Tuesday, December 14, 2004

You light up my life

I was the last person on my side of the street to put up outdoor Christmas decorations this year.

For some reason, my neighbors all seemed in a hurry to decorate their places. I don’t know if it was because they were in unusually festive moods this season or if they just wanted to get the chore over and done with, but it seemed as if they jumped up from their Thanksgiving dinners, pumpkin pie still dangling from their lips, and ran outside to decorate.

By the day after Thanksgiving, my street looked like the Las Vegas strip. There were so many waving Santas, nodding reindeer, flashing icicles and blinking trees, I was afraid low-flying aircraft might mistake the street for a runway and come in for a landing

As I lay in bed each night that week, unable to sleep because of the combined whirring of all of my neighbors’ electric meters, I felt compelled to un-Scrooge my house and decorate…or at least attempt to. Past history had taught me that anything that’s electrical and I should not be in close proximity of each other. Sure, I’d made things light up while decorating in the past, but unfortunately, the things that ended up glowing in the dark had nothing to do with the Christmas decorations.

Last week, I finally gave in and dug out my cardboard chest of Christmas decorations. Stacked right on top were two boxes of rope lights. When rope lights first came out a few years ago, I thought they were going to revolutionize Christmas decorating. I mean, lights sealed inside clear plastic tubes that could be bent and shaped without the risk of the lights popping out of their sockets and falling off seemed heaven-sent to me.

I have no idea why, but I picked the coldest night of the week last week to decorate. Armed with two 18-ft. strings of rope lights, I started to wrap the front-porch railings. The lights were pliable and easy to wrap at first, but as they got colder, they got stiffer and wanted to stand up straight rather than curl around anything.

After winding 36 feet of lights, making certain that every loop around the railings was perfectly even, I plugged them in. One whole rope lit up. Only half of the other one did.

I rushed into the house. “Does it make sense that only half a rope of lights would light up?” I asked my husband.

He shook his head. “Usually if something’s wrong, the whole thing will go out, not just half of it. But then, with you, anything is possible.”

“But I plugged them in before I took them outside,” I said. “And they all worked fine in the house.”

“Maybe all of your jostling them loosened something,” he said. He stepped outside to check the lights. He jiggled the rope, snapped it a few times with his fingers and said, “Yep. Half of it is dead all right,” and went back into the house.

I checked the box the lights had come in. The directions said, “Do NOT attempt to replace the bulbs!” I continued reading until I came to, “If one bulb burns out, a section of 24 lights also will go out.”

I just stared at the directions and thought how dumb the manufacturer had to be. I mean, why, on a strip of lights where the bulbs can’t be replaced per penalty of death, would they be constructed so that an entire section of bulbs also will be killed off when only one bulb dies? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to construct them so that the one bulb would go to its demise quietly, practically unnoticed, rather than take 23 of its buddies with it as if they all were part of some sort of bulb suicide-cult?

“The remaining sections of lights still will operate,” the directions said, as if that was supposed to make me feel any better. Who still would want to hang a string of lights with a section of 24 bulbs totally dark and the rest of them shining brightly?

So I went to the hardware store and bought a new string of rope lights to replace the half-dead one. Once again, I carefully wound it around the railing, and then plugged it in. I breathed a sigh of relief when all of the lights immediately glowed. Suddenly, however, they began to flash in a way that made them look as if they were trying to race each other in a marathon.

I grabbed the box. “Contains one set of chase lights,” it read, stating that I could turn the little dial near the plug and make the lights chase each other faster or slower. I rolled my eyes. The older rope of lights I’d previously put up on the other railing didn’t chase anything. It just sat there looking very dull and boring. I wanted those lights to chase something, too.

So I returned to the hardware store and bought another box of the chase lights. Soon, my railings were dancing with moving lights. I smiled with satisfaction.

The box says that the average life expectancy of these new rope lights is about 10,000 hours. The way I figure it, they should be good for another 133 Christmases… if one of the little ringleader lights doesn’t decide to say “goodbye cruel world” in the meantime.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The (Not So) Perfect Gift

I started my Christmas shopping early this year so I wouldn’t find myself frantically rushing around at the last minute and buying things like a sequined halter-top for my 82-year-old aunt because it’s the only thing in her size left on the rack.

Unfortunately, even though I have set a personal record for early gift- buying this year, my Christmas shopping thus far has not been flawless…not by any means. It seems as if every year someone on my Christmas list asks for a gift that is either rare, discontinued, back-ordered or in such high demand, people are setting up tents and camping out in front of department stores, waiting for a shipment to arrive. Either that, or I order something that looks great in the catalog, but when it arrives, it doesn’t look anything like the photo.

Take, for example, the hand-tooled, monogrammed copper wastebasket I saw three weeks ago in a catalog that featured handcrafts from Cape Cod. The perfect gift, I thought, for our friend Gregory, who recently remodeled his office. So I ordered it, with the initial “G” on it. The wastebasket arrived two days ago in an old cardboard box that wasn’t even sealed. The flaps were folded in that over-and-under way that keeps them closed, but nothing was sealed.

The wastebasket looked as if the guy had downed a pitcher of martinis before he hand-tooled it. I held it up to show my husband. “What does this monogram look like to you?” I asked.

He studied it for a moment. “A crooked 6.”

The copper on the wastebasket also had been polished…in about 30 different directions. So many different swirls, lines, zigzags and spirals were covering it, it looked as if it had been attacked by an army of crazed Brillo pads.

“What’re all those dents along the bottom of it?” my husband asked.

I frowned. “They’re not dents. I think they are supposed to be some kind of decorative border.”

“Oh,” he said.

That did it. “I can’t give Gregory a gift that looks all scratched up and dented, and especially not with a crooked number six on it!” I whined.

“He’s only going to put trash in it,” my husband said, shrugging. “It’ll probably look crummy in no time flat anyway.”

“Then why don’t I just fill it with trash before I send to him and give him the complete effect right away!” I snapped.

When I asked my mother what she wanted for Christmas, she handed me an empty plastic bottle that previously had contained body lotion. She told me it had come in a “welcome to the hospital” kit she’d received when she’d been a patient. “I really love this lotion and the scent of it,” she said. “I’m sure if anyone can find some for me, you can.”

So I did an online computer search for the lotion. After 20 minutes of searching, I was thrilled to find a Web site where I could buy it. The only catch was that I had to order a case of 60 bottles and pay an extra $23 for shipping. Unless my mother wanted to fill the bathtub with the stuff and jump in, I figured she’d have to live to be 110 before she’d ever use that much lotion.

“Maybe if you just go to the hospital where your mother got the lotion and ask them to sell you a bottle or two of it, they will,” my husband said.

I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that.

The people at the hospital couldn’t have been nicer. They tore open a welcome kit and handed the lotion to me. A victorious smile spread across my face…until I noticed that the lotion was a different brand. I opened it and smelled it. The scent wasn’t even close to the one my mother loved. “It’s not the same,” I said, my disappointment obvious.

“That’s odd,” the hospital employee said. “That’s the lotion that comes in all of our kits. How long ago was your mother a patient here?”

“About seven years,” I said.

He gave me a look that made me feel as if I’d just asked him for something from Cleopatra’s original cosmetics collection.

So I guess if I want to make my mother happy this Christmas, I’m going to have to order a case of 60 bottles of lotion.

If you know of anyone who’d like to buy 58 bottles, just let me know.