I Present To You Our Big Holiday Purchase

It’s a wall-mounted heater for our garage.


Well, okay, not exciting. But it means that no matter the weather (and right now it’s a blistering four degrees Fahrenheit outside), the garage is always above freezing; we run the heater so the overall garage temperature is between 40 and 50 degrees. This means that our cars are not unspeakably cold when we get in them, and that liquids we store in the garage will not burst their cans when their insides freeze (which is a thing that’s happened before).

It also means that our cats, who persist in going outside in insensibly cold weather, will not actually be in danger of freezing to death before we let them back into the house, so long as they remember to come into the garage. To aid in this learning curve we’ve been letting them out via the garage (there’s a human-sized garage door to the outside world with a cat flap; the inside door does not have one, because we have raccoon neighbors).

I could say we bought it for the practical reasons, but in fact we got it because of the cats. This is where my brain goes. I regret nothing.

The heater necessitated upgrading our electrical system a bit — it draws a fair amount of power so we put that wall on its own circuit, which means expanding our circuit board. This was something we needed to do anyway (we use a lot of electronics in this house, as it happens), so this was a good time to do it.

And how do we feel about our Christmas gift to ourselves? Very happy, in fact. It’s nice to not have the garage be hideously cold for four months of a year. It’s not a sexy gift, sure. But at this age, practical gifts that make one’s house nicer to live in are pretty great. And the cats like it, so there’s that.

Get any practical gifts this year? Share with the crowd in the comments.

76 Comments on “I Present To You Our Big Holiday Purchase”

  1. Our couples gift to each other this year was a pasta machine (a Marcato Wellness 150 model). We have decent store-bought whole-wheat pasta locally, but it’s not even in the same league as fresh. Among other things, fresh contains eggs (dried pasta usually doesn’t) and lets you choose the mix of flour. We used all-purpose flour (2 cups plus 5 whole eggs) for our first attempt, and it worked out well. Also, it’s a great workout kneading stiff dough for 15 minutes. We took it in turns, not because it was too fatiguing, but rather because it turns out to be a ton of fun kneading dough. Also lots of fun running the dough through the machine after letting it rest for half an hour to an hour.

    First-time results were mixed. The taste was vastly improved, and the texture was excellent (we tried really thick fettucine rather than the standard thickness). Unfortunately, we need to tweak our recipe because the noodles were a bit sticky, and we piled them into heaps (as shown in the instructions we followed) instead of stretching them out so they’d stay separate. That means they stuck together, and didn’t cook fully — in part because we relied on instructions to cook for no longer than 60 to 90 seconds in boiling water. That’s probably fine with standard-thickness noodles. Next time we’ll try standard thickness, and will separate the noodles better before dumping them in the pot. And we’ll rely on the al dente test rather than a fixed time.

    Given the fuss and time involved, it’s not the kind of thing we’ll do every time we want pasta, but as a weekend “couple working together to create yumminess” thing, I see a lot of this in our future.

  2. No practical gifts were given in this house. (OK, we gave our daughter a sewing machine, but that was mainly because she’s getting interested in cosplay and wants to go beyond using commercially-available stuff.)

    We installed a garage heater many many years ago. Our master bath is over the garage, and the first time those pipes froze was enough.

  3. I’m very happy for your cats! I have a friend who lost a cat due to the bitter cold, which was awful, so I see this as a thoughtful and practical gift which will keep your cats happier, healthier, and safer. I’m thrilled for you all.

  4. I’m getting a 403 (forbidden) error when trying to load the image.

    Also, keeping the cats comfy and liquids unexploded is definitely practical.

  5. Yeah, no picture here, John. Also asking about “Did you upgrade enough to buy an electric vehicle someday?”

  6. My husband and I were all set to get each other items off of our Amazon lists. Then our refrigerator died two weeks before Christmas, so we bought a new one. It’s bigger than our old one, with an ice/water dispenser. Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday to us!

  7. I approve of this and, if we had a garage, I’d get one. But we don’t have a garage. We don’t even have a car port.
    The most practical gift I got was a gift certificate for 3 massages. That may seem like an extravagance to some but I have chronic pain and fibro so it is a godsend.

  8. My Christmas present to myself was a smaller desk, that I might be less tempted to rely on horizontal filing. Also it’s pretty.

  9. Now that use my phone for GPS more frequently than my dedicated GPS. I received a mount that sits on the dash and is held down by a beanbag with a rubbery bottom surface.

