Archive for August, 2009

Used Car Shopping

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

At the start of summer, our 17-year-old daughter Valerie, made a list of tasks she wanted to accomplish. Close to the top was “Get a car” with money she had saved. The prospect of mom or dad driving her to school during her senior year made her skin crawl. You’ll understand what I mean if you’ve seen “Freaky Friday.” There’s wonderful scene in the movie when Jamie Lee Curtis drops off her cynical teenage daughter, Lindsay Lohan, in front of the school and shouts out to her, “Make good choices!”

Our first strategy in finding Valerie a car was to tell everyone we knew that we were in the market for something cheap but dependable. We thought that by just putting the word out that the ideal car would find its way to us, kind of like a stray cat that ends up in a good home. I hoped that one morning I’d open the front door and there on our doorstep would be a 2001 Honda Civic previously owned by a sweet old lady who only put 45,000 miles on it driving to the grocery store and beauty parlor twice a month.

By the time August arrived, it was obvious that plan was a fantasy and if we were really serious about finding her a car before school started, it was going to take some work on our part and we were going to have to approach it differently than we had in the past.

When Valerie’s older brother needed a car and when we replaced our 10-year-old-mini-vans, we went to the dealership. We developed a relationship with a salesperson there who worked hard for us and made buying a car ““ a shopping experience that I had always dreaded ““ quite painless.

But times being what they are, this time we couldn’t afford anything that would be available at a dealership; our $3,000 to $5,000 price range put us in the more scavenging approach to car shopping ““ whatever we could find by the side of the road, and scouring Craig’s List.

Since the first day of school was quickly approaching, we weren’t going to rule out any options, so when Steve spotted a 1993 Sent (it was actually a Sentra but the last two letters had fallen off) with a “For Sale” sign for $1,750, we decided it was worth spending some money to have our mechanic check it over ““ if only to show Valerie that we were serious about getting her a car.

It’s amazing what a teenager is willing to settle for in a car when the alternative is taking the bus or suffering the humiliation of having their parents drive them. As soon as we told Valerie that the owner had agreed to have our mechanic give it a once-over, she took ownership. All of a sudden, she was referring to this beater as “my car.”

Sadly, the diagnosis on the Sentra was not good. It would require the equivalent of open heart surgery to get it running dependably.

Steve made his way through numerous listings on Craig’s List and came up with a couple more options. We were surprised that people were so responsive and willing to accommodate our request to have the car checked-out. We were beginning to understand one reason dealerships are having such a hard time; there are lots of good options for cars on Craig’s List. It just takes some legwork to find them.

There was one more false start with an Isuzu Rodeo that looked great on the outside but was decaying under the hood. Then the third time was the charm. A delightful young couple in town was selling a 2001 Volvo. Yes, it needed some belts replaced, but agreeing upon a price was so easy and quick, that it could hardly be called negotiating.

It was great to see her Valerie proudly drive off on the first day of class of her senior year in a car that suits her so well.

Loveseat Free to a Good Home

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

We have a loveseat that is “well-worn” ““ it’s been flopped on by three kids and three cats ““ but it’s not “worn-out.” We rearranged rooms over the summer and now we don’t have a place to put it, so we are trying to figure out what to do with it. It’s free; somebody just has to be able to transport it from our house.

But considering the difficulty we’ve had trying to find it a new home, I’ve discovered that there’s as much demand for a pilled Southwestern-motif loveseat as VHS tapes or a five-year-old computer.

Because I’m a compulsive cleaner-outer, once we decided that we didn’t need the loveseat anymore I just wanted to be rid of it”¦pay someone with a pickup truck to get it to the dump and then push it off the ledge. No wonder Steve’s worried about what I plan to do with him when he ceases to be useful.

However, Steve, always the marketer, believes that there’s a market for anything with intrinsic value and as he pointed out, if the new owner didn’t mind some thin fabric and imbedded cat hair, the springs in that loveseat could support a lot more butts for quite a few more years. He suggested posting it on our church’s website in the hope that someone had a college-age child who was setting up an apartment who would find our used loveseat preferable to sitting on the floor.

But that would mean that people who I regularly see when I’m wearing my Sunday best would come to our house and inspect a ratty piece of furniture that 15 minutes earlier had been in our house. How embarrassing that would be if they deemed it too ugly or worn out. I could practically hear them in their car as they drove away, “Can you believe they had that piece of junk in their house. I would have expected better from them.”

