Saturday, January 30, 2010

Gift Card Madness

Can't think of a gift to get for your teenage niece who is beyond Furbies, Webkinz, and Groovy Girl Dolls? Your nephew no longer cares about Pokémon, Transformers, or Lego? Well, you can always get them a gift card.

We are currently living in the age of "Gift Cards." My sons have been receiving them and giving them at birthday parties for several years now. Best Buy, EB Games, and Rogers seem to be the most prevalent choices. The kids can pick their own video game for any of their video gaming systems. These are the best “I have no clue what to give you” presents. Some people give cash, which many gift-givers are loath to do, but I've never heard a complaint from the recipient.

Nowadays, you can take the gift card phenomenon one step further. Instead of traipsing to the local mall to buy a card for a specific store, you can simply buy a CREDIT gift card, which enables the person to use it at any store that accepts credit cards. It’s not quite cash and still indicates some thought on the part of the giver. Convenient? Yes. But a good practice? I’m not so sure.

Visa or Mastercard gift cards certainly have their appeal, but they also have their hidden dangers. Put a credit card in the hands of a child or a teenager and very soon they’ll adapt to this great new way of shopping. What a brilliant way for credit card companies to indoctrinate kids into the world of credit. Unconsciously, they are being trained to pull out a card to make a purchase without thinking about the expense or how the cost is to be covered. One day, they will be paying 21% extra for the privilege, but they don’t need to know this yet.

Before gift cards there were gift certificates, and most of them had expiry dates. If you didn’t use them within 3, 6 or 12 months they’d be as good as a coupon from 1953. And there was often no mercy. If you came into the store with an expired gift certificate, the staff person would look at the date, nod their head in sympathy and say, “Sorry, but it clearly states right here in black and white that this certificate expired in June, 2003.” You could ask for the manager, raise your voice, stomp up and down, but really, you had no leg to stand on.

Fortunately, many gift cards don’t have expiry dates, but they do have other pitfalls, and this is why stores LOVE them. According to’s National Research, about 25% of gift card recipients do not use them within the year. As stated in the report, “Over one-third of those respondents said they didn't use the cards because they either forgot about them, lost them, or the cards had expired. But the most common reasons people gave for not spending their gift cards were that they didn't have time to shop (58 percent) or couldn't find anything to buy (35 percent).”

Such is retailer heaven—free cash, free revenues.

My father once received a gift card from his financial advisor for Christmas and when he went to use it the card contained no funds. What do you do when you receive a well-intentioned present like that and it’s void? My father, not a particularly shy man, called his broker and basically told him that his Christmas present was a dud. Many of us would not be bold enough to make such a call. We’d feel bad for the giver and, considering that most people don’t keep the receipt, we wouldn’t want them to feel compelled to buy us another one.

Since that incident, I always include the receipt with the card so the gift card holder has proof of the purchase on hand.

Years ago, I gave someone who had back pains a $100 gift certificate for a massage at a spa. Within six months, before the certificate was redeemed, the spa suddenly disappeared—bankrupt. What a waste!

This past Christmas, my husband and I decided not to get each other gifts for the sake of economizing. Since he has difficulty keeping such agreements, he bought me something anyway. Knowing how much I love bookstores and books, he bought me a gift card for a new multi-faceted bookstore in Toronto called McNALLY ROBINSON, which opened in the fall. With plenty of comfortable seats to lounge and read, and a fine restaurant to have a lunch, my husband thought I’d enjoy a pleasant afternoon there...which I would have.

He purchased the gift card a few days before Christmas and guess what happened a few days after Christmas—yes, the store went bankrupt. The company had overextended in a difficult economic climate and instead of bucking the trend, they joined it. Sad for the owners, sad for the creditors and sad for me!

The other thoughtful gift my husband gave me was a gift card for a spa. I’m using it this Sunday. If they’re still open for business, that is.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kindle Crazy

Do you have a Kindle? Do you know what a Kindle is?

