Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cheap Bastid's Foodie Tuesday: Chocolate Covered BACON!

I love chocolate. (Who doesn’t). And, I love bacon. (Who doesn’t)? Not long ago I came across a post about combining these 2 delectable flavors and it instantly made my mouth water. I checked it out online and found a source:
Mo’s Bacon Bar by Vosge’s. It’s $7.50 for a 1 oz bar online.

So I got looking some more and came up with other places which do this delicacy like Marini’s Chocolate Covered Bacon in Santa Cruz, CA. Look at the photo below and notice that it’s $4.50 for a quarter pound. That comes out to $18 a pound! Wow!

So I told myself, “Self, you can do this yourself!” And yesterday I did. And it’s both easy and GOOOOOOOOOOD! Cheap Bastid did it and had never worked with chocolate before!!

Chocolate Covered Bacon
Chocolate (I used semi-sweet chips but you can also use a chopped up bar or baking chocolate)

How much? First, however much bacon you want. A half pound; a full pound, whatever. Whatever kind of bacon you like. Thick sliced works better and smoked bacon gives the best taste. But my $2.00 pound “store brand” bacon did just fine for a first attempt.

And then start off with about a cup of chocolate for a half pound, maybe a cup and a half for a full pound. (If you’re using chocolate chips you can start a bit low and then add more).

Cut the bacon strips in half. Fry the bacon either in a skillet where you can keep it flat or on a cookie sheet and parchment paper in the oven at about 375. Get it as well done as you want although you might want to avoid the level of crispiness where it shatters. Drain and cool on paper towels.

Set up a double boiler—I used a small metal mixing bowl in a sauce pan of simmering water. Put in the chocolate and let it melt stirring as it softens. Or, you could melt it in the microwave.

I used a silicone basting brush to “paint” the chocolate on the bacon. If I were doing a half pound or more I would put the melted chocolate in a flat bottom dish and dip the bacon into it. Put the bacon either on parchment paper or, I used a cooling rack with a silicone mat underneath.

Transfer the chocolate coated bacon to the fridge for about a half hour. Then enjoy the smokey, chocolaty, sweet, salty goodness that caresses your palate and makes your mouth happy!

It’s that easy. And, it'll cost about $3.50 to do half a pound of bacon. Cheap Bastid wins again!

BONUS for Foodie Tuesday!!!

Keeping Your Grill Clean

This weekend is the 4th of July. Many of us will be grilling. This morning I saw a commercial for using “Pam” spray on a grill. Please don’t waste your Pam that way. The vast majority of what you spray will just go up in the air or into the grilling area not on the grill itself. Here are a couple of options:

Start with a clean grill! Use a brush on a hot grill to get the crud off it (brass bristle that you can buy in the paint department of Home Depot, Lowe’s or WalMart works great and is cheaper).

If you want to oil your grill, take a paper towel and fold it into 4ths, drizzle a couple of teaspoons of oil on it, fold it one more time and then use your long handled brush to rub the oiled paper towel rapidly over the grill. (Be quick, I’ve burned up a bunch of oily paper towels in my day). Then let your grill continue to heat and start cooking.

Or, one of the things that Bobby Flay says constantly is to oil the food not the grill. Rub a thin skim of oil onto your food with your fingers or a brush.

Or, just make sure that your grill is hot and clean. The main reason people oil their grill is to keep food from sticking. If your food is sticking, it’s because it’s not ready to be turned yet. Wait another 30 seconds or minute and try again. When it’s ready to turn, it will release! I can’t tell you the number of hamburgers I’ve demolished trying to flip them too soon until I learned to just wait another 30 seconds to minute and try again. (If it’s burned when you flip it that means you’re using too much heat).

Have a fantastic 4th of July. And if you get the chance, listen to Jimmy Buffett’s “The Night They Painted the Sky” a ballad about fireworks on the 4th of July.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael and Billy Unlikely Companions at the Pearly Gates

My wife and I had a couple of conversations over the weekend about the recent spate of celebrity passings (isn’t that a nice euphemism?).

And, in looking at the media yesterday and this morning, Billy Mays is seemingly but a hiccup in the news which has been dominated by the demise of Michael Jackson.

It seems as though every celebrity has weighed in on Michael Jackson from Elizabeth Taylor to Diana Ross to lesser luminaries. Rev. Jesse Jackson and his congressman son visited and I saw a report that today Rev. Al Sharpton was visiting too.

But little has been noted about Billy Mays other than that he was a professional huckster and family man in Tampa, FL.

I don’t know why this bothers me but it does. Michael Jackson was famous starting in the 70’s and got huge in the 80’s and then spiraled downward over the last decade with bizarre behavior and criminal legal issues. He appealed to the voyeur in us, our curiosity and occasional revulsion. He was viewed remotely and vicariously as someone larger than life, unapproachable and mysterious somewhat akin to Howard Hughes during his declining years.

What Carolyn and I were talking about though was that for some reason we were more bummed about Billy Mays than Michael or Farrah or Ed McMahon. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that Billy Mays was someone we saw on TV every single day making a pitch at us. We came up with the idea that he always seemed approachable more like a real person with a real life.

