Halloween Luxury

Here’s a repost from two years ago:

Ten Most “Luxurious” Things About Halloween

I’ve thought for a long time that “the holidays” are what helps us North Americans (and others in the Northern Hemisphere) fight back against Seasonal Affective Disorder – the holiday lights keep us from getting depressed after the summer sunshine is gone. The holidays start with Halloween, and that’s one of the things I like about it (although there are at least ten more):

Halloween luxury

1. Jack o’ Lantern as an art form – Here’s an art genre for you: carve a hollow vegetable into a work of art that involves light from the inside and typically has a theme of horror, and will start to rot within a week or so. I like to use power tools, like a jigsaw and an electric drill, to add an element of drama (and loud noise).

Children in Costume for Halloween

2. Children in costumes – Halloween is most definitely a holiday for children, but they will come right to your door to show you their costumes (whether you want them to or not).

3. Costumes as an art form – Those of us who have children, or are invited to masquerade parties, get another opportunity to express our creativity. My idea for an adult costume, a bicycle racer with syringes and blood bags hanging off of his arms, has not gone over too well …

4. Candy – Yes, candy.

5. Halloween videos – Can’t, absolutely can’t write this post without mentioning “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Just can’t. On the big screen, there are movies like “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

6. Seasonal beers – For those of you who are fans of craft beers, you can be almost 100% sure that your local brewery will have a seasonal pumpkin ale or something similar to get you in the holiday spirit.

7. No gifts.  Even department stores haven’t yet started pre-pre-pre-holiday sales, or mounted holiday decorations before you’ve gotten the artificial cobwebs out of your trees.  Your only obligation, should you choose to accept it, is to dole out piles of candy to those sweet little goblins, Avengers, and Spidermen that appear at your door.

8. It’s ecumenical.  Like Thanksgiving, Halloween is a holiday that can be celebrated by everyone.  Though some consider it Satanic, I fail to understand how streets or parties full of children and adults dressed, often badly, as their favorite superhero or Presidential candidate could possibly reflect the worship of evil to any serious person.  Halloween is all in fun.  Try to take it that way.

9. There’s no snow on the ground — at least, not usually.  Hallow’en is celebrated while the air is crisp but, typically, still mild enough not to require a parka or boots.  Leaves are still on the trees, you can just begin to smell wood burning in neighborhood fireplaces.  It offers no lyrical waxing about sleigh bells, silver bells, or jingle bells — just hayrides through scarecrow-guarded fields and an occasional bob for apples.

10. Haunted houses, prisons, or mental hospitals.  Halloween provides innumerable opportunities to have the bejeezus frightened out of you.  If you like to be terrified, now’s your chance, and you can often do it in the most unpleasant surroundings imaginable.  Creaky old mansions, converted penal institutions, places with straightjackets and handcuffs and maniacs — oh, my!  — have been repurposed into sites where ordinary people dress up as zombies, monsters, vampires, and mummies to frighten other ordinary people for a small fee.



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Meyer Lemons Will Keep Some Summer Inside

The days are getting shorter and colder in a lot of places (North America, Europe, etc.), so could it be time to grow  a Meyer lemon tree in your home? OK, maybe you hadn’t thought of that, but every time you put some citrus seeds in the garbage you wonder what might have been. You could put any orange, lemon or lime seeds in a pot of soil, but it requires some patience before you get much of a plant that way. They have layers of coating that the seedlings have to work their way through. If you are going to wait that long, use the right seeds – Meyer lemons.

Meyer lemons

Growing Meyer Lemons

Meyer lemons are dwarf lemons to begin with, so they are the right size for a house plant. You will get some fruit, and Meyer lemons are very useful – they are half lemon and half mandarin orange, so they are sweeter than ordinary lemons and therefore more versatile for cooking. They are available in stores during the cold months, so go ahead and try them to see if you like them. They will have seeds inside, of course, so you can try growing some. Keep them moist, and follow one of the many available growing guides. You will need a sunny location and some potting soil with very good drainage.

