July 22, 2009

Feeling Ritzy

This is a compensated review from BlogHer and Ritz Crackerfuls. It's also your chance to win a $100 gift card!

Ever since we got new patio furniture in March, Simon has been inviting anyone and everyone to come over and try it out. "You do sit, don't you?" he asks the friend/acquaintance/stranger. "Legs bend and all?"*

Now, this unbridled hospitality is all fine and good, except that you can't invite people over for a sit and then just...sit. You also have to "entertain" them, and I mean that not in the Gypsy Rose Lee sense (usually) but in the Martha Stewart sense. (See also every single buyer on House Hunters, who can't just say, "I need a big kitchen because I like to have parties" because no, when you are old enough to have a house, you are too mature and sophisticated to have "parties"--you must entertain. La. Dee. Dah.)

Anyway, guess who freaks out about preparing for guests because, OMG, there are floors to sweep and bathrooms to scrub and lemons to squeeze and snacks to purchase and then prepare and then arrange artfully on a platter in a casually elegant manner? Yes, that would be me. I tend to freak out so much about the food, in fact, that nine times out of ten Simon orders me to go huddle in a corner and breathe into a paper bag while he takes care of everything himself. He's a saint, that one. (And also not too shabby when it comes to artfully arranging slices of rustic bread in a napkin-lined basket.)

So it was with one such event fresh in my mind that I volunteered to review the new Ritz Crackerfuls for BlogHer. My main criteria was "Will this make it easier for me to entertain the often spur-of-the-moment company that my more social half likes to bring home?" Let's see how they did, shall we?

Pro: They're delicious. All the buttery goodness of Ritz you've always loved.

Con: The filling has real cheese in it, but it looks and feels a bit like the stuff that comes in an aerosol can (which is also delicious albeit not to everyone's tastes).

Pro: Each Crackerful is individually sealed, which means no more half-empty boxes of crackers going stale in our pantry, which, as you can see, is a MAJOR problem.

Con: All that extra packaging means a whole lot of extra garbage. :(

Pro: Because the cheese and crackers are already assembled, Crackerfuls are a good one-handed snack, which is especially handy (ha!) if you have to wrestle an infant while also entertaining your friends (who are wrestling their infant).

Con: They're kind of crumbly and messy, especially if you're trying to eat them with one hand.

Pro: The cats love hoovering the crumbs off the floor--they've also always loved the buttery goodness of Ritz--so that's a win-win for the entire family!

Overall, Simon doesn't think he'd use Crackerfuls specifically for guests, but we both agreed that they make a fine every-now-and-then snack. (Perhaps that's why they come in boxes of six, individually wrapped, instead of boxes of fifty, dump-into-a-bowl-able?) Right now there's one in my purse as an emergency treat (never leave home without one), and I'm taking another to hide in my desk at work.

So, although Crackerfuls didn't really pass my "entertaining" test, they do pass the most important one: They're yummy. Case in point, I'd intended to take a photo of the unopened boxes for use in this post, but before I knew it both boxes were open and half gone. Simon tried blaming the cats, but there's no way they could have unwrapped each individual cracker without the aid of opposable thumbs, so...Busted!

***

Hey, want to win a $100 gift card? Leave me a comment telling me what time of day you totally crash and need a quick snacky pick-me-up. (For me, it's always at about 10 a.m. And then 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.)

To enter, you can comment here, leave a link to your own blog post about this contest, leave a link to your Tweet (Twittering?) about this contest, or do all three. (No duplicate comments, though.) You can also check out what other BlogHer reviewers have said about Crackerfuls and leave comments on their entries. The contest runs from July 21 at 9 a.m. PST through August 20 at 5 p.m. PST and is open to all US residents age 18 and older. Winners will be selected at random and will be notified by email, so leave a valid address if you want to win. See official rules here.

For more information on Ritz Crackerfuls, visit the official site.

*Fifty gold stars for anyone who knows this reference!

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May 20, 2009

Better than Ice Cream

[This is a compensated review from BlogHer and Dreyer's/Edy's Slow Churned Neighborhood Salute.]

We're coming up on the two-year anniversary of moving into our house (can you believe it?), and although these days it's tougher to pay the mortgage--not to mention tougher to reconcile paying so much when the market has fallen so far--Simon and I still find ourselves saying, out loud, every week, "Man, I love this house." Ninety-seven years old with a crumbling foundation and a few shingles shy of a sound roof, it's the place we love coming home to and love calling home. She's a dear old broad with baby blue hair and a few missing teeth, but dammit, she's ours.

One of the most challenging and yet rewarding things about our house is its location: a little pocket of loveliness deep in the heart of Oakland, California, a city whose murder and violent crime rates are between two and three times the national average. Our neighborhood listserve is as active as it is rife with tales of break-ins and robberies, car thefts, and even early morning sidewalk muggings, but amazingly--and almost unbelievably--it's just as full of neighbors helping neighbors, building a community against all odds, whether that means keeping an eye out for suspicious activity on the block or just inviting everyone over for a friendly potluck open house or a plant swap or a playdate.