He was someone more like us. But someone who had achieved celebrity. Celebrity in a “knife demonstration at the County Fair kind of way, but celebrity just the same. In other words, we liked him—in the way you like your next door neighbor or the guy who sits behind you at your kid’s basketball game.

But the world wants to go “boo-hoo” over Michael Jackson. Fifty million copies of “Thriller” were bought a number that record industry experts suggest will never be eclipsed or approached largely because of changes in how music is purchased (i.e. i-Tunes).

But Billy Mays did exactly what he claimed to do. He sold stuff that people need, which will make their lives just a bit easier. Like OxiClean or Quik Chop or What Odor, all kinds of thing. He did it in a style that was loud and brash while at the same time being friendly and direct with just a bit of “tongue in cheek” suggesting that neither he nor you should take all this too seriously. I would imagine that the airwaves will be just a bit quieter for a while as companies and products come up with new spots to sell their products. (Hire ME! I’m looking for work!)

So that’s it. Hopefully this week will be a better one for celebrities some of whom may have already started to look over their shoulders after last week’s surprising roll call. MJ was in a sense a pitiable figure hoping for a comeback. But Mays was a real guy with a twinkle in his eye and perhaps just a touch of larceny thrown in to boot. They’ll both be missed.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

WTF? Redneck Preacher Invites Flock to Bring Guns to Church

While you read this, you may want to be mentally singing the old gospel song: “Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.”

New Bethel Church in Louisville, Ky is welcoming “responsible handgun owners” to wear their firearms inside the church Saturday, June 27. An ad for the event said that there will be a handgun raffle, patriotic music and information on gun safety.

"We're just going to celebrate the upcoming theme of the birth of our nation," said pastor Ken Pagano. "And we're not ashamed to say that there was a strong belief in God and firearms — without that this country wouldn't be here."

Pastor Ken Pagano, New Bethel Church, Louisville, KY

This is the church's way of celebrating the 4th of July and the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, according to Pagano, a former Marine and weapons instructor.

Guns must be unloaded and private security will check visitors at the door of the church.

A network TV Saturday morning news show interviewed Pagano today. He said during the interview that it was not uncommon during the time when the constitution was being framed for gunracks to be present at a church for parishoners to store their weapon while worshipping. While that may have made sense in the 18th century, it certainly doesn't today.

Here's a video from Suckstbeyoublog.com with some suggestions for today's festivities at New Bethel Church:

Friday, June 26, 2009

Airplanes & Politics: The V-22 Osprey is Scary!

The San Diego Union Tribune and the North County Times in northern San Diego County ran news articles on June 24 about the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey—the aircraft which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane.

V-22 Osprey in flight

This aircraft first flew in 1989 and, to date, has cost $28.8 billion. And it just went into active service late last year. The Osprey has been “tested” in Iraq although did not fly on any combat missions. So far it has not been deployed to Afghanistan.

Conversations have come up recently about the F-22 Raptor and its future with the Air Force, especially since it is primarily an air superiority aircraft in an age when that has not been an issue. This incredibly expensive piece of hardware is the beneficiary of an attempt by some members of congress to buy additional units. Pres. Obama has threatened to veto a defense appropriations bill if it includes funding for additional F22s which the military has not requested.

But the Osprey is more problematic. It is supposed to replace 2 highly reliable but aging helicopters, the twin rotor CH-46 Sea Knight and the CH-53 Sea Stallion currently used by the Marines and Navy. These helicopters have been around since Viet Nam. The most important thing about them though is that they work!

CH-53 Sea Stallion

From a military point of view, the United States is far more likely to be in a conflict requiring “boots on the ground” than air superiority. We are far more likely to have to land Marines by air assault and to then support those troops than to engage in aerial “dog fights”. Those Marines and soldiers deserve the best support that is possible to provide. Support that works and facilitates their mission.

CH-46 Sea Knight

Here are some scary things about the Osprey (according to the Union Tribune and North County Times articles):

The Osprey was originally specified to carry 24 troops, however heavier troop equipment has reduced that to 20 and the planned installation of a gun in the Osprey’s belly to improve its defense would reduce that to 18.

The Osprey has an operating ceiling of 10,000 feet (apparently because of problems with the aircraft’s de-icing system). In Afghanistan, many peaks are over 12,000 feet in height.

The cost of operating the Osprey has more than doubled from original estimates and is now $11,000 per hour, twice what it cost for the CH-46. And the cost per aircraft has increased more than 148 percent from $37.7 million when first launched in 1985 to $93.4 million today. And remember, when close to the ground in landing or take-off mode, the aircraft is highly vulnerable to some dude with a rocket propelled grenade being able to shoot it down for about $100!

“It can’t land without power—a vital maneuver called autorotation that saved thousands of lives in Vietnam—without the danger of flipping into its own downwash. It isn’t capable of maneuvering in combat conditions.” (Union Tribune)

V-22 Osprey in Iraq

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-NY was quoted in the Union Tribune article as saying: “It can’t be used in hot weather. It can’t be used in cold weather. It can’t be used in sand. The list of what the Osprey can’t do is longer than what it can do.” Towns chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform which is investigating the cost overruns and mechanical problems of the Osprey.