Better yet, order one that’s already a few feet tall. You won’t want to wait any longer than you have to for fragrant flowers that will soon turn into lemons. Meyer lemons are self-pollinating, so one is enough. You order one, and it miraculously makes its way through the mail from its warm tropical home in the nursery to its new home in the cold, dark North.

Or do both. Try rooting some seeds, and at the same time order its big brother. Then you’ll have more than one.

Available from Amazon.

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LastPass Remembers Passwords So You Don’t Have To

Pick a password that’s impossible to remember, but don’t write it down. Say what? And use a different, impossible to remember password for every site. There’s no way. So what happens? If you’re like I was, you use the same password for everything, cleverly substituting numbers for letters, or maybe adding an exclamation point. Good luck with that. Some day soon, one of those sites WILL get hacked, and you’ll have to go to all the other sites and change your password.

LastPass Logos

LastPass frees you from all that. It even frees you from typing them in (especially helpful for the elderly or disabled). Set it up with a master password, and it will enter all your passwords automatically. It will even generate nearly uncrackable passwords for you, and then remember them. If you get nervous, it will let you go back look up all these passwords and see what they are. Put it on all your browsers and it will cost you … nothing. It’s free. It also fills in forms for you with your address and credit card numbers.

Better yet, spend $25 to get a YubiKey and another $12 a year for LastPass Premium and you’ll have the ultimate in security. The Yubikey is a little device for your keychain that generates a unique password each time, that you plug into a USB port. LastPass Premium lets you use LastPass on your smartphone; that alone is worth $1 a month. It makes a great gift, especially for someone you feel might be a little more vulnerable to being hacked than the rest of us.

LastPass also has an export feature, in case you want to switch to something else or just know that you can down the road. Try it – remember, it’s free, and see how you like liberation from worrying about passwords.

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Strike Anywhere Matches for Lighting Candles

First things first – keep Strike Anywhere Matches away from children! They are fun to play with, but they are not a toy. Only adults should be able to reach them.

Now that’s out of the way, back to how great they are. Safety matches, either wood in tiny boxes from restaurants or paper matchbooks, can be hard to light. After the first try or two, the stuff wears off the end or the striker, or or you push too hard and snap its little head off. Or even worse, it lights when you least expect it and there’s 1100° of fire an inch or so from your fingers – how quickly can you move it over to the candle and get the wick to light?

Diamond Matchbox 

Strike anywhere matches are longer, sturdier and almost always light on the first try. That first try can be on any rough surface (even on the sides of the box!) and only requires one hand. You could be already holding the candle in your other hand for maximum efficiency.

In old movies, you see matches lit on shoe soles, zippers, with the nail of one finger or even on teeth. Obviously, there may be unnecessary risks in using any of those surfaces, and there is always a better rough surface available, especially outdoors. Strike anywhere matches are great for fireplaces, campfires and barbecues. We use ours most often for lighting candles in the bathroom. No lesser authority than the Mythbusters have confirmed that just striking one reduces by 50% the dreaded odor of methyl mercaptan, and that’s even before they have been used to light the scented candle of your choice.

They are getting harder to find, and you can’t take them on planes, but if you see a box in your local hardware store, pick it up and give it a try.

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Closet Auger Saves the Cost of One Plumber Visit

We try not to think about clogged toilets, an unpleasant subject,
until it happens to us. I don’t know why plungers became the default
household tool for unclogging toilets, because they don’t work 100% of
the time. Closet augers do, and they don’t require bending over a
smelly mess and splashing the foul water up and down, either. That’s
why plumbers use them when you pay them hundreds of dollars for a
house call. Augers are cheap ($30), very easy to use and also easy to
store (they’re called closet augers, after all). So get one, now,
before you need it. Then when you do, leave the bathroom, and take a
few deep breaths to relax while you watch one of the short how-to
videos on YouTube. You pull the handle out so the bulb is right up
against the curved tube, protected by no-scratch plastic. Then put the
auger into the bowl (no need to bend over), and push and spin at the
same time until the handle is all the way down. The most gratifying
part is the moment when you actually break through the clog – whoosh,
the toilet flushes just like it’s supposed to. A few more normal
flushes to rinse the toilet and the auger, pull it out to dry, and put
it back … in the closet.