  10. Not practical, but I got the Lego Saturn V model and I’m putting it together.

    Yeah the raccoons. If I had a cat door to the garage, I’d have a whole family of them in there. I worry that if I leave the human sized door unlocked at night they’ll raid my garage for pet food. They are clever bastards.

  11. I consider eating and drinking to be practical. So, on a cherry theme, I got cherry wine,
    jalapeño cherry salsa, and Jeni’s Goat Cheese with Red Cherries ice cream. (Can you tell that I love cherries, and that my family knows that?)

  12. New comforter for the bed. Old one was 40 years old and didn’t cut the mustard. New one is excellent, and even kept me warm all be myself last night as my wife was out of town.
    -15 at my house this morning in St Cloud, MN. Cold drive to work. Car didn’t like it.

  13. Last year’s practical gift to myself was a fire engine red Kitchenaid. This year’s practical gift to myself was a Shark hand-held vacuum, because the big floor vacuum was not the right tool for the job when it came time to vacuum the light-colored cat hair off the dark colored couch.

    I have no doubt I will use the hand-held vac more in the coming year than I used the KitchenAid last year.

  14. Got an Amazon UK gift certificate – should buy plenty of Star Wars (and Scalzi) books. No heater this year, but I got a new bathroom heater just after Christmas last year. It was fitted this past Jan by an electrician and it is great. Last one I had hadn’t worked in awhile and Christmas 2016 was quite cold here in the London (UK) area.

  15. A heated garage is a must in the midwest. We’re a couple of hours west of you in the shit hole broadly known as Indiana and it was 0° here this morning. As Siri says, “Brrrr!” We did not have a heated garage in our second home (no garage at all in the first) and before we sold it many years ago I first had to repaint over the purple stains on the garage ceiling where a couple of bottles of wine had popped their corks from freeze expansion one cold winter night.

    Our 8 year old 50″ Samsung plasma tv had been fritzing out on us for a couple of months so we finally replaced it with a 55″ LG OLED 4K UHD (C7) that is widely rated as the very best tv screen available in 2017. We also replaced the old Vizio sound bar/subwoofer with a matching LG model and set it all atop an elegant new entertainment system cabinet that means more to my wife than does the tv for me.

    I repaired the Samsung and, in the spirit of the holidays, offered it to the widow across the street who has a 20 year old rear projection tv that is so terrible it’s like watching tv through a fish tank. She watches a lot of tv and this would be an extraordinary upgrade in viewing quality for her. I made the offer twice (pay me just $50 for the parts I bought), but sadly – and although she is a dear friend – my neighbor is so self-possessed she didn’t consider what I was proposing, or even that I was proposing something at all. So I sold it on craigslist for $300. Sorry, lady. Merry f***ing Christmas. Next time pay attention! :-)

  16. I got myself a new electric blanket, as the Sunbeam I’d had previously broke under warranty, got sent off for replacement, arrived 6 months later, worked once, and died (out of warranty). The new one works a lot better, and since my apartment’s heat isn’t very efficient, it’s helped me out quite a bit! My present from my parents this year was a new phone, as my S5 is basically only working as long as I don’t update anything or try to install anything else, and even then it randomly freezes – replacing it with a Pixel 2 with the extra storage, so that should last me a while!

  17. I bought myself ink for my fountain pen in a couple of nice colours, teal and claret. This is practical because the more I enjoy writing, the more I will sit down and write, and I do my first drafts longhand.

  18. Well, palatial new accommodation for the hamsters – acquired by my daughter when a friend finished her studies here in England – fits with the non-frozen cats vibe; if it makes people happy it seems to me to fit with the holiday spirit!

  19. For myself, I bought a Rocketbook Everlast notebook and an assortment of FleXion pens to go with it. I was getting tired of having scraps of notepaper and random text files scattered around three different computers, so this is a way I can consolidate my thinking and do away with the large quantities of scratch paper at the office.

    I also got a bunch of coffee, which is practical in the sense that I am a happier person with coffee in my house than without it.

    My parents bought me a bunch of towels for guest use in my house, which was by request and was eminently practical. I got a couple of frivolous gifts, too. Probably going to hit Best Buy later and get a cheap laser printer/scanner; I don’t print often enough at home to get my current color laser printer fixed or to spend a bunch of money on a new one.

  20. I got a combination rechargeable car battery jumper-air compressor. I have AAA, but if it saves me a phone call I’m happy. Plus, I’m absolutely useless with gas station air pumps so when the TPMS monitor light thingy goes off twice a year, I won’t have to feel like a complete boob and drive into the service center for the pros to fill it. It’s been on my amazon wishlist for at least a year, but every time I thought about buying it I just got tired. So practical. So boring. However, when it showed up as a gift from my parents, it was super-exciting.

