Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It's Shake and Bake

“It’s Shake ‘n Bake, and I helped.” God, how I hated that commercial with the little girl proudly presenting a platter of quasi-fried chicken to her Dad at supper time and making that exclamation with a gap-tooth smile and a fake Southern accent. Shake and Bake was supposed to relieve the “homemaker” from the fuss and mess of frying chicken.

Things really haven’t changed. Now Stouffers is running commercials with a little girl straightening her 5th place Tae Kwan Do trophy on the mantel and then practicing her forms in the living room while Mom pops a foil pan of frozen Stouffers lasagna in the oven and fixes a salad all with the voice-over and copy showing on the screen saying “Let’s Fix Dinner”.

And KFC is doing the same thing. It’s billing its bucket and sides combos as a family dinner and as a way to get the whole family together around the table.

I don’t think my Mom ever made Shake ‘n Bake and I know she fried lots of chicken. Rather than going out for pizza in the early 60’s, Mom made Chef Boyardee pizza on a cookie sheet adding water to the dough mix and spreading it out, then trying to make the runny tomato sauce cover the whole thing, slicing a stick of pepperoni as thinly as possible and then covering the whole thing in the little mini can of Kraft Parmesan cheese. It wasn’t good pizza (and frozen didn’t exist) but it was a bit of a treat on Friday night after a long week.

When the Colonel first started advertising, he promoted buckets of chicken fit for the whole family complete with 11 secret herbs and spices. I sure miss those TV commercials which featured the “real” Colonel Harlan Sanders. He could really make a boy’s mouth water in the early 60’s.

I tell you what though, we sure ate more as a family when I was a kid. For one thing, there weren’t the number of restaurants or fast food places then. Even a trip to McDonald’s was a huge treat that I don’t remember happening more than a couple of times growing up. I remember stopping with Dad to pick up Cuban sandwiches a lot more than I ever did anything else.

Now, there’s a fast food joint seemingly on every conceivable corner. There are more franchise restaurants than you can shake a stick at. I remember when it was a huge, big deal that this new steak place called Bonanza came into being (named after the TV show, of course and followed a couple of years later by Ponderosa). We even went a couple of times to Bonanza to slide a tray down the cafeteria type line and come out with an incinerated, gristly t-bone at the other end but it was a new era in “dining”.

I still think that it’s far better to come up with a way to inexpensively and quickly fix a dinner at home. Even if it’s wrapping crescent rolls around hot dogs (what I jokingly refer to as Weiners Wellington) and popping them in the oven while you heat up a can of beans. Let’s get back to simpler ways of doing things.

I’ll grant you, prepping lasagna takes just a bit of doing (about a half hour plus another hour to bake), but it’s worth it. Here’s one that’s simpler, although it’s ziti not lasagna. Just cook a bag of ziti or penne pasta so that it’s al dente. Brown up ¾ to a pound of hamburger or Italian sausage. Then dump that with the cooked pasta (shock the pasta in cold/ice water to stop the cooking). Combine that with a can of spaghetti sauce, 12 ounces of shredded mozzarella, add a bit of basil, oregano, garlic and salt. Mix it up, spread it in a casserole and bake it for a half hour to 45 minutes at 375 and you’ve got Baked Ziti. If you want garlic bread and don’t have any Italian or French bread—substitute hot dog buns. They work great.

Let’s Fix Dinner! Yep that’s a good slogan that Stouffer’s came up with. But let’s do it by doing some pretty quick and simple cooking at home. It just takes a bit of planning.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dear Abby is Full of...

This morning’s paper had a Dear Abby column that I couldn’t let get by without doing some kind of comment. You see, sometimes she’s absolutely full of…well whatever she’s full of.

Today’s Dear Abby featured a parent with a problem. You see, she feels guilty because she doesn’t like her son. She says she loves him but just doesn’t really like him. Yeah, so?

I don’t know where I came across this, but sometime in my past I’m sure I read an article or something that has stayed with me. You have to love your kids. But you don’t necessarily have to like them. Especially when they do some of the dumbass things that kids do. Now, I have always loved my children and step-children. That’s part of the equation for being a parent and it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But, I guarantee you 100% that I have not always liked them nor have I always liked some of the things that they do (and I'm sure that the feeling is mutual).

I’ve liked them most of the time. I’ve liked them better at some times rather than others but hey, I’m a human being.

Good ole Dear Abby said that the writer should consult a psychologist or child psychiatrist either alone or with her son in order to get to the root of the issue and find ways to like her kid and/or to deal with the guilt. But, the reality is that at some point the one son might turn to the other son and quoting Tom Smothers to his brother Dick say, “Mom always liked you best.”

So, to the Mom who has a kid she doesn’t really like let me suggest that instead of relying on Dear Abby, you may wish to buy a copy of John Rosemond’s “Six Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children”. I’ll guarantee that he’s going to say that it’s all right to not always like your kid. If the Mom has a hard time ever liking her kid at all, then she’s definitely got a problem—but it’s HER problem, not her kid’s problem. She’s the adult and she needs to get over it, overcome it, and find things she likes about her kid or likes doing with her kid or whatever.

Kids aren’t always likeable (like when they crap their diaper at 2 a.m. or when you get a call from the police to come pick them up because they’ve been on the roof of the school getting into mischief). But, you just gotta love ‘em! They keep you young and make you prematurely grey at the same time.

I used to carry a quote around in my wallet. I don’t necessarily remember the exact wording but it went something like, “A friend is someone you can say anything to and who will put up with any dumbass thing you do. Because they’re your friend.” Basically it means that a true friend likes you in spite of your foibles as a person, in spite of your flaws as a human being because they see the you that you are. We’re all jackasses sometimes. A friend knows that. And is your friend anyway.

