Price Increase

Owning a small manufacturing business is interesting. Mostly, Nick and Jeff and I have things in-hand. We’ve been doing this for too many years, and we know how things work. (One reason we have so much slack time in our jobs is because of this: we’re familiar with them, and we’ve built our own little systems to handle formerly-lengthy chores quickly.)

There are times, however, that we don’t know what to do, times when we’re out of our element. There are times I feel like a minor league player who’s making a brief appearance with the big league affiliate because the star catcher has broken his thumb.

For example, I often feel out of my element where pricing is concerned.

Our company doesn’t play games with prices. Our prices are based on how much our material costs, how much labor goes into producing a box, and then a certain (smallish) set profit for each order based on a variety of factors. We don’t arbitrarily raise and lower prices for individual customers. Our prices are fair, and a reflection of the cost of doing business.

Our suppliers, however, do not seem to operate on the same principles. Their pricing schemes are often baffling, whimsical even. Why does one particular grade of corrugated cost more than another? Why this much more? Why does one supplier charge 20% less for this grade but 10% more for that grade? Why will another supplier refuse to ship us board specified in the traditional manner, only shipping us new-fangled board? Why can this supplier get us material overnight, but that supplier takes a week?

More to the point (and the reason for this entry), why does one supplier increase its prices (citing market conditions), while two competitors do not? What do we do when our primary supplier is suddenly charging ten percent more for material than its competitors? Do we just ditch our primary supplier, a supplier with which we’ve had a strong relationship for twenty years? Do we begin to spread things around to the alternate suppliers? What happens when our primary supplier then responds by lowering prices? Do we suddenly drop all the business we’ve moved to secondary suppliers?

I am not fond of price whores, businesses who shift from one company to another based solely on pricing, and I don’t want ours to be that sort of company. Good business is based on more than just the lowest price. On the other hand, I don’t want to pay too much; paying too much takes money out of my pocket and out of the pockets of my customers.

Mostly I am able to make quick business decisions. That’s one of my roles here, I think. But the Big Stuff — stuff like price increases, and new buildings, and equipment purchases — that stuff freezes me in my tracks. I play dozens of scenarios over in my mind, trying to predict every possible outcome, both the good and the bad. What is best for the business? That’s the question I’m always trying to answer.

I don’t have to deal with these sorts of situations often. When I do, they’re perplexing.

The Squid & The Whale

The Squid & The Whale is a great film. It is well-written, well-acted, and taut. It deftly captures a slice of life in 1986 Brooklyn.

The Squid & The Whale is an awful film. It is depressing, self-indulgent, and obscene. It’s vapid, a total waste-of-time.

Which of those two statements actually describes The Squid & The Whale, one of the best-reviewed films of 2005? I suppose it depends on your point-of-view. It depends on what you think the purpose of cinema is, what you bring to the movie, and what you’re willing to tolerate in the name of art.

Here’s a plot summary (from Amazon):

The Squid and the Whale follows the divorce of Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) as it wreaks havoc on the emotional lives of their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Though there’s no plot in the usual sense, the movie progresses with growing emotional force from the separation into the bitter fighting between Joan and Bernard and the hapless, floundering behavior of Walt and Frank, who act out through plagiarism, sexual acts, and drinking.

Some viewers may find the ending too diffuse; others will appreciate that writer/director Noah Baumbach doesn’t wrap up the messiness of life in a false cinematic package. Either way, viewers will appreciate how the specificity of the personalities makes The Squid and the Whale so compelling, as Baumbach has drawn the characters with such detail, both engaging and off-putting, that they leap off the screen. Naturally, he’s greatly helped by the cast: Linney, Eisenberg, Kline, and especially Daniels bite into these often unsympathetic portraits and give fearlessly honest performances, interlocked in both painful and funny ways—rarely have family dynamics been captured so vividly. If there was an ensemble Oscar, this cast would deserve it.

When the credits began to roll, Kris turned to me and said, “That was pretty good.”

“No,” I said. “That was perfect.” I meant it. I think that The Squid & The Whale is brilliant. It has supplanted Good Night, and Good Luck. for the top spot on my Best Films of 2005 list. The Squid & The Whale is great in almost every sense, but I especially love the characters: they are three-dimensional, with clear motives, and they interact in wonderful, true ways. I also love the many telling, tiny details the film observes: the books on the shelves, the glances between lovers, the behavior of adolescents.

