Great Winter Gifts

November 9, 2011

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It’s raining and snowing today in Iowa – with a nasty windy making the weather even less pleasant.  Winter is right around the corner.  Winter is my least favorite time of the year, but there are some creature comforts that can help get you through the winters.  Here’s a list of items you might consider giving to loved ones as a winterizing gift.

(Disclosure: we earn a commission on the sale of any of these items).

A Kindle.  Whether it’s the $79 model (at left) or the high end $199 Kindle Fire, spending long hours curled up on the couch reading on a Kindle is great way to pass time when there’s a blizzard howling outside.  If you’re not sure which model to buy, I gave my thoughts in a previous article.

If you’re the frugal sort, you can justify the cost by looking at the vast amount of public domain works you can download for free.

While you’ll pay more for a Kindle version of a book than used paperback, you can also tote around hundreds of books on a Kindle – much lighter than a backpack filled with the paper version.  Also easier on the environment.

If you’re looking for a good book to get you started, I’d suggest Lawrence Block’s short story collection, Enough Rope.  This is a massive tome with lots of great stories.  I already own hardcover and paperback versions, and am tempted to buy the Kindle version.

An electric blanket.  Blanket + Heat = Good.
Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns.  Nothing screams “warm weather’ like baseball.  Watching this 20+ hour miniseries might make you forget that it’s cold outside.
Portable DVD player.  Want to watch movies without disturbing everyone else?  Nab a battery-powered DVD player.
Or, if you have money burning a hole in your pocket, you can drop $2500+ on a 65 inch 3D TV.  Hey, it’s currently $400 off, so you’re basically making money when you buy it.
I stubbornly cling to the belief that I should be able to remove the season’s snowfall with nothing more than a shovel.  If you’re not bound by such convictions, a snow thrower makes life much easier.  You can spend a little money ($99 for the Toro snow shovel) or a lot ($2000 for a Husqvarna 27 inch two stage model with power steering).
Always have a set of jumper cables in the trunk of every car you own.  They should last for many years, so resist the temptation to buy the cheapest set.  Buy a good, heavy gauge set (lower number is better).
Unfortunately, the best jumper cables in the world are useless unless you can get a jump start from another car.  A portable jump-starter doesn’t have that limitation.  It’s a portable, rechargeable device that charges your battery from its own battery.  One caveat – make sure to keep it charged.

If you’re constantly having to get a jump start, verify that the problem is the battery (rather than some part of the charging system, such as the alternator) and get the battery replaced.  Most people can replace a battery themselves.  While a battery isn’t exactly cheap, trying to stretch the battery’s life to save a few dollars is a bad idea – as you’ll find out if you get stranded.  Over its life, a battery will likely cost you less than $20 per year.  If you have any concerns that the battery is dying, replace the sucker.

If you must be outside in the cold, some hand warmers might help you avoid freezing to death.  Buy the 40 pack and have enough to get you through the winter.  Well, through December, maybe.
Picked up a hoodie to stay warm.  With the race for the White House heating up after Christmas, a nice Electoral College themed hoodie might be appropriate.

Do We Overreact to Snow Storms?

February 2, 2011

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Many of you will be snowbound as you read this, a result of the latest storm of the year decade century millenium.  A monster lizard, some have called it.  Many of you are handling the situation in stride, but some of you are going a bit crazy.

Whenever I have the misfortune of needing to go to the grocery store on the day before a big storm, the place is always packed with people gearing up.  I can understand making sure you have some staples on hand, but there’s a point where prudent preparation gives way to insanity.

This is most apparent on the toilet paper front.  I haven’t witnessed this myself, but anecdotal evidence points to people stocking up on the Charmin in advance of a big storm.  Seriously?  Do you people not have an adequate supply on hand in general (remind me not to be your houseguest)?  Or does the storm make people need to go to the bathroom more?  OK, there’s a bit of logic in the bathroom being used more, since the whole family is stuck at home … but still, you don’t need to buy a six week supply to wait out the storm.

While it’s prudent to make sure that some of the food you have on hand doesn’t require cooking (lest you lose power), again, there is a practical limit that comes into play.  For starters, don’t you already have some food that would suffice in an emergency?  I could certainly get by for a few days eating peanut butter sandwiches, Pop Tarts, and dry cereal.  Not exactly fine cuisine, but good enough in a pinch.  In my neighborhood, the risk of power outages is minimized by the fact that the power lines are buried – meaning that a main line need to go down in order for us to be affected.  You know the lines I’m talking about – the ones the power companies generally fix in a matter of hours.

When you get back on the road, drive safely.  This means not driving 80 mph in the midst of a snow storm … but it also means not driving 15 mph in flurries on the interstate.

It seems to me that a lot of people overestimate the impact of these storms.  While it’s true that some rural areas can get cut off for a week or more, the reality is that for people living in cities, this isn’t common (especially in the midwest, where I live).  Weather will be bad for a day or two, and then things will pretty much return to normal.  This is modern day America, with cell phones and 4 wheel drives – and reasonably well maintained roads.

I hope everyone stays safe during the storm, and that things are quickly back to normal.  Just breathe deeply and don’t panic.  And for you goofballs who enjoy the white stuff, enjoy it while you can – spring is just around the corner.

Ice Storm

January 23, 2010

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Sitting as a wall flower in a meeting with high level managers allows the mind to wander. Facing a wall of windows on a winter day in the mid-west provides a playground of ideas and observations.

Morning and the flags are hanging so sadly draped against the poles. Sad but still providing the only color on this grey day. The heavy freezing fog grows hoar frost on the branches of the black bark oak trees. Black and white background, browns by the sides of the roads, parking lots and drives. Even the cars have a ghost white coating of road salt and ice. Everyone is moving slowly, carefully. People walking in from their cars shuffle step like elderly residents of a nursing home, frightened of falling, yet hurrying to get in from the cold. The warmth of the room and the drone of the speakers makes it hard to stay awake. If only I had some part, something to add to the discussion to keep myself focused.

