Saturday, December 13, 2008

Where Have All the Bread Makers Gone?

My dad mentioned that he was thinking of replacing their old bread machine, which was the very earliest model made. It's large, cumbersome, and noisy, and it makes weird cylindrical loaves that are awkward to slice. So my sister and I decided to give them a new bread maker as a Hanukkah present. Simple, right?

Not so much. The Troll and I visited four different stores that one would expect to carry this kind of small appliance: Sears, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and PC Richard, a big electronics/home appliance store. We saw all manner of microwaves, coffeemakers, convection overs, rice cookers, and "portable wine cellars," but not one single bread machine. It was like being in an episode of the Twilight Zone--every bread machine on earth had suddenly ceased to exist, and we were the only ones alive who knew that there ever was such a thing. We could find any other type of electrical appliance imaginable, including some that we'd never imagined (an electric wine-uncorker?) but not the one we were looking for.

I called up my sister and she started searching the Web for stores that would have it in her area. Since she lives in the big city, she ought to have more shopping options, right? Well, not exactly. She found exactly one store that carried a bread machine--Williams-Sonoma--and they only had the fancy $200 model, not the modest $60 one we had in mind.

So then I figured I'd have to order the bread machine online. My parents wouldn't get to unwrap the machine itself, but we could at least present them with a description, printed out from the Web, of the new toy that would eventually show up on their doorstep. A quick Google search turned up several sites that had the right model listed for around $40 (plus shipping, of course). Unfortunately, every site I tried to order it from said the item was out of stock or on back order. One of them initially claimed to have the machine in stock and allowed me to place an order, only to e-mail me back two hours later informing me that the item was out of stock and apologizing for any inconvenience.

At last, I came to realize that, if I was ever going to succeed in my mission, I was going to have to resort to truly desperate measures. It chilled me to the core, but I knew I had no choice.

I would have to go to Wal-Mart.

Please understand, I had never set foot in a Wal-Mart before, and I had more or less sworn that I never would. I hate just about everything about that company, from its labor practices to its predatory pricing to its insistence on selling bowdlerized versions of popular music. (The list goes on and on and on... PBS made a whole documentary about it, and Brave New Films did the same.) So I had always viewed the Big Blue Box as a symbol of everything that's wrong with American capitalism, and while I was willing to admit that the other big boxes where I shopped (Target, Home Despot, etc.) were probably far from virtuous, I had always considered Wal-Mart the one place where I absolutely drew the line. And now that line was about to be crossed.

I must admit, once I gritted my teeth and stepped across the threshold, the whole trip was quick and really quite painless. It took us probably ten minutes to find what we wanted on the shelf, take it up to the checkout, and walk out again. In fact, after all the rigmarole I'd gone through trying to find this machine elsewhere, it was almost laughable how easy the trip turned out to be. All the same, I still felt kind of dirty afterward. I consoled myself with the thought that I really hadn't given Wal-Mart my business in preference to any other retailer--there simply was no other retailer willing to sell it to me.

I can't help wondering, though: if this bread machine is so popular that all of the online stores have it backordered, then why was Wal-Mart the only bricks-and-mortar store that carried it?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

And ten percent of nothing is, let's see...

According to this article in the New York Times, people are now willing to buy up Treasury securities at zero percent yield. That's zero as in nothing. Nada. Zilch. The same amount you get putting your money under the mattress.

Now, I realize times are bad and the markets are unstable and people are afraid of losing money, but--can't you still earn four percent or so putting your money in a plain-vanilla CD? And isn't that equal to, let's see, roughly four percent more than zero? I mean, what, are the investors afraid that all the banks are going to collapse at once, bankrupting the FDIC and leaving them with nothing?

Hey, maybe the government can raise the money needed for the bailout by persuading investors to buy Treasuries at negative interest. "Here, we'll store your money in a nice safe place for just a nominal fee, and when this trouble's all over, you'll get the rest of it back."

Monday, November 24, 2008


At Thanksgiving dinner, my family doesn't "say grace" as such. Instead, we go around the table and each person there tells what he or she is thankful for at that particular point in time. Here's a list I've been working on:

I'm thankful that we took over a year shopping for a house because we absolutely insisted on staying within our price range, rather than taking advantage of low interest rates to buy a bigger house with a fancy adjustable-rate mortgage. I'm thankful that our house isn't among the 1 in 410 in our state that's currently in foreclosure.

I'm thankful that last year we kept so much money in our boring old bank account, earning a trivial rate of interest, instead of putting it all in the stock market to maximize our return.