Well, with that in mind, my kids have always been my friends.

So, why do kids do stuff that is “unlikable” or try our ability to like them? Well, to quote MacCauley Culkin in “Uncle Buck” after he had asked about 16 consecutive questions: “I’m a kid. That’s my job.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Don't Hang Your Daughter's Softball Pants From Your Antenna!

OK, on more than one occasion I totally embarrassed my daughter. Fortunately, she’s now 25, seems to have forgiven me and lives 2000 miles away so the risk of embarrassing her further through my doltish Dad ways is negligible (unless, of course, she reads this).

Susan was about 12 and in her second year of ASA travel-team softball in Indianola, Iowa. Yep, I was a Softball “Mom” (maybe not as exotic as Sarah Palin’s “hockey Mom” but still pretty intense). I don’t even remember where the tournament was being played but it was a gorgeous Iowa early summer Saturday morning. We had to get up and leave early and I guess it was late morning (in fact I don’t remember if it was after the first game of the day or not but that’s irrelevant to this tale).

Several of the girls were in the restroom and I was waiting with a couple of their mothers for them to get back, standing near where our cars were parked. All of a sudden 2 or 3 girls materialized. One of them went up to her mother and said, “Mom, Susan’s bleeding!”

And, another of the girls piped up, exclaiming, “And you won’t believe where!” Well, we all pretty much knew what was going on. My baby girl was having her first period at the tender age of 12. Well, being the Dad I started towards the restroom area to take care of her when, fortunately, one of the Moms called to me, “don’t worry, we’ll take care of her.”

Visibly relieved, I waited by my car until one of them came up to me with her softball pants—white—now totally wet from being hand-scrubbed. “Does she have anything else to wear?” she asked.

“Let me look,” was my reply as I opened the trunk of my car—full of all sorts of odds and ends, equipment and such. I fished around in a box in the rear and to my great surprise found Susan’s white softball pants from last year. I knew they were going to be kind of small but what the heck, they were softball pants and she could wear them and keep playing.

I gave the Mom the pants and she left again to take them to Susan. Holding the wet, freshly washed pants I wondered to myself, “Now where am I going to hang these to dry them?” Looking around, I decided that I didn’t want to drape them on the fender or trunk of my dirty car. That would just get the white, wet pants dirty all over again. So, noticing that there was a bit of a breeze, I had the bright idea of hooking them over the tip of the radio antenna on my car so they could air dry. Bad idea.

A few minutes later, the Moms came back with Susan in tow, looking just a bit embarrassed (although she had absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about). Upon seeing the white pants proudly flying from my radio antenna all three of them started talking at once about what a dufus I was to hang the pants there for all to see.

“Daaaud,” came from my daughter—in a tone a voice that left no doubt as to her disapproval.

“What are you doing?” one of the mothers asked me.

“Trying to dry her pants,” was my reply.

“Well, don’t you know that’s a pretty lousy place to hang them up?” the other asked.

“Daaaud,” again from Susan, now thoroughly mortified, “Get those off there, geez!”

And I quickly rescued the pants from the clutches of the radio antenna, now thoroughly embarrassed myself. The pants ended up inside the car, in the sunniest area I could find, hoping that they would dry quickly.

But, that’s one of life’s lessons, especially when you’ve got a daughter. Especially when that daughter is your “baby”. Even though, at 12, she’s a pretty good ballplayer. She’s still a girl, a girl becoming a young woman.

And what’s that lesson?
Never. Ever. Hang your daughter’s softball pants from your radio antenna!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Carrots in the Drainpipe

This morning’s newspaper had an article from Associated Press headlined “Home Economics” about people across the country going back to doing their own home maintenance from cleaning to lawns to car washing in order to save money. I’m a bit surprised by this because I always assumed that’s how everyone did things (yeah, I know I’m naïve especially with the number of gardeners who live in my neighborhood and drive off in their mower, rake and leaf blower equipped pick-up trucks each morning).

For folks just undertaking these types of activities in their lives, I offer up just a little bit of advice—when you have to snake the drain line in the basement, strip down to your underwear first. See, and you thought I was going to offer up a glossary of words and phrases in case your repertoire of swear words wasn’t extensive enough.

When the kids were little we lived in a delightful Cape Cod just a couple of blocks from downtown in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. It was 2 stories but from the rear you could see both floors as well as the full basement making it look like 3 stories.

See, the drain from the kitchen sink didn’t like carrot peelings—something I discovered one Thanksgiving. I had peeled a bunch of carrots and run the garbage disposal and, of course, the drain backed up. No amount of Drano or plunging would unclog it. So, now I had to go down and look at the line. The good news was that the line was exposed in our basement because it really wasn’t a finished basement, the joists were exposed and the line ran just under the joists. I noticed a knock-out plug about 10 feet from where the line turned up to go to the kitchen sink and figured that I could dig out my hand snake from the tool box and clear the mess.

Pulling up a step stool, I used a pair of channel locks to release the knock-out plug—that was my first mistake! I was greeted by a shower of smelly water, grease and carrot peelings. Spitting and spluttering and now soaked I stepped down to try and shake off some of the stuff now sticking to me and dripping off me. The floor was a mess (thank goodness it was cement). Not wanting to get any filthier, I proceeded to peel off my soaked jeans and shirt and socks and stuff them into the washer. I eyed the doorway to the bathroom about 10 feet away thinking that would be my first stop after I got this job done.

Now, I got back up on the step stool, and inserted the hand snake, first in one direction and then in the other. After a couple of minutes, the liquids were all either on their way out to the sewer pipe or had drained out of the pipe onto the floor. So I figured I was done. I managed to find the mop and bucket and cleaned up the floor then stepped into the bathroom and took a shower. Pipe cleaned out, drain pipe soaked clothes and towel in the washer, I wrapped another towel around my waist and trudged upstairs to check on the drain.