We really lucked out when it came to neighbors. In a place like the Bay Area, where it seems everyone is a transplant and always in between where they started from and where they'll end up, it's not unusal to live among strangers for years or decades, even while sharing a hallway or a wall. Unlike the neighborhood I grew up in, in suburban Salt Lake City, we adopted Oaklanders are not all from basically the same place with basically the same beliefs and basically the same history, and that can make it hard to connect with people who, on the outside, seem so different.

For instance, our neighbors to the left and right and across the street are a mixture of twenty-somethings, fifty-somethings, and eighty-somethings, and they are black, Asian, and ostensibly Jewish (but then why the Christmas tree every year, guys? so confusing!). These couples moved into their houses three, thirteen, and thirty-nine years ago, and as such reflect the times when the neighborhood was accessible to working-class families, and then only to top-earners, and now to us brave first-timers. It's an unusual collection of residents who have settled here--juxtapositions only an urban sociologist could have predicted--but these are the neighbors with whom we share much more than just a polite nod when we catch their eyes at the curb on garbage night. We share gardening tips over the backyard fence; they water our vegetables while we're out of town; we leave a bag of lemons on their porch in the morning and they bring over fresh lemonade in the afternoon; they call the cops when they don't recognize our housesitter (oops); and they invite us over (finally!) to explore their attic full of first editions and artifacts left behind by a Very Famous Author who used to write masterpieces from their study. These people have become our friends.

Our house has history and our neighborhood has history, but more than that our neighbors have history. It's a little scary to move from somewhere as homogenous and vanilla as Utah to somewhere as...well, it's the San Francisco Bay Area, 'nuff said, and yet the more I step out of my comfort zone, the more I realize that a little effort to reach out makes the reward, the friendships, all the sweeter. It sounds cheesy, but the more I hear the stories of people who are different, the more I realize how much we are the same.

Now, here's where you get to tell your own stories and reap your own sweet rewards. (Read: FREE ICE CREAM!) Dreyer's (or Edy's, for those of you east of the Rockies) is holding its fifth annual Neighborhood Salute contest, in which they sponsor 1,500 ice cream block parties for deserving neighborhoods across America. (Sorry, Canadians, but fear not, you're eligible for other prizes later. Keep reading!) To win a party for your neighborhood--we're talking ice cream, bowls, spoons, everything delivered to your doorstep for you and ninety-nine friends--Visit www.SlowChurned.com and click on the Neighborhood Salute logo to submit your 350-word essay about why your neighborhood deserves the treat.

And for those of you who want a little extra ice cream all to yourselves, this one's for you. To enter to win a free quart and a half of Dreyer's Slow Churned Ice Cream that you don't have to share with ANYONE, leave a comment at the end of this post telling me your best ice cream story or memory. (If you don't have a good story, you can enter to win by telling me your favorite flavor and fixins--I'm a vanilla with gummy bears girl myself; perhaps a reflection of my vanilla-with-gummy-bears upbringing in suburban Utah?) The contest will be open until May 29 (midnight, ET), and ten winners (TEN!) will be chosen at random. To read more stories (and for more chances to win!) visit BlogHer's roundup page here.

The rules:
*No duplicate comments.
*You may receive an additional entry by Twittering about this contest (and leaving a link to the Twitter in the comments below).
*You may receive an additional entry by blogging about this contest (and leaving a link to the post in the comments below).
*This giveaway is open to U.S. residents, 18 and older.
*Winners will be selected via random draw, and will notified by email, so be sure to leave a valid email address if you want to win.
*If you're a winner, you have forty-eight hours to respond before a new winner will be selected in your place.
*Please see the official rules here. Good luck, all you lovers of ice cream and free stuff! Click Here

April 20, 2009

A Place for Everything

(Another perfectly timed (and compensated!) (and honest!) review for BlogHer! This time I'm stepping out of my SAHM shoes and into my WAHM slippers to review a new line of organizational products for OfficeMax.)

exclusofficemax.jpg

Q: What's the last thing you'd expect to hear from an organizational expert during a webcast promoting his new line of organizational products?

A: "BUY NOTHING."

Seriously? Done! Granted, my new home office a blank slate to begin with and I just got a box of free samples from OfficeMax, but already I'm feeling more organized. Click here to see why.

Peter Walsh (you may know him from Oprah or Clean Sweep) is the professional organizer/designer who said if you want to get organized, "Buy nothing." Simple enough, but please note that he didn't say "Do nothing." Before investing in any kind of organizing tools, he says, it's best to start by decluttering and rearranging, so that you know what you have to work with and what you need to make it better.