Posted in Gifts for Men, Household, Tools | 1 Comment

Progressive Bifocals Let You See Everything

I can see very well — according to my eye doctor, well enough to get a private pilot’s license in all fifty states. However, after a certain age, I needed reading glasses from the dollar store. A handy pair of 1.5 magnification, and I was good to go for the next few years. Then 2.5 became even handier for reading, but for computer screens the 1.5 was still what I needed. I got tired of putting reading glasses on, then taking them off again. Everything within arm’s length of my eyes was out of focus. I needed sunglasses in the bright sun, but reading sunglasses to read outdoors. It was all just too much.

progressive lens

I had always heard that progressive bifocals were the greatest thing, once you got used to them. Finally, I decided to give them a try. If I had to have reading glasses with me all the time, why not just leave them on my face? So back to the eye doctor. She prescribed progressive lenses with 2.5 at the bottom, gradually decreasing up to clear glass for my super left eye and a little bit of distance correction for my right eye. Warning: they can be disappointing at first. The field of view for any one thing you look at just doesn’t seem wide enough at first, and it feels like you have to move your head all the time. But after a few days, the miraculous natural ability of your eyes to adapt takes over, and it’s as if the whole world becomes crystal clear, from top to bottom. It’s like going from black and white to color in the Land of Oz. Blurry to perfectly focused. While driving, you can see all the way down the road, and you can see the instrument panel. Perfectly.

I was tempted by the photochromic lenses, but they don’t work for driving. The car windows already block out the UV rays that trigger the darkening. I opted instead for the clip-on sunglasses that are made to fit the glasses exactly.

The rule for getting used to them is: wear them all the time. But that’s OK — you’ll want to.

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Make A Newspaper Log for Your Fireplace – for Free

We carry things into the house, and we carry them out again. For instance, if we don’t have room (Yard? Shed? Large deck?) to store a cord or so of wood, and we have a fireplace, we might have to buy a 3/4 cubic foot bundle at the market and carry it in. We do this after paying six dollars or so. And if we still read paper newspapers, we carry them out to the curb or recycling bin (or even worse, carry them out to the trash).

You can eliminate some of that carrying in and out (and the paying for part) by burning the newspapers in the fireplace.

Paper Log Roller

Of course, putting sheets or even sections of newspaper in the fireplace is a bad idea: they burn too fast, generate very little heat and may fly right up the chimney and set your roof on fire. A far better idea is to “decycle” the paper back into a form more like the wood it came from. Water is the magic ingredient. The new “logs” are basically made out of paper mache. You can get a little machine that makes fire bricks, but to use it, you need to shred the paper first. Another way is to soak the sheets and just wrap them around a broom handle. You might want to try this; it won’t cost a dime and you can see how they work for you, but it’s a messy job best done outside (where it can be kind of cold in the winter).

My uncle got the one in the picture at Sears a long time ago. You may have seen one at a garage sale and wondered what it was. The ones you can buy now for about $60 are a little more decorative but work on the same principle. The advantage is that the water goes in the trough at the bottom, so it stays right where it’s needed.

Drawbacks include the need for lengthy drying – it will be a few weeks before they are dry enough to burn. Maybe you can stack them on the radiator and add humidity to the air. Even then, you will probably need to start the fire with real wood and add the paper logs after it really gets going, with a bed of hot coals. Also, try not to roll them too tight, because it can be a pain to pull the handle out of the middle when you’re done. But if you’re a do it yourselfer, or have no easy way to recycle newspapers, it might be a good idea for you.

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Ten Best Children’s Stocking Stuffers

Children are usually not too shy about telling you the big stuff they want: Xboxes, scooters, skateboards … or you just know that it’s time for a bigger bicycle (they do grow right before your eyes). Great little stuff for the stocking on the mantle might be a little more challenging, especially since you might start thinking about it a little late. We here at AL are ready and willing to give your our suggestions (in the nick of time):

1. Kikkerland Wind-Up Toys – We’ve posted about these before. Their appeal is universal – adults, too, love to watch them in action. The classic clockwork mechanism is a refreshing change from sealed electronic gadgets, and there are many different ones available.