The Government Accountability Office has “recommended a new analysis of the military’s needs” in terms of the Osprey program projected to cost $75 billion over the 30-year program cost. Of course, part of the question is when did the program start? 1985? In that case it only has 6 years to go and so far no widespread deployment of the aircraft.

It is scheduled to be deployed to Miramar Marine Airbase and Camp Pendleton. Miramar in San Diego and Pendleton 40 miles north of San Diego.

The F-22 Raptor can fulfill its mission. The debate is about the relevance and cost of the mission. Few doubt the relevance of the V-22 Osprey’s mission. The Osprey is a cool-looking aircraft. But cool-looking doesn’t get the mission of the Marine Corps accomplished.

(Note: All photos from Google Images)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cheap Bastid's Foodie Tuesday: Middle Eastern Flatbread Pizza

Money’s been tight at Cheap Bastid’s place. So, occasionally I’ve been making homemade pizza. The hardest part of that is making the crust. It takes some practice to start getting the crust to come out edible. But it’s an inexpensive way to make pizza at about $1.00 for the crust (compared to about $3.50 for a Boboli).

I prefer my pizza crust thin and crispy rather than a “New York” style. But that’s a matter of taste. Recently though we came up with a really inexpensive and delicious way to get an almost perfect thin pizza crust really cheap (and of course I like the cheap part).

We’ve been enjoying Middle Eastern flat bread lately. I can pick up a bag of 8 pieces for 99 cents (at the 99 cent store, of course). The other night I decided to use pieces of it as a pizza crust. And it worked great!

Here’s how I did it:

Use 4 pieces of Middle Eastern flat bread for plenty of pizza for 2.
Pre-heat oven to 400
Put the pieces of bread on a cookie sheet and brush a very thin coat of oil. Then pop that in the oven for about 2 minutes.

I use a small can (about 5-6 oz.) of tomato sauce and then add spices to it. Garlic powder, cumin & oregano. Then spread a couple of tablespoons on each crust.
Top with a small handful of shredded mozzarella or jack cheese (your preference).
Top with whatever else you want—pepperoni, ground beef, ground sausage, and other veggies.

Bake in oven at 400 for 8-10 minutes until done (I like to use the broiler the last 2 minutes to brown the cheese a bit).
Top with parmesan and red chili flakes if desired.

It’s just that simple. One of things I noticed though is that pepperoni runs about $7 a pound so it’s kind of pricey. I can do Italian sausage for about $2.25 a pound or hamburger for about $1.75 a pound. That way the cheese is the most expensive part. And by the way, the tomato sauce in the small can runs about 50 cents—lots cheaper than jarred pizza sauce or jarred spaghetti sauce.

So, for pizza for 2 the total price (if you use Italian sausage) will be about $3.75. And that’s generously topped and enough pizza to get stuffed. It's not fancy. It's not gourmet. And perhaps not even original. But it's inexpensive and it's good.

Now, here’s a bonus—Cheap Bastid’s All Time Favorite Pizza:
Pepperoni, sliced tomatoes, jalapenos and feta cheese! (No sauce!) It’s an incredible combination and because there’s no sauce, it’s pretty nutritious.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

You Have to Love Your Kids; It's Even Better to Like Them!

You don’t have to like your kids, but you do have to love them. I heard that or read that a while ago (maybe it was from John Rosemond but I’m not sure of the source).

Think about it. There’s a lot of time when you don’t really like the little crapperheads based on something they may have done or some quirk of their personality or behavior. But you absolutely have to love them.

I’ve made several postings lately about my children, things in their childhood and small things in their lives which say something about my feelings or which bring on a smile. Today, I’m going to touch on the best thing. The absolute best time I ever had with my kids.

Mike and Susan at Mike's Wedding Rehearsal Dinner

It was 2004. I had been living in Southern California for 6 years and my kids lived in the Midwest. Mike was 22 and Susan 20. Mike lived with his fiancé in Ames, Iowa and Susan 30 miles away in Des Moines, still at home with her Mom.

I had to travel to Detroit for a weeklong training meeting and decided to take a couple of extra days and stop over in Des Moines to see the kids. I was able to spend some time with each of them individually and on Saturday night have dinner with them, with Mike’s fiancé and with Susan’s boyfriend in Ames.

I cooked steaks on the grill at Mike’s apartment and we had dinner together, talking and chatting, getting to know Susan’s boyfriend and getting better acquainted with Mike’s fiancé, Katie. We played some cards and all in all had a terrific evening.

It didn’t dawn on me until the next day when I was flying on to Detroit and thinking on the airplane about my kids and how much I missed them and loved them. This grand epiphany was that I genuinely liked my children. I really liked them as people, not just my kids. I really enjoyed their company, their personalities, their outlook, the way they thought and conversed and laughed. I LIKED them!

And I admired them. I admired the young adults they had become. Self-confident, articulate, responsible adults who you would be proud to call your friend.

It didn’t make any difference in how much I loved them. But I was proud of my kids. And how they had turned out OK without their Father in their everyday lives (obviously their Mother had done a good job).

We all know what a pain in the butt kids can be—particularly teenagers. It perhaps shouldn’t amaze us when they turn into great adults. But, to me it’s fantastic to really like the person that they’ve become and to know that, no matter what, they’re going to be all right.