The Kindle is an electronic book device, or an electronic reader. This year, it was the single most-requested and bestselling item in’s massive catalogue of products. It was also the number one Christmas present in North America. There are other products like it, including the Sony Reader and the Nook. And Indigo Books plans to launch its own Canadian eReader in the near future. If you don’t have one yet, or if you don’t know much about them, you will soon (especially if you are reading this!).

The eReader is the new “it” product, the new “Tickle-me” Elmo. Until recently, it was considered a novelty and more of a toy than a viable, sustainable electronic tool. Marketers thought that people over 40 would not be interested, but guess what? It’s the over-40 crowd that is swallowing them up. One of the great appeals is that we can adjust the text size, so as our eyes deteriorate, we can make the print bigger and bigger!

eBooks (the written material rather than the device) have been available for purchase for a long time. You can order them from various electronic publishers and download them onto your favourite electronic device such as the iPhone, BlackBerry, Mac, or PC. But the eReader is a product unto itself. It’s what I call a cyber book. It has many qualities of an actual, physical book, but its content is transmitted through cyberspace.

I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open about this product for a long time because I’m an avid reader. I’ll read anything—newspapers, magazines, books, blogs—you name it. I love learning and I love language and words. I’ve been reading material on-line for ages, so when the electronic readers hit the market a few years ago I was intrigued. But the features were limited and the price was too high. Like high-definition flat-screen TVs, the technology was sure to improve, competitors would jump in, and the price would come down. This has occurred and I am now almost ready to commit.

The Amazon Kindle is an amazing product, from what I understand. It comes in two sizes, about 8” x 5” and 10” x 7” and the width is .38”, like a pencil. The current price is $259 and $489us respectively. Given how many books I buy (a weakness of mine) I think it’s a good deal, especially since bestsellers cost about $9.99us.

But such a gadget can never replace the feel of pages between your fingers, or the smell of paper and ink as you flip the pages. Books are comforting, and rows upon rows of books sitting on our bookshelves make us feel clever. Did I really read all those volumes? Some of us pass our books along to other book lovers and we relish the conversations that arise when we hand them over. “This is a great read, you’ll love the imagery.” Or “It was tough slugging at the beginning, but definitely worth persevering.”

I have a friend who is about the most voracious reader I’ve ever met. Reading is her passion and if there is anyone I know who belongs in the book world, it’s Penny. She must spend a fortune on fiction, but unlike some book lovers who hoard their books to keep them pristinely preserved, she generously sends them on a journey through the hands of her friends. I don’t think it will be easy for Penny to relinquish her beloved books, but eventually, I think that she too, may find herself on the eReader bandwagon.

The pros seem too compelling to resist:

• it’s portable (much lighter than a typical book)
• it holds up to 1500 books in 2 gigabytes of memory
• you can choose from over 400,000 titles, including those that are no longer in print
• it has no backlighting, therefore no glare and reads like real paper indoors and out
• it has a long battery life
• you can listen rather than read as it includes a text-to-speech feature
• you can adjust the text size and the font
• there’s a free built-in dictionary and free access to Wikipedia
• Google Books, an electronic library of 10 million scanned titles, allows many to be downloaded free of charge.

Publishers are not enthusiastic about this product and bookstores have no choice but to get into the game. Writers are keen because they are happy when anyone reads their work, regardless of the medium, and they still get royalties from each copy sold.

One last advantage, which most of us can appreciate, is this: books are not the most environmentally friendly things around; the fuel that goes into producing them and transporting them is adding to our pollution problem; the massive consumption of paper products is devastating our forests (for example, about 5 million trees are cut down annually to produce phonebooks); and those books and magazines lining our shelves collect dust, which according to studies, can cause serious health problems. With too much exposure, librarians in particular are prone to respiratory illnesses. Do you ever dust your books? I certainly don’t.