Automoblox Mini

2. Automoblox Minis – We’ve posted about these before, too. They are well-made with strict quality control, and they look good. The interchangeable wheels and connectors give them lasting play value.

3. Gift Cards – A bit lame by themselves, and better for older children, but a welcome extra to throw in. I was thinking Barnes and Noble while we still have real bookstores, but there’s always iTunes and GameStop if you just want them to have fun.

4. Crayola Crayons – Kids have crayons, and they have them at school, but you can’t beat a nice fresh box of genuine Made in U.S.A. Crayola Crayons in the colors that get used the most. A true classic that will remind you of your own childhood.

5. Darda Pull-Back Cars – Another favorite of ours. The standard 1:64 toy car size, but pull them back and they take off like little rockets. Not everyone knows about them, but they are a lot more fun than Hot Wheels (although we like Hot Wheels, too – they’re easy to find anywhere, anytime).

6. Socks – If you roll up a kid’s size pair of socks, they’re small and you can throw them in, too. Socks in a stocking have a nice meta effect, and you can get them in patterns that are sure to please (you know what your child likes).

7. Buzz Magnets – If you’ve never seen these in action, they’re a little hard to describe. They do all sorts of fun things, but they make a hypnotic buzzing sound when you snap them together. Plus they’re a little safer than those tiny magnets they don’t sell anymore.

8. Slinky Jr – These are small and cute and are a great introduction to the mid-20th century classic. They will fit great in a stocking, but if you have room, go for the full-size one that walks down stairs.

9. LEGO 8833 Mini-Fig – To paraphrase the late Duchess of Windsor, you can’t be too rich or too thin or have too many LEGO mini-figs. These seem to be everywhere right now, at checkout counters and in the LEGO aisle. Part of the fun is that there are different ones and you don’t know what’s inside until you open them, so feel free to get more than one.

10. Rubik’s Cube – Whether you can solve it or not, a Rubik’s Cube is colorful and fun to twirl around. It’s a little piece of the 1980s that is fascinating to everyone, and your child will get a great experience learning about math and 3D space.

We promised ten, but we’ll keep going:

11. Silly Putty – Remember Silly Putty? Another great old toy to just fidget with in your hands. Make it into a ball that bounces, squeeze it flat or smash it with a hammer. The old  Sunday comic newspaper trick sadly doesn’t work on modern newspapers with soy-based ink, but that’s OK, it won’t work on a computer screen either …

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Ten Best Last Minute Christmas Presents

It’s the week before Christmas, and you’ve spent as much time as you could trying to think of last minute Christmas presents for You-Know-Who (relative of Cindy Lou, of the well-known Who family – Christmas means a lot to them). Can it really be possible that inspiration still has yet to strike?

Last Minute Presents


Fear not, for we bring tidings of some great ideas that might yet work for you. Take a look at our list:

1. Custom Gift Baskets – This can work any number of ways – how do you know this person? Is she your tennis partner? OK, then stop in the pro shop where you go twice a week anyway, and pick up some tennis balls, socks, a wristband, the current copy of Tennis magazine, maybe another water bottle and some energy bars – whatever looks good. Arrange them in a basket with a bow, and there you go. Sort of like Easter in December …

2. Spotify Premium Subscription – Loyal readers of AL already know we’re huge fans of Spotify. We’ve been listening to all the obscure Christmas albums and choral music.  Get a year’s premium subscription for someone for $10 per month and let them see how much they like having access to millions of CD on any device, anywhere. You can make it more personal by making a playlist for them of stuff you think they might like.

3. A Real, Paper Magazine Subscription – These are going the way of the dodo, of course, but it might be a nice idea to give one while you still can. We like Wired, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker — and enjoy holding them in our hands every month. There’s Consumer Reports for the practical folks. Plus, subscriptions are more and more including digital access – Wired, in particular, has a ton of great multimedia on the iPad version for subscribers. Buy the festive December issue in a store and wrap it with the subscription card to make it more tangible.