The wind picks up slightly, the flags crack off their icy coatings to ripple fitfully, still hugging the poles. No one is walking outside. Cars drive slowly by. The hoar frost flakes and falls almost like snow. The trees move, shaking and creaking in the breeze. Just enough wind to move the fog. Relief from the monotony, but a harbinger of bad things to come. A change of weather can only bring danger. Temperatures just at freezing with lots of humidity will result in precipitation; we can only hope it is snow. The schools have already closed from the dire predictions of the weather men. Now I have something to watch, something to keep my attention. So many people in one room, so warm, darkened for the projector, and still the droning speakers.

It has started to rain, the ice is visibly building up on the cars. It is getting bad quickly. An ambulance drives by, lights flashing, yet creeping slowly along the street. Safety over speed, this is not the time to have an emergency. Others are looking out the window, even the current speaker. Time for a break, bathroom and weather watch. Someone calls up the local weather radar on a laptop computer. This is only the beginning. We can’t even identify some of the colors on the screen. Someone announces that he just talked to his wife, it is sleeting ten miles to the west, almost could be called hail. The weatherman calls it ice pellets. Suddenly, the scene turns white. Large wet flakes of snow. This is good, it will be messy, but there will be traction; for walking and driving. It isn’t even noon yet.

Visitors from out of town start checking the airport. Why did they ever come north in January? They are desperate to get back to their homes and warmth. They groan aloud as the scene outside changes again to sleet and rain. The speaker waits for all for all to pay attention again. We can get through everything if we just focus. The out of town people can get out, surly it will get better. Someone check the radar again, yes it should get better.

By noon, there are no cars on the road. The trees have gone from white frosted to glazed with ice. They are eerily beautiful. An animated discussion grabs everyone’s attention for a while, but then back to the droning. We have all read the slides before the event. We have all given our criticisms. No arguments allowed in front of the customer. Authority overrules intelligence, not often, but still annoying. The skies seem to be getting lighter. The rain is slowing. Just a few more hours then head home. There will be scraping of ice and a careful drive. What? I’m sorry, can you repeat the question. Oh yes, I can deal with that still today. Yes, I can get that to California tonight. They will wait. If we finish here by five o’clock, I can get it done by seven our time. No staying late isn’t a problem.

They are finally done. It is dark. Scraping the car will have to wait. Call the wife and let her know I will be late. No, don’t save any dinner, I had plenty of bad food all day. The group goes by discussing where to eat, others are rushing for the airport. At least I don’t have to travel tonight. I will get to sleep in my own bed. The kids may be asleep by the time I get home, but I will be at home.

Finally done, the data is sent. The ice isn’t so bad on the car. The drive home is slow. The roads are ice covered. Most people are already home, so the roads are mostly empty. The weatherman on the radio suggests that there will be more nasty weather overnight. If it is bad enough, I can work from home, home with my children and my wife. An ice storm is not such a bad thing after all.


Fighting the Winter Blahs

January 10, 2010

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I really hate winter.  Let me count the ways.

  1. I hate cold weather.
  2. I miss the sun.
  3. Driving on ice sucks.
  4. I hate shoveling show.
  5. The winter sports pale in comparison to the grand sport of summer – baseball.

Thus, each winter, I typically bump into a bit of a case of the winter blahs.  During the last few years, I have found myself better equipped to fight it off.  How?  A couple of ways.

Mitigate the misery

Shoveling snow is a winter task that I hate.  I keep putting off the purchase of a snow blower for a few reasons.  First, I keep telling myself that the last few winters have been atypical, and that it really doesn’t snow in Iowa much.  Second, it seems that many times ice is the main culprit, and snow blowers don’t handle ice very well.  Third, they’re a bit pricey (although possibly cheaper than the chiropractor bills some years).

So, each year, I spend too much time outside in cold weather shoveling snow.  To make the experience a bit better, I grab my wireless headphones, fire up the downstairs DVR, and listen to one or two TV shows while I shovel (depending on the length of the show and the amount of snow).  Left to my own devices, I rarely watch non-sports TV, so this does give me a chance to catch up on the couple of shows that I care enough about to record.  In the last few weeks, I have greatly reduced my backlog of NCIS and The Office.  I grew up listening to baseball on AM radio for much of my entertainment, so I can get significant entertainment value out of a TV program even when the video portion is absent.

If you enjoy reading, winter can also be a good time to catch up.  The weather sucks for outdoor activities, so why not stay indoors a bit more.  If you’re looking for recommendations of some good authors, I have a list.

Set Intermediate Milestones

Years ago, I would sigh deeply when the first snowflakes hit the ground and start counting down the days until spring.  This made for a very long winter.  In the last few years, I have started to look forward to winter milestones.  This helps reduce the wait a bit by breaking it into manageable chunks.

A major milestone for me is the date that spring training begins.  This is mid-February each year – a full month (or more) before spring begins in the midwest.  However, when the first pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona, I know that there will significant baseball news every day until November (my threshold for “significant baseball news” is probably a bit lower than most people’s.)

In 2010, there is another wonderful milestone – the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  I absolutely love the Olympics.  At some point during the Olympics, I will know person details about athletes from dozens of countries from sports that I pay little attention to outside of the Olympics.  Then, of course, there is luge.  I fully intend to DVR ever possible bit of luge coverage in order to satisfy my desire for the sports for the next four years.

In closing, I would like to point out the fact that there is a big difference between a mere case of the winter blahs and the more serious condition of depression.  If you feel that you are experiencing depression, I urge you to seek proper medical attention, just as you would for any other ailment.