And, to quote Forrest Gump: “That’s all I’ve got to say about tha-at.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Pajamas" and Nightly Questions

There’s something about a freshly bathed child, dressed in a “onesie” ready for bed. It’s storytime followed by tuck-in time. Or at our house Pajamas time.

Many were the nights that I performed this “duty” when my children were little. My attitude was that I couldn’t nurse my babies but I could bathe them and get them ready for bed allowing my wife a well-deserved respite. (She would have taken care of the kids while I fixed dinner and I would get them ready for bed while she cleaned up from dinner).

I could go on for pages about the number of times that each Dr. Seuss or Berenstain Bear book was read. (Susan was always partial to the Berenstain Bears and Mike preferred Dr. Seuss). I loved the way the kids smelled freshly scrubbed, powdered and diapered with just a hint of formula on their breath.

From the time Mike (2 years older) was an infant until Susan was 7 or 8 tuck-in time was always followed by a song—one of my all time favorite kids songs. It’s off the late 70’s album “In Harmony” which was produced by Sesame Street. This magical album (which I wore out twice on “vinyl” and once on cassette and you can get it now on CD) featured the Doobie Brothers, Bette Midler, James Taylor, Carlie Simon, Al Jarreau, Linda Ronstadt, George Benson plus Ernie and Cookie Monster.

My favorite song though was written and performed by Livingston Taylor and it’s called “Pajamas”.

I sang this song to my kids every night for years. There were times when I had an evening meeting and I would get out of it in time to tuck the kids in and sing to them. Sometimes I left the meeting, went home for my nightly ritual and then returned to the meeting. (Small towns seem to be a bit more tolerant of this element of life).

I still love this delightful little song. Here are the lyrics:

By Livingston Taylor

I've got my pajamas on
Before I go to bed I'm going to run around.
I'm standing on my head
And the world is upside down.

Me and Wilson, my teddy bear
We're going to do a lot of wiggling
Before we go upstairs
Watch out you lions you tigers you bears
I've got my pajamas on

Mommy said put 'em on
I said no
Daddy said let's go
I said all right
I'm clean and I'm warm
and I'm out of sight
I've got my pajamas on

I'm in Daddy's lap, fading fast
Wilson, if you want to mess around
You'll have to do it alone
I love being little
And I'll love being grown
I've got my pajamas on.

Here’s a link to a sample of the song on Artist Direct:

There was another part of the nightly ritual. It was called “Questions”. I really wanted my children to know—to absolutely know—as the last thing they heard from me at night that they were loved. No matter what. If they had been naughty during the day or cranky. (Or if I had been either of those things too). They should go to sleep feeling safe and secure and cherished.

I would tuck them each in—for a while they shared a bedroom—and kneel on the floor looking at my children, ready to drift off. I would softly ask the questions as they were snuggling in and drifting off, answers coming back at me more slowly and softly as sleep overtook them.

“Does Mommy love Mikey and Susan?”
“Does Daddy love Mikey and Susan?”
“Does Eric
(their brother) love Mikey and Susan?”
“Do Grandma and Grandpa and Grandma and Grandpa love Mikey and Susan?”
“Does puppy dog Shorts love Mikey and Susan?”
“Does everyone love Mikey and Susan?”
“Is it time to go night-night?”
“Are you going to see happy pictures when you sleep?”
“What kind of pictures are you going to see?”

Go to sleep and see your pictures.
Night, night. I love you

They would drift off with the look of innocent children on their faces. I would kiss each of them goodnight, turn off the light and slip out of their rooms. Checking back a little later just to see them again; asleep, at peace, hopefully dreaming “happy pictures”.

I miss doing that. It was always incredibly relaxing for me too. The last time I asked Questions was when my daughter was about 19, lonely and down and she called one night. Because she wanted Questions. I was delighted to oblige. And I still am.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cheap Bastid's Budget Roast Beast & Grits

For some reason my Saturday morning channel surfing always seems to take me to NBC’s Today Show right when they’re doing “Chef on a Budget”. This is where a chef is competing against other chefs to make a family meal on a budget. A budget of $35! Who the hell can afford to spend $35 on one meal? And, for some reason it always ticks me off.

I love to eat. I love to eat just as well as I possibly can. And, I love to do it as inexpensively as possible. That’s why I’m the Cheap Bastid. But I’ve learned to come up with some things that are pretty delicious at the same time as they’re pretty frugal.

Let’s take 2 dinners last week. Carolyn and I ate these 2 dinners for a total of $7.40 plus the cost of a fresh garden salad including feta—so maybe a total of $8.50. Here’s how we did it:

I took a 2 ¾ lb “London Broil”, 1 ½” thick (which is bottom round) and slow cooked it for about 5 hours with potatoes, onion and carrots in a braising liquid of water, Worcestershire and soy sauce along with some garlic powder, dried rosemary and a couple of good squirts of habanero sauce. What Carolyn calls “Roast Beast.” This was slow-cooked until it was falling apart. Along with a salad of fresh green leaf lettuce, roma tomato, cucumber, bell pepper and feta cheese we were eating pretty well.

(photo from Google Images)

Now the total cost of the London Broil was $4.50 (I bought it on special at $1.60/lb).