Once that "do" part is taken care of, though, it's time for the fun part--the "buy things" part--and a good place to start is with Peter Walsh's new line of products from OfficeMax.

The [In]Place system is just that--a system, with compatible components that not only mix and match with each other but also interface with what you already have so you don't have to start from scratch and throw out all the office supplies you've stolen from your company bought collected over the years. The [In]Place products are standardized to work with your old filing cabinets and desk sorters, but a few new twists bring them up to date and might make you actually want to get organized, which I think is the real value here.

The twists:

--Everything is visible. If one of the keys to a better workspace is keeping the important things in your line of sight, opaque folders are the way to go. Being able to see what's inside makes the contents harder to ignore and therefore less likely to fall through the cracks. (Remember my whole "But we DID pay the mortgage!" crisis from a while back?) But if, perhaps, you'd rather not see the contents of your folders (because who wants to look at old tax statements, right?), you can line the insides with decorative paper or photos instead, and then not only will your office look prettier and feel prettier minus all the visual noise, but it will also always match your unique taste, even if your taste changes every six months.

--Everything is reusable. No matter how many times you flip over and turn inside out those classic manila file folders, there comes a point at which they've reached the end of their road. They're battered and ragged and you've written on the label tabs so many times they're bleeding ink. The [In]Place folders are a definite upgrade with their durable construction (they're made of polypropylene, if you must know) and their erasable marker system. Not only are the color-coded clip-on tabs write-on/erasable, but so are the folders themselves. You can label, re-label, and re-re-label to your heart's content, as well as use the folder surface itself (both inside and outside) to take notes, keep checklists, or doodle during boring staff meetings.

--Everything is customizable. The [In]Place line was not just created but designed. By a designer. Everything is mix and match and flexible so that you can achieve whatever system, look, and feel you want. You can put folder tabs where you want, use whatever color labeling you want, and change your mind about the look of everything as often as you want. The [In]Place line is not an end point but a starting point, giving you the basics--the tools--for great office design.

Sound perfect? Not quite. In playing around with my free samples, I discovered two minor drawbacks:

1. In order to use the [In]Place system the way it was meant to be used, you do have to buy the special erasable pen, and probably several of them because aren't we always losing pens, even though I swear I put it right here just a second ago?

2. The system is so well-designed and so sleek and clean and sensible that you may find yourself wanting to throw out all those old swamp-green hanging files so you can redecorate everything in matching opaque polypropylene. And even if the product line doesn't have everything you need yet, Peter Walsh assured us in the sneak-preview webinar (you can see it here) that this is just the beginning of a system that will surely expand. I, for one, hope they design an opaque storage box for my cat, who likes to sit on my lap while I work and rub her chin on the space bar, making me think my computer has a poltergeist.

So, I think this stuff is pretty cool, and pretty pretty. And while I will say that I don't think any amount of designer file folders or whimsical paperclips is going to radically change the way most people work--no product, no matter its "usability," can magically transform a disorganized person into an organized one--I do think that a well-designed office can help inspire a workspace revolution and help anyone work better, work smarter, and work quicker so you can get back to the important stuff--the life, the family, the cat in the box.

Check out other BlogHer reviewers' takes here and, if you would, please, let me (and BlogHer and OfficeMax) know what you think in the comments section below. One thing I'm actually curious about is what unconventional product (a la my Office Cat Box) would make your workday easier? An invisible force field to keep the kids out of your hair? Perhaps a massage chair that also compliments your outfit? Update: Now with free stuff! Leave a comment here to enter to win a $200 gift card from OfficeMax! Go!

February 10, 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouse

It's Barbie's 50th Anniversary, and BlogHer is helping celebrate with special offers and a network-wide promotion of some HUGE Barbie-related events. Part of the campaign is devoted to reviewers (that's me!) and readers (that's you!) sharing their favorite Barbie stories and memories. Click here to read what Simon and I wrote and to find out which one of us was the bigger Barbie fan as a kid...

Simon Says:

When we are conceived in the womb, when we are undifferentiated fetuses, we all develop toward being female unless there is an introduction of certain hormones, in which case we become male. Every father feels a connection when he sees that little boy come out into the world immediately prepared to grasp a football or eat a big rare steak or drive a giant truck with huge tires and loud rock and roll coming from huge speakers, right? I'm joking, of course, although some of that does ring true. When my dad’s friend Mike came to see me in my crib after I was born, the first thing he said to my dad was, “Where’s his basketball?”

We know, as fathers to our sons, that we will love them, no matter what. They are, after all, reflections of ourselves, replications of our own genetic material, the manner by which we project our existence into the future. That being said, there is always the mild worry that our sons won’t conform to the standards of masculinity that are set out by society, that they will be taunted on the schoolyard, that they will prefer Martha Stewart to Monday Night Football, that they will quit the lacrosse team to join the dance team. My own father had such a scare once, which I will relate to you now.

