Tuesday Afternoon in a Small Town

I recently posted about an experience at our local Post Office; I’d gone to pick up a package, and our mail carrier (who’d been sorting her mail and preparing for delivery) recognized me. She came out from the back and gave me the day’s mail right then (in addition to the package).

Today’s experience at the same post office might top that one. Again, I had a slip for a package to pick up. I knew it would be small, and the weather was pretty decent, so I decided to combine the post office trip with a bicycle ride. Sunny days with dry roads are scarce and getting scarcer around here, and I never pass up a chance to get out on a bike. So, I bundled up in my cycling clothes — including a ski mask-like garment called a balaclava that totally covered all of my head except for my face — put on some sunglasses, took a small back pack, and set off for town.

A few minutes later, I was clunking up to the postal counter in my bike cleats. I dug the package slip and my driver’s license out of my back pack, and waited for an available clerk.

The package slip turned out to be unnecessary. Despite my bizarre clothing, and all of my head except my face being covered, the clerk already had my package and set it on the counter as she greeted me. She made a joking comment about wondering when I’d be in, and then had me sign the release. “Do you need any stamps?” she asked, as I slipped the package into my pack.

“Not this time, but thanks,” I replied, putting my sunglasses back on and marveling at how she’d been able to recognize me.

The ride was wonderfully invigorating, but eventually the stiff headwinds penetrated even my heavy wool socks. Making a mental note to put my feet in plastic baggies next time, I turned the bike for home. But despite the bitter cold, I couldn’t stop thinking about that lady at the post office — and how much I like living here in Michigan.

Christmas

In a world where holiday lights and store displays go up even before Thanksgiving, our family tries to maintain a strong distinction between Advent and Christmas. We don’t play “Christmas” music in our home before December 25th, and all the decorations are strictly limited to Advent images. We don’t even buy a tree, let alone put it up, until very close to Christmas Day.

This was Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s idea, and I’ve grown to really appreciate it. In my family, our tree and decorations typically went up in early December — and came down around New Year’s Day. It’s been wonderful to rediscover the meaning and definition of these different seasons, and to keep our Christmas displays up throughout the entire Christmas season.

This year was no different. Yesterday, Homeschooled Farm Girl and I finally shoveled our 4×4 truck out of its snow-bound prison, fired up the motor, and set out to find our tree. In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to getting last minute trees for free — or for five bucks at the most. Why pay more for something you’re going to throw away anyhow?

Why? Well, this year we got the answer. The local grocery store had no trees, leaving few options. We could drive 10-12 miles either north or south, and try to find something. Or we could follow the signs to a local Christmas tree farm.

We chose the latter, even though it meant leaving the truck in 4×4 the entire time. The farm itself was a half-mile down a dirt driveway; we never could have reached it with a different vehicle. Once we arrived, we discovered sticker shock: after so many years of picking up cheap last-minute trees, I was amazed to learn that these trees cost upwards of $40. Or more.

The guy did have one tree that was already cut. It was a bit on the short side, but was well-shapen. And he said he’d let it go for twenty bucks. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time hunting for the perfect tree, so I agreed to take the short one.

But more than that, I had a larger reason for buying my tree there: I wanted to get it directly from the farmer, to support his family, and keep the money in our local community. Was $20 more than I was used to spending? Yes. But where was that $20 going? Directly into the pocket of a guy who had spent a lot of time and sweat building a beautiful Christmas tree farm. No middlemen. No brokers. Directly into the farmer’s pocket.

How do you put a pricetag on that? I certainly can’t. That’s why I happily paid the twenty bucks, took the tree home with Homeschooled Farm Girl, and will think about that farmer every time I look at the beautiful tree in our living room.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Piles

Some of you out there may be wondering if the recent economic downturn has impacted all businesses equally. Has a receding tide lowered all boats? Or have some retailers managed to buck the regressive trend?

A number of media stories have reported that gun shops have been doing booming business in recent weeks. Even before the election, the folks at my local gun shop commented that their sales level seemed directly proportional to Barack Obama’s standing in the polls over the course of 2008; there is genuine concern that, if elected, he would move swiftly to outlaw certain semiautomatic rifles in the same way Bill Clinton did.

In recent weeks, I’ve had occasion to handle and shoot a semiautomatic (civilian) version of the famed AK-47. That experience helped me understand why the AK-47 has become the most popular military rifle in history: it’s amazingly light, well-balanced, with a short and easily-maneuverable barrel, and fires round after powerful round from a high-capacity magazine without missing a beat. Anyhow, I happened to be at our local gun shop this afternoon, and made a comment to the owner about the AK-47, and asked, “I imagine you’ve sold quite a few of them since the election?”