Two nights later I was wondering what else I could do with a small sack of stone ground grits that I had purchased the previous week to make Charleston Shrimp and Grits and I came up with an idea of using them rather than shredded potatoes to make hash. I figured I could use the left over London Broil and make what I called “Grish” for grits & hash.

(Photo from Google Images)

So, I chopped up some red and yellow bell pepper along with a fresh jalapeno and some onion and a roma tomato. I shredded the left over London Broil and poured the beef juices off it into a bowl. Then I made a pot of grits and prepped a sauté pan. The beef went into the sauté pan along with the peppers and onions as the grits simmered over very low heat. I added the tomato and beef juices then tossed about a cup of shredded cheddar into the grits and stirred it until everything was smooth.

I put the grits on a plate as a base and ladled the meat and veggie mixture over top. Talk about some good eating! Creamy, cheesy grits. Juicy shredded beef, veggies with a hint of crunch left in them and the tang of fresh tomatoes. The only thing that might have made my “Grish” better would have been a couple of fried eggs on top of everything to make the ultimate “brinner”.

Now this might not be Jacques Pepin type of cooking but it was pretty tasty. Even better, it’s further evidence that you don’t need to spend a ton of money on groceries or go out to eat to eat well.

Let’s look at the budget.
Meal 1, the “Roast Beast” used about $2.50 worth of beef, $.50 worth of potatoes, carrots and onion and about $.20 worth of soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Total cost: $3.20. And, add a buck for the salads, so total $4.20.

Meal 2, the “Grish” used about $2.00 worth of beef, about $.45 in grits, $.75 peppers & onions and $1.00 worth of shredded cheese. Total cost $4.20.

Plus, I strained the left over liquid from slow-cooking the London Broil and froze it so I now have 2 ice cube trays of beef stock/broth cubes for future cooking and adding flavor. And, I used the left over potatoes/carrots/onions to make “hash” patties. Sautéed in just a bit of oil they’re really tasty.

Nothing goes to waste and there’s a lot of good eating for under well under $10! Hey, the economy still sucks. Gas has gone up a buck a gallon in the last 6 weeks. There are still a lot of us who don’t have jobs. But, you can still eat pretty well just by doing a bit of planning and being creative!

So, call me the Cheap Bastid! But a well-fed Cheap Bastid.

Monday, June 15, 2009

2 for 1: Greedly Little Bastards & It's a Noisy World

Greedy Little Bastards!

God, what’s the matter with the little shits. It’s barely 8:30 and they’re complaining about the food already. Yeah, I know there’s not much left. But eat what I put out for you before you bitch about more, you little heathens.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they’d share. But they’re always so selfish trying to hog the most for themselves that they can never be concerned that somebody else might be hungry or thirsty. They’ll race up and grab what they can and turn on anyone else who might want some rather than sharing and making sure there’s enough for everyone. Greedy little bastards.

They’re so dumb that they’ll spend more time and energy chasing others away than eating or drinking themselves. You get tired of the incessant squabbling and fighting. Do they think I’m dumb? I can hear you bitching and complaining and arguing. There’s room for 4 of you. Why do you have to fight and complain when there’s someone else wanting to sit and eat with you? Is it because they’re not popular enough?

Talk about self-destructive. OK, OK, OK dammit. I’ll be right back with more. Show a little bit of effing patience, would you!

Does that sound like your kids acting like starving little savages? Damn but the hummingbirds are entertaining!

It’s a Noisy World

Wasn’t it the Grinch who said “Oh, the noise, the noise, the noise” as he bemoaned the Christmas festivities in Whoville? Yep, I think it was.

Am I the only one who has ever fallen asleep on the couch with the TV turned on—not loud—and then woke up at like “oh dark-thirty” and the TV sounds like it’s blaring over a rock concert loud? My infamous $88 Target TV has a scale for its on-screen volume control. I can fall asleep with it set to 8 (out of about 40) and wake up in the middle of the night with it too loud, turn it down and even 1 seems too loud.

Does that say anything about how loud the world has become? There are times during the day when with traffic outside, the volume on the TV is straining to be heard at 20.

And it seems like the source of most of the noise is street traffic. The noise that tires make on pavement and of the air disturbance is incredible. No wonder my hearing is going. I used to sell cars at a dealership immediately adjacent to Interstate 8 in San Diego. It was like being next to a waterfall with the constant dull roar of sound accosting my ears. Leaving work each day was like when you mow your yard and can still hear the reverberations of the mower 20 minutes after you’re done.

The world has become a noisy place. But sometimes I go out onto the balcony in the wee hours of the morning and the world is totally quiet and peaceful. Silent. At rest before the cacophony of the day starts again in 3 or 4 hours. Sometimes the solace turns to loneliness and I imagine myself to be the only person in the world, or the only one awake.

Until I hear a swooshing sound starting low, growing louder and then disappearing in down Doppler as a vehicle passes by on the major arterial street a half block away. Someone going who knows where well before “the butt-crack of dawn”.

Then I go back inside, curl up next to my wife and try to snooze until the morning wakes me up again.