Now, this wasn’t the only time this happened. It only took me one more time of having carrot peelings block that pipe before I figured out to just peel them into the garbage can instead of down the disposal drain.

But the greatest lesson learned was when that pipe would clog, get the tools (wrench and snake), get the mop and bucket, get undressed down to my underwear, and then start work knowing I was going to shower just as soon as I was done. It’s still cheaper than paying the plumber double time on a holiday to come over. And the bonus was that I was all nice and freshly showered for Thanksgiving dinner. And the carrots tasted good too.

The World From Our Balcony 1

We’ve been feeding hummingbirds for about 3 years now. The feeder is hung on our second story balcony convenient to any of the little critters who are always passing through our neighborhood.

The birds pretty much transit through here hanging around for 3 or 4 weeks before moving on. I’m not real sure of the varieties but my Google search suggests that we get a lot of Anna’s and Broadtails. The one thing I am sure of is the difference between males and females. As in much of the animal world, males have brighter plumage and are more distinctive looking than the females and like males the world over try to be the bully boss of everything. The males can get so protective of this little spot of territory that none of the birds gets much time at what we call the “big ugly flower”.

We tend to give the birds descriptive names when identify individuals. We had one scruffy looking one with a growth on its beak we named Durante. Recently there was a really pudgy female we called Big Bertha.

We upgraded the feeder a couple years back to one which has perches so the birds can light and rest while drinking. Sometimes the birds cooperate and let the feeder fill up with 3 or 4 birds and sometimes its as though they’re afraid someone will get more than they will so they chase any other birds away. It can be great fun watching them soar around (I’ve been buzzed many times by hard charging hummingbirds chasing one another). And occasionally they’ll even share and all 4 perches will be active at once. We’ll have anywhere from 3 to 10 birds which come by for a drink at the feeder at any one point in time.

A few months back we had a first which was 5 birds drinking at once (2 sharing one perch). But the best was about a month and a half ago when one evening we counted 10 birds buzzing around the feeder during what we call “the follies” which is at dusk when all the birds want to get their “last call” before heading off to roost. This night there were 10 birds perching or hovering around at one time and we counted 7 on the perches at once. And of course, as so often happens, there’s one more aggressive bird which has to come charging in, pushing and shoving and scatter all the others off the feeder in a burst of whirring, flapping wings.

It’s entertaining and it’s also a reminder of how we interact with one another. There’s plenty of nectar if we take our turn and share. But, you know, there always seems to be one jerk who wants it all for himself and who has to try to prove his self-importance by squawking the loudest and making the biggest fuss. Sound familiar? Yeah, we’ve all seen people like that. We’re not so different from the hummingbirds. We’re just bigger and can’t fly.

But man is it fun to watch these little birds fly around and maneuver. Instant acceleration. Stop and hover on a dime. For the cost of about a half cup of sugar a week, it’s terrific entertainment and a lesson in how to get along (or not get along) with others. Plus, they’ll really let us know by hovering close and squawking if the nectar runs out. I even had one fly into our apartment one day—apparently just to check us out.

That’s a bit of the world from our balcony. The hummingbirds make it a more enjoyable world.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spend Less/Get More

I thought it was time for the old “Cheap Bastid” to come through with some thoughts on saving money that might be useful seeing as how the economy is in the toilet and money is tighter. And, if you’ve got a family, you can end up with more family time than you had before.

It’s not hard to reduce grocery bills and at the same time incorporate flavor and creativity into meals. You can go to a bit of an extreme like I used to when the kids were growing up. Then, my goal was a family meal every conceivably possible night which was inexpensive, good tasting, balanced and could be prepared in a half hour or less.

Grocery shopping was done on Saturday morning. The first step in the process was to come up with a day by day menu for the coming week’s suppers. A lot of the meals weren’t elaborate—we’d have “brinner” (breakfast for dinner) usually once every two weeks if not more often. I mean, how pricey and how hard to cook are scrambled eggs or pancakes? Anyway, I’d do menus oftentimes letting each of the 2 kids pick one dinner they’d like. The next step was inventory. What ingredients for those meals did I have on hand and what did I need to get in order to do it?

From there the inventory also considered staples, beverages, snacks and dessert. Now I didn’t go nuts on any of those—one big bag of chips was expected to last the week; when they were gone that was it. Then I would take a look at coupons and specials—both for stocking up and for the week’s supplies sometimes substituting in order to get a better price. Last, I would compile the final list. I always used the same grocery store so my list was written in the order in which the item would appear in the store (that saves both time and money by the way).

I will guarantee you that if you take an approach like this that you’ll save 10-15%--minimum—without shortchanging yourself. You’ll do fewer impulse buys and will use what you buy.

But, there’s other things you can do too. For example, buy store brand cereal rather than name brand (it’s a cardboard box, some grain and sugar for crying out loud—you just don’t need to pay for the national merchandising). And by the way, if the kids resist, that’s too bad. Let them buy it themselves or go without. Either way it’s no sweat off your nose and no harm will come to the kids.

Buy your meat when it’s on special—then stock up. I buy the big packs of boneless skinless chicken breasts for under $2 a pound when it’s on special. Then when I get home I break it down and put 1 or 2 breasts in plastic bags (I also sanitize and re-use plastic bags too!). I do the same thing with ground beef. I buy “London Broil” on special at less than $2 a pound too and keep a couple on hand. One of these days I’ll write a piece on using that cut of meat several different ways to make inexpensive, taste like a million bucks multiple meals.