He stopped what he was doing, looked me in the eye, and replied: “We’ve sold piles of them. Been all I can do to get them in.”

Piles. And it’s not just our local shop. An online retailer that I’ve browsed (but never purchased from) posted the following notice on its site about a month ago:

TODAY IS MONDAY 11/17/2008
THERE ARE SOME IMPORTANT THINGS GOING ON IN THE INDUSTRY. I KNOW THE FOLLOWING IS WORDY BUT READING IT MAY HELP YOU DECIDE WHETHER TO BUY NOW.

OKAY – HERE IS THE DEAL. LAST WEEK WE SOLD OUT VIRTUALLY TO THE BARE WALLS. WE HAD A TON OF INVENTORY LAID IN AND STOCKPILED IN ANTICIPATION OF THE PANIC BUYING THAT WOULD BE CREATED BY THE ELECTION. IT SIMPLY WAS NOT ENOUGH. IF IT SHOOTS OR HOLDS ROUNDS OF AMMO IT PRETTY MUCH LEFT HERE LAST WEEK. I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT.

AROUND WEDNESDAY OF LAST WEEK WE CHANGED OUR FOCUS FROM SELLING, TO TRYING TO BEG, BUY AND SCROUNGE ANYTHING WE COULD PURCHASE. IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT. MOST OF THE INDUSTRY IS EITHER OUT OF SEMI-AUTO FIREARMS, MAGS, AND AMMO, OR THEY HAVE PUSHED THE PRICE WAY UP IN ORDER TO SLOW SALES AND KEEP FROM BEING WHERE WE BASICALLY ARE NOW. SOLD OUT TO THE BARE WALLS. THE LARGEST IMPORTER IN THE COUNTRY AS OF LAST MONDAY HAS SUSPENDED SALES OF ALL OF THEIR HI-CAPACITY MAGAZINES AND RAISED PRICES ON ENTIRE CLASSES OF FIREARMS BY 25% TO 40% ACROSS
THE BOARD. THE PRICE INCREASE IS REALLY IRREVALENT HOWEVER AS THEY HAVE NO AVAILABLE QUANTITIES ON ANY OF THESE FIREARMS.

LET ME GIVE YOU SOME PERSPECTIVE.IN THE THIRD QUARTER OF THIS YEAR, ( JULY THRU OCTOBER )WE SOLD THE FOLLOWING
7.62X39 AMMO…………….361 CASES

AK 30 RD MAGS……………………………….783
AK RIFLES (ALL TYPES ) …………………….243

BY COMPARISON, IN THE 10 DAYS SINCE THE ELECTION WE HAVE SOLD
7.62X39 AMMO…………….1218 CASES
AK 30 RD MAGS……………………………….3855
AK RIFLES (ALL TYPES ) …………………….572

THAT IS IN ADDITION TO THE AR RIFLES, GOLANI RIFLES, TANTALS, AND OTHER FIREARMS THAT HAVE ALSO SOLD LIKE WILDFIRE.SOME OF OUR LARGER DEALER CUSTOMERS HAVE BEEN ATTEMPTING TO PLACE ORDERS FOR HUNDREDS OF FIREARMS WITH US WHEN WE ONLY HAD DOZENS IN STOCK.

WE ARE VERY SMALL AND THESE ARE HUGE NUMBERS FOR US. WE WOULD HAVE SOLD MORE TOO EXCEPT WE SIMPLY COULD NOT ANSWER ALL THE CALLS, AND THEN WE SOLD OUT.

THE GOOD NEWS IS WE HAVE HAD SOME SUCCESS IN BUYING. WE PURCHASED PRODUCT ANYWHERE WE COULD FIND IT WITHOUT MUCH REGARD FOR THE PRICE. IT WAS ALL WE KNEW TO DO. IT WAS EITHER THAT OR BE SOLD OUT AND CLOSE THE DOORS.

Interesting times…

HFG: Retrospective Voter

This morning, we awakened to single digit temperatures, another couple of inches of snow, and very high winds blowing it everywhere. And not a snow plow or salt truck in sight. According to the weather forecast, the winds are supposed to gust up to 40 MPH today — meaning the wind chill is well below zero. Bottom line: there was no way we were making it to Mass, so the kids spent some extra time this morning making Christmas decorations. (The decorations will not actually go up until December 24th, however. Our family tries to maintain a very strong distinction between Advent and Christmas; we don’t even have a tree yet.)

Anyway, while coloring one of her paper angels, nine year old Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG) asked, “Can I give my angel an Afro?”

Mrs Yeoman Farmer immediately replied, “Absolutely not.”

As HFG began giving her angel a different style of brown hair, Little Brother commented (no doubt drawing on his observations of MYF’s family photo albums), “A lot of people in the seventies had Afros.”

