Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas: Is It Really Just for Kids?

          Merry Christmas everyone! I wish for you a joyous day with family and friends, a day filled abundantly with fellowship, spiritual connection and a bounty of great food, drink and laughter.

          If you’ve been reading this blog the last few months you won’t be surprised to see me wax nostalgia on this day. It seems I’m taking a moment frequently to reflect on the past and look to the future. And Christmas is certainly a great time to do that.

          The first significant Christmas I remember as a child was when I was 9 and we were living in Japan. I surprisingly still believed in Santa. Thank goodness because I had a very long list of wants that year:  a big-girl bicycle, Madame Alexander doll and majorette boots WITH tassels were just a few of the items.

          Come Christmas morning I was not disappointed. My sister and I, still in our jammies, tried to restrain ourselves as requested by our parents as we walked down the hall to the living room. The lights from the tree gave off a brilliant glow that lighted our way even though all other lights in the house were off. In the distance I could hear the whir of the Super 8 camera my dad had just wound up in order to capture our every look and gasp of glee. The living room was nearly impassible to the front door due to the cabillion presents for my sister and me. It was truly magical.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Community Volunteering

          I live in Santa Rosa, California, which is the county seat of Sonoma County, a 1,768 square mile community just north of San Francisco. The total population is just under 500,000.

          As reported in the Press Democrat (September 22, 2010), Sonoma County houses one of the largest volunteer populations in California. Nearly two out of every five adults volunteered in the county. The 39% of Sonoma County residents who donated time in 2010 outpaced all other Northern California communities surveyed. In addition, volunteer rates for local residents significantly surpassed the national average (27%).

          I knew we were a volunteering community, but I was surprised to learn these impressive statistics that put us ahead of others. I wish I had a definite singular answer to the question, “Why?” Maybe because we house a large retired population or perhaps one affluent enough to have the time, money and inclination to give back.

          There is a huge need for volunteers and, with the economy being as it is, this need has never been bigger. In spite of all attempts to fill positions with paid staff, some organizations rely on volunteers more now then ever before. For instance, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital has approximately 135 volunteers who staff the front desk, gift shop and emergency room. These dedicated individuals, who range in age from early 20’s to mid-90’s, greet and guide stressed and ill clients to the places they need to be in the quickest way possible. They also deal with visitors and staff from other institutions and, on occasion, law enforcement personnel. Without them, it can be a pretty frustrating trip to the hospital.  Often times we look right through these volunteers. People are distracted and sometimes not at their best when needing their services.

          The United Way and the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County operate the Schools of Hope program staffed entirely by volunteers for 1st and 2nd graders in many elementary schools in the County. It is the program’s goal to increase participation from its current level of approximately 400 volunteers to 800 volunteers serving approximately 700 students in 20 schools. As one of the new recruits to this program, I was interested to learn that many students who don’t have a firm grasp on reading by third grade never make it to graduation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Complaints 101

          I abhor retired people who spend their golden years writing to manufacturers complaining about some inane thing that happened or didn’t happen with their product. These people don’t hesitate to dash off an annoying diatribe to any retailer if they had to wait in line or have encountered a less than cheerful salesperson or wait person. (Have YOU ever tried waiting tables for a living?) They complain it didn’t arrive in time, or arrived damaged, or didn’t live up to their expectations (or their design taste) when they got the item home.

          If you really hate people like that you should stop reading right now….because (gulp) I’m one of them. My own life isn’t entirely about composing clever barbs to companies when I’m upset about something, but I have been accused of pointing out a flaw or shortcoming of a retailer or manufacturer when a situation didn’t make my consumer genes hum with satisfaction.

          I come by this desire to set the producer straight or to share a less than rewarding experience honestly and … genetically. My mother was the queen complainer, which was all well and good expect she went overboard and complained about things that she shouldn’t have.

          For instance, once during her golden years, Mother deemed it a valiant task to count the number of squares on the toilet paper roll. Not surprisingly, the roll, which was touted as containing 400 squares, would sometimes have only 392 squares or, heaven forbid, only 380 squares. My mother, the English teacher, would spend days penning a complaint riddled with her disappointment and dismay about this shortcoming. The self-satisfaction she received by sending her letter outshone the milk-toast apologetic reply wherein the manufacturer would promise to right any wrong AND would include a coupon for free future purchases. Well, that free stuff got my attention and I began “educating” companies, too.

          My first such venture, when I was about 16, involved a Nestlé’s Crunch candy bar. I opened the package and found a hole in the bar with a white filmy cobweb…no insect, just the smashed home of one. This was a no-brainer. I sent the entire product back to Nestle and within a matter of weeks I received a 3 by 4 foot box containing one of every product Nestle made along with a profusely apologetic letter. Looking back, they’re probably just glad I didn’t sue their asses...lol.

          I wrote letters a few more times, hopefully, only for legitimate things and not because the fold on the granola bar packaging wasn’t centered on the product. Coats and Clark sent me 12 skeins of yarn when I discovered a skein that had several knots in it instead of a continuous piece of cotton.