I'm thankful that my being without work for the past couple of months hasn't really hurt us financially, because we live frugally enough to get by easily on one income. I'm thankful that we're not among the millions of people scrambling for minimum-wage jobs at federal employment centers. I'm thankful that this year we are still giving money to our local food pantry rather than relying on its services.

I'm thankful that I don't live in the Congo or the West Bank. I'm thankful that, if my country is involved in a war, it's all happening far away from me and my family--and I'm thankful that we will soon have a president who is prepared to set a date for ending the war altogether and bringing the troops home.

I'm thankful that my best friend, who was in the hospital for over a month with a dangerous heart arrhythmia, is now recovering, able to work again if not yet able to go dancing. I'm also thankful that he had a job waiting for him when he got out of the hospital after going for nearly a year without work. I'm thankful that he is engaged to a sweet woman who is taking good care of him during his recovery.

I'm thankful that my sister has found both a good man and a good house to share with him--and that she was able to sell her condo, even in a down market.

I'm thankful to have a wonderful, supportive (if goofy) husband, and a warm, fuzzy little cat to keep me company around the house (even if she does loudly request that we get up and feed her earlier than we might consider reasonable).

I'm thankful that we were able to get our attic insulated before the really cold weather hit.

I'm thankful that gas prices have come down (just in time for our annual cross-country drive next month to visit the Troll family). I'm also thankful that, despite the lower prices, Americans are continuing to drive less and pump less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And I'll be very thankful to spend just one day focusing on all the things I have to be thankful for, rather than on the things that bug me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Wealth

Last year, my father-in-law gave us a bunch of old glass-top canning jars found at a yard sale.  Since we don't have a canner, we decided to use them to store a variety of dry beans and seeds we had in our pantry.  They're now lined up in a colorful row on the shelf next to our basement stairs--white beans, red lentils, chick peas, kidney beans, brown lentils, black beans, sunflower seeds.  Every time I pass by that row of jars on the way up or down the stairs, the word that pops into my head is "wealth."

The jars themselves, with their contents, probably aren't worth more than 30 dollars.  But when I look at them, I don't just see the beans themselves: I see curried red lentil soup, chick peas in broth with crisp bread crumbs, pasta fagioli, chili, white bean stew with dumplings.  I see a dozen hearty, savory meals, right there at our fingertips.  I see the means to make it through a week-long blizzard, if we ever have to, safe and well-fed.  Those are not just seven jars of beans; those are seven jars of security.

Sometimes I think Jack in the fairy tale was perfectly sensible to trade away his old cow for a handful of beans.  What could be a better investment than that?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Internet Dependence

I never realized how much of my time I was frittering away on the Internet until my cable got taken out by high winds this past Tuesday. All of a sudden I found I was getting around to all those little projects I'd been putting off for weeks because I could never quite find the time for them.

Unfortunately, that advantage didn't really outweigh the disadvantage of being unable to run to the computer and take care of all those little things that pop up a dozen times over the course of a day. E-mails piled up in my inbox, and I could only attend to the urgent ones in half-hour blocks on the public computers at the library. Worse than that, in the final week before the election, I was cut off from, my source of the up-to-the minute polling data that I required in order to obsess over minute day-to-day changes in the electoral map. And, in what may be the highest irony of all, I had to pay my cable bill by mail, rather than using my online bill payment service, because I was afraid that I wouldn't get it paid on time if I had to wait for the company to get the cable fixed.

So I am forced at last to acknowledge that, without reliable Internet access, my life is not complete. For better or worse, I am now a cyborg.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Preparing to hibernate

The Troll and I have been busy preparing our cave for winter.  We spent much of last weekend transferring about 700 cubic feet of insulation from the basement (where it sat in tightly wrapped bundles) to the attic (where it now lies in a nice solid pink blanket).  The in-between stages of this process weren't nearly as neat; at the end of the day, I vacuumed up so much fiberglass from the hallway that the brush attachment looked like a wad of cotton candy.  But the effort was well worth it; we got the insulation in place just in time for the first frost of the season, and as the outdoor temperature dropped into the 20s, our house stayed a cozy 60 degrees.  Tonight's projects will include lubricating the boiler pump so we can fire up the heating system, wrapping up the air conditioner in its winter blanket, and attempting to salvage whatever fruits are left on our tomato plants.

I'm actually quite enjoying this whole process of settling in for winter.  It makes me feel all cozy and domestic.  Once the cold weather arrives in earnest, I'll probably be much grumpier about it, but right now it's, "Yeah, hot soup, wool sweaters, football games!  Bring it on!"