Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Frailty of Life

As I grow older, I seem to realize the frailty of life more and more. Family friends start dying and even my own family has started getting into serious scrapes. A year and a half ago my younger brother fell off a grain bin shattering his leg in 50 plus pieces and was told he might never walk again without a severe limp. Fortunately he walks just fine these days but I remember thinking how empty this world would have been without him had he fallen just a foot to either side of where he landed. Then a week ago on a Friday morning, I found myself thinking similar thoughts as I drove the 65 miles to the hospital where my mom was being Life Flighted due to a "heart problem."

All I could think of was that she was having a heart attack and wondering how she of all people could be having one. My parents are two of the healthiest people I know. They eat all the right foods, exercised daily by riding 20 miles on bicycles, walking 4 miles in inclimate weather or riding their bicycled on rollers in the basement during the worst of weather. They have ridden their bicycles across the United States not once but four times. Growing tired of that, they have ridden in large hundreds of mile long loops here and there, including other countries, where they would like to explore. On my mom's side of the family, I have known all my great grandparents because they all lived long, long lives. Not one has died early and definitely no one has had heart problems. So how could someone eighteen years older than myself by having a heart attack?

I arrived first at the hospital emergency room and literally had about thirty seconds to ask my mom how her flight was and tell her I love her before she was whisked off into a room looking pale and very frail on the bed. The doctor told me she was having a heart attack and that they would take good care of her. He also asked if I had any questions but the overwhelming crush of emotions didn't permit me to ask any. I told him to do what he had to do and I would ask questions later. Soon my father and wife would be there with me waiting and the following day my brother. We were all there together waiting to see the keystone of our family whole and healthy once again.

As things turned out, though we wouldn't know until later, the heart attack can only be described as an accident. The interior lining of an artery way down on the bottom side of the heart had ripped and the body had done what it does in just this situation and clots the artery to allow it to heal. In most cases, the area of the heart is so insignificant that doctors don't do anything but since my mom was in so much pain, the ran the balloon up her arteries and cleared her of the clot, which immediately caused the pain to go away. In doing so, they noticed that her arteries were big and completely free of plaque or other deposits and said that she is a specimen of health. They also said that there would be no damage to the muscle tissues of the heart and that she would be able to go home after a 72 hour period of observation. Still it was a long 72 hours.

We all took turns and spent large amounts of time up in the hospital walking the hallways with my mom who just hates being in a hospital room. They only allowed her to walk between elevators F and H so that she wouldn't get out of communication range of the machinery that we had to drag along with and their computers. When you are used to riding 18 miles a night on a bicycle and living out on a farm miles from anyone else, that distance isn't very much so we cheated a bit here and there but never got caught. It was depressing to see my mom among others there shuffling along in the halls, pushing their machinery, looking pale and in much worse shape. So by Monday when my mom was given a clean bill of health and allowed to leave, we had to run to keep up. She wasn't the pale, frail woman on the cart having a heart attack but a picture of health once again. I like it that way.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Dong's Vietnamese Restaurant

Three days later, I would find myself again in our capital city of Des Moines and again in a situation where the person we were talking to suggested we eat around the corner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Although I have eaten at many Asian restaurants and even one Vietnamese one, they weren't my Asian restaurant of choice. This isn't because I've eaten bad food at them because the one time I ate at one in college it was very good but because a buddy that I hung out with in college lived next door to a couple Vietnamese in the married student housing. They were row apartments and all identical so his living room was right next to their kitchen and the walls only went up to the drop ceiling so there was plenty of noise and smell that continually found its way into my buddies apartment. The cooking cabbage like smell that seemed to come from the apartment of the Vietnamese couple all hours of the days just rolled my stomach into knots and still does to this day when I think of Vietnamese food. But we had time to kill and I love trying new foods so we stopped in at A Dong (pronounce A Dom) restaurant on the south side of the historic Sherman Hill district.

It was a very clean restaurant, large with lots of seating, but not decorated much in the traditional Asian way that most are. Soon we were seated and given a menu with hundreds of different things you could order all written in I presume the native language of Vietnam with a number in front and a brief English description in small letters underneath. The guy who recommended the place also recommended the number 25 dish, which is what my wife ordered. I ordered the number 96 and also a number, which I have forgotten for Little Abbey which was a sweet bean and custard like drink with shaved ice since she had been snacking all morning anyway.

My wife's dish, the number 25, was a large bowl of noodles and vegetables with marinated pork. Mine, the number 96, was a plate of vegetables with three different types of pork, I think, prepared in different ways. Both came with a bowl of lemon sauce for dipping. My wife, the Asian who doesn't know how to use chopsticks, was automatically given a pair of chopsticks with her meal and me, who does know how to use chopsticks, was given a fork so we swapped, gave Little Abbey a spoon, and were all soon slurping away.

The food was really good but what blew me away was the lemon dipping sauce. It was very watery in consistency and had a crisp clean taste. But what I really loved was that slow subtle heat that built up in your mouth from the spices. It is a heat that agrees very well and just keeps making you use more and more until you eventually run out of food. I honestly think that I would founder if given that lemon sauce and an unlimited amount of dipping stuff to dip into it. After eating that or the Korean barbeque that I blogged about a few months ago, I can't help but realize that American's have it all wrong when it comes to spicy heat. Our spicy hot food seems applied to the mouth with blunt force and never sits very well. Asian spice, every bit as spicy, comes at you in a much more subtle and more agreeable way. I was in heaven.

After we were done, Little Abbey had mostly just eaten the ice off her drink so Mrs. Abbey and I dug into the custard and sweet bean drink with spoons. Again, the flavors were crisp and yet subtle and just the perfect paring with the lemon dipping sauce. It reminded me a lot of the Filipino halo halo but with custard. I don't know how they can make beans sweet, reminding me a lot of Fruity Pebbles cereal, but it certainly is delicious. Since it is closer around the opposite corner as the Manhattan Deli I blogged about on Friday of last week, I know I won't go to it as often as I would like because probably half the time, I will be a A Dong's restaurant. Again, I will take my camera with me next time. I wonder if they would sell me a bottle or a case of that lemon sauce. Does anyone know what it is called?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Manhattan Deli: A Restaurant Review

While in our capital city of Des Moines a few weeks ago, the person we were talking to mentioned that we should eat lunch at a deli around the corner. Although it is a city, we are still in the Midwest and thus around the corner could mean anywhere from literally around the corner to a mile down the road. This one split the difference by being around the corner and a half dozen blocks down.

The Manhattan Deli was not well endowed with signage and so we actually drove by it once before finding it on the way back. Inside, a long counter graced one side and some tables the other with another room tucked around the corner with more simple tables. Above the counter was a sign with about 100 different options written on it, which is hard to get through in a short time when going into someplace cold like we were. It isn't like Burger King where they have basically served the same ten meals for the last twenty years. Fortunately, we hit it at a pretty busy time and there were ten people or so standing in line before us. I thought anyway.

I doubted myself for a while because there was a large Order Here sign at the far end of the line but the line itself seemed to be moving towards that sign. When in doubt and in a crowd, I do what I always do and just followed the people. Below the counter and behind class were many platters of a very delicious identical looking sandwiches and one platter of another good looking sandwich but none had a name or a price attached to them. Panicked as my turn came closer and closer with still no idea what I wanted, I started listening to those in front of me, presumably locals, to see what they were ordering. About three out of every four were ordering "The Special." So when it came to our turn, I ordered "The Special" thinking it wouldn't be a special if it wasn't good and my wife ordered a Manhattan, which I had no idea what it was at least in the sandwich world, but since it shared the name of the deli, it probably had to be a specialty too.

As it turned out, my sandwich that was the daily special turned out to be one of the sandwiches from the many unlabeled platters under the counter. It was a toasted hoagie piled high with roast beef, some sort of white cheese and fire roasted small green peppers that looked like a jalapeño but were mild and sweet tasting and some sort of sauce. It was outstanding. The Manhattan turned out to come from the smaller platter of sandwiches under the counter and was turkey on a Kaiser bun with a sweet mustard sauce and some cheese. Since she couldn't finish it, I had the last two bites and it two was outstanding also.