Just some thoughts today, folks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Senate to let FDA Regulate Tobacco:"Thank you Capt. Obvious"

Dee dee dit dee dee dit dee dee dee...Breaking news today from the Associated Press:

"Washington--The Senate votes Thursday on legislation that for the first time would give the government control over the production and marketing of tobacco products, a long-sought goal that supporters say could save lives and millions in health care dollars."

"According to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, "We're going to be able to protect millions of children and Americans from deadly tobacco-related disease.' The bill would allow the FDA to require changes to nicotine yields and other chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products, although it could not ban nicotine. It would require tobacco companies to provide detailed lists of ingredients and any changes in those ingredients."

I read that and started coughing so hard I had to put out my cigarette.

This is just a bunch of hooey. Remember when Dr. David Kessler was the Commissioner of the FDA during the H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations? Naw, you probably don't. He got in trouble for suggesting that cigarettes be designated a "drug delivery device" and as such be regulated by the FDA. Big Trouble! But he was absolutely, dead solid right. So now we get this watered down stuff that says the FDA can regulate some of the content of cigarettes.

Geesh, when is the government going to realize (in spite of the tobacco industry's posturing, lobbying and spending) that these things are killers? The only thing they are made for is to get people addicted to nicotine. Nicotine, in and of itself, is relatively harmless but it's the way the nicotine gets into the system that is the killer.

Anyone who knows me knows that I smoke like a chimney on a cold night. Yeah, I'm addicted and I've yet to permanently quit. It would be nice for the government to do the right thing once in a while. Kessler was right. But so was George Carlin who also said, "Cigarette companies market heavily to young people. They need young customers because their product kills the older ones. It is the only product that, if used as intended, kills the customer."

Isn't it nice to know that the Congress and FDA are looking out for our best interests!

To quote George Carlin again, "Thank you Captain Obvious."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

2D's Toots--Really, Really Good Chili Fries

To heck with “fancy schmancy”, pretentious “foodie” fare. Occasionally we like to get decadant with a super easy dish that is incredibly bad for you but which is just flat out tasty.

I call it 2D’s Toots. I named it after my daughter and one of her favorite “activities”. Her name is Susan and long ago her brother only being 2 years older couldn’t pronounce Susan. His word was Suzu which for some reason I shortened to Toodie but have always chosen to spell “2D”. And toots—for obvious reasons. This dish will give a good case of them!

This is also incredibly cheap to make which is fine for me because, as some of you may know, I’ve been unemployed for almost 5 months. Weekly trips to the dollar store are now part of our regular shopping. I love being able to pull together a meal, full of flavor and (most of the time) healthy. I’m always trying to get a meal on the table for a buck a person and sometimes I can even do it. 2D’s Toots is one of those dishes which we now do as a main dinner course (kind of an “anti-gourmet” thing) and if you start off with a salad it can almost be nutritious.

2D’s Toots is just good old-fashioned, “homemade” chili fries.

2D’s Toots
4 medium potatoes each cut into 8 wedges
1 15oz. can of no-bean chili (bought at the dollar store)
1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
3 or 4 good glugs of canola oil (enough to lightly coat the ‘taters—Glug is a Jamie Oliver term)

Preheat Oven to 425
Cut potatoes into wedges and put into a large bowl. Put 3 or 4 good glugs of canola oil in the bowl—just enough to be able to toss the potatoes in the oil and lightly coat them.

Season the potatoes. Use either a mix of salt, pepper & garlic powder or a spicy blend like Essence of Emeril or just a bit of chili powder, cayenne and salt. Your choice. How much spice to use? Enough.
Mix by hand to coat potatoes with oil and spice.

Arrange in one layer on a pre-heated cookie sheet and put in oven for about 12 minutes. At 12 minutes remove from oven and turn/flip each fry. (I use tongs to try and avoid sticking). Put back in oven for another 10 minutes then turn oven off with potatoes still inside.

Empty chili into a bowl and microwave on high until heated. About 3 minutes. (We also like to add just a bit of habanero sauce to the chili to kick things up).

Remove fries from oven and put on a platter. Cover fries with chili and sprinkle with the cheddar. Use more or less cheddar depending on how “gooey” you want it.

This can feed 2 or 3 as a main course or can be an appetizer for 4-6.

Enjoy. It’s gooey. It’s good. It’s an indulgence that will remind you of your favorite drive-in.

That's the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good, Eat Cheap, Be Grateful!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Car Buying 101: Rule 4 Contacting a Dealership

Note: See my posts for Rules 1-3 on May 27 and April 20. Rule 1: Start shopping from home. Rule 2: Shop for your money first. Rule 3: Be realistic about your trade.

You now have the preliminaries out of the way. You’ve done your homework by researching vehicles and have selected the model or models you’re interested in. You’ve contacted your bank or credit union and know what to expect financially (and you may even be “pre-approved which would be the best scenario). And if you’re thinking of trading a vehicle, you have a good idea of what it’s worth and how much you owe on it if anything.

So you’re ready to go buy a new car, right? I would suggest another step in the process before traipsing off to a dealership ready to do battle and drive off in a new vehicle. Contact some dealerships first—either by phone or e-mail, whichever you’re most comfortable doing.