To which HFG replied, matter-of-factly, not taking her eyes off her crayon, “That’s because Jimmy Carter messed everything up.”

I laughed out loud, and couldn’t help thinking of the cartoon at the beginning of Morris Fiorina’s classic book, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections. Two grumpy old men are looking out the window at a blizzard, and one is turning to the other and commenting, “We never had winters like these past two before Carter took office.”

Who knows? With the winter we’re having here in Michigan, maybe some kid in a Democratic household is making the same observation about George W. Bush…

Bankrupt

I’ve expressed my strong opposition to auto industry and other bailouts in other posts. Part of me dared to hope that the worst of these was over. But with the announcement of this morning’s “rescue package” for the Big Three, I simply must add a few more thoughts.

First off, among the more disingenuous rationalizations for the auto industry bailout is the notion that consumers will not purchase a vehicle from a bankrupt company.

[Bush] said that bankruptcy was not a workable alternative. “Chapter 11 is unlikely to work for the American automakers at this time,” Mr. Bush said, noting that consumers would be unlikely to purchase cars from a bankrupt manufacturer.

I contend that when Chapter 11 is explained properly to consumers, they will be willing to purchase from a company which is reorganizing itself under its provisions. Perhaps two brief anecdotes from my own experience will illustrate this:

1) United Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December of 2001, and didn’t emerge until February of 2006. Over the course of that period, I logged many thousands of miles (and spent thousands of dollars) on United Airlines…and many other passengers logged and spent much more. While it is true that a plane ticket costs significantly less than a car, for a business traveler the stakes can be very high: if an airline is liquidated on the eve of a critical trip, it may be impossible to arrange alternative transportation at the last minute. An entire, long-planned and potentially profitable trip can thus be wiped out. And for business or leisure travelers, if an airline liquidates in the middle of a trip, the traveler will be stuck at the destination (or perhaps even in a connecting city) without a ticket home. These facts were on my mind every time I bought a ticket on UAL, but I had confidence that the airline was simply reorganizing itself so it could emerge on its feet again.

2) Even if an automotive company liquidates, a vast network of aftermarket repair shops and parts suppliers will remain to service the company’s vehicles. I have an extreme example of this in my own experience: For the last eight years, I have been the happy owner of a vehicle make which has not even been imported into the USA since 1983, and which has not had a single dealership in this country for 25 years. And despite the puzzled looks from auto parts store employees when you ask for parts for a “Fiat,” once they start looking they can nearly always find what you need (or special order it). And if you want to bypass the local shops, there are online retailers who stock literally every single part of the car from bumper to bumper. When asked, nearly any foreign car repair shop will work on a Fiat. When I blew half of the motor a few years ago, it didn’t take long to locate a new short block — and arrange for a shop in Urbana (IL) to put the whole thing together. She’s run like a dream ever since.

Of course, my 1975 Fiat was many years out of warranty when I acquired it in 2000. For someone contemplating a new car purchase, warranty issues would loom larger; if I bought a new Chevy truck tomorrow, and GM liquidated next month, what would happen if my transmission failed before the warranty expired? This could be among the first issues addressed under a well-structured bankruptcy, with funds set aside and an independent entity established to cover such claims.

While there are many reasons Fiat withdrew from the US market, government regulations had a lot to do with it. Put simply, it got too difficult (and expensive) for Fiat to keep up with increasingly strict American safety, fuel economy, and environmental regulations. Anyone who has visited Italy knows how incredibly “basic” even modern Fiats are. Mine is laughably unsafe: no shoulder belts, no airbags, no roll bar, no crumple zones. The only safety features it has are lap belts (but only in the front — the back seat has no belts at all) and padded sun visors. But you know what? I don’t care. I love the car, and drive it every chance I get, anyhow. (Mrs Yeoman Farmer, by contrast, does care…and will not allow any of the children to ride with me.) And 20 MPG is plenty good gas mileage for my purposes.

Which raises an important question: Are the American automakers in trouble now for some of the same reasons Fiat was in 1983? Has the cost of compliance with federal regulations driven the price of the product beyond what consumers are willing to pay? While I can understand the need for some emissions mandates, crash safety requirements are a separate issue. Why not lift the mandates, and let the manufacturers differentiate themselves based on safety features? Let Volvo capture a larger market share of those who value crash safety most highly, and are willing to pay extra for it. While there are probably very few Americans crazy (or daring) enough to buy a car with as little crash safety as my 1975 Fiat Spyder has, I bet there are many who would be interested in a lower-cost “basic” vehicle that has less crash safety than currently mandated. As I understand it, the Big Three have no trouble selling such vehicles in overseas markets. Why not give Americans a chance to vote with their wallets and buy “Fiat-like” automobiles themselves?