If you’re trying to use the excuse that you’re too busy—well, you’re too busy not to. It just makes sense. There’s an ad on the back of this week’s Newsweek for Ragu about how you can buy Ragu and make spaghetti for $2 a serving. That’s a lot less than it’ll cost you at Buca de Beppo or Olive Garden but I can still make it for less than $1 a serving, including garlic toast and salad. In the first place I don’t buy jarred sauce—for 3 reasons. One, the glass jar itself adds to the price. Two, there’s way too much sugar in any of the jarred sauces used to cut the acid of the tomatoes. And three, the jarred sauce costs typically at least $3. I buy the big can of sauce for less than a buck with less sugar. I have a full spice cabinet and I’m going to make it taste even better when I heat it and if it’s too acidic, I can add a bit of honey or sugar. See, I just saved you money again.

And why order out pizza for anywhere from $15 to $20. The ingredients in a pizza crust cost less than $1 (and most of that is for the packet of yeast) and it takes less than 10 minutes to make a crust—do a Google search for making pizza crust). Sauce is easy to make and you can easily brown up some hamburger or sausage or have some pepperoni on hand. For about $4 you can make your own 12” pizza. It’ll take a couple of times to get the hang of making the crust and you have about an extra 2 minutes of clean-up while the pizza is baking but so what. And any or all of this can be done with the kids helping prep and clean. Then you sit down together for 15 or 20 minutes, eat, talk and be a family.

So we’re saving money while at the same time building family. And like the MasterCard commercial says—that’s priceless.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Harold Reit's Doughnuts

In the early 80’s, I lived in a small city of 6000 in northern Iowa. It was a nice town, a regional trade center with a downtown, small mall, public and Catholic High School, hospital, etc.

We had a small “mom and pop” bakery called Reit’s Bakeshop. It was owned by a man in his early 70’s named Harold Reit. Harold had been lured out of retirement from having owned a bakery for years and years in a neighboring town when local community and business leaders convinced him that our little city could benefit from a bakery of its own. Harold agreed to come out of retirement for a while to start the bakery and then to try to sell it to a younger person who could keep it going and make a living from the bakery.

Reit’s Bakery made the most wonderful baked goods. It was the best place to go in town for donuts or cinnamon rolls or bear claws or cakes or pies. His prices were incredibly reasonable, about $2 a dozen for donuts and never more than $.75 for his best and biggest cinnamon roll, dripping with butter and icing. Reit’s was the best place in town to go in the morning for “kaffeeklatching” with business people and other movers and shakers in the town. Plus, Harold always had a few minutes to stop by and chat, putting his 2 cents worth in and refilling our cups as we shook dice to see who would pay for the morning’s coffee at a quarter a cup.

After about 4 years, Harold found a young couple to buy the bakery from him. He even helped them finance the bakery using a combination of SBA guaranteed financing and a 2nd mortgage that he carried. He also provided the couple with all his recipes and trained them in the art of baking continuing to work alongside them for about 6 months.

After that 6 month break-in period, the new owners were on their own. Harold and his bride of more than 50 years took off for points south for the winter. The quality stayed pretty good for a while under the new owners. They would even chat at bit. After a while though, the chatting would often turn to pessimism over the business climate or mild complaining over having to get up to start baking at 3:30 a.m. We noticed that the baked goods didn’t seem to taste as good anymore and we would discuss it occasionally at our afternoon “kaffeeklatch” at the “BackDoor Café”.

There was only one conclusion and, Irv Wiltgen, the local Jeweler; Phil Diamond, who owned a men’s clothing store and I (who ran the local Chamber of Commerce) came up with it one day. Harold had provided the new owners with all his recipes which they were following perfectly. He taught them how to bake. But there was one ingredient missing—an ingredient that he couldn’t provide. The missing ingredient was simple. Every donut, cinnamon roll, cake or pie that Harold made had just a little bit of love in it.

You could tell by how he smiled at a youngster, nose pressed to the glass of his display case. You could tell how he volunteered each year to play Santa Claus the day after Thanksgiving, arriving on a fire engine and handing out treats. You could tell by how he was always positive about the future of the town. You could tell from his lusty laugh when dealing with the ladies who would come in to buy cakes. All of which was missing in his successors.

I moved on a couple of years later to another community. But, the last time I was back, I noticed that the bakery was no more. A close friend told me that Harold had eventually taken back the bakery and ultimately closed it when he could no longer work. The bakery closed for good when Harold passed away. But, the same friend told me that which we both knew. “You know,” he said wistfully, almost as though he could taste those rolls, “Harold always put just a little pinch of love in everything he baked.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Home Improvement

This morning my local paper ran an AP article headlined “Home Economics” which discussed a new trend—that of homeowners doing more of their own maintenance and upkeep around their home in order to save money.

What I find appalling is the extent to which people have moved away from maintaining their own home. Seemingly, all over America people are rushing to Home Depot and Lowes (whatever happened to Ace and Our Own hardware stores?) for supplies and materials. The sales of lawnmowers and snowblowers are up. Sales of cleaning supplies are up as are sales of paint. You know, people who are too affluent, busy or whatever miss an incredible amount of satisfaction. When I left the Midwest 11 years ago, I don’t think I knew of anyone who either didn’t do their own yardwork (or who didn’t use the free child/slave labor also known as a tax deduction).

One featured couple listed the things they are now doing themselves. They have laid off their gardener and housekeeper, don’t go out to dinner several nights a week and iron their own clothes. According to the couple, they are saving $10000 a year. Ten grand! Do these people not understand how they could have boosted their 401K, 529 or savings?