The whys of doing this are fairly straight forward. First, you’ll get a pretty good idea of whether or not you want to do business with the specific dealer or salesperson. Second, it allows you to screen information prior to arriving at the dealership—like incentives such as rebates or interest rates. Third, you can determine whether the vehicle you’re interested in is in stock (the model, trim level, options and color).

All of this can make your actual visit to the dealership one which is more fruitful, productive and enjoyable. You have a right to expect that this information is provided to you upfront and willingly. And if it is, then your entire buying experience will be smoother, more satisfying and more professional.

You want to go to a dealership that knows that it's not about them. It's not about manipulating you into doing something you're not fully prepared to do yet. You want to go somewhere that knows that it's all about you and your needs and that if they fulfill that they'll be better positioned to make a profit.

That brings us to Rule 4: Contacting a Dealership

Be organized about it. Buying a vehicle isn’t a trip to an amusement park. It’s a major piece of business where you’re going to contract to spend upwards of $20,000 or more on a new vehicle. The e-mail contact is arguably the easiest in that you’ll be writing your questions and sending them off with every reasonable expectation that you’ll have a specific response within a couple of hours.

E-Mail contact: Virtually all dealerships now have internet departments. Look up the dealership online and then contact them via their contact portal. Do not include your phone number. Make them respond to your questions via e-mail. If they don’t, then you can move on. What you may wish to do is contact a couple of different dealerships selling the vehicle you’re interested in via e-mail. At this point you’re not trying to get them to compete for your business based on price, you’re trying to get the best response and develop a sense of where you’ll feel most comfortable. And, if a dealership isn’t willing to provide you with information, then you probably don’t want to do business with them. After the information is provided and you’re sure that you want to go that dealership is the right time to provide a phone number for confirmation of an appointment.

In your e-mail you want to specify that you’re interested in a vehicle and then state the make and model and trim level. From there mention any options and color(s). Then ask whether the vehicle is in stock, its MSRP, their advertised selling price and any incentives. And, be upfront and tell them your timeframe for having the purchase completed. If it’s 6 months you shouldn’t even be in touch. But it’s timely if you’re looking at buying a vehicle anytime in the next 4-6 weeks.

The timeliness, information and tone of the response is going to tell you a lot about whether you want to do business there or not. If a dealer immediately wants to get on the phone and discuss it with you, either resist of just “write them off”. They just want to as is the saying in the retail side of car sales “take control”. Buying and selling vehicles isn’t or shouldn’t be about “control”. It’s about business and satisfaction.

Phone contact: There’s a dealer term for incoming phone calls from customers—“phone-pops”. Sales people love to get them and yet have a hard time in converting them to appointments. Why? Because sales people are “trained” by their managers to “take control” and not let the caller “stroke” them. They’re also trained to not “give out any numbers” otherwise the customer will just use that as an excuse to “shop”. What managers still don’t realize is that these techniques are guaranteed to drive the majority of phone callers away.

Their job is to get your name and number and an appointment. Your job is to get information and, if you like the information you get and how it was provided, to set an appointment.

If the person at the dealership is unwilling or reluctant to provide information over the phone, that’s OK because there are dealers out there who will. You can even tell the person right up front that you’re looking for some specific information and that if they are unable or unwilling to provide the information that you would appreciate being connected to someone who will provide it or you can just call another dealership. You’re the customer and you have information needs. Make sure they are fulfilled upfront.

With that in mind, at this point you don’t need to provide your name or phone number—but be polite and let the salesperson know that you’ll be happy to provide that once you have the information you require and decide that you’d like to go to the next step with them. Here’s the thing, YOU’RE the one in control because you’re the customer.

Get all the information that you need—availability of model, trim level, options and color(s). Then ask whether the vehicle is in stock, its MSRP, their advertised selling price and any incentives. Get the information. This will also give you information as to whether or not you want to do business there.

A smart salesperson will provide you with the information happily and willingly. If you are constantly interrupted with questions and efforts to “close the appointment” either resist, be direct in telling the person that you want to receive information first or hang up. And one of the other things you can do is reassure the sales person that you are serious about buying a vehicle and that you require this information before deciding what to buy and from whom.

So now, you’ve gone through the basic first contact on the phone or internet. You’ve decided to go to that dealership and you’ve set an appointment. (Make sure when setting the appointment that you’re specific on day and time, you have the salesperson’s first and last name and cell number as well as his/her sales manager’s first and last name).

Remember it's all about you. The process of buying a vehicle shouldn't be aggravating. It shouldn't be a hassle or be frustrating. These steps can help assure that it's as pleasant as possible and that you get the vehicle you want, at a price and payment you're satisfied with.

The next couple of posts will deal with actually being at the dealership. I’ll try to walk you through the process so that you have a better idea of the dealership’s goals and processes as well as how to achieve the outcome that you’d most like to have. Good luck.

Monday, June 1, 2009

GM & Chrysler in Chapter 11--What's Going to Happen Now?

I’ve been trying to put some things about the automotive industry into some sort of mental perspective lately and quite frankly it’s a challenge.

