It's the little things
My Trader Joe's sponges -- they come six in a pack, and they expand when they get wet. I love them; they're expensive but definitely my favorite.
-- Valerie Baptiste
The obligatory iPod entry
Cake. Fischerspooner/Billy Squier. They Might Be Giants.
Her name is Sasha. She's usually clad in blue, although sometimes I put her in green or white just to shake things up a bit. A bit obsolete (third-generation) and a bit small (10 GB).
But if I could surgically attach her to my hand, I would.
U2. Andrew W.K. The Velvet Underground.
I'd tried other forms of portable music -- my battered Walkman that I bought June 28, 1994, the day I went on a first date with the man that I would eventually marry. My Discman. My Mini-Disc player. But they didn't have the range, the scope that Sasha has.
Def Leppard. U2 (again). Garbage.
Back then, if I had to listen to, say, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot right now, I'd have to A) remember which minidisc it was on (and since I tended to name my discs things like "Deep Fried Butter" and "Sharp Stick - Owie," I had to know playlists like the back of my hand), B) find the disc, and C) put the disc in the minidisk player, usually while trying to drive a car at the same time. Not the easiest thing.
Stone Temple Pilots. The Farm. Three Dog Night.
Now, of course, it's just spin the wheel, push the button, and legend lives on from the Chippewa on down to the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee.
The Police. U2. (I have a lot of their songs.) Hum.
Instant gratification, the likes of which were never before musically available. A radio station without DJs, without commercials, one that plays only the music you really, really like.
The Soundtrack of Our Lives. The Smithereens. Liz Phair.
I never would've made it through "Wuthering Heights" if it hadn't been for Sasha.
Soul Coughing. Donna Summer. The Monkees.
How many songs can I squeeze in before I have to cross the threshold of work?
The March Violets. Yvonne Elliman. The Beatles. Jesus Jones.
-- Whitney Fitzgerald Freemesser
The obligatory TiVo entry
I'm a techno nut, a gadget geek, and anything else you want to call me. I've got an iPod and an iPod Shuffle; I wore out my Treo300 and upgraded to the Treo600, which I use as a modem for my laptop. I've got three computers in my office running three different operating systems (and I'm a pastor, not an I.T. guy). Spare wires in my basement are as common as extra zeros in defense contractors' budgets.
But the gadget that I love the most, which brings the most joy to my otherwise average life, must be the TiVo.
I remember seeing an ad for it late, late one night several years ago and thinking it sounded cool -- but it wasn't until recently that I actually had the opportunity to own one.
We have the DirecTiVo (DirecTV and TiVo in one) which allows you to tape two shows at once (or watch one and tape another). It's been upgraded to 240 hours and is jampacked with goodness.
Going on vacation? No worries, TiVo will take care of you. Didn't know that USA finally had a new episode of "Monk" on tonight? TiVo knows. Forgot that it was Tuesday and "Queer Eye" was on? TiVo remembers. "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is on, but you're more in the mood for "Desperate Housewives"? TiVo won't even tell anyone that you put a socially acceptable soap opera ahead of the betterment of needy people's lives for just one hour.
My ever-patient wife, who lovingly puts up with my technoclivities, even loves the TiVo. Her parents came to visit, saw it, learned it, loved it, went home and traded their cable in for DirecTiVo. Now her mom, who could never work the VCR, never misses her favorite shows.
I gain hours each month, given that 15 minutes of every hour of TV is commercials, and I can skip merrily past them. And I never find myself watching a "Charlie's Angels" rerun because there's nothing else on.
Lord help me, but I just love my TiVo.
Goodbye hairballs and dust bunnies!
My Dyson Animal DC-14 changed my life. We have two dogs (aka "Mr. and Mrs Muddy Paws") and our house was constantly under attack from dust bunnies and dirt that they would track in the house. Oh, we would vacuum, but the dog hair was always still there. When we got new carpeting in October, I told my husband, "I'm buying a Dyson." When I told him it cost $500, he informed me that he had a tough time spending more on a vacuum cleaner than he did on his first car. But the Dyson made a believer out of him. No dog hair is too tough or tough to reach. Plus, you can use it on hardwood and tile floors. So, no more sweeping yippee! Also, you get the gratification of seeing everything that you've picked up because it all goes into a clear plastic container.
