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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 23, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Haggling, CarMax, Ponyo, Tuna

My wife's parents were visiting with us recently. We're a Rook-playing family (that Parker Brothers game that allows the God-fearing to play cards without using those indecent, gambling-oriented, devil-worship-inducing face cards) and so there were a couple of evenings when we faced off for the usual Cards-vs.-Allens death match.

The game begins with bidding for the right to declare trump. The odd thing is that my wife's mother simply does not bid. I think I've seen her enter the bidding contest maybe a half-dozen times out of hundreds of games over the years.

She won't bid unless she has most of the trumps and all the high cards of every suit.

Why? Because she dreads the awful responsibility of taking her partner down to defeat by taking the bid and then failing to win it during the trick-taking phase of the game.

In vain have her partners pointed out over the years that by not bidding, she forces them to make unreasonable bids which they then fail to make. Eventually, everyone simply gets used to her refusal to bid.

Until this past week it finally dawned on me: The game of Rook is really two games. There's a trick-taking game, which my mother-in-law loves to play. But before it there's always an auction, which is a game my mother-in-law absolutely detests.

I think if we had a pinch-bidder join the game just to evaluate her hand and bid (or not) until the auction is decided, it would make her happy. As it is, she simply sits out the bidding game, waiting for the fun to start.

I realized a few days later, when I needed to buy a used car, that I'm just like her. Not about bidding in a card game -- with nothing at stake, I'm quite an aggressive bidder. But I loathe haggling.

Traditionally, buying a used car has always been like a war. The seller of the car does his best to conceal defects and problems (caveat emptor!) and inflate the price far beyond value, while the buyer tries to see through the subterfuges, assess the real value of the car, and then get the price down as close to the value (or under) as possible.

I hate this game. For one thing, I don't know how to assess the value of a car, and I am extremely unlikely to spot hidden defects. Taking a used car to a mechanic for inspection before buying it is fine -- but it takes time.

Besides, it causes social pain. Either the mechanic will reveal that the seller was trying to deceive me or he won't. If the car is fine, then I feel bad about my suspicions -- I'm not a suspicious guy and I hate myself when I doubt the word of honest people. If the car is defective, then the seller was trying to deceive me, and that is distasteful.

Even if there's no deception, haggling guarantees that both parties will be dissatisfied -- because there's always the suspicion that you've been taken.

For instance, when we sold a house we owned in Orem, Utah, we heard later from a friend that the people who bought our house bragged about how they would have paid much more for it, and they couldn't believe we took their low offer.

That was a time in our lives when every dollar counted. As it was, we were cheated by a former friend out of most of the little money we made on the sale, so to find out that the buyer, too, felt that he had really suckered us stung deeply. I can't think of that house without feeling bitterness about the people whom I trusted.

When you add to that the fact that the people who bought our house for less than its value were supposed to be good Christians, it's baffling: How can you consider yourself honest if you knowingly pay someone less than an item's fair value?

The whole process of haggling is loathsome to me. So I've made it a practice, when buying a car, to come in and say, "I'm not going to haggle. Make me your best price. If I think it's fair, I'll pay it. If I don't, I'll walk away, with no further discussion. I won't come back with a counteroffer. I won't come back at all."

(I usually don't sell my used cars, either. I lend them to people, I give them away, but I don't take somebody else's money for them. I simply couldn't live with the guilt if something went wrong with the car after I sold it. I know it's ridiculous, on a rational level; but I have to live with my irrational self, and I'm happier giving away a mostly-used-up car than selling it.)

Have I still been cheated on the cars I bought, working this way? Probably, a little. Maybe even a lot. But that's on them. When it comes to haggling, I won't play.

So now, having made that connection, I understand my mother-in-law perfectly and agree with her. If she doesn't want to bid for the right to declare trump in a card game, that's her privilege.

Meanwhile, though, I still have to buy a car from time to time, and sometimes I even have to buy a used car. That's why I'm so happy that somebody invented the whole concept of CarMax.

At CarMax, they have mechanics who look over used cars before they buy them to offer them for sale. They won't take cars that have been in accidents or floods, no matter how they've been perked up. When they offer a car for sale, they either have it under warranty or they don't.

If they don't, you know they don't trust the car themselves. If they do, you know they're willing to stand by it. They even offer five-year warranties for what seems to me to be a fair price -- and I can personally vouch for the fact that they stand behind those warranties.

The salesmen do not receive a commission based on the price they sell a car for, they receive a flat fee for each sale regardless of the price. So instead of having an incentive to cheat you by charging too much, their only incentive is to help you find a car that you can afford.

In short, they take all the nightmare out of used-car buying and leave only the dream. I've been involved with two car purchases from CarMax in the past year, and both times everyone involved has been happy.

It helps that we bought Saturns both times -- what great cars! Smooth-riding, comfortable, well-designed, reliable. (I hope that Roger Penske can make Saturn a profitable company and keep making great cars up to a high standard when they finally cut loose from the incompetent bureaucracy of GM in 2011.)

