Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 23, 2009
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Haggling, CarMax, Ponyo, Tuna
My wife's parents were visiting with us recently. We're a Rook-playing family
(that Parker Brothers game that allows the God-fearing to play cards without
using those indecent, gambling-oriented, devil-worship-inducing face cards)
and so there were a couple of evenings when we faced off for the usual Cards-vs.-Allens death match.
The game begins with bidding for the right to declare trump. The odd thing is
that my wife's mother simply does not bid. I think I've seen her enter the
bidding contest maybe a half-dozen times out of hundreds of games over the
She won't bid unless she has most of the trumps and all the high cards of
Why? Because she dreads the awful responsibility of taking her partner down
to defeat by taking the bid and then failing to win it during the trick-taking
phase of the game.
In vain have her partners pointed out over the years that by not bidding, she
forces them to make unreasonable bids which they then fail to make.
Eventually, everyone simply gets used to her refusal to bid.
Until this past week it finally dawned on me: The game of Rook is really two
games. There's a trick-taking game, which my mother-in-law loves to play.
But before it there's always an auction, which is a game my mother-in-law
I think if we had a pinch-bidder join the game just to evaluate her hand and
bid (or not) until the auction is decided, it would make her happy. As it is, she
simply sits out the bidding game, waiting for the fun to start.
I realized a few days later, when I needed to buy a used car, that I'm just like
her. Not about bidding in a card game -- with nothing at stake, I'm quite an
aggressive bidder. But I loathe haggling.
Traditionally, buying a used car has always been like a war. The seller of the
car does his best to conceal defects and problems (caveat emptor!) and inflate
the price far beyond value, while the buyer tries to see through the
subterfuges, assess the real value of the car, and then get the price down as
close to the value (or under) as possible.
I hate this game. For one thing, I don't know how to assess the value of a car,
and I am extremely unlikely to spot hidden defects. Taking a used car to a
mechanic for inspection before buying it is fine -- but it takes time.
Besides, it causes social pain. Either the mechanic will reveal that the seller
was trying to deceive me or he won't. If the car is fine, then I feel bad about my
suspicions -- I'm not a suspicious guy and I hate myself when I doubt the word
of honest people. If the car is defective, then the seller was trying to deceive
me, and that is distasteful.
Even if there's no deception, haggling guarantees that both parties will be
dissatisfied -- because there's always the suspicion that you've been taken.
For instance, when we sold a house we owned in Orem, Utah, we heard later
from a friend that the people who bought our house bragged about how they
would have paid much more for it, and they couldn't believe we took their low
That was a time in our lives when every dollar counted. As it was, we were
cheated by a former friend out of most of the little money we made on the sale,
so to find out that the buyer, too, felt that he had really suckered us stung
deeply. I can't think of that house without feeling bitterness about the people
whom I trusted.
When you add to that the fact that the people who bought our house for less
than its value were supposed to be good Christians, it's baffling: How can you
consider yourself honest if you knowingly pay someone less than an item's fair
The whole process of haggling is loathsome to me. So I've made it a practice,
when buying a car, to come in and say, "I'm not going to haggle. Make me your
best price. If I think it's fair, I'll pay it. If I don't, I'll walk away, with no further
discussion. I won't come back with a counteroffer. I won't come back at all."
(I usually don't sell my used cars, either. I lend them to people, I give them
away, but I don't take somebody else's money for them. I simply couldn't live
with the guilt if something went wrong with the car after I sold it. I know it's
ridiculous, on a rational level; but I have to live with my irrational self, and I'm
happier giving away a mostly-used-up car than selling it.)
Have I still been cheated on the cars I bought, working this way? Probably, a
little. Maybe even a lot. But that's on them. When it comes to haggling, I
So now, having made that connection, I understand my mother-in-law perfectly
and agree with her. If she doesn't want to bid for the right to declare trump in
a card game, that's her privilege.
Meanwhile, though, I still have to buy a car from time to time, and sometimes I
even have to buy a used car. That's why I'm so happy that somebody invented
the whole concept of CarMax.
At CarMax, they have mechanics who look over used cars before they buy them
to offer them for sale. They won't take cars that have been in accidents or
floods, no matter how they've been perked up. When they offer a car for sale,
they either have it under warranty or they don't.
If they don't, you know they don't trust the car themselves. If they do, you
know they're willing to stand by it. They even offer five-year warranties for
what seems to me to be a fair price -- and I can personally vouch for the fact
that they stand behind those warranties.
The salesmen do not receive a commission based on the price they sell a car
for, they receive a flat fee for each sale regardless of the price. So instead of
having an incentive to cheat you by charging too much, their only incentive is
to help you find a car that you can afford.
In short, they take all the nightmare out of used-car buying and leave only the
dream. I've been involved with two car purchases from CarMax in the past
year, and both times everyone involved has been happy.
It helps that we bought Saturns both times -- what great cars! Smooth-riding,
comfortable, well-designed, reliable. (I hope that Roger Penske can make
Saturn a profitable company and keep making great cars up to a high standard
when they finally cut loose from the incompetent bureaucracy of GM in 2011.)