We had a dinner party a few months ago and shepherded all of our friends into our family room so that we could demonstrate the merits of the Dyson. At first they thought we were nuts, but they couldn't believe everything that we picked up from the seemingly clean carpeting. A few have already purchased their own Dyson, and others are talking about it. I highly recommend it and promise that it will be the best $500 you ever spend. It has changed our life -- and our marriage. My husband will even vacuum now because it is so fun.
A steamy savior
I roamed the brightly lit aisles of Elephant Pharmacy in desperate search of something to soothe my winter-raw throat, irritated by the dry dust of central heating.
I was sneezing, coughing, wheezing and congested. But worst of all, my throat felt like I had swallowed razor blades. I had tried over-the-counter medication, I tried reiki, gargled gallons of warm salt water -- even bummed antibiotics off of a friend. To no avail.
"Throat cancer," I had announced gravely to my loved ones. "It must be throat cancer."
Then, turning a corner, I spied salvation in the shape of a small, lidless, porcelain kettle: a Neti Pot. Once the domain of prana-obsessed yogis, I was about to become one of the converted.
I left the store, clutching the box in my hot little hands, intent on flushing out God-knows-what from my battle-weary sinuses. Postnasal drip-induced misery had overcome any lingering doubts I had about pouring warm salt water through my nose.
At first, I tipped the spout into my nose gingerly. Warm water gushed in one nostril and out the other. I was horrified. And then, strangely, satisfied. Catharsized. I imagined decades of pollen, dust and city soot being flushed from my mucous membranes. Ahh.
I could breathe freely. The pain in my throat had subsided. I filled it up again and flushed once more. Yup, definitely better.
Since then, I've touted the benefits of Neti Pots to friends, family and strangers alike. "You have to get one!" I gush like a cheerleader on caffeine. "It's amazing." The spectrum of reaction goes from disgust, "Ewww," to curiosity, "Really? It doesn't hurt?" to intrigue, "Maybe I'll try it."
Apparently, we are a population beset by upper-respiratory woes.
Recently, I chatted with a friend who I had converted to "the Neti." He had found that the elegant little pot was insufficient for his considerable proboscis and hooked up a Camelback to his bathroom ceiling for maximum flushing.
"It's great, but a Neti Pot is just a spit in the face. I need gallons of steaming hot salt to unglue my sinuses. The first time I tried it, it was like scouring the inside of my head. So good."
"How much salt do you use?" I asked.
"A lot! With steaming hot water!"
"But it's only supposed to be warm," I protested. Clearly, he had missed the Zen aspect of soothing heat.
A look of confusion passed over his face. "You mean, it's not supposed to be steaming hot?"
"It's not supposed to hurt?"
He though for a minute and then sat back with a grin. "Well, I like the pain. It brings it to a new level of clean. It's therapeutic pain."
My friend clearly has other issues.
But I remain a freely breathing, twice-daily Neti fanatic. No pain required.
-- Rhea Wong
"It chops! It slices! It dices..."
It was Christmas, 1981. My mother had just given me a Cuisinart, then the state of the art in appliances. I welcomed it gladly, then let it sit on a shelf for a year until I summoned the courage to use it. It became my happy '80s companion -- and like a handsome boyfriend with access to really good blow, it was fast, flashy and looked impressive. I even invested in a set of extra blades. I didn't mind wrestling it out of the space in which it lived every day and assembling and disassembling the parts, because it really did make my life easier. And, you know, it being the '80s and all, I had to make pesto at least twice a week. While wearing shoulder pads. It was the law. Something to do with Reagan.
Since then, I got married and had kids. Sure, the Cuisinart came along too, but hoisting it and cleaning the parts went down on my list of priorities. Then I found a better, smaller friend: The Braun Multiquick. Going from the Cuisinart to the Multiquick is like trading down from a giant Mercedes to a Mini Cooper. Sure, it lacks the power and the speed, but it is so zippy, so cute, and so easy to park! It used to be that in order to puree soup, I would have to ladle the soup, in stages, into the Cuisinart and, of course, when I turned it on, some of the boiling hot liquid would spill over the sides. Then I would have to pour the puree into a third bowl or pot while I pureed the rest. Well, the Multiquick has a wand attachment so that you can puree soup right in the pot.