Since I wanted to avoid any potential judgment about my standards of home décor, we posted a listing for it on that mecca of anonymous transactions, Craig’s List. We’ve had no inquiries for our loveseat. Hard to believe that there isn’t a Delta Frat House somewhere in the area that doesn’t need another sofa for its Pledge room.

Our daughter suggested that we put it out by the curb with a “free” sign on it and hope that someone would take it. That might work if we lived in San Francisco, but in the suburbs of Sonoma County, there aren’t many pickup trucks cruising the streets gleaning loveseats from cul-de-sacs.

I’m even hesitant to call the Salvation Army to come pick it up. Three years ago, I called them so I could donate the matching sofa. The driver spent about 15 minutes inspecting it and then grudgingly decided it was barely worth taking. If they show up this time and refuse the loveseat, that’s going to hurt. Ouch”¦rejected by the Salvation Army.

This blog my be my last hope for finding a place for our loveseat. It’s your for the asking.

To market, to market…but to which one?

Monday, August 17th, 2009

How many grocery stores can a city the size of Petaluma support?

I’m wondering if the recent addition of Raley’s has put more stores ““ and specifically supermarkets ““ in Petaluma than the economy and size of population can support.

Generally at about 5 p.m., grocery stores are hopping with moms and dads on their way home from work trying to come up with a better option for dinner than Lucky Charms. Yet when I’ve been in Raley’s at this time of day, the small number of shoppers makes it feel more like 5:00 in the morning.

I certainly don’t say this with any malice toward Raley’s. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s a beautiful store, the shelves are fully stocked and the prices are comparable to Safeway and Lucky. And a big motivator for facing the drudgery of grocery shopping when you’re tired and hungry; Raley’s almost always has something yummy to sample. Last time I shopped, there were little cups with small slices of white cake. I had two.

And I shared with several people the wonderful experience I had with their pharmacy ““ the pharmacist did some research about a generic version of a prescription for my daughter which ended up saving me more than $160. Plus I got a $25 gift card for bringing in a new prescription.

It’s just that Petaluma already has two Lucky stores, a Safeway, a G&G, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Petaluma Market. And now a Raley’s.

Steve is the major breadwinner in our household but I’m the sole bread-buyer, so I love having options and I shop at all of them. There are certain items I can only get at Trader Joe’s (Milton’s 100% Whole Wheat bread) and Whole Foods (Almond Brownie Balance bars) so those stores will always be part of my grocery shopping mix.

But when it comes to which supermarket I shop at for the basics like cereal, chicken, baking items, yogurt, and paper goods really depends on which store  ““ Safeway, Lucky, Raley’s, or G&G ““ has the best price or makes me the best offer. I’ve gotten $10 off coupons from both Safeway and Raley’s and last time I was at Raley’s, the register spit out another “$5 Off on my next shopping visit” coupon.

In this economy, the grocery business seems especially cutthroat. How much are they willing to cut prices or hand out coupons to get me in the door? But I’m not complaining; I sure don’t mind saving a few dollars.

I realize it can take some time for people to change their shopping habits and become accustomed to an unfamiliar store. I sincerely hope that is the reason for the sparse number of customers in Raley’s. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the lack of crowds when I shop there.

And if Raley’s becomes more integrated in the community and gets busier ““ which I certainly hope happens even if it means longer lines at checkout ““ I won’t mind; we want businesses to come to Petaluma and thrive.

If You’re Going to San Francisco…State

Monday, August 10th, 2009

On Sunday, we visited our son, Ethan, in his San Francisco apartment and that’s cause to rejoice. You see, one month ago, we didn’t know how he was going to pay for tuition and where he was going to live ““ if money and housing could even be found ““ by the time the semester starts on August 25th at San Francisco State.

It retrospect, the college loan process isn’t really all that complicated. While I can’t say I’m looking forward to going through it again next year, at least I now have a much better understanding of how the various loan options that can add up to a year’s worth of tuition and housing.

But at the outset, I felt like a rat entering a maze. The goal was to figure out which of the alphabet soup of loan options would lead to the money prize at the end.

The process started in April when we received notification that Ethan had qualified for a Cal Grant. Yippee! Although it wasn’t gong to be a lot of money, it would certainly cover a few textbooks. Then a second letter arrived telling us that this path for any financial help was in fact a dead end. I guess the operative word in the first letter was “tentatively” awarded a Cal Grant.

Next step: As a Wells Fargo customer, I had high hopes when I filled out a loan application with them over the phone. A nice Utah State student took my information and put me on hold while their computer sized me up. Nope, I wasn’t getting asked to the prom this year. Loan denied.