  21. Long handled tree branch lopper. House we moved into two years ago has 5 mature apple trees but I’ve not given them a prune yet (first winter was too mild) and a bunch of the apples were way too high to pick and there’s too much foliage. We’ve had a proper cold snap in South West UK this winter so looking forward to giving them a haircut.

  22. Forgot the obvious re. heating: Shortly after we bought our current house, coming up on 20 years ago now, we bought one of those ultra-high-efficiency fireplace inserts. (Would have gone for a free-standing wood stove, but the living room wasn’t large enough.) We use it occasionally just for the pleasure of the display (“bears discover fire”), but every so often it comes in very useful. Like when the furnace died 2 weekends ago and we didn’t want to pay rate for an emergency Xmas visit from the furnace fairy. Cranked up the fireplace to 11 on the dial, fed it with wood for 2 days, and it kept us warm enough to be comfortable until the furnace guy was willing to come by at normal rates. The only problem was letting the ash cool down enough that we could remove it to make room to place more wood on the coals. My uncle survived 30 days without power in rural Quebec during the infamous 1998 ice storm that hit Quebec and took down most of our power grid largely due to his Vermont Castings wood stove. Highly recommended for both esthetic and practical purposes, particularly if you’re living in a rural area.

  23. I got a couple LED fixtures for the bathroom and kitchen. The fluorescents needed new ballasts. One early memory from over fifty years ago is dad getting mom an electric sewing machine for Christmas. She had been using a treadle before. Mom hadn’t thought we could afford it. She was very happy.

  24. I gave several people handmade woollen socks; tonight it’s expected to be -24 C (-11 F) here in southern Ontario, so layers of wool are always practical. And I was given a new package of fancy knitting needles. It’s the circle of life.

  25. My father gave me a tire gauge so I’ll always be able to…. check my tire pressure. Now that I’ve written it out, I’m not so sure that counts as practical. But it was intended to be and I thought it was very sweet. :)

  26. Asked my dad for an immersion blender, waffle iron or crockpot. Got all three and I’m sooo delighted. Also got myself a carpet cleaner. This was the year of practical presents.

  27. @Geoff Hart Leave the egg whites out of your pasta. Strongly recommend that. Add an extra yolk for each white. Improved texture and It will make your pasta prettier, too, just a little golden. Have fun! (Proof of expertise: When I visited my sister in law’s apartment for the first time, I was about 16, I exclaimed “Why do you have a pasta drying rack in your bathroom?” I had somehow never heard of or seen anything like an indoor clothes rack lol Our similarly-shaped object was stored in the kitchen behind the microwave.)

  28. Congrats on your wall heater! And thinking of the cats is very practical; cat-scratches look good on no one.

    We got insulation for the house and replaced the last of the original (1920s) windows. Right before, and immediately after Christmas – not a great timing choice, except that the cold-wave is the end of this week… It was 6 last night at bedtime.

  29. Allie, thanks for the suggestion re. the pasta recipe. Online recipes are all over the place about ingredients and ratios, but we did see some suggesting elimination of most of the egg white. Next time!

  30. I highly approve of keeping the cats’ outdoor emergency shelter area at a survivable temperature. That is an excellent gift to give yourselves. If our garage was attached to the house, or at least slightly insulated, we might do something similar. As it is, though, I’d be heating the entire county if I tried to warm up the garage, so not really very practical. Fortunately, our cats are the indoor-only variety (safer for urban kitties) so no need to worry about them freezing to death.

    Our practical gift to ourselves this year was a new front porch to replace the crumbling old cement stoop that a friend described as “a lawsuit waiting to happen,” which was only a slight exaggeration. The new one is a bit larger, vastly sturdier, and quite a bit more attractive, so definitely a win.

    Our practical gift to our elder kid was a deluxe spinner suitcase (she travels for work at least one week per month and her prior suitcase was falling apart). For our younger kid, the practical gift was a food processor attachment to to on the Kitchen Aid stand mixer we gave him last year (he is an avid cook and had requested both as gifts). For our elder kid’s soon-to-be-spouse, the practical gift was a decent-quality point-and-shoot camera. That really IS practical, for a variety of reasons. All recipients were pleased, or at least were polite enough to act as if they were, which is what counts in my book.