The most important things, quite frankly are the satisfaction of pulling that nicely ironed shirt on that you, yourself, ironed (I can iron a dress shirt with sharp crease in 5 minutes). Or the satisfaction that you managed to mow the front yard before the tip-off of the NCAA hoops game and did it so that the tell-tale lines left by the wheels are either perfectly symmetrical—like a major league ballpark outfield--or have disappeared all together because you know how to mow on diagonal lines. Or, how about the satisfaction of a perfectly raked back yard in the fall where maple leaves are now afraid to fall? Did you ever find yourself sneaking peeks at the freshly mown or raked yard and say to yourself, “yep, that’s my yard looking good and my back that’s a bit achey”. Come on already, remember “Home Improvement”?

This is how we’re supposed to live. If we need someone else to mow the yard, that’s where the neighbor kid comes in (assuming there’s no one over 12 at home who can do it) who will come over either trundling his own mower or use yours and do the whole yard for $10 which you gladly pay because it’s a bargain and because the kid can use the cash. Or in the winter the same kid will come over and clear off your driveway and sidewalk after a snowfall if you can’t or won’t. God, I remember one time spending the best part of a whole day out with my dad cutting through 10 foot snowdrifts on our corner lot in North Dakota. It was frigid cold and yet it was one of the times when my Dad respected my work and ability to keep with him and when we weren’t arguing.

And there’s a social aspect to it too. BSing with the neighbor while leaning on a rake or snow shovel, or helping to sling a hammer when there’s a project going on. This is what living’s all about. Not hiring everything out and viewing our possessions as trophies. It’s what makes a home.

So anyway, I’m glad for this “trend”. It’s too bad that some folks are losing income because people are doing more for themselves. But the good news is not only is this a good way to save money, it builds families and communities as well—nothing says lovin’ like taking the kids on an excursion to Lowes or Home Depot!

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Little Car Talk

Pretty much everyone who knows me knows that I spent the last dozen years working in the car industry—selling them, training people how to sell them, consulting with dealers on how to be more efficient and profitable. So, I thought I’d spew forth some thoughts on the industry, its ailments and what would help.

We know that GM and Chrysler are on the brink. Ford is shaky. Toyota lost money last year. If Honda made money, it wasn’t much. VW is now making noises that it wants to grow to become the top auto manufacturer in the world. Lots of turmoil and changes.

Even when things were going pretty well, people had quit buying vehicles from American manufacturers. The reason was pretty simple, for too long the Detroit 3 didn’t make very good vehicles, put its priority on SUVs even when gas got to $4 a gallon and in general didn’t do a very good job. Then the economy went down the toilet and people just quit buying. It crippled an already wounded Detroit 3 and hamstrung the major Asian manufacturers. But that’s only part of the problem.

Bailouts from the taxpayer may keep the manufacturers afloat—or not. But that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the process of actually buying and selling vehicles. That’s done at the franchise or dealership level. And at the dealership level is where the car industry gets it deserved bad name. Let’s be crystal clear, there are a lot of dealers out there that are ethical (the last place where I sold cars epitomizes how to do it with integrity). But, there are also a lot of dealers, irrespective of their nameplate, who seem to revel in perpetuating the image of the double dealing, lying, screw the customer car dealership.

Here’s the bottom line—if there’s something going on in a sales negotiation with a customer that you won’t, can’t or don’t disclose then you damn well shouldn’t do it. Things such as “stealing trades”—which is intentionally undervaluing a vehicle trade appraisal to boost profit. Things like claiming that a customer’s credit isn’t as good as it really is in order to boost the interest rate of a naïve or unsuspecting customer. Things like high-balling a proposal (“pencil” in the jargon of car sales) in order to “launch” the customer and then get them “under control” and more reasonable during the remainder of the negotiation.

Things like failing to disclose “back-end” (warranty, GAP insurance, etc.) during the negotiation and close, which isn’t supposed to be done, but still routinely happens. And after underallowing on a trade, financing a customer for 84 months (7 years) knowing that the customer will want to replace the vehicle in less than 4 years and will have thousands and thousands of negative equity (talk about shooting yourself in the foot).

These are just some of the things which alienate customers. There is an even longer litany which can be listed. However, these types of behaviors put the retail side of the industry in a bad light and even worse, are indicative of a mind-set which is concerned only with “today’s sale” rather than on building loyalty and repeat business. I know of a dealer in the L.A. area who brags about the $2 million sign he has soaring over the dealership paid for by the profits from the over-priced after-market service contracts he sells with proceeds going into off-shore accounts. His profit margin is so high because he revels in making it exceedingly difficult for customers to get pay-outs on the service-contracts for repairs.

And, there are still far too many sales managers and sales staff who think it is perfectly all right to lie to customers. All this combines to imperil the auto industry in a totally different way than the poor decisions and management of some manufacturers. No brand of car is immune from dealers who operate in this fashion. It’s not confined to the Detroit 3. You’ll find Lexus and Honda and Mercedes and Kia dealers who do the same kinds of things. By the same token you’ll find Infiniti and Toyota and BMW and Suzuki dealers who are totally ethical.

Caveat emptor has long been the watchword of the retail side of the auto industry. Until this changes, the industry will continue to be in peril—at the expense of the consumer.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I signed up for 3 different survey groups online. These are organizations which conduct consumer and other research and contact you by e-mail when they have a survey for you. They can be on a variety of topics from what movies you watch, to what brands of cereal you buy to how likely you are to get a new cell phone and service.

Of course, virtually all of them start with basic demographic questions like what kind of work you do, how much you earned last year, gender, ethnicity and your age. I’m white, male, 57. Nobody gives a crap about my opinion or my consumer habits.

Maybe it’s because they think I’m old? All the surveys have pretty narrow bands of age—like 18-25, 25-35, etc. But usually it’s combined with 50-65 or 55+. Yep, I’m pretty sure that they think that older white guys don’t count.