I’d argue that the most effective auto industry bailout would consist of suspending all safety and fuel economy regulations for the next two years, and letting the auto companies build the vehicles that American consumers can afford and want to purchase.

But hey. Nobody in Washington listens to me. That’s why I think we’re far more likely to see something resembling this in 2012 than anything resembling a Fiat.

Now I’m going to go listen to Red Barchetta and dream about the day when we have Michigan roads clear enough to take my Spyder out on again.

Grand Theft Auto

This piece in today’s New York Times is perhaps the clearest statement of what I believe to be wrong about the recent spate of business bailouts — particularly the one being proposed for the Big Three.

Pan Am, which had been a leading U.S. international airline since the 1930s, collapsed in 1991. Like other great U.S. companies, it died in the marketplace because it blundered. Churn — of people and businesses — has always defined America. Nobody subsidized U.S. Steel or the automaker Packard in the belief that the world without them was unthinkable.

Coming to the United States from Europe, I found this constant reinvention bracing. Look at the top 40 companies by market capitalization in Europe and most have been there for decades. Not in the United States, land of Google and eBay. Churn requires death as well as birth. The artificial preservation of the inert dampens the quest for the new.

America let Pan Am die. Italy keeps Alitalia going although the airline’s been a dead man walking for years. There you have it: two continents, two business cultures. At least until recently, when the sheer extent of the U.S. financial collapse led the Treasury to discover forms of life-support that refuse to utter a taboo word — socialism — but resemble it nonetheless.

Let’s face it, the American International Group has no right to be around, if risk, markets, transparency, accountability and other foundations of American capitalism mean anything.

Which brings us to Grand Theft Auto, not the video game, but the ongoing drama starring General Motors and Chrysler in a desperate quest for billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money that they say is essential to their survival. (Ford has said it does not need federal money now to survive; it’s in somewhat better shape.)

I know, hundreds of thousands of jobs are directly at stake, hundreds of thousands more indirectly. This is not an economy that’s creating new jobs for those lost. Why should autoworkers get worse treatment than bankers?

These are agonizing questions. But it’s equally agonizing to contemplate the United States becoming the land of Alitalia-style life-support rather than Pan Am-style churn. If the Big Three, their heads in the sand, have made the wrong models with the wrong technologies for years, while their competitors adapted to a changing world, at least one must pay the price.

Go read the whole thing. It’s right on.

Because if the Big Three bailout goes through, don’t be surprised if we see automotive ads like this one in a few years.

Things Old and New

I just got home from an Opus Dei evening of recollection at a church in Ann Arbor, led by a priest who drives up from South Bend. We have these recollections every couple of months, and they always draw several dozen men from around the area.

We begin with solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance on the altar, and then the priest leads us in a half-hour reflection. He is then available for 45 minutes or so for confessions, followed by a second reflection. Finally, we close with solemn benediction, and the Blessed Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle. All in all, these are wonderful events and bring considerable spiritual fruit to those who attend.

I am usually tapped to help serve the exposition and benediction (Homeschooled Farm Boy, who is an altar server at our parish, thinks it’s cool that Daddy is also an altar boy). Tonight, I managed the incense and another guy managed the humeral veil. But between the two of us, and the priest, everyone managed to forget to bring the book with the priest’s prayers. He did have a song sheet which included most of what he needed, so we were fine during exposition and the first part of benediction. But only as he knelt to recite the divine praises did we realize we were missing something very important. We all looked around, but the book was nowhere to be seen.

As I retreated to one of the pews, to look to see if the misalette had what we needed, the priest began digging in his pocket. And produced…a Palm Pilot! As he removed the stylus and began tapping through various screens, he muttered, “I know it’s in here.” Sure enough, about a minute later (it felt more like ten minutes, with the whole congregation looking on), he cleared his throat and began, “Blessed be God…”

And so we went all the way through the divine praises, finishing with “Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.” The priest returned the PDA to his pocket, and we all began singing “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” as he reposed the Blessed Sacrament.

And as we processed off the altar, I couldn’t help smiling at the wonderful mix of “things old and new” I’d just observed: solemn exposition and benediction, with bells and incense and wonderful Latin hymns, led by a priest dressed in a cope and humeral veil — and packing a PDA with the divine praises as an emergency backup. You simply can’t not love that. He only could’ve topped it by connecting to the internet and downloading the prayers as he recited them.

Back in the sacristy, I commented that I’d never before seen a priest lead benediction with a PDA. He chuckled and replied, “And I’ve never done it before. I’m just glad I have so much stuff on there.”

I told him I agreed. And made a silent resolution to make sure I double-check that we have the Handbook of Prayers book at the altar next time.