When I was five, my parents went out of town. I think it was a business trip to Acapulco. Naturally, the kids were not invited. My sister and I were shipped off to stay the weekend with the Stephenson family across town. I had met the Stephensons only a few times, but I was happy to go and stay because the youngest daughter was my age and was a true vision of beauty to my five-year-old self. Ahhh, Katie Stephenson, with her beautiful blonde braids and blue eyes. Such grace, such beauty; she even picked her nose with panache. How I loved her!

What was my fate at the Stephenson household? I got to play with beautiful Katie for an entire week that winter, in the basement playroom, making forts, telling stories, playing tag. But mostly, we played with her Barbies. I had never seen Barbies before, and I loved them! They were so cool! Barbie had a big cool house! A sweet Corvette, a bitchin’ motorhome! She had all the best stuff! Shoes! Dresses! By the end of the week, I was less interested in Katie than I was in her Barbies.

When my parents got home, they asked me if I had fun. Imagine the look on my dad’s face when I started telling them that I wanted Barbies for myself! I wanted the Corvette! The motorhome! The mansion! But most of all, I wanted the dolls! I wanted Pink Streamer Fun Time Barbie! I wanted the Astronaut Barbie! I wanted the Unicorn Happy-time Magical Candyfloss Sweetness Barbie! I wanted Skipper! I wanted the Black Barbie! I wanted them all.

Years later, in my late teens, my dad told me about the horror he felt when his son came home from a week with the Stephensons and wanted Barbies. He had been worried that I would never live up to his expectations of manliness. Although I think that concepts like masculinity, body image, self-worth, and expectations about the female form are all far larger than a doll, maybe my father’s fears weren’t completely unfounded. The day he told me about his reaction to my Barbie request was the day that he came to see me in perform in Rocky Horror Picture Show in fishnets, platform heels, and women’s underwear. Maybe Barbie was a bigger part of shaping my identity than I thought.

***

Leah Says:

It has been noted here before that my grandmother is borderline pathological when it comes to collecting dolls. The holy grail of dolls is, of course, Barbie, and my grandma has all of them, mint and boxed and untouched. I don't think I've actually seen more than one at a time at her house because she only ever has her latest acquisition on display; the rest are stowed away in a closet that may or may not be protected with a vacuum seal and barbed wire. Imagine that--all those dolls that no one will ever play with, that she will never sell. Is that what Barbie was made for?

My aunt (daughter of the above grandmother) is also a doll collector but to a more casual degree; her Barbies were allowed to come out of their boxes and even suffer the touch of a real, live human child--or at least the dime-a-dozen ones were. I never saw let alone touched her original 1959 black-and-white bathing suit Barbie, and then about ten years ago she sold it for several thousand dollars and used the money to buy a jacuzzi. Doll collecting--of Barbies especially--is big business, but is that what Barbie was made for?

As for me, I didn't own a Barbie until I was eighteen years old. My grandmother (who else?) gave me one for high school graduation--Barbie in a purple cap and gown, diploma in hand--but, being all grown up, I must confess that I never helped Graduation Barbie fulfill her life's purpose: to participate in a make-believe commencement ceremony to a child's humming of "Pomp and Circumstance." That Barbie is still in my closet at my parents' house, mint, boxed, and untouched. My grandmother gave it to me to commemorate my achievement--perhaps in hopes that I'd remember that day the way she remembers Christmas 19XX whenever she sees her Limited Edition Christmas 19XX Barbie?--but to this day it reminds me more of my grandmother herself than of high school graduation. Is that what Barbie was made for?

Good or bad, Barbie is as symbolic as she is iconic. Children, adults, girls and boys, feminists, post-feminists, collectors, business people, hot tubbers, high school graduates, and proud grandmas--Barbie is something different to everyone, and I think that's why she's been around for fifty years. She is fashion, fantasy, dreams about the future, and a remembrance of things past. Barbie is whoever we want her to be, and whether that's what Barbies were made for or not, that's what she's become.

What does Barbie mean to you?

***

For Simon, a good portion of Barbie's allure was her Stuff. If it's Stuff he wants, then Stuff he'll have courtesy of the 50th Anniversary celebration events, which you can read all about here. Some of my favorite promotions are:

--the partnership with Dylan's Candy Bar, which makes chocolates I can vouch for

--the pink-carpet event of the year, Barbie's birthday party (on March 9th she'll be eighteen years old, AGAIN) at her life-sized "Real" Malibu Dream House, in Malibu, decorated by "Happy Chic" designer Jonathan Adler (sadly, this event is invitation only)

--the release on March 9th of a modern take on the original 1959 Black and White Bathing Suit Doll (I wonder if my aunt will buy one?)