Well, I have to agree. I just want a cell phone where I can make a call, get a call, leave a message or get a message. No G3 or internet. And I wear glasses so why would I want to watch TV on a 2” screen? Surveys don’t seem to like it that I couldn’t care less about most brands of cereal. I don’t need a 14 ounce, $5 box of designer “sticks and twigs” with almonds and dried cranberries. Give me my $2 box of fake Cheerios—that keeps me out of trouble with my doctor who wants me to eat more fiber to keep my cholesterol under control.

But here’s what the surveys miss—I can read right through the hyperbole and B.S. of most advertising. It’s not that I’m immune; I’m just not going to be that swayed by it. I can definitely differentiate between Enzyte and Extenz although I’m not going to get either of them. And since when do men have to use “body wash” in the shower—whatever happened to plain old Irish Spring or Ivory? For crying out loud, I use unscented deodorant! I don’t want my armpits to smell like anything—no b.o. and no fresh scent and no pine fresh (if I want pine fresh I’ll stick those pine tree thingeys you use in cars under my pits)

The other thing surveys miss—I can buy whatever I want and make my own decision. There’s just not that much that I want. My generation is getting older, and it’s a big generation. We’re still working, still spending money and still enjoying life. The kids—yeah they’re the ones targeted by advertising and the surveys. They have to have all the new cool stuff. So how about getting some cool, hip-hop guy to plug IRA accounts for the 20 year olds instead of some cool, hip-hop chick to shill for Axe? Makes sense to me. I don’t even listen to Sam Waterston so why would a youngster?

Anyway, I’m tired of being marginalized by these surveys and by media advertising. But, maybe that’s OK. If they were targeting me, it wouldn’t work—although fast food joints have now discovered the virtues of advertising their $1 menus, something that "cheapbastids" like me discovered a while back.

The bottom line? I may have been marginalized because I’m over 55. I’m cynical rather than gullible. But, I buy stuff. And I have money. But I’m not going to piss it away. So there.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Excess of Fear

Today, the Associated Press reported an interview with Lawrence Summers, Director of the National Economic Council in which he stated “Fear begets fear” and that Americans are exhibiting an “excess of fear” about the economic crisis that must be broken in order to “reverse the downturn”.

Summers is all too glibly invoking FDR’s observation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. This is especially true when he says that we have undergone a “transition from an excess of greed to an excess of fear”.

Here’s my point. Summers is pretty close when he talks of an excess of greed leading to an excess of fear. But, to me the issue isn’t about fear. It’s about trust. The excess of greed—perpetrated by major financial institutions and, seemingly, supported by economic experts and government officials at the highest levels (think “Dub” and his minions) have seriously eroded the trust we have in our financial institutions, the trust we have in our economy and the trust we have in our future.

That’s even worse than fear. Fear, like the fear that a child has of monsters lurking under the bed, can be managed and can be overcome. But trust, once lost, is incredibly difficult to restore.

Banks (and by that I include everything from small town thrifts to huge international institutions) have long been a source of stability within both our economy and social fabric. The word trust has long been associated with this industry and many lenders have even incorporated that word into their names. We trust our banks to take care of our hard earned money. We trust banks to lend it out to people who will repay it, to people who are worthy of the bank’s trust. We trust banks to provide us with a reasonable return on the deposits we make.

What happens when that trust is shattered? We had all our funds at Washington Mutual. I trusted them. Then it became apparent that they were going under because they had been deeply engaged in the business of making shaky loans to shaky borrowers and had consolidated those loans into shaky securities that ultimately came back and bit the bank in the butt. We took half of our funds out of WaMu and should have taken all of our funds out. Why? WaMu is still there. Yes it is, but it violated my trust. When reports started coming out about the troubles this bank was having, we felt betrayed. Our trust had been betrayed. Greed led to huge losses which ultimately yielded a loss of trust.

Was the greed motivated by desiring to do well for the depositors of the bank? I don’t think so. I believe it was motivated by a desire to play with the “monopoly money” and to generate the biggest possible bonus the “suits” could generate for themselves.

Not to pick on WaMu—but that’s my personal reaction to this so-called “economic downturn” which in reality is an economic debacle. It’s personal. It touches us all in one way or another.

So, the issue as far as I’m concerned is one of restoring trust not alleviating fear. What has happened economically to millions in this country has been a betrayal of our trust. Unlike the 4 year old who can be soothed and hugged away from the fear of the “under the bed monster”, Americans desperately need to see real efforts to restore our trust in the very institutions we rely on to safeguard our money. That includes banks, stock markets, political leadership and our government.

Only trust will break the “excess of fear”.

Friday, March 13, 2009


I’ve done a little recreational golfing in my day. Truth is, I’m lousy at it but long ago I reconciled myself to the notion that the only way to enjoy it is to accept that fact and not get bent out of shape by the drives that fly away curving as though the ball has “Chiquita Banana” printed on it rather than MaxFli or Titelist or by 7-iron shots that are mis-hit and travel maybe 30 yards resulting in an opportunity for an 8-iron shot followed by a wedge, then a sand wedge.

Once at a golf outing, after having shot 146 for 18 I was presented with the prize for the highest score, a rod and reel and the suggestion that I try another recreational sport. I’ve caught more crappie and perch with the rod and reel than I’ve ever had success with a golf club.

At golf outings and in recreational 4-somes there’s usually an opportunity to take a “Mulligan” on a drive, typically one per round or one per 9 holes. It’s a chance to “do-over” a particularly gruesome drive and try to improve (sometimes my Mulligan shots have been worse than the original drive).