But it was CarMax that made the difference for us. They set a price; we either paid it or didn't. Just the way I like to do business!

And they stand by their product; we paid for the extra warranty, and they have come through exactly as promised on the rare occasions when covered repairs have been needed.

CarMax only operates in about half the states right now. I hope they spread everywhere. I hope they are well-managed and make a nice profit every year. They take the misery and dread out of used-car-buying and I want them to stay in business forever.

*

My family are fans of the animated movies of Hayao Miyazaki. From Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service to Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, we have delighted in his powerful and imaginative stories, his strange, dark, and beautiful worlds, his intriguing characters and relationships, and his beautiful animation.

His recently released movie Ponyo has most of these virtues. The mother and father and son at the center of the movie are wonderful, their relationships real and moving. The ocean's tsunami-like attack on the shore as the crazy-driving mother stays just a few yards ahead of the water is thrilling. The dreamlike magic when two children take off across the high water in a toy boat is sweet and scary at the same time.

In fact, I almost loved this movie. Almost. It's as if he had wonderful material but never figured out how to end it. What did the ocean's attack on the shore accomplish? How did a little boy's promise resolve the conflict between humans and the life of the sea? Who are the little fish-girl's parents and what are they trying to accomplish? What are the rules of the magic in this imagined universe?

Even fantasy has to make some kind of sense -- and Miyazaki's other films do achieve an effective internal logic. This one does not, so you walk out of the theater more than a little unsatisfied.

I'm glad I saw it. I enjoyed almost all of this strange-and-wonderful adventure. But if you've never seen a Miyazaki film, I strongly suggest that you start with one of the films I already mentioned.

*

I love canned tuna. I always have. It was the best lunch my Mom sent with me. Partly because of tuna, I never acquired a taste for pbj sandwiches.

(In fact, I loathe jam and jelly and always have. Too sweet, too fruity. Cooked fruit is simply inedible to me -- and yes, that includes fruit pies and cobblers. Only dried fruits are more nauseating. I realize this is weird. Please don't waste time trying to convince me I'm un-American or depriving myself. Hating particular foods is everyone's privilege, and we get to pick our own list.)

I love canned tuna on a niçoise salad. I love it mixed with egg and cracker crumbs and fried like a burger.

I love it mixed with mayonnaise or Miracle Whip -- by itself, no bread needed.

But when you mix in chopped celery or sliced cucumber, and put it on challah bread with mustard or horseradish, I'm in heaven.

I could eat tuna fish every day. And, for extended periods of my life, I have eaten it every day.

I certainly eat it every week -- on Sunday. I grew up in a big-Sunday-dinner family, but I could never understand how it was consistent with a "day of rest" for my mom to work all afternoon fixing a huge fancy meal. Besides, all that preparation meant that I had to wait an absurd amount of time before I ate.

So we come home from church and I mix up the tuna fish and mayonnaise, my wife slices the challah bread, our daughter sets the table and fills the glasses with water or juice or milk, and with a side dish of sliced bananas and mandarin oranges, we have a Sunday dinner that took about ten minutes to prepare -- and which makes me very happy.

This is the golden age of canned tuna fish. During my lifetime we've gone from minimal choice -- chunk light tuna in oil, solid pack light tuna in oil, or just tuna, which always meant dark -- to a lovely array of fine tunas. Water-packed tuna. White albacore. It just got better and better.

Until a couple of years ago, I thought Starkist white albacore in spring water (as opposed to, I suppose, parking-lot-runoff water) was the pinnacle -- with the occasional foray into gourmet canned tunas packed in olive oil or other exoticisms.

But then one day I was in Costco -- a place where I show my face about once a year -- and I saw they had a special on Kirkland brand tuna. Always curious (after all, I have a solemn responsibility to review everything -- except cooked or dried fruit -- in this fine newspaper), I bought a plastic-wrapped pack of cans.

And now at last I know what perfection is. A hundred cans or so later, I can tell you: I've never opened a can of Kirkland tuna from Costco that was anything less than perfect. It's the best-looking, best-tasting canned tuna I've seen anywhere, ever.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that Costco's headquarters is just down the road from the town of Kirkland, Washington, for which the brand is named. Or maybe it's just that Costco tries to live up to their claim to offer the best for less.

Whatever the reason, if you care about getting the best canned tuna, there is no better or more reliable quality than from the Kirkland brand.

*

In the past, I've raved about "Dial Complete foaming hand wash." And I mean it. I hate to wash my hands with anything else.

More to the point, I have now built many of my habits around the perpetual availability of Dial Complete. Because it's pre-lathered, I use it for washing my eyeglasses -- it rinses away without streaky residue. I also use it to wash my orthodontic retainers whenever I take them out of my mouth.

So when I travel, I almost always end up going somewhere to buy dispensers of Dial Complete just so I can keep up these comfortable habits. (I wouldn't put a soap dispenser pump in my luggage, not even in a plastic bag.)

Then, after I was fully hooked, the folks at Dial redesigned the pump-action top of their dispensers.