Yet I know several people who might have stood up and walked out on this film in the theater, or who would have stopped watching on DVD after half an hour. Why the difference in opinion? It’s a question that strikes to the heart of the way we view cinema in our lives.

The Squid & The Whale is one of a class of films: serious-minded mostly-independent movies that are more motivated by character than by plot. Sideways and Lost in Translation are two prominent examples of recent films of this nature. (Others include Junebug, In the Bedroom, and Welcome to the Dollhouse.)

I like these films because they’re grounded in Real Life. They show real people reacting in real ways to real situations. They show the tumult of emotions and decisions that make up day-to-day existence. They present complex characters, characters that possess elements of the good, elements of the bad, and elements of the ugly.

Because these films are character-driven rather than plot-driven, many people find them dull. But mostly, the people who dislike these films say one of two things: “This isn’t Real Life.” or “I don’t want to watch a movie about Real Life. Real Life is depressing enough. I go to the movies to escape.”

In response to the former, I want to say that these films do depict Real Life. They may not depict your life, but they depict the lives of real people in very real ways. I’m often shocked at how narrow a view of the world (even their immediate world) some people have. Their lives are normal, and they cannot imagine what it’s like to live differently. Are people actually so unaware as to realize that situations as portrayed in these films really are normal to somebody else?

In response to the latter, there’s not much I can say. If you look to cinema solely for entertainment, then these films are not for you. Cinema as entertainment is fine for what it is — escapism — but it does not have the power to tell us anything about ourselves. And it’s true that cinema as art does not always bring us joy, but what it can do is teach us something new about the world, and about people. To me, as a writer, it is much more impressive to read (or see) a story in which real people live and learn and change than it is to read (or see) a story about a giant monster rampaging loose in the middle of a city. Telling an entertaining story is easy; telling a story about Real Life is difficult.

Ultimately, there’s a place for all sorts of films. I only wish that more people would give these small character-driven films a chance. They really are things of beauty.

Impasse with Vegetable Juice

Strolling through Costco today, I stopped in front of a stack of V8 juice.

Standing before me were hundreds of cans of vegetable juice, stuff that might actually be good for me. (In case you weren’t already aware: there is no material difference between fruit juice and soda. All you parents who won’t let your kids have soda but pump them full of fruit juice are victims of the advertising industry. (Fresh-squeezed fruit juice is slightly not-as-bad.))

I checked the nutrition stats for V8: a twelve-ounce can (well, 11.5-ounce can) contains only seventy calories and grants three grams of fiber. There’s a hell of a lot of sodium in the juice, but I can live with that. I don’t seem to have a sodium sensitivity. (Which is good, since I suck the stuff down. I even eat it raw sometimes.) The V8 packaging trumpets: “Two servings of vegetables in every can!”

I bought a case.

Now I’m faced with a dilemma: I don’t particularly like V8. Or at least I don’t think I like V8. I’ve never actually tried it. I have a life-long repulsion to liquid tomato products, however; I like tomato products of middling viscosity.

I am loathe to try tomato soup (though I once had a delicious tomato soup that Pam made for a dinner party), and I won’t drink tomato juice. On the other hand, I cannot bring myself to eat a raw tomato in any form. The stuff in the middle of the tomato-spectrum is fine: catsup, ketchup (what’s the difference there, foodies?), tomato sauce, tomato paste, salsa — all good.

Now I have an opened can of V8 sitting by my side, but I’m hesitant to take a sip. Nick already praised me for buying it, and downed a can in short order, but the most I can bring myself to do is sniff the stuff.

It smells like tomato soup.

I keep telling myself that if I’d only force myself to like it, then I’d have a ready source of vegetable nutrition, but so far that sort of reasoning just isn’t working.

Maybe I’ll go grab an orange juice.

Update: Two hours later, and the can is still sitting here. I’ve dipped my finger in, and the taste is fine, but I can’t get over the texture. sigh

Wide-Angle Cats

O, rejoice! ye who crave cat photos. I have heard your prayers, and I will provide. Am I not good?