4. Gift Card for the Fancy Lingerie Store – (Proprietress of said lingerie store strongly disagrees: “She wants you to buy her something pretty!”) Never mind that – there are issues with trying on (not!), returning underwear and the horrible downside of buying something too small, or maybe worse, too big … all enough to make Maxwell’s head explode. It might end up being redeemed at a great after-Christmas sale, too.

5. Wine Accessories – More creative than a bottle of wine are all the fun tools that can make wine consumption more entertaining. Fancy wine-stoppers, vacuum seals, aerators, modern corkscrews (the Rabbit!  the electric opener!), seal-cutters and wine carriers — an endless supply of wine accessories can likely be found at gadget stores, wine shops, department stores and places like Williams-Sonoma.

6. Beauty Accessories – Stores like Sephora have an entire section devoted to helping the last-minute shopper.  From cosmetic bags to make-up brushes, decorative hair ornaments to travel containers, cosmetic stores and the cosmetic/toiletry departments of larger stores typically have attractive, useful, and affordable gifts any recipient will appreciate.

7. Stationery Supplies – EVERYONE needs thank-you notes (or they should . . .), and the note cards need not say, “Thank you!” to serve this purpose. Pretty note cards or paper, with artistic designs or monogrammed with an initial are items that everyone can use and hardly anyone ever buys for herself. Moreover, one might be even more encouraged to pen that note with an unusual writing implement or one of those modern stampers with the interchangeable plates. And this gift is one whose use you might personally experience.

8. Museum Memberships – I just posted all the advantages of museum memberships, and they might be just the thing for a family that might not think to buy one for themselves. Depending on where you live, you can get them for zoos and other entertaining places. Not only that, but a good bit of it is TAX-DEDUCTIBLE! To you!

Candles - last minute presents

9. Candles – You can get lots of different kinds of colored and scented candles literally anywhere — even a 24 hour big-box drugstore. Nobody has enough candles, and even if they do, they light them on fire and burn them up and end up needing more.

10. Gadgets for Gadgets – The possibilities are so endless they’ve almost become alternate lyrics for one of those Christmas songs, but they do give you myriad choices for last-minute gifts. Phone cases, chargers, sensors in mittens,  headphones in hats and apps to feed kittens — you name it, your friends with smartphones (and fingers, heads, and cats) probably could make use of it and may not already have it.  These gadgets are ubiquitous, too — again, at gadget stores, department stores, office supply stores, big-box stores — and they are useful and affordable.

So that’s some ideas from us to get you started. There are zillions of gift cards and subscriptions available — we thought it would be cheating to give them each their own number.

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The Dodocase iPad Case Will Keep Your iPad New

I’ve always liked to put things in cases. I’ve liked it even more since I dropped my uncased phone a couple of feet onto a concrete floor on vacation last year, and shattered the screen. I won’t make that mistake again. Cases make things stay in better condition, last longer and give you something warmer to hold than cold metal, plastic and glass. Also, these days it’s not a bad idea to cover your iPad (or Kindle, or phone) up so it looks like something other than an expensive electronic device to the criminals the police call “Apple pickers,” especially in big cities. (Like a book! Who would want to steal that?).

Anyway, I expect there will be a lot of happy new iPad, Kindle, tablet and smartphone owners this holiday season. So what’s the first thing you want to do after unboxing your new device? Why, start accessorizing, of course! But before you do, before you check out the official iCases in the Apple Store or the Kindle cases on Amazon, take a look at the Dodocase.

The Dodocase is designed like a real hardcover book, with a bamboo frame that fits around the iPad. It’s very light, but the bamboo holds the iPad or other device firmly and the cover folds over to protect the front. You can order any color you want, cloth or leather or faux leather, or customize it completely – with or without a camera port, or have a unique message put on the front. Since it’s made like a book, it looks like a book, and it’s made by hand right here in the U.S.A.

I’m not trying to be Consumer Reports – any case will keep a device clean, in good condition, out of sight and will be there to cushion a catastrophic drop – but find one you like, because you will spend a lot of time with it. I’m a big fan of the Dodocase, but Portenzo makes nice ones, too.

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