And wrecked it. It stuck, it jammed, you couldn't operate it one-handed. I couldn't find a decent one. I kept saving the original-style dispenser tops to put on new bottles, discarding the new ones.

Discount stores started selling the old tops -- the ones that worked -- on their own knockoff brands of foaming soap, but their soaps were lousy -- stinky with perfume and likely to leave a residue. I finally settled on buying "Dial Complete original" in bulk containers and refilling the original dispensers.

Needless to say, I could hardly expect to keep that up forever. Even the original tops were not so perfectly engineered as to never wear out -- though I've used the same dispenser at my bathroom sink for two years, with at least a dozen pumps a day.

Still, when I traveled, I had to deal with the miserable new-design top because that's all I could buy.

I just hate it when people have a great product, and then make some needless "improvement" that makes it harder to use.

Well, apparently I wasn't the only person complaining about the lousy new tops.

I went into a store recently and saw that the shape of the whole container of Dial Complete had been redesigned. And I immediately thought: I bet they've fixed the problem with the new-design top, and the only way they could communicate that it worked well now, without admitting that for a long time it had really sucked (or, technically, had not really sucked), was to redesign the whole package.

So I bought a couple for the hotel we were staying in for the week and guess what.

My supposition was correct. The problem with the dispenser top has been fixed.

So if you see Dial Complete in bottles with a waist -- slender in the middle, widening above and below -- you are getting the new, corrected design. You can buy them with reasonable confidence that they'll work properly.

And I won't have to keep preserving and reusing the same dispenser tops for the rest of my life.

Thank you, Dial, for recognizing your mistake and, at long last, fixing it.

*

The best commercial orange juice in America is Tropicana's top-of-the-line Valencia juices. But, after carrying it long enough for me and my family to be addicted, Harris-Teeter has stopped selling it. Apparently those of us who want the best have to look somewhere else.

But then, Harris-Teeter knows perfectly well that at least in Greensboro there's nowhere else that Tropicana Valencia can be found.

I picture a moustache-twirling villain somewhere in the Harris-Teeter organization saying, "Nya-ha-ha! I don't have to sell the good stuff to you because nobody else in town is competing with us!"

Well, it happens that I get up to Washington DC several times a year, and the absolutely brilliant grocery store chain Wegmans does carry the very best commercial orange juice made in America. Wegmans may be a mid-Atlantic chain -- the farthest south it goes is Virginia.

But if, on the way back from DC, I stop at the Gainesville location just off US 29 or the Sterling location on Rte. 28, I can fill two coolers with Tropicana Valencia orange juice, pack them with ice, and get them home five hours later in excellent condition.

Take that, Harris-Teeter!

And it's Harris-Teeter's habit of arbitrarily discontinuing top-of-the-line items that I know for a fact are selling very well in the store we go to has seriously weakened any kind of loyalty I might have.

If they can't figure out how to use their computer tracking system (which is what that VIC card is all about) to make sure that customers continue to get the products they have a history of buying, then they don't deserve to keep my business when somebody comes along who does offer the best.

So if a Wegmans opens up in the Greensboro area, it's good-bye, Harris-Teeter. Meanwhile, Fresh Market is doing a good job of competing with Harris-Teeter at the top end.

So if Fresh Market would like to save me the five-hour trip to buy the best commercial orange juice in America, I'd be happy to buy my Tropicana Valencia orange juice from them.

Speaking of Fresh Market, they just opened a new store in Roanoke, Virginia. Since I was teaching a writing workshop at SVU, an hour north of Roanoke, I made a run down to the new Fresh Market to buy healthy snacks for my students.

For myself, I also stocked up on the lime-flavored Hint Water, taking every single bottle they had in the refrigerated-beverage display.

One of their employees apparently noticed what I was doing, and without saying anything to me, went into the back of the store and brought out a flat of a dozen bottles and offered them to me. "I noticed you were buying a lot of these and wondered if you wanted more."

I did, and I bought them, and I was also incredibly impressed. In a grocery store who does that kind of thing? Talk about personal service!

Of course, that doesn't mean Fresh Market is perfect. For instance, they used to have bulk M&Ms in every color so you could mix and match. But in the past few weeks, they switched away from M&Ms to a second-rate imitation that is too sweet and not chocolaty enough. Bummer. So now I buy bulk M&Ms in assorted colors only from the M&M website.

Maybe most people can't tell the difference. But I think most people can, and Fresh Market will end up selling much less of this off brand of candy-coated chocolate because they're just not very good.

Stepping down in quality and selection sends such a bad message to customers.

Still, I remain a loyal customer of Fresh Market. And though I'm losing loyalty, I'm still a regular customer at Harris-Teeter -- until a better store opens.

If not Wegman's, I'd be happy with Gelson's or Bristol Market from California. There are great full-selection grocery stores in the world, and I can't see why Greensboro shouldn't have one, even if Harris-Teeter has decided not to try.

Till then, the limited-selection high-quality Fresh Market is the best we have, and it's pretty darn good.


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