In the future, I will have the opportunity to be in the area more often and I now plan on stopping there again to try out some more of the many sandwiches listed up on the board. Heck, I may just go with the locals again and just keep ordering the special of the day. Next time however, I do plan to bring my camera with to take a picture because I do love making people drool on their keyboards.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jumping From the Pan Into the Fire?

I read something recently that I didn't know, hadn't thought of and frankly scared the heck out of me. We have been focusing more on energy independence from oil recently to get awy from having to deal with one entity holding all the strings, namely the Middle East. So we have instead slowly shifted our attention to things such as hybrid/electric vehicles, windmills and such. These things give off warm and fuzzy feelings judging by the way everyone talks but when you peer a little deeper into this, well I'm scared. You see hybrid/electric vehicles, windmills and anything else with a generator that converts motion to electricity employ the use of lots of light magnets. These light magnets are made of rare earth materials that really aren't rare but are hard to mine due to radiation and finding them in sufficient quantities to make mining feasible. From the 40's until the 80's, almost all the world's supply of rare earth materials came from a single mine in California. Then in the 80's, another country discovered a giant supply that is now compared to the oil weath of the Middle East. Because of the tight environmental regulations of California, this new country now supplies most of the world with cheap rare earth materials used to build magnets. What country is this you ask? Ah, now this is the scary part so hold onto your seat. China is the answer. Think about that before you go and purchase your next Toyota Prius.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Wal-Mart The Destroyer

Last week on another blog in a comments section, I read a comment from someone who loved Wal-Mart and it's one-stop shopping. As some of my oldest readers know, I dislike Wal-Mart for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason however is that Wal-Mart destroys businesses that are American standards sending their jobs overseas and killing the American Dream. I run into someone like this person, who shall remain nameless, at least once a week. It is not their fault for they simply don't know the truth. I have tried linking articles in the past but ever changing links render them useless within weeks and so I have copied the articles into one post in one place so that I can link to them in the future when I run into another person who doesn't know the truth behind Wal-Mart.

The Destruction of Vlassic

The Wal-Mart You Don't Know
Fast Company magazine (www.fastcompany.com)
By: Charles Fishman Wed Dec 19, 2007 at 12:44 AM

The giant retailer's low prices often come with a high cost. Wal-Mart's relentless pressure can crush the companies it does business with and force them to send jobs overseas. Are we shopping our way straight to the unemployment line?

The gallon jar of pickles at Wal-Mart became a devastating success, giving Vlasic strong sales and growth numbers--but slashing its profits by millions of dollars.

There is no question that Wal-Mart's relentless drive to squeeze out costs has benefited consumers. The giant retailer is at least partly responsible for the low rate of U.S. inflation, and a McKinsey & Co. study concluded that about 12% of the economy's productivity gains in the second half of the 1990s could be traced to Wal-Mart alone.

There is also no question that doing business with Wal-Mart can give a supplier a fast, heady jolt of sales and market share. But that fix can come with long-term consequences for the health of a brand and a business. Vlasic, for example, wasn't looking to build its brand on a gallon of whole pickles. Pickle companies make money on "the cut," slicing cucumbers into spears and hamburger chips. "Cucumbers in the jar, you don't make a whole lot of money there," says Steve Young, a former vice president of grocery marketing for pickles at Vlasic, who has since left the company.

At some point in the late 1990s, a Wal-Mart buyer saw Vlasic's gallon jar and started talking to Pat Hunn about it. Hunn, who has also since left Vlasic, was then head of Vlasic's Wal-Mart sales team, based in Dallas. The gallon intrigued the buyer. In sales tests, priced somewhere over $3, "the gallon sold like crazy," says Hunn, "surprising us all." The Wal-Mart buyer had a brainstorm: What would happen to the gallon if they offered it nationwide and got it below $3? Hunn was skeptical, but his job was to look for ways to sell pickles at Wal-Mart. Why not?

And so Vlasic's gallon jar of pickles went into every Wal-Mart, some 3,000 stores, at $2.97, a price so low that Vlasic and Wal-Mart were making only a penny or two on a jar, if that. It was showcased on big pallets near the front of stores. It was an abundance of abundance. "It was selling 80 jars a week, on average, in every store," says Young. Doesn't sound like much, until you do the math: That's 240,000 gallons of pickles, just in gallon jars, just at Wal-Mart, every week. Whole fields of cucumbers were heading out the door.

For Vlasic, the gallon jar of pickles became what might be called a devastating success. "Quickly, it started cannibalizing our non-Wal-Mart business," says Young. "We saw consumers who used to buy the spears and the chips in supermarkets buying the Wal-Mart gallons. They'd eat a quarter of a jar and throw the thing away when they got moldy. A family can't eat them fast enough."

The gallon jar reshaped Vlasic's pickle business: It chewed up the profit margin of the business with Wal-Mart, and of pickles generally. Procurement had to scramble to find enough pickles to fill the gallons, but the volume gave Vlasic strong sales numbers, strong growth numbers, and a powerful place in the world of pickles at Wal-Mart. Which accounted for 30% of Vlasic's business. But the company's profits from pickles had shriveled 25% or more, Young says--millions of dollars.

The gallon was hoisting Vlasic and hurting it at the same time.

Young remembers begging Wal-Mart for relief. "They said, 'No way,' " says Young. "We said we'll increase the price"--even $3.49 would have helped tremendously--"and they said, 'If you do that, all the other products of yours we buy, we'll stop buying.' It was a clear threat." Hunn recalls things a little differently, if just as ominously: "They said, 'We want the $2.97 gallon of pickles. If you don't do it, we'll see if someone else might.' I knew our competitors were saying to Wal-Mart, 'We'll do the $2.97 gallons if you give us your other business.' " Wal-Mart's business was so indispensable to Vlasic, and the gallon so central to the Wal-Mart relationship, that decisions about the future of the gallon were made at the CEO level.

Finally, Wal-Mart let Vlasic up for air. "The Wal-Mart guy's response was classic," Young recalls. "He said, 'Well, we've done to pickles what we did to orange juice. We've killed it. We can back off.' " Vlasic got to take it down to just over half a gallon of pickles, for $2.79. Not long after that, in January 2001, Vlasic filed for bankruptcy--although the gallon jar of pickles, everyone agrees, wasn't a critical factor.

The Destruction of Rubbermaid

Blame Wal-Mart for this catastrophe
World's largest retailer decides which suppliers live, die, even how their products should look

By Mary Ethridge, Beacon Journal business writer
10 December 2003
Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio)

Rubbermaid is shriveling and 850 of our neighbors are soon to be out of work.

I blame Wal-Mart.

If you shop there even if you could afford to shop someplace else, then I blame you, too.

In 1993 and 1994, Rubbermaid Inc. was named America's most admired company by Fortune magazine. Its descent into mediocrity is a sad, sad story that is used routinely in college classrooms to illustrate the immense power and vicious corporate culture of Wal-Mart.

Rubbermaid's been dying since late 1994, when it found itself in a war of wills with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest company.

At that time, Rubbermaid wanted to raise the prices of some of its products because the cost of raw materials had risen suddenly by 80 percent. (Rubbermaid lost $250 million on resin costs alone in 1995, according to the company's annual report.)
Rubbermaid executives traveled numerous times to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to plead their case. Wal-Mart kept saying no.

Look-alikes substituted.

When Rubbermaid refused to go along with Wal-Mart's hard line on price, the retailer pulled Rubbermaid products off the shelf and replaced them with those manufactured by Sterilite, a little-known Massachusetts company adept at making Rubbermaid look-alikes at lower cost.

Sterilite, a closely held company with a manufacturing plant in Massillon, saw double-digit sales increases in 1995, according to industry estimates at the time; Rubbermaid'searnings fell 30 percent that year, according to its annual report.