It also chops, in its small work bowl, all manner of herbs, garlic, onions, shallots and nuts, reducing your cooking workload by easily half with its clever skills. It also comes with a large beaker you can immerse the blender wand in to use to make your own salad dressing, milk shakes and smoothies. Even more beautiful, the whole shebang comes apart to store in a drawer or on the wall mount that comes included. The whisk that comes with it is maybe the least impressive part of it -- more like a toy, really, than a mixer -- but the chopping and pureeing aspects of this wondrous little baby know few boundaries. You wouldn't use it to crush ice, for instance -- it's not that heavy-duty. But it's perfect for pureeing apple sauce, pesto, refried beans or soup. Moms: It's ideal for baby food that doesn't support corrupt regimes in foreign lands! On top of that, since it's small, the parts are easy to throw in the dishwasher.
I have bought at least 10 of these to give as gifts. And here's where it gets even more beautiful. You won't pay over $30 for the Multiquick. There is a heavier-duty one that sells for about $80 that claims to be able to chop ice and has a turbo button. It's probably swell, too, but for my dough, the cheaper one takes the cake. Cuisinart shouldn't lose too much sleep. Although the Multiquick beats Cuisinart's mini-processor, the "Little Pro," hands down, I still use my classic Cuisinart for the big jobs. Day to day, though? It's Multiquick.
I am writing about an object that my husband and I have purchased more than a dozen times, but never used ourselves.
The Amazing Miracle Blanket is a special blanket designed to easily swaddle newborns. It keeps them wrapped up tight and feeling secure, which allows them do to the one thing it would be super helpful for them to do -- sleep. And not just sleep, but sleep for long periods at a time -- five, six or even eight hours. It helps ease fussiness and stops the twitching that wakes babies.
I first found out about the Amazing Miracle Blanket from a co-worker. My friend Sheri was having a baby shower and my co-worker, having just had his first baby, suggested it as a gift. He swore by the blanket's magical properties to keep his new baby son resting peacefully. He said it was the best gift they got.
So I ordered one. When the gift was opened at the baby shower, no one really knew what to do with it. The women in attendance examined it and passed it around, skeptical. I was a little, too. It does have sort of a cheesy infomercial name about it. I starting explaining that the friend from work swears by the thing, but no one seemed convinced.
A month later, I meet Sheri, now the mother of a newborn, at lunch. She walks up to me in the restaurant and kisses me, tears in her eyes.
"Oh my God, thank you! That Amazing Miracle Blanket is the greatest thing ever!"
She went on to tell me that she uses it every night and it made all the difference. After a few sleepless nights, she decided to give it a try. She wrapped her newborn up in it and he slept longer than he ever had. "I wash it every other day along with my maternity bra, that's how much I use it," she said.
So, with that endorsement, my husband, Jon, and I started giving Miracle Blankets as our standard shower gift. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors -- anyone with a bulge in the belly got one.
"Trust me," I tell them, "you will love it." The moms- and dads-to-be always have the same reaction. They hold the blanket in its plastic packaging and turn it slowly back and forth and just look at us oddly. We smile confidently. We know.
And like clockwork a few weeks later, we get the note or the call or the big hug. The Miracle Blanket allowed a friend to get enough sleep at night so she could stay focused at her job. Sheri's Amazing Miracle Blanket was dispatched to friends whose marriage was stressed to the max from lack of sleep. One couple said they used it until their rather full-size baby was stretching the seams. It was a sad day for them when little Nolan didn't fit into his Miracle Blanket anymore.
Right now I have three on order -- all for couples who have no idea what it is or how it will help them. And when I say, "Oh, I need to get you an Amazing Miracle Blanket," they give me the same skeptical look. They'll learn.