But it was CarMax that made the difference for us. They set a price; we either
paid it or didn't. Just the way I like to do business!
And they stand by their product; we paid for the extra warranty, and they have
come through exactly as promised on the rare occasions when covered repairs
have been needed.
CarMax only operates in about half the states right now. I hope they spread
everywhere. I hope they are well-managed and make a nice profit every year.
They take the misery and dread out of used-car-buying and I want them to stay
in business forever.
My family are fans of the animated movies of Hayao Miyazaki. From Castle in
the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service to Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle,
we have delighted in his powerful and imaginative stories, his strange, dark,
and beautiful worlds, his intriguing characters and relationships, and his
His recently released movie Ponyo has most of these virtues. The mother and
father and son at the center of the movie are wonderful, their relationships real
and moving. The ocean's tsunami-like attack on the shore as the crazy-driving
mother stays just a few yards ahead of the water is thrilling. The dreamlike
magic when two children take off across the high water in a toy boat is sweet
and scary at the same time.
In fact, I almost loved this movie. Almost. It's as if he had wonderful material
but never figured out how to end it. What did the ocean's attack on the shore
accomplish? How did a little boy's promise resolve the conflict between
humans and the life of the sea? Who are the little fish-girl's parents and what
are they trying to accomplish? What are the rules of the magic in this
Even fantasy has to make some kind of sense -- and Miyazaki's other films do
achieve an effective internal logic. This one does not, so you walk out of the
theater more than a little unsatisfied.
I'm glad I saw it. I enjoyed almost all of this strange-and-wonderful adventure.
But if you've never seen a Miyazaki film, I strongly suggest that you start with
one of the films I already mentioned.
I love canned tuna. I always have. It was the best lunch my Mom sent with
me. Partly because of tuna, I never acquired a taste for pbj sandwiches.
(In fact, I loathe jam and jelly and always have. Too sweet, too fruity. Cooked
fruit is simply inedible to me -- and yes, that includes fruit pies and cobblers.
Only dried fruits are more nauseating. I realize this is weird. Please don't
waste time trying to convince me I'm un-American or depriving myself. Hating
particular foods is everyone's privilege, and we get to pick our own list.)
I love canned tuna on a niçoise salad. I love it mixed with egg and cracker
crumbs and fried like a burger.
I love it mixed with mayonnaise or Miracle Whip -- by itself, no bread needed.
But when you mix in chopped celery or sliced cucumber, and put it on challah
bread with mustard or horseradish, I'm in heaven.
I could eat tuna fish every day. And, for extended periods of my life, I have
eaten it every day.
I certainly eat it every week -- on Sunday. I grew up in a big-Sunday-dinner
family, but I could never understand how it was consistent with a "day of rest"
for my mom to work all afternoon fixing a huge fancy meal. Besides, all that
preparation meant that I had to wait an absurd amount of time before I ate.
So we come home from church and I mix up the tuna fish and mayonnaise, my
wife slices the challah bread, our daughter sets the table and fills the glasses
with water or juice or milk, and with a side dish of sliced bananas and
mandarin oranges, we have a Sunday dinner that took about ten minutes to
prepare -- and which makes me very happy.
This is the golden age of canned tuna fish. During my lifetime we've gone from
minimal choice -- chunk light tuna in oil, solid pack light tuna in oil, or just
tuna, which always meant dark -- to a lovely array of fine tunas. Water-packed tuna. White albacore. It just got better and better.
Until a couple of years ago, I thought Starkist white albacore in spring water
(as opposed to, I suppose, parking-lot-runoff water) was the pinnacle -- with
the occasional foray into gourmet canned tunas packed in olive oil or other
But then one day I was in Costco -- a place where I show my face about once a
year -- and I saw they had a special on Kirkland brand tuna. Always curious
(after all, I have a solemn responsibility to review everything -- except cooked
or dried fruit -- in this fine newspaper), I bought a plastic-wrapped pack of
And now at last I know what perfection is. A hundred cans or so later, I can
tell you: I've never opened a can of Kirkland tuna from Costco that was
anything less than perfect. It's the best-looking, best-tasting canned tuna I've
seen anywhere, ever.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that Costco's headquarters is just down the
road from the town of Kirkland, Washington, for which the brand is named. Or
maybe it's just that Costco tries to live up to their claim to offer the best for
Whatever the reason, if you care about getting the best canned tuna, there is
no better or more reliable quality than from the Kirkland brand.
In the past, I've raved about "Dial Complete foaming hand wash." And I mean
it. I hate to wash my hands with anything else.
More to the point, I have now built many of my habits around the perpetual
availability of Dial Complete. Because it's pre-lathered, I use it for washing my
eyeglasses -- it rinses away without streaky residue. I also use it to wash my
orthodontic retainers whenever I take them out of my mouth.
So when I travel, I almost always end up going somewhere to buy dispensers of
Dial Complete just so I can keep up these comfortable habits. (I wouldn't put a
soap dispenser pump in my luggage, not even in a plastic bag.)
Then, after I was fully hooked, the folks at Dial redesigned the pump-action top
of their dispensers.