When Rubbermaid finally made peace with Wal-Mart, it was by succumbing to the retailer's demands for cheaper products made to Wal-Mart specifications.

Rubbermaid planned to introduce a line of housewares in a shade it called Euro Blue. Rubbermaid designers had seen the color's emerging popularity abroad and believed it would catch on in the United States.

It manufactured the Euro Blue line, but Wal-Mart refused to carry it, forcing Rubbermaid to return to making its country blue and hunter green for Wal-Mart.

Euro Blue soon became one of the hottest hues in housewares, and Wal-Mart executives were frustrated and ashamed.

Wal-Mart has brought some good things to retailing. It has forced inefficient operations to get their acts together. It pioneered just-in-time inventory and expanded the use of technology to improve the flow of products. It has taught other retailers how to demand accountability from their suppliers.

But, as one former Rubbermaid executive told me, Wal-Mart ``squeezed too hard.''

By 1997, the floundering Rubbermaid was widely seen as takeover bait -- just three years after it was named the most admired company.

In 1999, Rubbermaid was purchased by Newell Inc., a lesser-known company with a reputation for whipping weaklings into shape.

Suppliers succumb Rubbermaid is hardly alone in bowing to Wal-Mart pressure.

Wal-Mart represents the largest chunk of business -- anywhere from 10 percent to 35 percent of annual revenues -- of all of the major consumer products companies.

About 450 suppliers have opened offices in tiny Bentonville and 800 more plan to do so in the next five years.

Wal-Mart, by all accounts, played a big role in Kellogg's purchase of Keebler in 2001: The company wanted as much muscle as it could develop to deal with the retailer.

Procter & Gamble sold its Crisco and Jif peanut butter brands to the J.M. Smucker Co. of Orrville so it could focus on peddling heavy hitters such as Tide detergent to Wal-Mart.

Many, many other companies have changed their products to please Wal-Mart. Most major manufacturers make special products for sale at Wal-Mart and nowhere else. Those who make large products, such as plastic backyard toys, have had to alter their products or packaging to make it easier for Wal-Mart to shelve them.

Sometimes the changes seem small, but they are insidious.

Planet Moon Studios altered a video game by coloring blood green instead of red, toning down the language and putting a bikini on a topless character -- all to win Wal-Mart's approval.

Newell Rubbermaid Inc. insists that it is still committed to the Rubbermaid brand. After all, it incorporated the name.

But as Wal-Mart grows more powerful, as it does every single day, the chances of the brand's survival in any recognizable form are diminished greatly.

So next time you elbow your way into Wal-Mart to get a dirt-cheap television or bargain shoelaces, think about the price you, and the American economy, are really paying.

The Destruction of Huffy

The Wal-Mart You Don't Know
Fast Company magazine (www.fastcompany.com)
By: Charles Fishman Wed Dec 19, 2007 at 12:44 AM

What does the squeeze look like at Wal-Mart? It is usually thoroughly rational, sometimes devastatingly so.

John Mariotti is a veteran of the consumer-products world--he spent nine years as president of Huffy Bicycle Co., a division of Huffy Corp., and is now chairman of World Kitchen, the company that sells Oxo, Revere, Corning, and Ekco brand housewares.

He could not be clearer on his opinion about Wal-Mart: It's a great company, and a great company to do business with. "Wal-Mart has done more good for America by several thousand orders of magnitude than they've done bad," Mariotti says. "They have raised the bar, and raised the bar for everybody."

Mariotti describes one episode from Huffy's relationship with Wal-Mart. It's a tale he tells to illustrate an admiring point he makes about the retailer. "They demand you do what you say you are going to do." But it's also a classic example of the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't Wal-Mart squeeze. When Mariotti was at Huffy throughout the 1980s, the company sold a range of bikes to Wal-Mart, 20 or so models, in a spread of prices and profitability. It was a leading manufacturer of bikes in the United States, in places like Ponca City, Oklahoma; Celina, Ohio; and Farmington, Missouri.

One year, Huffy had committed to supply Wal-Mart with an entry-level, thin-margin bike--as many as Wal-Mart needed. Sales of the low-end bike took off. "I woke up May 1"--the heart of the bike production cycle for the summer--"and I needed 900,000 bikes," he says. "My factories could only run 450,000." As it happened, that same year, Huffy's fancier, more-profitable bikes were doing well, too, at Wal-Mart and other places. Huffy found itself in a bind.
With other retailers, perhaps, Mariotti might have sat down, renegotiated, tried to talk his way out of the corner. Not with Wal-Mart. "I made the deal up front with them," he says. "I knew how high was up. I was duty-bound to supply my customer." So he did something extraordinary. To free up production in order to make Wal-Mart's cheap bikes, he gave the designs for four of his higher-end, higher-margin products to rival manufacturers. "I conceded business to my competitors, because I just ran out of capacity," he says. Huffy didn't just relinquish profits to keep Wal-Mart happy--it handed those profits to its competition. "Wal-Mart didn't tell me what to do," Mariotti says. "They didn't have to." The retailer, he adds, "is tough as nails. But they give you a chance to compete. If you can't compete, that's your problem."

In the years since Mariotti left Huffy, the bike maker's relationship with Wal-Mart has been vital (though Huffy Corp. has lost money in three out of the last five years). It is the number-three seller of bikes in the United States. And Wal-Mart is the number-one retailer of bikes. But here's one last statistic about bicycles: Roughly 98% are now imported from places such as China, Mexico, and Taiwan. Huffy made its last bike in the United States in 1999.

The Destruction of Levi Strauss

The Wal-Mart You Don't Know
Fast Company magazine (www.fastcompany.com)
By: Charles Fishman Wed Dec 19, 2007 at 12:44 AM

Levi's launch into Wal-Mart came the same summer the clothes maker celebrated its 150th birthday. For a century and a half, one of the most recognizable names in American commerce had survived without Wal-Mart. But in October 2002, when Levi Strauss and Wal-Mart announced their engagement, Levi was shrinking rapidly. The pressure on Levi goes back 25 years--well before Wal-Mart was an influence. Between 1981 and 1990, Levi closed 58 U.S. manufacturing plants, sending 25% of its sewing overseas.

Sales for Levi peaked in 1996 at $7.1 billion. By last year, they had spiraled down six years in a row, to $4.1 billion; through the first six months of 2003, sales dropped another 3%. This one account--selling jeans to Wal-Mart--could almost instantly revive Levi.

Last year, Wal-Mart sold more clothing than any other retailer in the country. It also sold more pairs of jeans than any other store. Wal-Mart's own inexpensive house brand of jeans, Faded Glory, is estimated to do $3 billion in sales a year, a house brand nearly the size of Levi Strauss. Perhaps most revealing in terms of Levi's strategic blunders: In 2002, half the jeans sold in the United States cost less than $20 a pair. That same year, Levi didn't offer jeans for less than $30.

For much of the last decade, Levi couldn't have qualified to sell to Wal-Mart. Its computer systems were antiquated, and it was notorious for delivering clothes late to retailers. Levi admitted its on-time delivery rate was 65%. When it announced the deal with Wal-Mart last year, one fashion-industry analyst bluntly predicted Levi would simply fail to deliver the jeans.

But Levi Strauss has taken to the Wal-Mart Way with the intensity of a near-death religious conversion--and Levi's executives were happy to talk about their experience getting ready to sell at Wal-Mart. One hundred people at Levi's headquarters are devoted to the new business; another 12 have set up in an office in Bentonville, near Wal-Mart's headquarters, where the company has hired a respected veteran Wal-Mart sales account manager.

Getting ready for Wal-Mart has been like putting Levi on the Atkins diet. It has helped everything--customer focus, inventory management, speed to market. It has even helped other retailers that buy Levis, because Wal-Mart has forced the company to replenish stores within two days instead of Levi's previous five-day cycle.

And so, Wal-Mart might rescue Levi Strauss. Except for one thing.