After a few more (slightly hysterical) fits and starts, the financial aid puzzle started to come together. A subsidized Stafford Loan here, and unsubsidized Stafford loan there, here a loan, there a loan, everywhere a loan, loan”¦and before you know it, Ethan’s got it covered.

But then there was the question of where he was going to live. Ever since Ethan received his acceptance letter, we had assumed he would live on campus. But Steve and Ethan found out at orientation that student housing at SFSU is like Brigadoon. It appears one day every hundred years and then disappears into the San Francisco fog for another hundred years. I guess Ethan missed the application date on that.

This was a bit of a setback but we could be thankful that Ethan wasn’t going to school in Southern California; although it would be inconvenient and expensive with a $6 Golden Gate Bridge toll, he could always live at home and commute to school until something showed up on Craig’s List.

But a fortuitous set of connections led to him ending up in a great apartment in the City. A friend of a co-worker of mine was looking for a roommate for the first semester. It must have been meant to be because the paperwork sailed through and Ethan moved in a week ago.

It all worked out. Amazing.

Terrific Tower of Terror

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

As soon as we decided that we were going to go to Disneyland this summer, our two teenage daughters immediately began talking about the rides they were looking forward to; it has been three years since our last trip to “the happiest place on earth.” Although Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, and the Jungle Cruise were all “must do’s,” it was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at the California Adventure side of Disneyland that they were really excited about.

Steve and I were charmed ““ and a little surprised ““ by our daughters’ eagerness to go on Tower of Terror. Because it’s the tallest structure at Disneyland, it was the first ride we spotted on the shuttle bus ride from the hotel. Valerie and Jennifer sounded more like little kids seeing Santa Claus than cynical teenagers when it came into view. “There’s Tower of Terror! Isn’t it so cool the way they made the “˜W’ in the neon sign flicker. I really want to go on it at night. My friend said that it is so cool when the doors open and you look out over Disneyland when it’s all lit up.”

If you haven’t been to Disneyland since 2004 when the Tower of Terror ride opened”¦and based on the crowds when we were there in July, there are probably only two people in the world who haven’t”¦Tower of Terror takes place in a glamorous Hollywood hotel in the 1930’s that looks like it was partially destroyed by lightening so the façade is singed and crumbling.

It’s a vertical drop thrill ride but the sensation of being weightless for a split second is secondary to the whole experience of the ride. Like all the best rides at Disneyland, Tower of Terror puts you in a story. Every detail is expertly crafted to add to the atmosphere, anticipation and fun.

Waiting for the ride is like stepping into what I imagine a well art-directed Hollywood set would look like. At Tower of Terror, you’re standing in the lobby of a hotel that is frozen in time in 1939. There are dusty banners hanging above the fireplace with the “Hollywood Tower Hotel” logo woven into them. Artfully arranged cobwebs cover the trench coat draped over the registration desk. You can catch a glimpse of an old newspaper resting next to a teacup and a game of cards. We enjoyed looking at all the atmospheric details so much that we decided it was more fun to wait in line rather than zip to the front with a Fast Pass.

From the hotel lobby, you’re ushered into the library. Once the doors slide shut, the power immediately goes out and the black and white TV comes on. Our younger daughter, Jennifer, hadn’t really understood the Twilight Zone story that surrounds the ride when she went on three years ago. However, watching a few episodes in her English class last year and a Twilight Zone marathon on the SciFi channel, had conditioned her to expect creepy things as soon as she heard the recognizable “do-do do-do” of the theme music.

Through some convincing special effects, Rod Serling appears on the TV and introduces us in his distinctive way to the story that we are about to experience. “One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare….”

After the introduction, we move into the boiler room of the hotel where a maintenance elevator is waiting to take us, as Rod says, “on the strangest journey of our lives.” It may be strange but it’s also quite short; the ride probably doesn’t last more than 30 seconds. But it’s a really, really fun 30 seconds.

Steve went on the ride once to share the experience with us and then he was happy to sit in the shade with a Diet Coke. The girls and I went on it four more times. It was the last ride of our last day in Disneyland and we were in the last group that they let on the ride. The “cast members” in their Hollywood Tower Hotel bellhop uniforms were high-fiving each other with relief that they had made it through another summer day of Tower of Tourists.

When we walked out of California Adventure an hour after it closed, the park was almost empty. You know how you can be sure that you’ve had a really good time? We would have gladly done it all over again the next day.