And wrecked it. It stuck, it jammed, you couldn't operate it one-handed. I
couldn't find a decent one. I kept saving the original-style dispenser tops to
put on new bottles, discarding the new ones.
Discount stores started selling the old tops -- the ones that worked -- on their
own knockoff brands of foaming soap, but their soaps were lousy -- stinky with
perfume and likely to leave a residue. I finally settled on buying "Dial Complete
original" in bulk containers and refilling the original dispensers.
Needless to say, I could hardly expect to keep that up forever. Even the
original tops were not so perfectly engineered as to never wear out -- though
I've used the same dispenser at my bathroom sink for two years, with at least a
dozen pumps a day.
Still, when I traveled, I had to deal with the miserable new-design top because
that's all I could buy.
I just hate it when people have a great product, and then make some needless
"improvement" that makes it harder to use.
Well, apparently I wasn't the only person complaining about the lousy new
I went into a store recently and saw that the shape of the whole container of
Dial Complete had been redesigned. And I immediately thought: I bet they've
fixed the problem with the new-design top, and the only way they could
communicate that it worked well now, without admitting that for a long time it
had really sucked (or, technically, had not really sucked), was to redesign the
So I bought a couple for the hotel we were staying in for the week and guess
My supposition was correct. The problem with the dispenser top has been
So if you see Dial Complete in bottles with a waist -- slender in the middle,
widening above and below -- you are getting the new, corrected design. You
can buy them with reasonable confidence that they'll work properly.
And I won't have to keep preserving and reusing the same dispenser tops for
the rest of my life.
Thank you, Dial, for recognizing your mistake and, at long last, fixing it.
The best commercial orange juice in America is Tropicana's top-of-the-line
Valencia juices. But, after carrying it long enough for me and my family to be
addicted, Harris-Teeter has stopped selling it. Apparently those of us who want
the best have to look somewhere else.
But then, Harris-Teeter knows perfectly well that at least in Greensboro there's
nowhere else that Tropicana Valencia can be found.
I picture a moustache-twirling villain somewhere in the Harris-Teeter
organization saying, "Nya-ha-ha! I don't have to sell the good stuff to you
because nobody else in town is competing with us!"
Well, it happens that I get up to Washington DC several times a year, and the
absolutely brilliant grocery store chain Wegmans does carry the very best
commercial orange juice made in America. Wegmans may be a mid-Atlantic
chain -- the farthest south it goes is Virginia.
But if, on the way back from DC, I stop at the Gainesville location just off US
29 or the Sterling location on Rte. 28, I can fill two coolers with Tropicana
Valencia orange juice, pack them with ice, and get them home five hours later
in excellent condition.
Take that, Harris-Teeter!
And it's Harris-Teeter's habit of arbitrarily discontinuing top-of-the-line items
that I know for a fact are selling very well in the store we go to has seriously
weakened any kind of loyalty I might have.
If they can't figure out how to use their computer tracking system (which is
what that VIC card is all about) to make sure that customers continue to get
the products they have a history of buying, then they don't deserve to keep my
business when somebody comes along who does offer the best.
So if a Wegmans opens up in the Greensboro area, it's good-bye, Harris-Teeter.
Meanwhile, Fresh Market is doing a good job of competing with Harris-Teeter at
the top end.
So if Fresh Market would like to save me the five-hour trip to buy the best
commercial orange juice in America, I'd be happy to buy my Tropicana Valencia
orange juice from them.
Speaking of Fresh Market, they just opened a new store in Roanoke, Virginia.
Since I was teaching a writing workshop at SVU, an hour north of Roanoke, I
made a run down to the new Fresh Market to buy healthy snacks for my
For myself, I also stocked up on the lime-flavored Hint Water, taking every
single bottle they had in the refrigerated-beverage display.
One of their employees apparently noticed what I was doing, and without
saying anything to me, went into the back of the store and brought out a flat of
a dozen bottles and offered them to me. "I noticed you were buying a lot of
these and wondered if you wanted more."
I did, and I bought them, and I was also incredibly impressed. In a grocery
store who does that kind of thing? Talk about personal service!
Of course, that doesn't mean Fresh Market is perfect. For instance, they used
to have bulk M&Ms in every color so you could mix and match. But in the past
few weeks, they switched away from M&Ms to a second-rate imitation that is
too sweet and not chocolaty enough. Bummer. So now I buy bulk M&Ms in
assorted colors only from the M&M website.
Maybe most people can't tell the difference. But I think most people can, and
Fresh Market will end up selling much less of this off brand of candy-coated
chocolate because they're just not very good.
Stepping down in quality and selection sends such a bad message to
Still, I remain a loyal customer of Fresh Market. And though I'm losing loyalty,
I'm still a regular customer at Harris-Teeter -- until a better store opens.
If not Wegman's, I'd be happy with Gelson's or Bristol Market from California.
There are great full-selection grocery stores in the world, and I can't see why
Greensboro shouldn't have one, even if Harris-Teeter has decided not to try.
Till then, the limited-selection high-quality Fresh Market is the best we have,
and it's pretty darn good.