Levi didn't actually have any clothes it could sell at Wal-Mart. Everything was too expensive. It had to develop a fresh line for mass retailers: the Levi Strauss Signature brand, featuring Levi Strauss's name on the back of the jeans.

Two months after the launch, Levi basked in the honeymoon glow. Overall sales, after falling for the first six months of 2003, rose 6% in the third quarter; profits in the summer quarter nearly doubled. All, Levi's CEO said, because of Signature.

"They are all very rational people. And they had a good point. Everyone was willing to pay more for a Master Lock. But how much more can they justify?"

But the low-end business isn't a business Levi is known for, or one it had been particularly interested in. It's also a business in which Levi will find itself competing with lean, experienced players such as VF and Faded Glory. Levi's makeover might so improve its performance with its non-Wal-Mart suppliers that its established business will thrive, too. It is just as likely that any gains will be offset by the competitive pressures already dissolving Levi's premium brands, and by the cannibalization of its own sales. "It's hard to see how this relationship will boost Levi's higher-end business," says Paul Farris, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. "It's easy to see how this will hurt the higher-end business."

If Levi clothing is a runaway hit at Wal-Mart, that may indeed rescue Levi as a business. But what will have been rescued? The Signature line--it includes clothing for girls, boys, men, and women--is an odd departure for a company whose brand has long been an American icon. Some of the jeans have the look, the fingertip feel, of pricier Levis. But much of the clothing has the look and feel it must have, given its price (around $23 for adult pants): cheap. Cheap and disappointing to find labeled with Levi Strauss's name. And just five days before the cheery profit news, Levi had another announcement: It is closing its last two U.S. factories, both in San Antonio, and laying off more than 2,500 workers, or 21% of its workforce. A company that 22 years ago had 60 clothing plants in the United States--and that was known as one of the most socially reponsible corporations on the planet--will, by 2004, not make any clothes at all. It will just import them.

The Destruction of Masterlock

The Wal-Mart You Don't Know
Fast Company magazine (www.fastcompany.com)
By: Charles Fishman Wed Dec 19, 2007 at 12:44 AM

Randall Larrimore, a former CEO of MasterBrand Industries, the parent company of Master Lock, understands that contradiction too well. For years, he says, as manufacturing costs in the United States rose, Master Lock was able to pass them along. But at some point in the 1990s, Asian manufacturers started producing locks for much less. "When the difference is $1, retailers like Wal-Mart would prefer to have the brand-name padlock or faucet or hammer," Larrimore says. "But as the spread becomes greater, when our padlock was $9, and the import was $6, then they can offer the consumer a real discount by carrying two lines. Ultimately, they may only carry one line."

In January 1997, Master Lock announced that, after 75 years making locks in Milwaukee, it would begin importing more products from Asia. Not too long after, Master Lock opened a factory of its own in Nogales, Mexico. Today, it makes just 10% to 15% of its locks in Milwaukee--its 300 employees there mostly make parts that are sent to Nogales, where there are now 800 factory workers.

Larrimore did the first manufacturing layoffs at Master Lock. He negotiated with Master Lock's unions himself. He went to Bentonville. "I loved dealing with Wal-Mart, with Home Depot," he says. "They are all very rational people. There wasn't a whole lot of room for negotiation. And they had a good point. Everyone was willing to pay more for a Master Lock. But how much more can they justify? If they can buy a lock that has arguably similar qual-ity, at a cheaper price, well, they can get their consumers a deal."

It's Wal-Mart in the role of Adam Smith's invisible hand. And the Milwaukee employees of Master Lock who shopped at Wal-Mart to save money helped that hand shove their own jobs right to Nogales. Not consciously, not directly, but inevitably. "Do we as consumers appreciate what we're doing?" Larrimore asks. "I don't think so. But even if we do, I think we say, Here's a Master Lock for $9, here's another lock for $6--let the other guy pay $9."

The Destruction of Hoover

Wal-Mart 'Eats' More US Manufacturers
Richard Freeman of the Executive Intelligence Review 11/25/03

Hoover has been a leading name in vacuum cleaners for nearly 100 years. During the third quarter of this year, Hoover's vacuum-cleaner sales declined by 20%, which the company blamed on competitors' models priced at $79-made in Asia to meet Wal-Mart's price demands-outselling Hoover's $100-plus vacuums produced in the United States. Hoover cannot withstand such drops in sales volumes. Hoover's parent company, Maytag, is demanding cuts in health insurance and other benefits, plus changes in job-security rules for production workers at its Hoover vacuum manufacturing plant in North Canton, Ohio. If the workers don't cave in, Maytag has stated that it will move Hoover vacuum production to cheap-wage sites in Texas, and to maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

The Destruction of Kids 'R' Us

Wal-Mart 'Eats' More US Manufacturers
Richard Freeman of the Executive Intelligence Review 11/25/03

On Nov. 17, the national retail chain Toys 'R' Us, announced that it would close 146 of the stores of its Kids 'R' Us subdivision, which sells clothing, as well as 36 of its Imaginarium stores (which sell "educational" toys and games). The shutdowns will be completed by Jan. 31, 2004, eliminating up to 3,800 jobs. Kids 'R' Us was unable to slash the prices of its children's clothing deeply enough to compete with Wal-Mart.

Moreover, Wal-Mart has launched an aggressive campaign, through cut-throat pricing, to destroy the parent company, Toys 'R' Us, the second-largest toy seller (after Wal-Mart) in America. As an example of how this strategy operates: The popular Hot Wheels T-Wreck Play Set toy sells for $42 wholesale. However, according to the Nov. 19 Wall Street Journal, Wal-Mart is now selling that very toy at $29.74, a loss of more than $10 per unit. Wal-Mart sells 21% of all toys sold in America, and if it knocks out its leading competitor, its share could reach 30%.

The Destruction of Carolina Mills

Wal-Mart 'Eats' More US Manufacturers
Richard Freeman of the Executive Intelligence Review 11/25/03

Carolina Mills is a 75-year-old company that supplies thread, yarn, and textile finishing to apparel-makers-half of which supply Wal-Mart. But since 2000, Carolina Mills' customers have begun to find imported clothing sold so cheaply at Wal-Mart, that Carolina Mills could not compete even if they paid their workers nothing! Since 2000, Carolina Mills has shrunk from 17 factories to 7, and from 2,600 employees to 1,200. Steve Dobbins, the CEO of Carolina Mills, told the December issue of Fast-Company magazine: "People ask, 'How can it be bad for things to come into the U.S. cheaply? How can it be bad to have a bargain at Wal-Mart?' But you can't buy anything if you're not employed. We are shopping ourselves out of jobs"

The Destruction of Lovable Garments

Lovable Garments, which was founded in 1926, had, by the 1990s, become the sixth-largest producer of women's lingerie in the United States, employing 700 workers. Wal-Mart became the biggest purchaser of Lovable's goods; in 1995, Wal-Mart demanded that Lovable slash its prices to compete with cheap imports. When Lovable indicated it could not do that, Wal-Mart illegally reneged on its contract, and outsourced the lingerie production to Ibero-America, Asia, and China. Without the Wal-Mart market, in 1998 Lovable had to close its American manufacturing facilities and fire the workers. Stated Frank Garson, who was then Lovable's president, "Their actions to pulverize people are unnecessary. Wal-Mart chewed us up and spit us out."

The Destruction of Mr. Coffee

Advises Mr. Coffee to Move Overseas
The Commercial Appeal 6/8/01

Mr. Coffee -- which won awards for moving manufacturing operations back to the United States -- faced pressure to shift production to China even at the height of Wal-Mart's 'Buy American' program. After Wal-Mart demanded a $1 reduction in the wholesale price of a brisk-selling four-cup coffeemaker in 1985, Mr. Coffee executives scouted for factory sites in China -- and executives say Wal-Mart encouraged offshore production even as it promoted its 'Made in the USA' campaign."