Now, both GM and Chrysler are in Chapter 11. Bear in mind that this level of bankruptcy is not necessarily a bad thing. Think major airlines. Seemingly, most of the major carriers have filed Chapter 11 at least once and yet airplanes continue to fly toting passengers to their destinations. The only domestic automaker which seems impervious (barely) to the Chapter 11 flu is Ford. Ford appears to have been able to make many of the changes needed in order to weather this “perfect storm”.

That said, there are some who are questioning why or whether or not there is a need for domestic automakers. I tend to think that there is but remain mystified at our seeming inability to sustain the industry domestically.

I marvel at the notion that we have 3 American automakers all of which to one degree or another are floundering. And yet, by my count there are 7 Japanese automakers doing business in the U.S. (I’ll list them for you: Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Suzuki) along with 4 German manufacturers (Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW). Interesting.

So what’s the difference? The answer to that would take people with far more expertise than I have untold volumes to dissect, discuss and debate. So what’s the short version?

Much has been made of labor costs and labor unions and legacy costs. This has been a burden which has bedeviled the Detroit 3 for decades. Unfortunately it has never been resolved due to intransigence which has led to the whittling away of union benefits but which has also led to an erosion of the Detroit 3’s integrity. The final concessions being made now include a 17.5% ownership position in GM by a UAW retiree health care trust fund. Who would have thought that the UAW would essentially own a big chunk of an automaker? And even with that the Ch 11 filing could not be avoided. And of course, the majority ownership of GM will be the U.S. government at 60% with the Canadian government in third place at 12%.

These costs have seriously inhibited the capability of the Detroit 3 to innovate, engineer and make quality vehicles at a price point which consumers find attractive without the additional major expense of incentives of up to 20% of the retail price of the vehicle.

More importantly, the Detroit 3 has never embraced management processes which are streamlined, responsive to change and forward thinking. Processes are ponderous and inhibit the ability to introduce models which meet changing consumer needs and tastes on any kind of timely basis. Toyota, Honda and Nissan all introduced new sub-compact models 3 years ago in the Yaris, Fit and Versa.

To date none of the Detroit 3 has managed to come up with a comparable model. If the 3 largest Japanese manufacturers can introduce vehicles like this (all in the same year) positioned to fit changing driving habits due to fuel prices, why couldn’t the Detroit 3? Like the “J3” the “D3” employ highly skilled and creative engineers and designers. What was the difference? In a word, the difference was institutional. Is forward thinking inhibited by management structure, legacy costs or both? I tend to think it’s a function of both.

Detroit’s ponderous monoliths are doubly handicapped by a large “dealer body” which is present in virtually every marketplace in America which can justify a Chamber of Commerce. Not so with import manufacturers.

With its restructuring, GM will be closing up to 40% of its franchise dealers (that includes Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn and Saab). Chrysler has notified 900 of its intention to terminate their franchises and untold hundreds of Ford/Lincoln/Mercury dealers have closed or consolidated.

This will help the D3 to have a sustainable dealer-body. Let’s put it this way, Toyota has managed to become the largest selling manufacturer with about 1700 dealerships while GM has had in excess of 4000.

Domestic manufacturers dramatically expanded their dealership base following World War II when GIs were coming home. Auto manufacturers had excess capacity based on their expansion as war industries. GIs wanted cars, manufacturers wanted to make them—a perfect marriage. Dealerships expanded rapidly, serving small communities throughout the nation. In the 1970’s when Asian makes were introduced to the U.S., the development pattern of communities and economic bases was largely set and it was easier for Asian manufacturers/distributors to target the dominant markets for the greatest efficiency of penetration. And they were incredibly successful at doing that.

So domestic manufacturers have had the additional disadvantage of a far larger body of dealerships—many of them small, serving small markets and marginally profitable. Although in these markets, the importance of the dealership to the fabric of the community is often times substantial.

The dealer-body is vital to the success of the manufacturer. They are independently owned franchises. However, one of the biggest differences between a McDonald’s franchise and an automobile franchise is that at McDonalds you not only have the facility but you make and sell the food the McDonald’s way too. With an auto dealership, you buy the wholesale product and then merchandise and sell it according to loose guidelines. This has led to a great deal of consternation over the decades for dealers, manufacturers and consumers (and perhaps that’s putting it mildly).

So, there are multiple dimensions to this issue on both a micro and macro level. Will direct government involvement help substantially to revive and restructure it? In all likelihood, it’s the only chance the domestic auto industry has.

And finally, is a domestic auto industry (D3) important to America? Let’s go back to earlier in this post; there are 3 domestic auto manufacturers doing business in the U.S. There are 7 Japanese and 4 German manufacturers as well as others. The erosion of the market segment dramatically escalated over the last 5 years for a variety of reasons—but let’s focus on the most obvious—because the D3 relied on fuel inefficient, though popular “body on frame” SUVs and pick-ups too long for profitability. They put all their eggs in that basket and then failed to respond to changing needs and trends. Add to that, dramatic increases in fuel prices topping out at $4.50 a gallon in 2008 and the “perfect storm” of conditions for catastrophe were present and the domestic industry fell victim.

Can this industry recover? It has to. It’s that important to American jobs, society and the American economy. It won’t be easy. But it’s possible. And hopefully, like the airlines, the industry will be back, serving the public in a seamless fashion as it works through Chapter 11 and beyond to do a better job of serving the American public.