--the limited edition 50th Anniversary Collector Barbie, respledent in gold tulle for her Golden Anniversary, and selling for fifty bucks--a dollar per year; I'm sure she will secure a place of honor in my grandmother's closet

More details and special events can be found here, and you can also check out Barbie gone digital on her "All Doll'd Up blog", her Facebook page, and her Twitter account. But before you go, do you have a Barbie story to share?

November 24, 2008

Pretty Baby a la EsteeLauder.com

A few weeks ago I got an email from Jenny at BlogHer that included the sentence, "Now, let's get out there and get pretty!" Boy, was that ever the right thing to say to me! I'm feeling spectacularly unpretty rather often these days (thirty extra pounds and rampant flatulence will do that to a girl), so of course I jumped on the offer to do a site review for the new esteelauder.com in exchange for $100 to spend on some frou-frou girly makeupy stuff. Click here for the scoop.

***

First of all, let me say that $100 in frou-frou girly makeupy stuff at Estee Lauder is not the same as $100 in frou-frou girly makeupy stuff at Target. In the past, buying even a six-dollar eyeshadow compact every three years always meant swallowing a gold-bar-sized lump in my throat, but ever since I tried some big-girl moisturizer and big-girl hair cream earlier this year, I've come to terms with the fact that sometimes it's worth it to spring for a product that actually makes a difference in how I look and feel (who knew?). Thus it was that I shopped the new esteelauder.com not with the goal of seeing how far I could stretch $100 (news flash: more isn't always better) but in the spirit of finding quality products to help build my own grown-up "basic makeup wardrobe," if you will. I ended up ordering a blush brush, an eyeshadow brush, some concealer, and an eyeshadow duo, and you know what? I think it was money well spent. Sure, it wasn't technically my money, but that's never stopped me from feeling bad if I use it unwisely. (We now have several hundreds of dollars in gift cards for baby things, and oh, it's killing me to decide the best way to spend them! Big fancy monitor? Or diapers and wipes?)

But this review isn't about the Estee Lauder products themselves. (Mine haven't actually arrived yet because I forwent the offer of overnight shipping in exchange for the offer of a free sampler set. Because sometimes more is better!) This review is instead about the design and functionality of the website itself, and thank heavens I found the site well-made and easy to use because whenever I'm asked for my honest opinion, I'm always a little afraid I'll have some not-so-nice things to say, which is a crappy position to be in when you've already shopped with their $100. But, phew, I sure dodged that bullet this time, because I thought the site was pretty awesome.

First, let me get one hurdle out of the way. The site has a lot of animation and video features and scroll-over pop-up windows, which are great if you have a fast connection and an updated browser but DOOOOOOM if you don't. I initially opened the site using a really old version of Safari (we're talking several years old) and it completely crashed my browser. Oops. Thinking that this would probably hinder my ability to review the site, not to mention shop from it, I updated my browser and everything worked fine from then on out. Good thing, too, because the animations and videos and scroll-over pop-ups ended up being some of my favorite features of the site. (My very favorite feature of the site, however, was that most of the products were displayed either at or close to actual size, which was especially helpful when deciding which brushes to buy.)

Other thoughts:

--Homepage: I liked that everything was "above the fold" on my screen. I hate it when I have to scroll down for basic information the second I navigate to a site.

--Live Chat: I've done a few live chats with customer service reps before, and although all of them have been helpful, this one was by far the most polite. My question was about whether I could use my overnight shipping code AND the holiday sampler code on the same order (the checkout page said only one special offer was allowed), and although the answer was no, my uber-polite customer service rep, Dana, said, "regrettably no," and then tried to find a way for me to use both codes anyway--by splitting up my order, by using one now and one later, etc. She was super nice and I really felt like she was trying to help me get a good deal. I was especially glad that she was even able to answer my question at all considering Live Chat is intended for beauty consultation and not for technical questions. When I asked my question, I fully expected to be told to email a sales rep directly and then wait five to seven business days for someone to get back to me, so what a lovely surprise to have Dana actually answer my question herself! The only negative about Live Chat is that it keeps business hours, which means that if it's 10 p.m. and you have an urgent question about which foundation is right for you, you're going to have to wait until morning for help. Not the end of the world, but still, a foundation emergency is still an emergency, am I right?

--Foundation Finder: And speaking of foundation emergencies, the only thing scarier than buying foundation online is buying pants online. Technology has come a long way since Al Gore invented the Internet, but I still don't trust it to accurately gague the size of my butt or the undertones of my skin. The Foundation Finder, taking into account that you can't trust the colors on your screen, is smart in that it doesn't just show you the variety of available shades (which may be wildly different in person depending on how your monitor is calibrated) but instead asks questions that help you figure out what your shade should be. (What's your skin type? What kind of coverage do you prefer? Is your undertone warm, cool, or neutral?) The one thing I wish it had was suggestions about which type of concealer to use with which kind of foundation (either that or a separate Concealer Finder feature) because I'm still pretty wary about whether the $20 concealer I bought will be a match. (Ladies and gentlemen, this is my pathetic idea of living dangerously. Buying concealer online with someone else's money! Wow!)