The Salvation of Snapper

The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart
Fast Company magazine (www.fastcompany.com)
By: Charles Fishman Wed Dec 19, 2007

What struck Jim Wier first, as he entered the Wal-Mart vice president's office, was the seating area for visitors. "It was just some lawn chairs that some other peddler had left behind as samples." The vice president's office was furnished with a folding lawn chair and a chaise lounge.
And so Wier, the CEO of lawn-equipment maker Simplicity, dressed in a suit, took a seat on the chaise lounge. "I sat forward, of course, with my legs off to the side. If you've ever sat in a lawn chair, well, they are lower than regular chairs. And I was on the chaise. It was a bit intimidating. It was uncomfortable, and it was going to be an uncomfortable meeting."

It was a Wal-Mart moment that couldn't be scripted, or perhaps even imagined. A vice president responsible for billions of dollars' worth of business in the largest company in history has his visitors sit in mismatched, cast-off lawn chairs that Wal-Mart quite likely never had to pay for.
The vice president had a bigger surprise for Wier, though. Wal-Mart not only wanted to keep selling his lawn mowers, it wanted to sell lots more of them. Wal-Mart wanted to sell mowers nose-to-nose against Home Depot and Lowe's.

"Usually," says Wier, "I don't perspire easily." But perched on the edge of his chaise, "I felt my arms getting drippy."

Wier took a breath and said, "Let me tell you why it doesn't work."

Tens of thousands of executives make the pilgrimage to northwest Arkansas every year to woo Wal-Mart, marshaling whatever arguments, data, samples, and pure persuasive power they have in the hope of an order for their products, or an increase in their current order. Almost no matter what you're selling, the gravitational force of Wal-Mart's 3,811 U.S. "doorways" is irresistible. Very few people fly into Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport thinking about telling Wal-Mart no, or no more.

In 2002, Jim Wier's company, Simplicity, was buying Snapper, a complementary company with a 50-year heritage of making high-quality residential and commercial lawn equipment. Wier had studied his new acquisition enough to conclude that continuing to sell Snapper mowers through Wal-Mart stores was, as he put it, "incompatible with our strategy. And I felt I owed them a visit to tell them why we weren't going to continue to sell to them."

Selling Snapper lawn mowers at Wal-Mart wasn't just incompatible with Snapper's future--Wier thought it was hazardous to Snapper's health. Snapper is known in the outdoor-equipment business not for huge volume but for quality, reliability, durability. A well-maintained Snapper lawn mower will last decades; many customers buy the mowers as adults because their fathers used them when they were kids. But Snapper lawn mowers are not cheap, any more than a Viking range is cheap. The value isn't in the price, it's in the performance and the longevity.

You can buy a lawn mower at Wal-Mart for $99.96, and depending on the size and location of the store, there are slightly better models for every additional $20 bill you're willing to put down--priced at $122, $138, $154, $163, and $188. That's six models of lawn mowers below $200. Mind you, in some Wal-Marts you literally cannot see what you are buying; there are no display models, just lawn mowers in huge cardboard boxes.

The least expensive Snapper lawn mower--a 19-inch push mower with a 5.5-horsepower engine--sells for $349.99 at full list price. Even finding it discounted to $299, you can buy two or three lawn mowers at Wal-Mart for the cost of a single Snapper.

If you know nothing about maintaining a mower, Wal-Mart has helped make that ignorance irrelevant: At even $138, the lawn mowers at Wal-Mart are cheap enough to be disposable. Use one for a season, and if you can't start it the next spring (Wal-Mart won't help you out with that), put it at the curb and buy another one. That kind of pricing changes not just the economics at the low end of the lawn-mower market, it changes expectations of customers throughout the market. Why would you buy a walk-behind mower from Snapper that costs $519? What could it possibly have to justify spending $300 or $400 more?

That's the question that motivated Jim Wier to stop doing business with Wal-Mart. Wier is too judicious to describe it this way, but he looked into a future of supplying lawn mowers and snow blowers to Wal-Mart and saw a whirlpool of lower prices, collapsing profitability, offshore manufacturing, and the gradual but irresistible corrosion of the very qualities for which Snapper was known. Jim Wier looked into the future and saw a death spiral.

Wier had two things going for him: First, he had another way to get his lawn mowers to customers--a well-established network of independent lawn-equipment dealers that accounted for 80% of Snapper's sales. And Wier had the courage, the foresight, to take an unblinking view of where his Wal-Mart business was heading--not in year 3, or year 4, but year 10.

Wier traveled to Bentonville with a firm grasp of the values of Snapper, the dynamics of the lawn-mower business, the needs of the dealers, the needs of the Snapper customer, and the needs of the Wal-Mart customer. He was not dazzled by the tens of millions of dollars' worth of lawn mowers Wal-Mart was already selling for Snapper; he was not deluded about his ability to beat Wal-Mart at its own game, to somehow resist the price pressure. He was not imagining that he could take the sales now and figure out the profits later.

Jim Wier believed that Snapper's health--indeed, its very long-term survival--required that it not do business with Wal-Mart.

Every Snapper lawn mower sold anywhere in the world comes from a factory in McDonough, Georgia, a small town 30 minutes southeast of Atlanta. Coils of raw steel arrive on flatbed trucks every day at the old, nondescript building; brand-new fire-engine-red lawn mowers leave every day, loaded in 18-wheelers. The facility looks undistinguished, but it is energetically trying to defy the conventional wisdom about manufacturing in the global economy.

The Snapper factory has had an invigorating decade. Ten years ago, it produced about 40 models of mowers, leaf blowers, and snow blowers; now it makes 145. Today, robots do the welding, lasers cut parts, and computers control the steel-stamping presses. Productivity is three times what it was 10 years ago, and the number of people working here, 650, is half what it was.

Indeed, the productivity of every factory worker is measured "every hour, every day, every month, every year," says Snapper president Shane Sumners, who walks the 10.5-acre factory floor with comfort and familiarity. "And everybody's performance is posted, publicly, every day for everyone to see." It's a lot like Wal-Mart--which measures the number of items every checkout clerk scans every hour. Some of Snapper's dramatic productivity improvements, in fact, seem to come almost directly from the Wal-Mart playbook. These days, the Snapper factory operates in Wal-Mart time. It must, because it operates in Wal-Mart's ecosystem.
Ten years ago, at about the time Sumners came on board, Snapper had 52 regional distributors. It uses no distributors now--the company runs four regional warehouses of its own and sells directly to 10,000 independent dealerships. Ten years ago, in part because of the complexity of the middleman distribution system, Snapper carried a huge quantity of inventory. It paid to manufacture and ship thousands of lawn mowers--worth tens of millions of dollars--without quite knowing when they would be sold. Now planners come up with an ideal level of inventory for every model, for every region of the country, based on things like historic demand and the weather. The goal is to make sure every customer can get the mower he wants--while making absolutely the smallest number of lawn mowers.

Production at the Snapper factory is rescheduled every week, according to the pace at which mowers sell. A computer juggles work assignments and balances the various parts of the assembly line. The main manufacturing line for Snapper's entry-level walk-behind mowers--with 28 people--was recently charged with producing 265 lawn mowers in an eight-hour shift. The group hit the mark exactly. That's a new lawn mower, from loose parts to sealed box, every 109 seconds. "It's all a matter of seconds," says Sumners.

It's not hard to make a cheap lawn mower. A cheap lawn mower feels flimsy, sounds louder than it has to, and even when new, requires a mysterious, frustrating combination of choke, priming, and pulling to start. The cutting deck of a cheap mower is stamped from thin sheet metal. Making a high-quality lawn mower--even in 109 seconds--requires attention to detail and constant improvement, which seems surprising for a machine that doesn't evolve that much.
All Snapper machines, from the simplest walk-behind to the most elaborate riding mower, are painted one color: what Shane Sumners calls "Snapper red." In the factory, the finished chassis of riding mowers coast along slowly, dangling from an overhead conveyor as they approach a 20-foot-long pool of red paint. The conveyor track dips low, and the mowers glide down into the pool and completely disappear beneath the surface, then rise back up, gleaming red, before heading for a pass through a curing oven.