          Most recently, I went to Whole Foods in Coddingtown instead of the store near my home on Yulupa and wanted to purchase, among other things, a half pint of pico de gallo. First, let me say their pico de gallo is delicious! I only buy the half pint size for $2.99 because I can’t consume more without it going bad. To make a long story short, the Whole Foods in Coddingtown didn’t stock, nor could they produce, a half pint, so I was going to be forced to purchase the pint for $6.00. Come on people, you can put it together. Well, they couldn’t find a product code, yada yada. I left the store empty-handed. When I got home I fired off a kind but pointed email and within two days, I’d heard from the store’s customer service department. They not only will be sure half pints of their tasty salsa are always available but, for my inconvenience, a gift certificate is waiting for me at the Customer Service desk at the store.

          In order to be successful in enlightening a company, your complaint needs, obviously, to be legit. I sure hope I’ve not inherited the hyper-vigilant complaining skills of my mother. In any letter or email, it is key to be polite and express disappointment or surprise at the lack of quality, or poor service, rather than anger or pointing out their stupidity.

          I look forward to hearing of any experiences that have or have not worked for you. In the meantime, I’m off to the Whole Foods in Coddingtown. I wonder what the gift certificate is for?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

          It’s officially THE shopping season. I probably don’t need to tell YOU that. Heck, half of my friends have already finished their shopping for the holidays.

          I’ve always admired people who can shop for the holidays all year long. This is the bunch that is super organized with a well thought out list of recipients and gift ideas. They keep their list handy and use any outing, be it a trip to the grocery story or a vacation to Italy, as an opportunity to mark another item off their list. I’ve been with friends who’ve gasped, “Oh, goody, Safeway has 50 year old Scotch on sale. Now I can get that bottle I want to give to Uncle Luke!”

          I’m not a great shopper. I don’t enjoy the experience that much. I never even enjoyed it when I was younger and could afford and fit into tiny leather skirts or suede coats with tastefully appointed fake fur collars. At one point, I did leasing for a local shopping center and my entire days were spent in stores and around merchandise. You might think I’d be more inclined to shop if I was getting paid for my time while doing it, but I didn’t.

          Having shown my shopping skills are minimal, it might surprise you to learn that I’m a good internet shopper. I’ll match the purchasing power of my fingers with the best of ‘em! At the same time, I’m in good company when I say I’ve had some bad experiences from buying things from online stores, but these have been mainly apparel items. As long as it’s not clothes or shoes, I think buying from the internet is the only way to go.

          They predict paying sales tax for online merchandise will soon be upon us. Until then, I say rev up those search engine skills, research the best deal identifier through-sites and begin to reward those merchandisers who pay for shipping with little or no minimum purchases. There are lots out there. And there’s always e-bay and Craigslist; fun places to shop even if you have to modify some of the specifications you’re requiring.

          Even though I’m not an enthusiastic consumer of clothing, I have enjoyed purchasing household items:  dishes, linens, knick knacks, kitchen gadgets, plants, etc. In recent years, however, I’ve had a somewhat depressing awakening that many of you may have also experienced.

          Since retiring, I’ve noticed there’s nothing I need to buy. OMG, this has been the most discouraging aspect of getting older that no one told me to expect. Obviously, I don’t need work clothes or comfortable shoes for traipsing through my day. I don’t need cute containers to carry lunch items to the office, nor do I need any electronic items for keeping a complicated schedule or task list. Man, it just hasn’t been fun to realize I don’t need yet another set of silverware or placemats, or panties, or umbrellas.

          I was in hog heaven a couple of years ago when I got my cat Kali from the Humane Society, not only for the obvious pet-loving reasons but also because it meant I could go out and buy, buy, and buy:  food bowls, pet beds, mats, snacks, grooming tools and toys, lots and lots of toys. I even had to buy another basket just to hold all the snacks, tools and toys. It was fun, but short-lived.

          These days one of my favorite stores is the bookstore at the Center for Spiritual Living. This is the home of my spiritual community, which was founded by Ernest Holmes. It has lots of books – soothing books, instruction books, history books and books to give as gifts. It also has cultural items from other countries, jewelry and crafts made by talented Center members, and a ton of Gods and Goddesses, Buddha’s, essential oils, and tapes for mediation or relaxation. If I need a gift for a friend, I’m most likely to start at this store.

          I think the future of my shopping will be mostly for others, particularly kids and grand-kids. I’ll never have to worry about running out of things to buy for others. Also, doesn’t giving money count for something still? I think it can be pretty impersonal, but do you really want ME to guess what an 11-year-old boy might truly want? Here’s some money; buy exactly what you’d like and know that I give it to you with heartfelt love and a true desire to celebrate your birthday, graduation, Christmas, etc.

          Oh, and if you’re buying for me, well, like I said, I don’t need anything, so better make it experiential. Let’s have a dinner together, or go to a play, or a casino!