My choice is made. I want an eReader. The question is which one? I think I’ll wait a little longer to see what the Canadian version can do. And if the price comes down some more...even better.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bye-Bye Christmas Tree

The other day we took down our Christmas tree and put it out by the curb for the very last time. The tree had been up for a month and somehow the dry needles had migrated to unexpected places—the carpet in the middle of the room, between the sofa cushions, and even on the coffee table. The seven foot balsam was so dehydrated that by the time it landed on the curb, it looked like a sickly spindling, naked and neglected.

Next year, we won’t be leaving a tree by the roadside. We won’t experience the fresh evergreen aroma and we won’t make the trek to our favourite Christmas tree supplier. There will be no more hauling it into the house and erecting it upright into its stand, and no more needles flying haphazardly around. Why? Because next year we will join the contingent of fake tree owners and simply unfold the plastic branches attached to a metal trunk and plunk it into the corner of the room.

Bye, bye fresh, fragrant, beautiful Christmas tree. The holidays will never be quite the same.

My husband has terrible allergies and every year in mid December they get worse. He’s stuffed up and itchy and has difficulty breathing. Ironically, wintertime is usually when his allergies improve as there’s no pollen or grass or ragweed or any other offending allergens in the air. We should have figured this out sooner, but I think we were in denial.

I know many people who have artificial Christmas trees. They think they’re great. Easy set-up, easy take-down, no fuss, no muss. Their homes are no less festive than those with the real deal. But still...

We love fresh Christmas trees; they are entrenched in our psyches as integral to the holiday season. The ritual, the tradition, the memories of our own childhood experiences cannot be easily dismissed. My eighty-year-old father still talks about the Christmas trees of his childhood in Slovakia, selected from the forest on his family’s property. Illuminated by dozens of candles, and decorated with homemade candies wrapped in colourful paper, the tree had a magical presence in his country home.

Unlike the perfect cultivated firs, pines and balsams that stand in our urban living rooms today, his all-natural tree was more like a larger version of the “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree. In fact, he was so attached to this style that when we were kids, he would seek out the most sparse, sad looking tree in the lot. We always rejected his selection. One time he bought the tree on his own and came home with such a gangly evergreen that my mother made him return it. After that experience, he forever lost his enthusiasm for Christmas tree shopping.

The history of the Christmas tree dates back to the ancient pagans who celebrated the Winter Solstice. After December 21st when the sun began its ascent, the fertile time for planting and producing bountiful harvests was around the corner. The evergreen tree symbolized eternal life and replenishment. To represent the plentiful food to come, trees were decorated with apples and other fruit. Candles were used as reminders of the sun’s brilliance and warmth.

It’s not entirely clear when Christians appropriated the evergreen tree as a symbol of the Christian faith, but it is thought that St. Boniface (672-754), a German missionary, was the instigator. “Let Christ be at the center of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days,” he said, according to legend.

But chopping down and erecting a Christmas tree began as a custom in 16th century Northern Germany, when the tradition of placing the decorated tree in the town square to celebrate the holidays emerged. First a Protestant tradition and later accepted by the Catholics, the practice became popular in the early 19th century.

In 2006, a Toronto judge created a flurry of controversy when he ordered a Christmas tree out of a downtown provincial courthouse lobby because he felt it was an affront to non-Christians. He asserted that it was inappropriate that the first thing a person sees when they walk into the building is a Christian symbol.

Everyone can probably appreciate the spectacular 18-foot evergreen that graces the White House Blue Room—a public space open to visitors—each year. This year, Michele Obama had the tree adorned with the theme of “Reflect, Rejoice and Renew” in mind, and communities from all over America contributed to the decorations. None of the ornaments on the White House Christmas tree are of a religious nature; there has even been talk of changing the name to the White House “Holiday” tree.

To me, the Christmas tree denotes a festive spirit, regardless of religion. It can represent whatever you want it to, whether you’re a pagan, a Christian, someone from another faith group, or an atheist. Whether it symbolizes the Winter Solstice and bountiful harvests, or Christian beliefs, it’s a tradition that can simply uplift a room and bring cheer to its viewers.