It's not quite as simple as dip and bake, however. Each mower is electrically grounded as it hangs from the overhead conveyor, and a slight positive electrical charge runs through the 16,000-gallon trench of paint. "So the paint is attracted to the metal and builds up on the parts and sticks very effectively and evenly," says Sumners. The process is monitored every hour--from the speed of the conveyor and the temperature of the ovens to the pH of the paint--along 115 parameters. "If you control the process," says Sumners, "you will get a good paint job."
Snapper technicians start every riding mower before it leaves the McDonough plant. At the "hot start" station, a man wearing ear protectors squirts gas into the fuel tank and oil into the crankcase, pulls the starter cord, and brings the machine to life. He runs through all the gears, checks speed, engine performance, the mounting of the seat. The engine is given just enough fuel for the "run in." If the mower passes all the tests, the man sucks the oil back out and sends the mower on to be boxed.

As Sumners watches, one of the riding mowers takes two pulls to start, then comes to life with a rough growl. In the blink of an eye, the technician shuts it down. "Did you hear how that sounded?" asks Sumners. "It's not right. That's a bad one." The mower is shunted off to be inspected and properly tuned if possible. "If we didn't," says Sumners, "that mower would have gone to a customer."

The Snapper factory started making riding mowers in 1951. It is unadorned and old, but it is old in the sense of solidity and use. There is nothing tired about it. More significant, there is nothing sentimental about it. This factory isn't here out of some misplaced sense of economic loyalty to U.S. manufacturing. It's here because it makes Snapper-quality lawn mowers at a competitive price.

Snapper's factory hums with discipline and focus and urgency. Even with no products at Wal-Mart, a company like Snapper has to compete psychologically, has to keep the price gap between the big-box lawn mowers and its lawn mowers rational. If it did not, its potential slice of the market would get smaller and smaller.

Sumners has to spur his factory on with the same tirelessness as if it were supplying Wal-Mart--the efficiency of every factory worker measured every hour of every day--because Wal-Mart sets the pace, even if you're not working for them.

Jim Wier is 62 years old, with a youthful twinkle despite a thatch of white hair. He is a solidly built man who dresses casually. He is comfortable with himself. Wier, who until the summer of 2005 ran a group of lawn-equipment businesses that approach half a billion dollars a year in sales, is confident, direct, and unprepossessing. He mows his own lawn. "I don't want to hire a service," he says. "I still love to cut my grass."

Wier is much like Snapper's customers. "When we do surveys of our customers, they like to cut their grass. And they want a good piece of equipment to do it. We're designed to give you the best quality of cut. We have full rollers on the riding mowers, to give that nice striped look on your grass, like on the baseball fields. It makes you feel proud of the home you own. Proud of your lawn. The neighbors walk by, they say, 'Look how good the yard looks.' "

"We're not obsessed with volume," says Wier. "We're obsessed with having differentiated, high-end, quality products."

Wier doesn't really think that a $99 lawn mower from Wal-Mart and Snapper's lawn mowers are the same product any more than a cup of 50-cent vending-machine coffee is the same as a Starbucks nonfat venti latte. "We're not obsessed with volume," says Wier. "We're obsessed with having differentiated, high-end, quality products." Wier wants them sold--he thinks they must be sold--at a store where the staff is eager to explain the virtues of various models, where they understand the equipment, can teach customers how to use a mower, can service it when something goes wrong. Wier wants customers who want that kind of help--customers who are unlikely to be happy buying a lawn mower at Wal-Mart, and who might connect a bum experience doing so not with Wal-Mart but with Snapper.

And so in October 2002, with a colleague, Wier kept an appointment with a merchandise vice president for Wal-Mart's outdoor-product category.

Friday, April 17, 2009

More On the Gay Marriage Ruling In Iowa

If you would, read through these first three excerpts from previous Supreme Court rulings here in Iowa and see if you get the gist of what they are saying:

"It is, of course, the role of the legislature to write statutes, and it is our role to interpret them based on their application in the course of litigation. Moreover, the legislature can rewrite a statute to reflect its intent when it does not believe our interpretation in a particular case has accomplished this goal." GEORGIA M. RATHJE v.MERCY HOSPITAL,No. 115 / 04-2081, Supreme Court of Iowa, February 22, 2008

"Additionally, we are bound to follow the legislature's definitions and may not add words or change terms under the guise of judicial construction." Iowa Department of Transportation v. Soward, 650 N.W.2d 569 Supreme Court of Iowa September 5, 2002

"To solve the dilemma posed by the amendments, we must read into chapter 20, as amended, language that simply is not there. This, of course, is not within our province. We are bound by what the legislature said, not by what it should or might have said." O'HARA v. STATE, 642 N.W.2d 303 Supreme Court of Iowa April 3, 2002


So what is your summation of those excerpts? I'm guessing that it was similar to mine when they were brought to my attention. They lay out that the Supreme Court of Iowa or any court in Iowa can not read between the lines, add their own words or interpret the words differently than the legislators of Iowa intended. So with that in mind, here is an excerpt from the unanimous opinion about gay marriage here in Iowa.

"Consequently, the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage." Varnum v. Brien, Supreme Court of Iowa, April 3, 2009

I'm not a lawyer and I haven't slept at a Holiday Inn Express in several weeks but it appears to me is that this group of justices in our Supreme Court of Iowa are telling the legislature what words should be added or removed from the current law and how the law should be interpreted. Frank D. Myers makes a case otherwise in his comments to a post on his blog that by ruling the law unconstitutional, it is essentially stripped from the constitution. So what will happen here next week is anybody's guess at this point. I found it interesting and thought my readers and commenter's from my last post on the subject might want to know.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Easter Bunny Almost Overslept!

At the crack of dawn, probably a hour later actually, the Easter Bunny woke up and realized that Little Abbey would be up any second and the eggs had not been hidden. Quick as a rabbit that he was, got out of bed wishing all the snaps and pops in the joints would be silent for a change and pulled on his clothes. Tip toeing by Little Abbey's room he looked in to see how she was sleeping only to find her sitting there in bed staring at me, the Easter Bunny. I put a finger up across my lips to make the universal sign for silence and crept down the stares. Actually I took them two at a time and grabbed the carton of eggs out of the refrigerator like it was going to explode any second. Oops, those eggs were plain white. I reopened the fridge and started shuffling to get the dozen neon colored eggs finally finding them. I popped the top as I raced into the living room and hid the first eggs in a flower pot. I look upstairs to see where Little Abbey was and saw her standing on the top stair watching me silently. I eased the carton of eggs behind me and did the only thing I could think of in my still cobwebbed laced rabbit sized brain. I told Little Abbey to go wake up mommy. She ran back up the hall enthusiastically. Knowing I had bought myself about ten seconds, I threw the rest of the eggs in four directions and called it good. Little Abbey came down and walked right through the egg laced living room and requested a glass of milk.

It took her awhile to spot the first egg but once she did, she walked around asking the question of where as she looked for more eggs. Finally after I thought she had found them all, I checked the carton to see that there were only eleven eggs. Where was that last egg? Little Abbey and I crawled around on our hands and knees looking here and there and under this and on top of that trying to find that last egg. After fifteen minutes of fruitless searching, I was ready to write off that little egg until I could smell it sometime in the future when Mrs. Abbey absentmindedly asked me what we were looking for. I told her the twelfth egg and she casually mentioned that Little Abbey had eaten one the day before. It was a good thing I was a harmless bunny rabbit or I would have....