Sometimes when I let my mind wander, the thought has occurred to me that it would sure be nice to have a Mulligan in life occasionally. We tend to suffer from our bad decisions, impulses gone awry or our complacency. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could do a Mulligan. Wouldn’t it be even better if those around us would grant us the grace to exercise a Mulligan and try again to do things differently and achieve the outcome we’d like to have. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use a Mulligan in our personal lives, in our relationships to make better decisions, to be more loving, to be kinder, to be more tolerant, to be more forgiving, to be gentler.

I’ve known people who have absolutely screwed up everything they’ve ever tried. People for whom, if it weren’t for bad judgment would have no judgment at all. People who have given up on themselves and on whom other people have given up as well. Don’t they deserve a Mulligan?

It’s something to keep in the back of your mind. Everyone is deserving of a Mulligan—an opportunity to try again. One thing I believe is that God grants each and every one of us as many Mulligans as we need to get things right. No matter how many bad choices or decisions we make. No matter how badly we have screwed up our lives or our careers. God will give us an unlimited amount of Mulligans. And the good thing is, we only have to get it right once—just once.

I’ve often thought that if God grants us an unlimited amount of Mulligans, then can’t we all try to be a little more like God and allow others extra Mulligans—even when there’s a big part of us that wants to write the person off, to discard him or her as a loser.
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could do that. Mulligans are great in golf. They’re even better when applied to the human condition.

Super Easy and Good Peanut Butter Cookies

2 cups peanut butter
2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets.
2. In a medium bowl, stir peanut butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the baking soda, salt, and vanilla. Roll dough into 1 inch balls and place them 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets. Press a criss-cross into the top using the back of a fork. Makes 4 dozen--cut incredients in half for 2 dozen.
3. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

Michael's Blue Worm

Michael just turned 27. He's a dad now himself and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. I admire and respect him for the man he’s become.

I remember the little boy though--especially the little boy who taught me to slow down and relax and see the world through his eyes. When Michael was about 2, we lived in a beautiful turn of the century frame house in a small town in Iowa. There were at least 8 or 10 full grown maple trees on our lot which made for some serious leaf raking in the fall. The house was only 3 blocks from the downtown of this bustling small, regional retail center and I would often walk the 5 minutes back and forth to my office if I knew I wasn’t going to be gallivanting around town that day and needed my car.

Each evening when I would get home, I would be met by my irrepressible blond toddler holding onto his “Blue Worm”. The “Blue Worm” was a little plastic toy with a seat and 4 wheels that he would sit on and scoot with his feet. He was waiting for me to take him on a nightly adventure around the block with me walking and him riding his Blue Worm. He’d have a grip on the handle bar of the Worm and a big grin on his face. I’d stop and squat down, still in my suit, and tell him, “Give me a minute Mikey to take off my tie and change jackets, OK?” He’d nod, I’d step through the kitchen door, pull off my tie and suit coat and put on my old college fraternity jacket, say “Hi” to my wife and be ready to go because adventures with a 2 year old never wait.

We’d take off down the driveway with its slight slope. Michael would lift his feet and coast until I stepped up and stopped him from going all the way to the street. He’d giggle because he was testing me, playing a little joke on Dad, seeing if I’d let him get all the way down to the street. Sometimes we’d even take our Springer Spaniel, Shorts, and I’d have the thrill of shepherding both a dog and a 2 year old. The dog would stop and sniff every smell he’d come across and lift his leg at nearly every vertical object. And Michael would stop just as often picking up a rock he’d spotted, examining it, offering it to me for my examination then discarding it just as quickly so as to move on to the next item that caught his attention. He’d pick up fallen maple leaves of the brightest hues and give them to me so that he could present them to his mother when we got home—his latest trophy from his most recent sidewalk safari with Dad.

On these nightly sojourns, I quickly learned to slow down, to leave my office and work behind and enjoy the world from the perspective of a 2 year old boy. Stop. Slow Down. Bend low. Look at the treasures that a 2 year old finds in the simplicity of nature that surrounds a residential sidewalk. Listen to the wind rustling in dry leaves as late summer turns to fall and fall marches towards winter. Stoop low to see the light in a little boy’s eyes as he encounters a magical world from much closer than you or I.

As we stoop low we see the wonder, we feel the joy of loving another human being that is a part of us and we learn patience. Because our world moves more quickly, we’ve seen every bent, broken twig we need to see. We’ve raked more leaves than we could ever count. But that 2 year old shows us 1 leaf. Just one. A leaf which to him is perfection in color, in shape, in texture. A leaf worthy of taking home to Mom. So we force aside the impatience we feel rising in ourselves because this is a far more important mission that we’re on. Much more important than sitting back in a recliner and watching the news and getting irked at the cacophony of children. Far more essential to living than sorting through today’s stack of junk mail.

The light of day would be fading as we turn the final corner of our one-square block safari. The temperature would be dropping. I’d have to stop to wipe the double runners oozing from Mike’s nose. And we’d slowly finish our trip. Sometimes with me carrying Mike in one arm, holding the magical Blue Worm in my hand and hanging onto Shorts’ leash with my other as we walked up the driveway. Then I’d deposit Mike on both feet and open the kitchen door handing him today’s treasure for Mom. He’d scamper up the landing, face red from the brisk outdoors while I put the Blue Worm in the corner under the coat hooks, ready and waiting for tomorrow’s grand adventure.

It’s surprising what you can learn from a 2 year old. They’re an open book, filled with unique insights. We just need to remember that there are many times and many circumstances in our personal and professional lives when we can do more and be more by slowing down and stooping low to find the treasures hidden right out in the open. A 2 year old can spot them in an instant. It takes us older folks a little more work.

A Rant on the Economy

A Rant on the Economy

Today the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation announced that they might run out of money this year. Of course, this is the same FDIC which bumped the amount of money insured in bank accounts from $100,000 per person to $250,000 a few months ago. And now it needs more money.