I say keep the tree and call it what you want. Place it wherever it can be enjoyed by many. My only concern is that next year, our family Christmas tree will have to be a plastic reproduction. At least I won’t find evergreen needles in my hair anymore, and my husband will hopefully breathe a little better.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Seven's a Charm

Last night I met a lovely woman about the same age as me at a dinner function. Sitting across from each other, we entered into general conversation about family life. I noticed her beautiful clear complexion against her pretty orange top as she spoke joyfully about parenting. Like me, she had boys, but unlike me, she had seven of them!

“Seven?!” I asked, incredulously.

She nodded, unfazed.

“How old are they?” I asked.

“Twelve to twenty-four.”

The woman’s father, who was sitting next to her, piped in, “And all their names begin with Br.”
This prompted me to guess what they were: “Brian, Brendon, Bradley, Brock...?” which was as far as I got. “Did you give birth to them all, or are some adopted?” I couldn’t help inquiring.

The woman smiled. “They’re all our natural children. We kept trying for a girl.” Then she told me that the odds of having a girl actually decrease with each subsequent male child, but since they weren’t fanatic about the gender, they never investigated medical means to improve their chances.

I learned that the family built a cottage together and that the boys often help their retired grandfather with renovations and handy work, bonding with him while learning useful skills. The kids all get along well (apart from the occasional scuffle) and they watch each others’ backs. They also include one another in their social activities. The family contributes time to volunteer programs, such as “Out of the Cold,” including cooking Christmas dinner for a men’s shelter.

I’m writing about this because I can’t stop thinking about it. I am in awe. How is it humanly possible to raise seven sons (who all sounded like really good kids) and remain not only unscathed, but buoyant? If this were me, I’m sure I’d look haggard and old and terribly anxious. I’d always be worried about somebody. There is a saying that goes: “A mother can only be as happy as her most unhappy child.” With such a large brood, there’s apt to be at least one child who is struggling or suffering, in some way, at any one time.

I love being a parent. I’ve loved every stage of our sons’ development and I’ve revelled in watching their personalities develop while guiding them through their childhood. But life is busy and full of challenges along the way. Parenting our two boys (not to mention driving them all over the city) takes the two of us, and I can hardly imagine what it would be like managing seven. I have friends with four children and their lives seem a complicated maze of navigating school work, sports and music programs, social worlds and all-consuming domestic chores.

I didn’t have a chance to ask my dining companion how she does it. Do they have a car that fits nine people? Does she have extra help in the home? How does she have time to do volunteer work? Does she have two ovens, two fridges, five bathrooms? Who does the laundry? How many bedrooms do they have? What was it like to have several tots in diapers simultaneously?

In the past, large families were the norm rather than an anomaly. Especially if you were Catholic or living in the country, running a farm. As soon as the kids were old enough, they’d work the fields, milk the cows, and perform household chores. The older siblings would help raise the younger ones and the family worked like a community rather than a small unit. Twelve children or more was not a rarity.

According to Statistics Canada, the birth rate per average Canadian woman was 1.6 children in 2007 (we need 2.1 to replace ourselves). In 1959 the birth rate reached its peak at 3.94 children per family. Since then, there has been a steady decline. This is partly because women are waiting until later in life to start a family, using birth control, achieving higher levels of education, and having growing concerns about bringing children into a world plagued by terrorism, global warming, and general instability.

Nonetheless, some people still choose to have many children. The more, the merrier. Many of the larger families today comprise two blended sets of children. Think “Brady Bunch.” However, a blended home doesn’t usually consist of more than five or six children at any one time.

My father has a distant relative who had nineteen children. All natural births. I never met this family, but when I was young, I’d hear the occasional passing comment about them. The parents had emigrated from Hungary to Vermont after the Second World War. They lived in the country, but were well off and could afford a comfortable lifestyle because of royalties inherited from Franz Lehar, the famous Hungarian composer. In my mind, the concept of eighteen brothers and sisters was surreal. The setting, the plot, and the characters in the story were suggestive of an expanded fictional version of “The Sound of Music.”