So Little Abbey did alright for Easter. She had another hunt on the grandparents farm, flew her first kite which she loved, and was given lots of candy by her godparents and friends. So now as a parent, I mean Easter bunny, I have to do one of the harder things to do when raising a child. Sneak some of the candy off to work while she is still sleeping and dispose of it in some way, possibly a handful at a time in that opening right below the nose. Life can be tough like that.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Preparations

Looking back on my childhood, one of the reoccurring memories of Easter was decorating coloring eggs with my brother. It seemed like it took us an entire day from start to finish though I now have confirmed that it probably only took an hour. Funny how time as a kid and time as an adult varies so much. Last year we had bought some PAZ Easter egg kits but never used them since Little Abbey seemed to young to enjoy coloring them. This year however, I knew she would have the attention span and would actually enjoy it so one slow evening last week, we prepared Easter Eggs.

I boiled 14 eggs up ahead of time so that Mrs. Abbey and I could both eat an egg while Little Abbey was decorating the other twelve. I called Little Abbey over to the kitchen table and set a cookie sheet in front of her with six small juice glassed for the six colors of dye. I cut open the dye and directed her to put one tablet in each glass, which she dutifully did. I added the vinegar to dissolve the tablets and then the water to make up the rest. After bending the little metal egg dipper and demonstrating how to lower an egg into the glass, I turned her loose.

The first egg she dumped from too high of an altitude causing it to splash out some of the dye, which is why I put the glassed on a cookie sheet so no harm was done. I emphasized that she needed to do it gently and the remaining four went in nicely. Since the directions called for stirring the eggs from time to time for even coloring, I showed her how to check the eggs by pulling them up and then telling me what color they were. At this point I could have walked away and let her entertain herself for an hour but I didn't. We waited for ten minutes or so and then I showed her how to lift them out and set them in the little cardboard drying rack. She was able to do the other five without a hitch and soon six more eggs were soaking in the dyes occasionally being lifted out and admired by a 34.5 month old.

When the second batch was dyed, I moved the first batch back to the egg carton while Little Abbey fished the most recent ones out to dry. While I was emptying the glasses of dye out and rinsing the glass before a mishap could occur, Little Abbey transferred the still wet eggs into the carton as well, just as daddy did. So a little of that dye got rubbed off on the cardboard but no real harm done.

Back in my day, the PAZ kits came with stickers that you held under water and then transferred to the egg by rubbing on them with your fingernail. That meant that the sticker got so soggy that it practically dissolved into pieces before you got it transferred or that you didn't wait long enough and tore the decal trying to apply it. Either way, you ended up putting the pieces of a sticker together like a puzzle on the eggshell. Modern PAZ kits have eliminated this problem by having a sleeve that you just slip over the egg and when you dip it in boiling water, it shrink wraps itself around the egg. The only drawback is that the kid now has no creative part in placement of the various stickers. They are either on or off. You can no longer place the rabbits so that they appear dead, choking on an egg, or with an egg sticking where the sun don't shine, etc. You are stuck with the premade scene of a rabbit, mouse and turtle frolicking among colored eggs and flowers.

Little Abbey was really proud of her eggs and carried them around for a bit so that everyone could see them. I finally snuck them back in the fridge where she would forget about them until Easter morning when I plan to hide them for her to find. The finding process was always the highlight to my Easter right behind receiving an Easter basket full of jellybeans and that large chocolate rabbit. We are skipping the basket of sweets this year since she really doesn't need them at this age but will probably have to give her them next year. Probably the next best thing after the sweets and finding the eggs was turning all those eggs into deviled eggs. Kind of ironic way of celebrating Easter but I always loved my mom’s deviled eggs. I hope to turn some of Little Abbey's eggs into those tasty little devils and perhaps maybe some potato salad or tuna salad. Now that I'm on the topic of food, perhaps I will buy Little Abbey a large chocolate rabbit and just forget to give it to her. Mmmm mmmm.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Some Thoughts On Iowa Allowing Gay Marriages

As our governments have assumed more power over the years and the two ruling parties have become more and more polarized, I have been more of an advocate towards balancing them with my vote, i.e. if neither of the parties cater too my constitutional desires, I vote for the party that isn't in the majority. My hope is that when the parties are relatively even, they will cooperate more and create truly bipartisan legislation instead of ramming legislation down our throats. Thanks to a wildly unpopular president, Iowa has been turned into a state wholly controlled by the democratic party in both the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. We are now paying for being that one-sided.

As you have no doubt heard, Iowa became the third state in the nation to allow gay marriages thanks to a very liberal Iowa Supreme court. This in itself doesn't bother me as it affects me very little if at all. In Iowa, if you are married and earn over minimum wage, you are better off tax wise to file your taxes as married but filing as a single. For me had I filed my taxes as married filed jointly, my $200 refund would have been a IOU for the state to the tune of $800. So assuming gay people aren't stupid, probably a reasonable assumption, they are still going to be filing individual state tax returns meaning no more or less taxes are going to be collected by state coffers. So if gay people want to marry, I don't really see it affecting me.

However, what gets me is the state government's blatant disregard for being a body of the people for the people. All it really needed to do was to allow the people to vote on the issue but when the people asked yesterday for the right to just bring it up for a vote, they were told by the House Majority Leader that they were nothing but a mob and no better than those who were pro-slavery. Huh? How wanting to bring to a vote whether to allow marriage rights to a political group makes you for a racist is beyond me. It would be no difference is lefties got their act together and garnered the right to force everyone to cater to them simply because they were different. But because we in Iowa essentially have a government run by one political party, the people are denied the ability to vote on this issue. Our options are to wait for our scheduled constitutional amendment session next year or wait until the 2011 legislative session until it can be brought up according to the rules of order for dealing with such matters. In other words, gay marriage in Iowa is here to stay for awhile.

I personally feel that it is probably here for good. Numerous polls show that the younger generation is largely in favor of allowing gay marriage and so this is mostly a war of attrition at this point. Eventually those of us who think allowing a political group, i.e. gays, the right to marry, i.e. make everyone cater to their political party, is not necessarily a good thing are going to die off to the point where we will be a insignificant minority to absentmindedly be brushed off the arms of the younger generation never to be thought about again, i.e. the battle was lost years ago.

It is a terrible precedent to set and one that is sure to give lots of encouragement to other political groups striving to get their day in the sun.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Business Trips Aren't What They Use to Be

Once upon a time, business road trips excited me. I was able to see parts of the country I hadn't seen before, got to eat in nicer restaurants and have someone else pick up the tab and stay in a hotel room with free cable. That last thing might not be much to you but for me who grew up without a television at all, I had a lot of movies to catch up on. I'm not entirely sure where those feelings left me but they have been gone for some time. When I needed to go out east last week, I didn't have any good thoughts about it at all.

First, because of the amount of gear that we needed to take with us, we had to rent a cargo van to haul it and as I suspected, it didn't exactly ride like a Cadillac. We also had to leave on Sunday afternoon since it would take nearly a day to drive out there. Once there, I put in thirteen to fifteen hour days working in sometimes less than desirable conditions. After our day was done, we would check into a motel that looked eerily similar to the one the day before, clean up and go out to eat. This part would have still excited me but my fellow traveler wasn't an adventuresome eater and so we had to eat at the same kind of upscale burger joints every night. Also, since I am part owner of the company, I'm picking up the tab instead of someone else. Back in our rooms, I would be too exhausted even to turn on the television and would just take a dose of Advil for the aches and go to bed. Mornings would begin with a continental breakfast. How does a choice of a bread product, some rehydrated eggs and some thawed out meat product deserve a name as regal sounding as continental?

There is some good to all this. Back in the day, I came home to an empty and darkened house with pretty much the same amenities as a motel room these days except with no cable television. These days, I have a wife and a daughter who missed me and let me know it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Poo Poo In the Potty

"Daddy! I poo poo in the potty!"

Huh? Mrs. Abbey and I had been having a conversation over dinner and now Little Abbey was walking towards me pulling up her pants. When had she left the table? Dutifully I walked over to her potty chair and sure enough, a pile of poo bigger than any toddler her size should leave behind had been left behind. There was nothing else to do but forget about eating and conversations for awhile and do a victory dance with my daughter. And so that is what I did.

