Nicole, my good lady wife, recently cleared out bags of junk from our house, and we took a full carload of bags and boxes to the local Savers thrift store (see: "charity shop" for you UK readers).
As I was unloading all the excess we've collected in the past eight years, I started thinking about the things that survived the purge. What are the most useful items I own? Here's the list, in no particular order:
Bodum Stovetop Espresso Maker
You can't beat the crema of an coffee shop espresso, but this little gizmo comes close, without the costly repairs and high cost of fancy automated machines. The genius of this is its simplicity - the heat forces water up through the espresso grounds and into the serving chamber. Once the metal is cool, it takes two minutes to clean out (note - do NOT use soap), and is good to go again. Other great tasting coffee making methods? The French press and old-school pour-over method.
Matthew Battles at The Atlantic wrote a great piece about the decline of the wristwatch recently, but for me, the curmudgeon who STILL doesn't own a cell phone, my watch is essential. Nicole tells me I have no concept of time and I invariably underestimate how long just about any task will take - with the notable exception of writing. I am Captain Lateness, I admit, but at least wearing my old, scratched steel chronograph gives me a slight chance of being within 10 minutes of my appointment times. And its still the best fashion accessory (unless you're into pocket squares or bowties).
I don't have any idea why gyms insist on dropping thousands of dollars on the latest machines - particularly the thigh strengthener thing that MUST have been invented by medieval torturers. The fact is, free weights work stabilizing muscles better, enable you to perform an almost unlimited array of exercises and burn more calories because you're supporting the entire load. Add in dip bars and a pullup bar, and you've got the perfect strength training setup. With this kit, the right trainer - such as my good friend Mr. Cory Maxwell - could get your heart rate off the charts in just a few minutes.
Concept2 Rowing Machine
I'd been looking for a cheap, lightly used Concept2 for five years when I finally came across one three summers ago. Why did it take so long? Because the machines have a very high resale value and most people who buy one realize it's the best way to work every muscle in your body this side of cross-country skiing, so don't want to give up their machine. Now, if you see a C2 at a gym it's typically underused (just like free weights) because it's hard work - at least if you use it properly instead of jacking it up to maximum resistance and moving the handle with all arms and back power - the common technique mistake. If you can grab a cheap one on Craigslist, check out The Pete Plan for an easy-to-follow training schedule, and see the Concept2 forum for encouragement and advice. Best thing about the rower? You can get a killer workout in 20 minutes - great when I'm on deadline.
Etymotic MC5 Headphones
I used a pair of Sony studio cans for the longest time, but while they offer great sound quality, they leak noise like Julian Assange leaks secrets and don't cancel outside noise (think kids banging on my office door, noisy neighbors) unless you turn up the volume to ear-splitting levels. So, while it is probably criminal to drop 80 bucks on headphones, I did just that at the beginning of summer on the Etymotic MC5s. Like my good friend Mr. Tom Seibold, I am an avid web researcher, and I spent many an evening combing audio forums for reviews, warnings and endorsements, with three criteria in mind: noise cancellation, sound quality, durability.
Results? I can't hear a bloody thing once I've got the triple flange silicone earplugs jammed in, I've cut the volume level on my laptop and iPod by more than 50 percent, and I'm hearing parts of old favorite songs I'd never noticed before (example: Ludovico Einaudi at the Royal Albert Hall - heart-breakingly beautiful piano + strings). Now, there is a breaking in period - putting the afore-mentioned plugs in hurts like heck the first few times, but I got over that quickly and would buy these 'phones again in a second if I lost them.
HTC Flyer tablet
Fact: Writers write things, and most like to do so with a pen. Problem: this leads to half-full notebooks all over the house, which it takes ages to trawl each time you need specific info. Solution: HTC Flyer + Stylus. OK, I am still ticked off that I paid 80 bucks extra for the stylus (curse you, Best Buy!) but I now have a digital notepad that I use several times a day. The notes are synched to Evernote, so I can review them later on any device, and (this is key) perform a full text search to find a specific word or term. I'm also using the Flyer's camera to take pics of expense receipts, emailing them to myself and presto! no more using a scanner. Liking Amazon's Cloud Player music service, too. And if I ever get into ebooks, the ability to write on them - just like the good ol' days of literary criticism with Mr. Tyler Blake at MNU - will be most welcome.