--How-To Videos: I loved the idea behind the how-to clips, but I have to say that the videos were a little overproduced for my tastes. There were too many cutaways between different "edgy" angles, and it felt at times like watching a music concert video, which usually makes me want to throttle the producers because I don't care about all the neat things you can do with your editing equipment, I just want to look at the dreamy lead singer for more than two seconds at a time (and Simon wants to check out his sweet guitar). But aside from the production of the videos distracting from the content, the content itself was good, especially if you need a little instruction about how to use a big-girl blush brush because for the last fifteen years you've been using the two-inch one that comes in the compact with your $4 Target special. (Ahem.)

--Model Looks: Awesome. Like a Cosmo article come to life. Not only do you see the makeup used on a real person and get tips about application, but there are also direct links to the products used, usually in a "Quick View" pop-up window that allows you to preview a product without having to navigate away from the current page. I love that because it means I don't have to take notes while I'm shopping and I also don't lose my place, which sometimes happens with wishy-washy shoppers like myself who need to look at every single product before making a decision about what to put in my virtual shopping bag. These pop-up windows are used all over the site, in fact, and that was probably the single most helpful feature because it allowed me to preview products and add things to my shopping bag without the pain of going to a whole separate window and then having to backtrack so I don't lose my place. I hate losing my place. I wouldn't normally say this, but hooray for pop-ups!

--More Cool Stuff:

Like Dana, my friend from Live Chat, the site seems like it was designed to be helpful as much as it was to SELL STUFF. I appreciate this, as overt marketing is generally a huge turnoff. An example: Instead of saying "You must clean your makeup brushes once a day with our special makeup-brush-cleaning solution," the site suggests that baby shampoo one a week works as well. Excellent! Does that mean Estee Lauder doesn't sell as much special makeup-brush-cleaning solution as they might if they insisted that only their specially formulated formula would do? Maybe so, but it also means shoppers like me respect the company more for not letting sales get in the way of customer service.

Finally, do you love a good deal? Good deals abound at esteelauder.com! Free standard shipping for orders over $50! Free sampler for orders over $50! Free gift wrapping with any purchase! (Yes, I had my order gift wrapped and sent with a note to Me from Me. What?) Thanks, Estee Lauder! Thanks, BlogHer! (Thanks, Me!)

Check out what other BlogHers are saying about the site here.

August 7, 2008

Second Chances

Not too long ago, I wrote about all the trials and tribulations (some environmental and contextual and some very much self-inflicted) that brought and then finally allowed Simon and I to be together. I'm posting it again as part of BlogHer's promotion, with Warner Brothers, of the new Diane Lane/Richard Gere movie, here, and for a second chance to read about my own second chance, keep on reading. ***

Simon and I don't have a proper anniversary. Our relationship began in what some might call an "unusual" way (okay, more like a tale of Shakespearean proportions), and so there are several times during the year that we kinda sorta half-assedly mark as our Couplehood Milestones. There's the first time we actually met--March of 2002 (which I don't actually remember)--and the second time we met--March 2003 (which I totally remember because I was completely charmed)--and then December 2003 (officially smitten, even though I was newly engaged and he was several years married)--and March 2004 (begin COLOSSAL crush)--and then all the dates that go along with your usual song and dance: broken engagement, yadda yadda, divorce, blah blah, heartbreak and drama and rending of garments and then bliss at last, albeit complicated bliss...you know how it is.

I finally announced him on the blog in September of 2005--three years ago, my god--and even though it would make more sense to reflect on this in a couple of weeks, on the actual anniversary of that post, I'm pretty much over any attachment to having an official Day on Which to Celebrate Our Love, and so here I am, celebrating him, celebrating us, today, because why the hell not? Every day's a fine day for love. (And bacon. And lemon sorbet. And sugary cereal.)

Although now that I've vamped for two paragraphs, I'm not quite sure what it is I want to say. What prompted this train of thought in the first place was that this weekend Simon had to drop off and then pick up something Petaluma that would keep him out of the house all day Saturday, from about 1 to 10 p.m. (with a big stretch of nothingness in between), and I had the option of tagging along or staying home alone to tackle some of the dozens of house chores that I've been fixating on for weeks. The smart choice was to stay home and work, but hey, we're not exactly known for our smart choices when it comes to each other, and in fact those not-smart choices are indeed the very things that have gotten us to this point at all--we're the poster children for making bad decisions, he and I--and so it was that I threw responsibility aside and decided to tag along for the day, not because I could be of any help or because it made sense or was "smart" but because I couldn't stand the thought of him being away so long. Going to work for eightish hours a day is one thing, but staying home on a Saturday for nine hours all alone when I could be enjoying his company? No contest. Maybe it's codependence, but maybe it's also just three-plus-year-old goofy-ass love. In short, merely the thought of him being away all day made me miss him, so I let that be my guide, and thus passed our relatively unproductive Saturday, spent not completing tasks and to-do lists but wasting time and holding hands.

