is gender based, but so far only the high school girls have been spotted sobbing their way through the 5K course. (The boys have their own idiosyncrasies: I've heard cursing in cadence and seen far too many "recycled" lunches.)

Not all the girls cry on the course, just a few. But those few are so good at it, it's like watching a new art form emerge. When they go by, you don't know whether to offer a tissue or applaud the effort.

I hope you don't get the impression that I'm hard-hearted or cruel. I do my duty as course marshal and make sure the runners are all right. But you have to stand in awe of a physically fit, well-built junior at the back of the pack who can crank up the decibels every time her male team members cheer her onward. That's what got me thinking this was more a theatrical performance than a physical phenomenon. 

It also reminded me of my 18-month-old nephew who only likes to cry when he knows people are watching. He'll screw up his face, let out a few howls, take a few deep breaths, and then peek to see if he's got your attention.

One of the reasons I'm attracted to running is that anything goes. You can wear what you want, run when and where you want, and there's no single form that's right for everyone. So, if crying helps some people to run better, who am I to question? And if it becomes a trend, just remember where you heard it first.