Yes, the sun shone this morning, and its warmth lured me outdoors. With the cats. And the camera. And a wide-angle lens. Simon was none too happy, I’m afraid. After about ten minutes of me shoving the lens in his face (you’ve got to get really close with a wide-angle lens, otherwise you don’t get the photos you want), he started giving me warning yowls. I left him alone and photographed flowers for a while instead.

Nemo, as a Siamese, is restless. It’s difficult to get a photograph of him because he rarely stops moving. However, he did pause for a few moments today to soak up the sun:

Simon, too, is difficult to photograph. He’ll sit still, sure, but not if somebody’s paying attention to him. And pointing a camera at him counts as “paying attention”, which means it’s time to go get some lovin’…

Toto, on the other hand, is happy to sit still. Too bad she’s not photogenic. In her first photo, she looks almost sweet. Almost.

In the second photo, she demonstrates two important photographic principles. First, depth-of-field is influenced by both your distance to the subject and your choice of focal length. Second, film (and, in this case, a digital camera CCD) has a limited dynamic range: photographing a black cat in bright sunlight is never going to work because the camera just can’t capture the range of light.

I took more photos than this, obviously. You can find a few others on my Flickr page.

I Am So Many!

I turned thirty-seven yesterday. Because it’s a prime-number birthday, I threw myself a party. It’s been six years since my last prime-number birthday party; the theme then was Guilty Pleasures, and I invited nearly everybody I knew. This time I threw a poetry night, and Kris convinced me to keep the guest list small.

I had an awesome time.

The food was great: pickled carrots, pickled olives, pickled aspargus, pickled cucumbers, two types of little smokies, various nuts and crackers and breads, myriad cheeses, salami, and all sorts of chocolate treats. Guests brought wine, and Kris and I broke open the bar.

Throughout the night, we gathered in the parlor periodically to share poems. I was worried that this might fall flat, but it actually seemed to work quite well, despite the lack of seating. The big winner of the night was actually Mary Oliver. Three (four?) people shared her poems. Courtney read the following:

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

and Naomi read this, which I think is brilliant:

by Mary Oliver
You can
die for it—
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
an unforgettable
fury of light. But

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of China,
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter

I’m taking the day off from work tomorrow. Every year I take a day off for my birthday: it’s a personal holiday. If I’m lucky, the sun will shine and I’ll be able to mow the lawn, take a walk, and perhaps photograph the magnolia and the camellias. And, of course, I’ll take time to have lunch at the Chinese place!

Here Comes the Sun

You know, I’m a native Oregonian, and I love the climate around Portland (and Canby, especially), but the older I get, the more I look forward to spring. There’s rain expected tomorrow, but I don’t care: right now the sun is shining. It’s warm outside. Our low temperatures are now about where our high temperatures were just a couple of weeks ago.

I feel like a veil has lifted, and that I’m seeing the world unclouded for the first time in months.

I came home yesterday afternoon, peeled off my sweater, and spent half an hour walking around the yard in short sleeves, puffing my pipe, pulling dandelions from the lawn, watching the cats play in the newly-tilled earth. The birds were squawking like crazy, for no apparent reason. Oliver, the neighbor cat, came over to give me advice on yard maintenance.

The other night, we grilled our first steaks of the year.

I want to get on a bike and pedal.

Bring on the sun!

(Come back in July and August to hear me bitch and moan about how hot it is…)

People Are People

I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m wealthy. Would you guess that I’m a member of the most-despised group in the United States? Apparently, it’s true. A study from the University of Minnesota has found that atheists are America’s most mistrusted minority.

From the press release:

American’s increasing acceptance of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in a god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about three percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Edgell believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder is behind the findings. “Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong,” she said. “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.”

The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation—with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts.

A long (and frequently pointless) discussion of the study can be found in this Metafilter thread.

My response? A deep, resigned sigh.

Why is it that people equate atheism with evil? Why do they believe atheists cannot possibly have morals, that they’re unable to differentiate between right and wrong, that they are purely selfish and unable to consider the greater good? Is this based purely on fear and speculation? I find it unlikely that it could possibly be based on actual observational evidence; every atheist I know (and have known) is deeply concerned with the greater good, and is always striving to perfect a personal moral code. What about the atheists you know? Are they evil? Or are they just like everybody else?

I don’t condemn others for adhering to religious faith. Though I’m disappointed with religion as a whole, most of the religious people I know are wonderful people, and I do not begrudge them their choice in beliefs. Why should they begrudge me mine?