While I don't normally go in for expensive and seemingly unnecessary cleaning products, a friend (and serious cleaning fanatic) had hyped the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser so much that I couldn't help being curious. I had seen the advertisements and though I don't have any kids writing on my walls with crayons, I am clumsy and like to drink beer -- which sometimes results in collisions with walls and other messy miscalculations. So, I went out and bought a box. Since then I have used the things to clean just about everything from dirty sneakers to my craggy white linoleum kitchen floor to amazing effect. I find myself wandering around my place looking for marks and dirt to magically erase. I have given Magic Erasers to friends as gifts. Of course, you still have to clean the object after you magic erase it, but it saves a lot of time and effort. I'm not so sure about the newer version of the product with the blue thing on one side. I still can't figure out exactly what that is supposed to accomplish, so I'm sticking with the original.
Note: The box warns that if you use the product on dishes or pots and pans you need to wash them thoroughly afterward. I don't know what they are made of exactly, but even if they pose health risks I'm willing to take the chance.
-- Kristen Bremner
Bathtub scum, beware!
An hour into scrubbing the bathtub for the third time in as many months, I threw in the brush. It's like hand-sanding the side of a boat. There's gotta be the cleaning equivalent of the power sander.
Found it. The Black and Decker Scumbuster. Check it out. Nine heads. Cordless. Power. Scrubber.
Girl meets grill
I have been called a "late adopter" by some, a Luddite by others, and a cheapskate by family. I discover bits of technology years after the rest of the world has, marvel at their ease and convenience, glad this or that object is now in my life, yet never regret that I didn't own it sooner. I think I just like my products thoroughly tested -- you know, by everyone -- before investing in them myself.
Some products are more likely to draw my attention than others. I have long had an approving eye on DVD players, and I capitulated to a cellphone only three years after most of my friends and family had one. But when my father called me four years ago with the news that he was sending me a George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine, I can honestly say it was a product that had literally never occurred to me. "That's ... great, Dad," I said, all the while thinking, "What does a vegetarian need with a grilling machine?"
My father had been seduced into attending a live demonstration, run by George Foreman himself, and left with two Lean Mean Grilling Machines for himself (a small one and a "family size") and one for each of his children and stepchildren. "We can do burgers, chicken breasts, steaks, fish fillets..." My father remembered who he was talking to. "And you can probably do vegetables on it, too."
Except not really. The accompanying pamphlet pays lip service to a few vegetables, but the grill is unmistakably designed for meat. A slanting, rippled surface tunnels grease and juice (from meat) away from the food into a waiting tray. When cooking vegetables, these are often the juices you want to keep around. Also, try lining up a bunch of asparagus without each stalk rolling down the grill plate and landing on your kitchen counter.
The grilling machine arrived and sat in the corner of my room for several months, until the day I made a peanut butter and banana sandwich and thought, "Didn't Elvis like these grilled?" Having no butter in the house, and thinking olive oil might not be a good taste match, I unboxed the grilling machine. And let me tell you, a peanut butter and banana sandwich on the George Foreman grill is mind-blowingly good. The bread touching the hot surface crisps up just right, while the rest of the slice gets hot and steamy. The bananas melt into the peanut butter, and sometimes a bit of banana stuff hits the surface and carmelizes. It is so, so much better this way.
Sandwiches! I grilled peanut butter and chocolate sandwiches. I grilled strawberry and Nutella "dessert" sandwiches. I grilled peanut butter, tahini and peach sandwiches. I grilled cheese sandwiches. I grilled a sharp cheddar, dijon mustard, veggie sausage, and sauerkraut sandwich and then ate that every day for a month. I grilled leftover burritos and falafel sandwiches. I grilled hummus and arugula sandwiches. I grilled, you understand, everything that could be put between two slices of bread.
And then some. You can grill leftover French toast and pancakes. You can grill croissants. You can grill blocks of tofu, if you like that sort of thing, and most long-term vegetarians do. You can sprinkle grated cheese directly onto the surface until it burns up into a lacy pattern of what is undoubtedly bad for you, but tastes so good. And in between, I just swipe the grill surface with a wet paper towel, and it is as clean as the day I took it out of the box.
The satisfaction I get out of telling people how much I love my George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine is the same satisfaction I get when I tell them I love In-N-Out Burger for its meatless "off the menu" menu. "I understand your surprise that I have found occasion to enjoy this meat-centric product/fast food establishment. The answer is, grilled sandwiches/French fries animal style." I can't make In-N-Out at home, but my grilling machine is worth every bit of space on my countertop.
-- Laura White