We had tried to potty train Little Abbey a couple times in the past but whenever she would go from a weekend to the weekday at the daycare, she would come back traumatized over it. So rather than risk emotional scarring, we just let her be and waited for her to get a little older. Then the trip to the Philippines was looming and we didn't want to have her potty trained and then get on a plane for 30 hours and suffer a setback that might upset her so we waited until she got back. Then there was a wedding that we had to travel to which brought us to a couple weeks ago when we said the time is finally right.

Mrs. Abbey sat Little Abbey down and told her the facts about the potty and how is she went wee wee or poo poo in the potty she would get a star on the calander and some candy. That was all it took. Monday she had four stars for going wee wee in the potty and one "I Did It" sticker for going poo poo in the potty. Tuesday she was up to five stars and one "I Did It" sticker which she earned during supper as I wrote about above. I never even noticed she had left the table. Wednesday the star count was up to six and by Thursday it was eight. I think she was holding back on us to feed a candy habit. Since then, she has had a perfect record and we have been holding back the treats here and there. All in all, it has been pretty painless and I hope I've bought my last box of diapers for awhile though I may have to do a few more poo poo victory dances.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Great Garage Remodel: Part Three

I am out of town this week and away from internet or email so I won't be around to answer any comments or visit your blogs. Eventually when I get back, I'll get caught up as I always do. Until then, here is a part three of a series on my garage remodeling project.


The sheathing of that wall with OSB was easily done and soon I had two coats of primer white slathered on. I planned on reusing all the upper cabinets and give the old lower cabinets to a coworker who had a good use for them in his basement. The cabinets were light enough that I thought I could hang them myself and I did but it took some properly sized wood on top of a floor jack and some strategically placed clamps. Of course this being a 40-year old garage, nothing was square but I did the best I could do. The end result is definitely good enough for a garage. Then I started on what I most wanted out of this project, a 16-foot long workbench that spanned the entire back end of my garage. I used the salvaged pieces of my old workbench along with numerous other scraps along with some of the new wood I had purchased. Thanks to Ron over at Hickory Hills, I don't waste much these days.

I built a place to roll my tool chest under the surface, put my scrap bin, and my table saw so I could get it out of the way and free up some wall space. I also built a shelf along one end for those big items that won't fit in the cabinets, were two heavy for the wall racks and I didn't want on top of the workbench. The long cabinet that had been mounted sideways over my workbench to give me more storage space but never worked out very well due to doors that hinged open from the top was turned the proper way and reset on the west wall. With that done, I was able to pick up most of the stuff stacked in the center of the garage and store it in its final resting place. All that was left was the east wall which was previously drywalled. I had briefly considered replacing it but there wasn't in real good reason to do so. The only messy wire on the wall was my coaxial cable going into the living room which I would have liked to run in the studs but it wasn't worth the effort or cost. So I just stripped everything off the wall and painted it with a couple coats of primer white.


As I mentioned in a previous blog, my company had thrown away some metal shelving with sliding pans that was just too good to pass up so I snagged it out of the dumpster and hauled it home. It went along the east wall for storage of catagorical supplies like fasteners, electrical stuff, plumbing stuff, hangers, etc. This freed up a lot of what had been stored very disorganized in my overhead cabinets. I also built a vertical storage rack for oddball pieces of trim that I always seem to have leftover at the end of projects but am too cheap to throw away. I built my fireplace mantle out of such trim when I remodeled the greatroom so I may use it someday in the future. I moved the light switch closer to the door but left the old switch in just to fill the void in the drywall and I hung everything else up using some old shelving brackets that I had saved when I remodeled various closets in our house.


The last step in my garage remodeling project was building a storage rack for the few leftover sheets of OSB, two by sticks and some drywall that I use for patches. The only place to put it to maximize storage in an under used place was below the rafters and above the garage door. I scabbed down from the rafters to a 2x4 which I drilled some evenly spaced holes in to provide more support than a rafter spaced every 5 feet which is what I had before. I bought some galvanized pipe on sale and put it through the holes and put caps on each end to prevent them from sliding out. As you can see, I bought the store out of end caps and had to use two elbows to finish the job but it works. There are a couple extra boards that go side-to-side which were added to straighten out some twisted rafters. The end result is a space saving rack that I can easily slide a full sheet of plywood into or out of for future use and it is well supported so there isn't any bowing. I consider it my proudest achievement.



Now I have a well lit garage that doubles as my shop with plenty of workbench space and plenty of storage space, at least for now. The only thing left to do is to buy a couple of cheopo speakers to replace the two that I have above the overhead cabinets on the north wall. One of them has evidently blown and only works for a few minutes when I turn on the radio and then just emits static. One speaker is good enough for now but good used speakers are a dime a dozen at garage sales in the spring, especially when everyone is updating their entertainment centers with new digital flatscreen televisions. Now all I have left to do it to make use of all this work so I am carefully scouring blogs for ideas. Until then, I will just sit back awhile and admire a clean and uncluttered garage/shop.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Great Garage Remodel: Part Two

I am out of town this week and away from internet or email so I won't be around to answer any comments or visit your blogs. Eventually when I get back, I'll get caught up as I always do. Until then, here is a part two of a series on my garage remodeling project.


With the west wall and the ceiling stripped down, the first thing I did was wire up four new flourescent fixtures to shed some more light on the garage. With that done, I unwired the west wall of all the crappy wiring going everywhere and ran my new 20 amp circuit. Unfortunately as I mentioned before, I couldn't hook it up as I needed to route it through my north wall which I hadn't stripped down yet. I was fairly confident that I new what I was doing so I went ahead and sheathed the wall with OSB and put a couple coats of some leftover primer white on it. With that done, I built an eight-foot potting bench for my wife under the only window in the garage. As you can see in the before and after picture, it was previously the place of my cheopo storage racks, the best one of which I screwed to the wall above the bench to allow for pot storage. Eventually I may build some storage drawers underneath but for now I just left it open. My wife was surprised at all the pots she had which had been previously hidden in the cabinets along the north wall so I figured with them all in view, she would be less likely to collect more.


Further along the wall where my very inefficient storage rack for long sticks of wood had been above a scrap bin for wood to be used to kindle wintertime fires, I got a deal on some sturdier shelving than I had that was also a little bit deeper, wider and taller. That went up well and was anchored to the wall so that it wouldn't tip over. I built a more efficient vertical storage system for the long sticks of wood on the east wall and moved the wood scrap bin underneath the workbench closer to where I created said scrap and where I didn't have to squeeze beside a car to dig some wood out of it. With that done, I put what I could on the new shelves and then emptied out all the cabinets on the north wall so I could start there.

A previous owner had down a kitchen remodel at one time and left all the old cabinets in the garage. As you can see, some of them were just stacked on top of others over eight feet in the air and thus were empty. The floor cabinets sat too low for me to use as a workbench and thus just collected junk on top of them as well as in them. So I removed all the cabinets along with my too short workbench that I had built a decade ago and had served me well over the years and stripped down the wall to the studs. I continued my 20 amp circuit and was able to hook it to the new line I had run from my basement and everything on the west wall worked which made me happy. I stripped out all the old wiring and simplified what remained.


This last step gave me a lot of headaches as there was a junction box that had been mounted on the surface of the north wall where five wires came in and were jumpered together. One line went to my continuously on great room outlets, one to my switched great room outlets, one was the incoming power line for the great room that had been tapped from a light bulb in the garage and the other two ran to the great room overhead light and to a switch. Now if I had the gift of fully colored sight, this probably wouldn't have been a problem and had I taken the time to mark each line it might not have been a problem but partially colorblind and in too big a hurry me thought I had it all figured out. I unwired it, threaded all the wires into a new junction box set into the wall and hooked all the wire up again. I turned on the breaker and in the process of testing everything to make sure it was correct, flipped the switch in the great room causing the breaker to trip. Twenty odd trips to the basement, plenty of cursing and scratching my head trying to figure out what everything was doing and about three hours of working in the darkness of evening with my headlamp as my sole source of light, I finally had everything working again. What a difference one wire can make.