I come from a strong religious background, and understand what it means to believe, what it means to have faith. I understand how a person can derive their values, their morality, their code from an outside authority. But you know what? My belief system now is remarkably similar to the belief system I had as a child and young adult. A god is not required to have a sense of right and wrong.

People are people, regardless of color, class, or creed. We spend far too much time worried about how other people think and feel and behave, and not enough time worried about how to improve ourselves.

Pop Buys Pop

Everybody has a weblog nowadays.

My brother has a weblog. My mother has a weblog. Even my Aunt Virginia has a weblog, and I’ll be darned if it’s not one of my favorites. She tells hilarious stories, such as this one, which I’ve cribbed and edited from her site (and which is an amalgamation of a couple of her entries):

Pop Buys Pop
by Virginia S.

As I have said before, my husband likes quantity and sales. This is not a new story. Stuff like this still happens all the time.

For example, his pet peeve was always shopping for nylons. Well folks, we just moved, and in the process I ran across an old sales receipt from Wal-Mart. It is for 366 pair of panty hose. Yes, that’s the truth: a total of 366 pair of panty hose. Also on the receipt are batteries, motor oil, and oil filters. Quite a combo, I would say. I want you to know that after seven years, I still have enough new nylons left to last me ’til January 2007. They were purchased in July 1999. 

More recently, Pop found a bargain at Wal-Mart the week after Christmas.  Fruitcake regularly $2.99 was on sale for $1.00 a loaf. The more you buy, the more you save. Pop saved $106.00. He bought 53 fruitcakes, all that was left in the store. He spent $53.00.

Truth is stranger than fiction!!!

And now the main story…

Some time ago, the local supermarket ran a sale on two-liter bottles of Sierra Mist: two for a dollar, a pretty good price. Pop believes in sales. If you can save fifty cents on one bottle, then you can save $8.00 on sixteen bottles, so sixteen bottles he did buy.

On closer inspection, on each bottle there was a coupon good for 55 cents toward the purchase of another bottle. That would cover the sale price of another two-liter bottle plus the deposit. We cut off all the coupons. The next time in town, Pop made a stop at the store and sure enough the pop was still on sale. Taking in fifteen coupons (he had lost one), Pop returned with fifteen two-liter bottles of Sierra Mist. Thinking he had a good deal, he stood out in the parking lot and cut off the coupons from the just purchased fifteen bottles. He returned to the store and got another fifteen bottles. I was shopping down the street and came to the pickup as he was loading the last fifteen bottles. I offered to go into the store and get eight more bottles for him. (I was too embarrassed to get another fifteen.) He cut off the coupons and in I went. I also purchased some soup and coffee so I wouldn’t look too greedy. At home, Stan figured he paid $8.80 for the first sixteen bottles plus deposit. The rest he got for free, so that means 54 two-liter bottles of pop for $8.80. If you figure the money he gets back when he returns the bottles, it come out to $6.10 for 54 two-liter bottle of pop.

End of story?

I’m afraid not.

The next day Pop decided to return sixteen coupons to see if he could get some more pop. This time he came out to the pickup and said, “You won’t believe this. The coupon is for two two-liter bottles of pop.” Looking closely at the coupon, it plainly said: Good for your next purchase of two two-liter bottles of Sierra Mist.

It seems the clerk today had kindly pointed this out to Pop. So, for $4.40, Pop got sixteen more bottles of pop. It took him awhile to digest this and to figure out why the clerks didn’t notice this the last time he was in there. He was very deep in thought about this, as we took off for home thru Nyssa. It is twelve miles from Ontario to Nyssa. About half way thru Nyssa, Pop sat up with a start: “I forgot to put the pop in the back of the pickup! Now what do I do?”

“It surely won’t be there,” he fretted. “It is only $4.40. I’m not going back.” By this time I was laughing so hard I could barely answer him, but I managed to say that in Portland it would not be there, but in Ontario, well maybe?

He turned around, and back to Ontario we went. There was no cart full of pop in the parking lot. However, inside the store at customer service sat a cart with sixteen bottles of Sierra Mist. Pop brought them out and loaded them in the pickup, We drive back the twelve miles to Nyssa and on home.