Contemporary life does not seem conducive to producing huge families. Just the cost of raising children makes it practically prohibitive for most of us. Yet there is evidently a way to make it work. One must have courage, financial capability, and a whole lot of love to pass around. I’m still in awe of the lady I met last night who has seven boys, and, to be honest, a wee bit jealous—I love the idea of a big boisterous theory!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Coming in From Out of the Cold

Growing up in Montreal, I’d play outside for hours with my friends on cold winter days. Eventually my mother would call out to us, “It’s time to come in out of the cold!” After shedding our rock-frozen mittens and kicking off our snow-filled boots, we’d warm up by the fire with hot chocolate and cookies.

For the homeless women and men in our city streets, coming in from out of the cold means much more than warming up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa. It is a matter of survival. Thanks to the goodwill and dedication of many volunteers throughout the city of Toronto, the marginalized and socially isolated do have a place to go during the long, bleak winter nights.

Out of the Cold is a men’s shelter program devoted to providing those in need with a warm place to sleep and shower; a home-cooked dinner and breakfast the next day; fellowship in a safe environment; a haircut from a volunteer barber; and a selection of clean, warm clothes to wear, generously donated by people who have gently used items to pass on. Subway tokens and toiletries are also provided.

It's never easy to accept charity, and many of the men who walk through the doors would much rather be somewhere else. They can be unemployed, hard-working indviduals who have been out of job for various reasons, they can be men struggling with alcohol or drug addictions, or suffering from mental illnesses. Many have families but have become alienated or rejected.

About twenty churches and synagogues participate in this program, which has been running since 1987. Each night of the week during the cold winter months, a bed and two meals are offered by one of the host sites. I belong to a group of women who chips in by supplying, cooking, and serving dinners at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in the west end of Toronto. We buy and prepare the food, including meals like baked ham with pineapple orange sauce, baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, coleslaw, corn, and cherry tarts with ice cream. A recent menu consisted of a variation of chicken cordon bleu, rice and broccoli--a very big hit!

The food is prepared off-site and transported to the venue, where a cheerful group greets you and explains the procedure. The guests begin arriving at 5:00 and are first served a bowl of homemade soup followed by plates loaded with food. The system is down to a science—no more than four cooks in the kitchen; hairnets a must; average portions to start, but seconds available. Three expert dishwashers await the onslaught of dirty dishes.

In the dining hall, tables are set for about seventy-five men, and mattresses and blankets line the periphery of the room, which another group of volunteers, including kids and teenagers, arranges in advance. Greeters and servers meander about, chatting and joking with one another as they wait for the gentlemen to arrive. The volunteers, whether religious or not, congregate for a short prayer before dinner. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the powerful and inspiring message:

Most Gracious God,

You have called us to be a caring church. Strengthen us with your love today. Give us grace in our work together. Grant us wisdom in our conversations. Give us ears to hear the unspoken cry of the heart and eyes to see others as fellow pilgrims on the road of life. Let your Spirit flow through us to guide and bless all we do. As we share the cup may we touch your cross. In Jesus name we pray.


Once the men enter the hall, the volunteers move into action. Soup is served, meals distributed, milk and juice poured. Second servings are requested and provided. It is heartening to see many of the diners in animated conversation while enjoying the meal. One of my friends, a devoted volunteer, loves to socialize with the men and listen to their stories. She is a dynamo who brightens the room with her signature good cheer.

When all is said and done, one can only feel a sense of gratitude for programs such as these, and for all the people who contribute so much time and energy to helping others. Mine is but a small part in the production, but every part counts and I’m always happy to participate alongside the wonderful people who make these dinners so special.

On cold winter nights like tonight (it’s about -20 degrees right now), sleeping in the streets can be deadly. Thank goodness there are places for people to go and that there are those who care enough to create a warm, nurturing environment where the downtrodden can find a good meal, a warm bed, and a reason to face tomorrow.