From the get go he was clear about not pressuring me one way or another, but when we finally got home late Saturday night, he confessed, "I'm really glad you came along. I love spending time with you." So that's really what I wanted to say. I love spending time with you too, babe. I always keep it in my back pocket that I never in a million billion trillion years thought we'd make it to this point and I should count my lucky stars every day for the opportunity, and I do. But even without all that drama and history, I'm still just knocked off my feet by how much I love being around you every chance I get. That sparkle you have in these photographs: you've still got it. And I still feel a spark when I look at them. You are a handsome devil, yessiree. In all of these ways and a million billion trillion others, every day is an anniversary and a reason to celebrate. Just keep the pink champagne on ice for another few months so I can share it with you, eh?

Its Never too Late For a Second Chance. See Nights in Rodanthe September 26th.

July 24, 2008

Life on Linden Street

A few weeks ago I was asked if I'd review some products from JCPenney's new home collection called Linden Street, which, hi, yeah, of course I will accept an offer to bring more pretty things into my living space (especially if JCP and BlogHer give me a $500 gift card with which to do it!), for I am nesting like a whole host of sparrows here as I slide into the end of pregnancy week twenty (halfway there! halfway there!).

When I returned to my office after a few days off work for what is known to my coworkers as my "*mumble mumble* writing conference," I found my desk a fortress of large cardboard boxes containing some of the stuff I'd ordered online for review just a week prior. Now, before I actually talk about the products, let me say up front that if you're having a housewares emergency and need a decorative mirror or a retro clock or a set of lamby-soft towels in a variety of neutral colors NOW NOW NOW, JCPenney online is a good way to go because they ship FAST. (I ordered on a Sunday and had my merch by Thursday!) I should also say that what follows is a compensated but honest review, which includes the part about no animals having been permanently damaged in the researching of this article. (They liked it, I swear!)

And now, follow the link for my first official product review--with pictures! pictures of cats! pictures of cats in no actual physical danger!

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***

So, going into this review, I had a certain amount of money to spend, and after I'd secured the big-ticket items--two lamps that are backordered and will be reviewed sometime in August--I had some room left over for a few smaller things. What caught my eye were these two clocks, on sale for only twenty bucks a pop.

The Clocks

Do you know when I last had a new alarm clock? It was 1987, when I graduated from sharing a bunkbed with my baby brother and moved into my very own room, a room that would nicely accommodate a totally radical cottoncandy-pink digital alarm clock/radio shaped like "the future" *the future* *the future.* I had that clock from age eight until age twenty-six (including the four years the radio didn't work because the dial got broken in my 2001 move to California), and I only got rid of it when I shacked up with Simon, who had fully-functional twenty-year-old alarm clock/radio and thenceforth became my human wakeup call because I really am that lazy.

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Not my greasy fingerprints

Anywaaaaay...I saw these two clocks and figured they'd make a perfect addition to our new Very Adult Bedroom. The "oil-rubbed bronze" finish is a little bit silver and a little bit gold, so it goes with everything in the room, which is great for obsessive metal matchers like myself. I recently learned, however, that things don't always have to "match" so long as they "go," and that's what inspired me to designate one clock the Girl Clock and the other the Manly Clock, placing one on each bedside table and thus smashing to smithereens the perfect (and perfectly boring) symmetry of the rest of the room. Feel free to steal this design idea from me (even though I stole it from various home-improvement shows).

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The true test of the clocks, though, was whether they ticked audibly all night, inspiring dreams of imminent explosions or ravenous fictional crocodiles. The verdict: they don't tick (loud enough to give me nightmares)! One hundred gold stars to the JCPenney clock designers for taking my sanity into account when manufacturing their product! The other small triumph is that the alarms (which get louder and faster the longer they're on; brilliant!) beep on the same tone, which might seem like a small thing unless you have perfect relative pitch (like Simon) and can imagine the sound of one slightly flat note rubbing up against one slightly sharp note as the first thing you hear every morning for the next twenty years. Like fingernails on a chalkboard mounted inside your cochlea, I imagine.

So: the clocks work, they're not crazymaking, they look fantastic both solo and coupled, and the one reminds me of my grandfather's sixties-style bedroom while the other looks like something that might be attached via fob to one particularly tardy White Rabbit--what's not to love? Well, the clock hands, which are inlaid with subtle glow-in-the-dark panels, seem to only illuminate in proportion to the amount of light they absorb beforehand. What that means is that in a bedroom that stays pretty dark all day like ours, the panels don't suck up enough light to last until that first wee-hours second-trimester bathroom break, let alone through the night and into morning. Result: I still don't know what time it is when I wake up, so I have to nudge Simon just like old times. I choose to believe this will help our communication skills.