  31. The practical gift I gave my wife was a new smartphone. The practical bit is hopefully preventing continually having to fix her “stupid broken phone” all the time… Basically, I hope I’ve bought myself a couple of years of peace…

  32. My practical gift was a grammatical handbook: Fucking Apostrophes. It will be very useful. For example, there are no apostrophes in “Fucking Apostrophes”.

  33. A new laptop. The current one is showing all the signs of a dying hard drive – I’m surprised it’s still going! These days, this is a practical gift rather than an expensive (surprisingly in-, actually) toy splurge, obviously.

  34. It was -8 when I got up this morning, I would have loved +4.

    I got several practical gifts, including a set of luggage organizers, a velour blanket, and (earlier this month) help from the family when I needed to replace all four shocks/struts on my car.

  35. Four months of cold? In Alberta we have one week for spring and fall, and only four months of summer. Maybe five. But that’s enough for crops, grass, trees and the circle of life.

  36. DH & I bought ourselves a 4 disk NAS drive setup that gives us a place to backup files from the various laptops we use (3 in heavy rotation, plus desktop I intend to get running again). We’ll be able to expand the individual drives up to 10 TB each, so we should be in good shape for mirrored storage for the foreseeable future.

  37. DH’s present to me this year was the overhaul of our Rainbow vacuum cleaner. It now sucks up dirt like a mofo, and no longer sounds like a jet engine on takeoff. I expect it to last another 20 years, as long as I take care of it.

  38. Well, it wasn’t really intended as a Christmas gift, but I got myself a new apartment. Management had forgotten to tell me that the lease on the old one was ending until 2 days prior, and then they wanted to raise rent by $50, to which I counter-offered moving into a smaller place in the same complex for $30 less. They let me have 3 days to do it. So it was a bit rushed to get everything packed, moved, and cleaned up after, but the new place is pretty nice.

  39. Paid a friend who does it for a living to paint the dark red brick “decorative” walls in the kitchen a nice bright semi-gloss shell white. Dear god, whoever designed that kitchen needs to be slapped silly. It’s such a narrow galley layout that my outstretched arms can touch the counters on both sides; it faces west, gets little light, and has no light over the sink. The red brick made the corners under the cabinets so dark you’d expect to see goblins peering out at you from the gloom. But NOT ANY MORE, thank you Felicity!

  40. I love and admire you, Mr. Scalzi, but when it comes to making one’s pets feel pampered, we have you beat! We bought our last three houses because they were the best choices for the dogs, and when our daughter got engaged on the other side of the country, we bought an RV for the dogs to travel to the wedding in. (I prefer hotels and room service myself). Daughter has now moved, not only across the country but NORTH, so on our Christmas trip, our poor short-haired Texas dogs had to actually walk in snow. Our practical Christmas gifts were coats for the dogs! (Oh, and a hot air fryer so I can make my husband’s favorite comfort food – fried anything.)

  41. No holiday gifts as such, but we had some long over due bathroom repairs made. New toilet and new flooring under it. Only took us two months to find a carpenter willing to call us back, since this was a very small, one day job, but at least I’ve stopped worrying about the floor falling in. New linoleum will wait until spring when the retirement annuity comes in.

  42. Our aircon went on the fritz a few weeks ago. Fortunately we got it sorted before the miserable summer heat & humidity arrived. Our cat’s opinion is “the hotter the better,” but she didn’t get a vote.

    More seriously, in extreme cold, cats & other small animals will sometimes seek shelter under the hood of a car with a still-hot engine block. Painful results can ensue if the car is started again with the poor beastie still inside. Giving your kitties a warm refuge is a kind & sensible thing to do.

  43. A soupmaker. It takes only 20 mins of gurgling, squirting and hissing to make four portions of soup for my husband and me. In cold weather, it’s great!

  44. I got a new gig-bag for my electric guitar. I’ve made some modifications to it and the old one’s too small now.

    Ms. Fishy got new Rossi boots. The ones with the leopard print elastic.

    But the real gift was the decoration the 10 year old Small Fry did on both with textile markers. Flowers, swirly patterns and a helpful “left” and “right” on the toes for the boots. :) The bag got geometric patterns and my initials done all fancy-like.

    So, practical and heartwarming, the finest kind.

  45. “… at this age …” – ANY age is appropriate for a practical gift. The spousal unit bakes a lot, so one year early in our marriage she asked for a rolling pin as a gift (I forget the occasion). I made the mistake of buying it during a lunch hour and never heard the end of it from my co-workers. We were called “Maggie and Jiggs” for quite some time.