Pop’s comment about the whole episode was, “Is this how it is going to be from now on? [re: getting forgetful] Wow, Wow I think I am going to quit cutting coupons.”

I’m still laughing!!!

He still ended up with 70 two-liter bottles of pop for $10.50 and if you subtract the deposit return on the last sixteen he will have $9.70 invested in the pop plus some extra miles (which we won’t count).

Note for regular readers: Virginia and Stan are Tammy’s parents.

Oh my, but that’s a funny story. I read it the other night and was chuckling to myself. Then I read it to Kris as we were getting into bed, and we were both in stitches. I was out of breath from laughing so hard. I think my Uncle Stanley could be a guest writer on my personal finance weblog once I get it going.

I should admit that Kris and I are getting coupon-savvy as we get older. We’re particularly good at getting stuff cheap from Safeway and from Ace Hardware. (In fact, we sometimes wonder how Ace Hardware stays in business, we pay so little.) But seventy bottles of pop for $9.70? That’s like some sort of world record in frugality!

How to Get Me to Exercise and to Eat Right

We don’t get a lot of visitors out here at Custom Box Service. There aren’t too many people who need to visit a box factory, and even fewer who are willing to drive nearly to Molalla to do so. Still, from time-to-time a customer does drop by.

Just now a long-time customer whom I’d never met stopped by. He’s an older guy who’s done a lot of business with us. I gave him a tour of the place and talked up our history, as I always do with guests. We paused outside in the shop and chatted about market conditions. At one point, he made a little joke and to emphasize the punch line, he reached over and patted my belly: pat pat pat.

We wandered outside and he told me some about his company. He talked about how they treat their salespeople differently than most places, paying more than twice as much in commission. To make his point, he reached over and patted my belly: pat pat pat.

Inside, I introduced him to Jeff and Nick. We chatted some more, and then made our farewells. As he was leaving the office, he said, “It was good to meet you,” and then he reached over and patted my belly: pat pat pat.

If I wasn’t on a diet before, I am now.

Spring Photo Gallery

An unexpected sunny weekend means photos from Rosings Park, including a rare bird fight!

On weekend mornings, Kris puts out birdseed. There’s a certain hierarchy in who gets to eat first. The jays usually have first dibs, and they dominate the feeders until the peanuts are gone. Next come the smaller birds like the chickadees and the sparrows. Last of all come the stupid, stupid rock doves, which are like flying stones.

(Every week it’s as if the rock doves have never seen the main feeder before. They land on the roof and peek down at the food. “Wow! Look at that! Snacks! How do we get them?” “I don’t know, Vern, how do we get them?” “I don’t know. Let’s pace around a while and maybe something will happen.” Eventually they do find a way to the food, and then the idiots cluster there: six, seven, eight rock doves at a time. The poor feeder sways under their mass.)

Today, though, things were a little different. The jays found their domination of the feeder thwarted by a hungry woodpecker; the flicker fed first.

Peanut Battle! The jays love weekend mornings…

…that is until this flicker happens along and takes over the feeder…

…so they nominate a champion to oust the interloper…

…and a battle ensues, but the flicker is triumphant.

The squirrels love the sunny days, too. They come out to play, forgetting that there are three cats roaming the yard.

The squirrels are finally becoming active, too, on the ground…

…and in the trees. This guy was timid.

Of course, our best cat is silent and immobile:

Stoney is the best cat ever.

It’s not just animal life rejoicing in our yard. The plants are happy, too. The camellias are exploding with color. The big camellia by the road is so heavy with blossoms that the branches are sagging to the ground. Our first garden vegetables are showing signs of life:

The peas have finally begun to sprout.

The blueberry plants have hundreds of buds. The raspberries are verdant and vigorous. This afternoon we tilled both the new vegetable bed and the new herb garden. Kris spent most of the afternoon planting herbs and berries.

Our morning was productive, too. We had a pleasant bite at Ken’s Artisan Bakery; we sold $150 of books to Powell’s, and I picked up some cool Flash Gordon compilations; we popped in on the Briscoes; we bought a bunch of plants at Portland Nursery and Pistils; and we had lunch at Cha Cha Cha, my favorite cheap Mexican place. Best of all, we took the long way everywhere, driving down side streets, the windows down, soaking in the sun and the cool spring air.