For some odd reason, this is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for me. AIG just announced losing $59 billion in the first quarter of 2009. If my math is right, that’s something like $666 million a day! This was after a huge infusion of federal money because they were considered too big to let fail. Wasn’t anyone in Washington watching as AIG did this? And, today there was a little piece in the news that says that auditors for GM have informed the SEC that Chapter 11 bankruptcy is getting closer.

The stock market fell also when Warren Buffett announced that Berkshire Hathaway’s profit was down 60% for 2008. This was also part of Buffett’s “mea culpa” when he admitted to having made some errors this past year in his investments. Now, this is seen as bad news. Not to me. Buffett is smart and shrewd. Always has been. He’s the only one who predicted the recession when it started last year by saying “to the average person, we are now in a recession”. It took the so-called experts 6 months longer to even start hinting that a recession was in the works.

In defense of Buffett (compared to all the bonus earning geniuses on Wall Street who are still in denial after screwing their banks, home owners and the public into the ground) Berkshire Hathaway’s profits were down by 60% but it still made a profit. AIG just lost $59 billion in 1 quarter!

We don’t own a house (we’d like to but fortunately held off—thank God because right now I’m unemployed and we’re living off the money we had saved for a down payment). Plus, we watch TV on a 20” model I got at Target for $90 rather than on a HDTV big screen that might have cost two grand. We’ve got credit cards—all total maybe $40 or $50k worth of credit limits—and our balance is maybe $200. Our cars are paid for. We’ve basically done things right.

So, why are we being punished? Where’s our “bail-out”? Or, are we the ones who have to pay for all the fools out there who crammed us into this mess?

Bernie Mac used to sit in his easy chair, lean forward and peer into the camera and say, “America…”. Yep, America, we have “screwed the pooch”. All the bills have come due.

I kind of resent the folks out there who had to have a big SUV and who re-financed their house to pay for it—and then 2 years later did it again. I resent the bankers and economists (and former President) who told everyone that consumer debt was good and we should borrow to buy stuff and keep the economy strong (maybe the Asian economy where all electronics are made). I really resent that I’m 57 years old, Social Security is broke, my IRA is in the tank and I don’t have a job right now.

Who’s going to bail me out? No one, that’s who—except for my wife and I. Well then, I don’t feel like bailing anyone else out either—unless one of our kids needs some help. I didn’t help make the mess. The mess was entirely predictable. The piper now has to get paid and I get to pay him to bail out all the morons out there whose idea of happiness is SUVs, big screen TVs, 3500 square foot starter houses and all other kinds of crap they couldn’t afford. That ain’t happiness. Happiness is being content with what you have and loving those around you. Misery loves company. We’re all going to be miserable together for quite some time. Where is Bobby McFerrin when you really need him?

A "Foolproof" Movie Rating System

Go to the Movie Theater or Rent a DVD or wait for it on TV?

After years of careful study, devising metrics, evaluating data, scrutinizing reviews and every other possible objective way of determining which movies we want to see my wife and I have come up with a fool proof rating system which we are offering to the public and to the motion picture industry free of charge.

There is beauty in its simplicity much like the uncluttered lines of a Frank Lloyd Wright design. For in function there is form. We do not do this for recognition nor for our justly earned kudos. Rather we do it to try to keep people from spending great sums of money in the futile quest for entertainment value without having to endure an endless stream of flatulence jokes, gratuitous violence, male nudity of any sort, insipid plots, computer animated combat (always easily discernable as contrived) musical scores creating false plot hyperbole or any of the other of the things which artificially drive the production costs of movies up, entertainment values down but increase the need for achieving “blockbuster status” so that tickets can be sold to an unsuspecting public which has better things to spend time and money on.

Anyway, enough of the methodological rationale. Here’s the gist of it. Again, be prepared for its simplicity.

There are $20 movies (worth buying 2 tickets to go see).
There are $5 movies (worth renting at the video store or online).
And, there are free movies (good only for viewing when they are broadcast on TV).

It’s just that easy. And guess what—there are very, very few $20 movies—especially since a $20 movie has a nasty tendency to become a $30 or even $40 movie really quick if you make a stop at the concession stand.

Think of it this way—I’m old enough that I graduated from high school back when movies cost 50 cents to go see (and that was at the fancy theater downtown). Now, I could take a date to the movie, go to the concession stand for 2 soft drinks and popcorn and spend a total of about $3. It took me about an hour and 45 minutes to earn the money from a part time job to pay for that. At today’s prices for tickets and concessions it takes about 4 hours of work at a part time job at $8 an hour to pay for a movie date.

It’s not that I don’t want to take my wife out. But for the price of a movie in the theater we can go to reasonably nice restaurant (better than Burger King but less than Ruth Cris) and still rent a movie.

So give it some thought. Maybe if theaters offered better prices or if studios could figure out that movie stars aren’t worth $10 million per movie per star or if someone would figure out that movies are entertainment and escapism and can also be another form of literature (for those of you in high school that’s a book that’s really, really good) then movies would be better, less expensive and more worth the price you pay.

Oh, and by the way, another way to make a $20 movie a $20 movie is to stop at the dollar store and buy your candy on the way—unless you like paying $4 at the theater for the same box of Good & Plenty or MilkDuds. Just wear cargo pants. And slip a bottle of soda into a large handbag so you’ve got something to drink that just cost you a buck rather than the $4.50 at the concession stand.

So, in today’s economy it’s really, really important to make your dollar stretch just as far as you can absolutely can. Give this a try. Then if you really, really have to go out you can take a walk or go out for what I call “Cheap Bastid Lunch”—but that’s a topic for another lesson in practical economics that I’ll write about soon.