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As a final word on the clocks, I have to get extremely nerdy here for a minute and say that my first impression was not good. Before I'd even cracked the styrofoam shell encasing the product, out fell one heck of a mess of an instruction sheet. Do you delight in lists of collective nouns (e.g., a murder of crows, a clowder of cats, a host of sparrows)? Well, this instruction sheet was an embarrassment of typos. Outsourced to India or China or upper Finland, I know they have space bars in all of those places, and last I heard there were no international laws against using them. Dear JCPenney: Hire a proofreader for your print materials.

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***

Okay, um...who knew I had so much to say about clocks? Probably the same person who knows I have VERY LITTLE to say about mirrors.

The Mirror

We had this crazy idea that a large display of mirrors on the big empty wall opposite our bed would be super cool, but holy moly, y'all, mirrors are expensive! When I saw this one, I figured it would be either a good start to our collection or a good end to our non-collection, mostly depending on how big it was.

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The dimensions on the site say "Linden Street mirror measures X by Y," but I didn't know if that was the size of the mirrored surface alone or the whole deal, polystyrene frame and all. It turns out to be the frame measurement, which is fine (although it would have been nice to know beforehand), but the real downside is that in learning this I also learned that I hate polystyrene. It's supposed to look like wood, I think, and it will do the trick once we have it mounted on the wall above a dresser, but I sort of wish I'd hired someone to unpack the mirror and measure and mount it for me so I never had to take a close look at and touch the polystyrene, and would therefore not notice and remember every surface flaw for ever and ever whenever I see the mirror. At eighty bucks for fake wood, I can only imagine what it would cost for the real thing, though, so perhaps I should just keep my mouth shut.

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One other thing: The mirrored surface came with fingerprints on it, which is not an actual criticism so much as evidence that my product was lovingly inspected by hand by a person so confident in his or her work that s/he was willing to leave personal-idenfication marks as an endorsement of quality instead of just one of those little "Inspected by 36" stickers. Now that's company loyalty.

***

And now the fun part:

The Trunks

How big do these look to you? Big enough to store a blanket? To serve as a toy chest? To restrain a one-year-old cat?

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If you guessed the last option, you're right! The large trunk can fit a single medium- to large-sized cat up to at least seven years old, although I don't think any of the cats in my house will ever go within leaping distance of either trunk after today, which is fine because the red velvety lining is a magnet for cat hair.

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When I first saw these trunks online, my first thought was "Awesome!" My second thought was "But so small!" My third thought was "But so cute!" My fourth thought was "But so expensive!" My fifth thought was "Great for treasure hunts!" And my sixth thought was "Faux leather? Yeeeuuuch!" In the end I figured anyone who's into treasure hunts (i.e., kids) will not care about the fauxness of the leather, and so I clicked to buy and hoped they'd be at least marginally non-offensive. Looking at them now, stacked one on top of the other at an artistic angle on the other side of the room, I'm not disappointed. Looking at them closely, however, I have some issues...

Issue #1: It's faux leather. Yeeeuuuch.

Issue #2: The aging applied to the surface seems to have been some sort of spray-on varnish, which smells like...let's just say I had to move the trunks into a well-ventilated area because I thought I saw a purple unicorn dance across the ceiling and figured the fumes at that point might be more dangerous than purely recreational.

Issue #3: The varnish also made the trunks kind of sticky. I had to pry them open, and in the right wrong light you can see where the styrofoam they were packed in has left ridges in the finish. I hope this will go away, but I already imagine that this surface won't hold up very well against rough treatment (i.e., kids) or spills.

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Issue #4: The craftsmanship of the details leaves something to be desired.

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Overall, though, the effect from a distance is good. I'd definitely put these out on display--perhaps store camera or knitting equipment in them--rather than just hide them in a closet between treasure huntings. If the cats were voting, they'd give the trunks two thumbs down, but then cats don't have opposable thumbs, so their votes don't count.

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***

As I mentioned before, I have a few more reviews coming next month (two great lamps and a set of towels, which I ordered in the wrong color this time around; note to self: calibrate your monitor), but for now let me end with this:

I don't remember when I last shopped at JCPenney for anything. It always seemed outdated and uncool and, well, like somewhere my parents would have shopped for home accessories when I was a kid. (Perhaps they helped me pick out a cute pink alarm clock there in 1987?) With this recent collection, though, they seem to have caught on to the trends of many of the major popular home furnishing stores (think dark wood, faux aging, neo-Old World style), and they seem to have done it at a more or less reasonable price (especially if you're shopping now, when the entire collection looks to be 50 percent off!). If you're into this style but not into paying twice as much for something that looks just fine from a distance, I think this is a good place to start. Tell them Linus sent you.

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No animals were harmed in the researching of this review, I swear.

Posted by Leah at July 24, 2008 03:37 PM