  46. “I could say we bought it for the practical reasons, but in fact we got it because of the cats.”

    Oh, anything bought to make the cats’ lives easier *is* practical.

    The have claws. They’re often awake at night. Need I say more?

  47. I am floored that nobody has asked Senor Scalzi if he has natural gas.

    Dear Lord. I have basically turned into my father.

  48. That seems to be the sort of thing that should lead to future purchases– Tesla power wall, a load of PV panels… you’ve got unexciting yet costly Christmas stuff nailed for the next couple of years!

  49. Ah, midwestern winters. Where you have to plug your car’s core heater into an extension cord at night so the oil doesn’t solidify. Where electric seat heaters make a HUGE difference in the quality of your winter life. Where you have to put an blanket in your trunk in case your car breaks down and you don’t want to freeze to death. Such fun. I have to park outside and got myself a remote starter some time ago: a life saver.

    For xmas, I asked for and got a bunch of clothes this year. I hate shopping for clothes.

  50. I asked for a weighted blanket to help with my insomnia. But my husband, who is shopping-challenged, was bewildered by all the variations, so I’m on my own for that one.

  51. I asked for and received a Korean hand-held hoe/plow tool for gardening. Very practical for some tasks of the back-breaking variety. My cat door seems to not be inviting to the groundhogs and raccoons in this house. The cats do bring birds and mammals inside sometimes, so I can see the practicality of limiting that activity to the garage, now heated. My brother in law put in geo-thermal–you’ve got plenty of lawn for that!

  52. >> … horizontal filing …
    I’ve been telling people for years, “I don’t have a filing system, I have a piling system.”

  53. Dear John,

    The most practical gift this year was a very nice cashmere sweater from my Other Significant Other, Laura, which is pretty small potatoes as practicality goes. Last year I did a bit, umm, better by getting Paula a couple of nice ceramic nonstick frying pans (we have parrots, so Teflon cookware is a no-no).

    The all-time best practical Christmas gift was 11 years ago. Paula bought me a Scooba for Christmas. She had serious doubts she’d made an appropriate choice — I am of the “Xmas gifts should be mostly about fun” school, which cleaning appliances don’t really fit. It was a brilliant move. It not only scrubbed the kitchen and bathroom floors, it cleaned my darkroom. I loved it so much I wrote a column about it:


    I can’t say it saved that much housework, because Paul and I hate scrubbing floors so much that the kitchen floor got washed about once every two years (whether it needed it or not!), but what did happen was floors got scrubbed a lot more frequently and were a lot cleaner.

    I was so pleased with the Scooba that I went and bought a Roomba. Same improvement in the carpets and a 10-fold improvement in the frequency of vacuuming.

    (Note to prospective buyers — get at least the model 870 Roomba. Vastly improved brush system, doesn’t get tangled up in cords (well, rarely); better powertrain and battery pack and longer run time. A major step up from previous versions.)


    Dear Howard, Techgrrl and Dirck,

    Paula and I got photovoltaics for the roof a year and a half ago and we’ve been very happy with the reduced electric bills. The panels will pay for themselves in eight years, which is a pretty good return on investment. We did NOT get a home battery pack, because they are not cost-effective. Their only value is as a UPS for the entire house. If you divide what they currently cost by their lifetime capacity in kilowatt hours, the electricity turns out to be more expensive than buying it from PG&E at the highest rates. In five years, that may be different. It certainly will be in ten.

    For charging an electric car, you don’t necessarily need a new (or dedicated) charging circuit. We’ve been looking into that, because if some deals break the right way this year we’re going to buy a fancy electric. But we are not expecting to install a dedicated charger, and here’s why:

    First fun fact — electrics typically get 3.5-4 miles per kilowatt hour (you can figure that out for the car of interest by dividing the range by the size of the battery pack). Which means a home battery pack, with typically a 3-5 kWh capacity, isn’t much good for charging up your electric car.

    Second fun fact — most (all?) electrics come with 120 V and 220 V standard household plugs and cords for charging the car. The 220 V typically charges at 15+ miles of range per hour of charging time. The 120 V is more like 5-6 miles per hour, but it will work off of any household circuit that’s wired for 20 A.

    Unless you average more than 70 miles a day of driving, you can keep your electric charged off of a standard 120 V line simply by plugging it in every night.

    Paul is retired and I, like John, work out of my home. We don’t average anywhere near 70 miles a day, even in the spread-out San Francisco Bay area.

    Ergo, no electrics upgrade needed for an electric car for us, and many other folks.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 

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