Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Good Deal

Today being Thanksgiving, tomorrow is Black Friday - the day the Christmas sales officially start.

Personally, I hate to shop, and shop only to replace things I need.  I rarely buy anything on impulse (and often regret it when I do); and I certainly never go near a store on Black Friday, because I dislike crowds.  Boy, am I in the minority.  This year some stores (yes, Target, I mean you) are actually opening on Thanksgiving Day itself, in hopes of squeezing a few more dollars out of the ravening hordes.  Someone wrote an appalling "be grateful you have a job, punk" editorial in the Twin Cities StarTribune (Target's home town), after a part-time Target employee put up an online petition asking Target not to open quite so early, please, so he could have a Thanksgiving with his family.

People are camping out in front of stores, hoping to be first in line for the deal.  A friend of mine posted a shot on Facebook of a bunch of people in tents, lined up outside a Best Buy - which was still open...

Why are we so fixated on getting things cheaply?  What ever happened to paying a little more to get good quality?

I concede that a lot of people have to count pennies these days.  In their cases, standing in line for sales is a reasonable choice.  But most of the people I hear quoted in the news seem to be focused, not on getting something they normally couldn't afford, but on buying anything at all - as long as it's on sale.  As long as it's cheap.  It's a game - how much can I get away with?

If you don't need it, it isn't cheap, now matter how much it's marked down.

And it's a self-reinforcing downward spiral.  The lower the price of an item, the less the workers who make it generally get paid, labor being a major cost.  When the price goes low enough, the amount the workers can get paid is less than the amount you can live on.  The factory closes and reopens in China, or Vietnam, or Mexico, paying local wages.

When you're competing on labor price with people who think $50 a week is a lot of money, you have to be able to live on $50 a week yourself.  Yes, I'm over-generalizing, but not by much.  I'm not the only one who thinks that's why so many manufacturing jobs are now in China, or Vietnam.  In fact, some of the manufacturing jobs are moving out of China - Chinese workers are starting to ask for higher wages!  Wages for Indian computer programmers started rising a decade ago.

The same principle applies to buying from small local merchants, as opposed to stores like Walmart and Target.  The merchandise from the little guy will never be as cheap as the big chain can price it, because he can't buy in that volume.  But you almost always get better service from the little guy - isn't that worth a little more?

If you refuse to buy things except at the lowest possible price, you will eventually destroy your own ability to make a living.  Henry Ford understood that his factory floor workers were also his customers; many firms these days have forgotten that. (It wasn't widely understand it then, either - a lot of people thought Ford was raving crazy to pay those wages.)  And then they cry that the American Consumer isn't spending enough.  The American Consumer has either been out of work for awhile or is wondering how long she'll have a job.

Shop the local stores.  Pay a little extra for "Made in America," if you can find it.  And Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Flick Creek Fire

In 2006 we decided that driving to Washington state to visit Lake Chelan would be interesting.  Lake Chelan is a relatively narrow, very long lake in eastern Washington, mostly surrounded by the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.  We planned to stay at Stehekin, a small resort near the head of the lake, reachable only by boat (or emergency helicopter) from the town of Chelan at the foot of the lake.

We left on July 23 - you've probably forgotten, but in late July 2006 we had a record-breaking heat wave (at least, for then) - according to my travel diary (and USA Today at the time), it was all over the U.S. and southern Canada.  Californians expect temperatures in the 100s when driving up I-5 in the summer, but we usually expect them to drop quite a bit when we cross the Oregon border; no such luck.  My diary says it was 102° when we stopped for lunch at the Lake Shasta overlook, and that's typical of the trip but not of Lake Shasta.  It took us 3 days to get to the town of Lake Chelan, and I don't think it dropped below 95° degrees the entire time; and I nearly got heatstroke touring a (very beautiful) garden we stopped to see.

So on July 26 we took the Lady of the Lake II from Chelan for the four hours it takes to get to Stehekin - the jet boat does it in one hour, but this is the local, it stops about 4 times to offload and onload passengers and mail.  I'm almost sure I remember a bunch of kids heading for a Christian retreat, located up the lake on the west shore, past the last point you can drive to.  Stehekin is on the east side, and driving isn't even a remote option.

By two in the afternoon we had moved our stuff into the cabin.  The cabin was not air-conditioned (although the cross-drafting was very good); the temperature was still knocking against 100°, somewhat mitigated by a strong and steady north wind from the head of the lake. We walked over to the visitors' center and read the notices about the Tinpan and Tripod fires, burning some distance away.  Then we walked out and looked south and saw - smoke. 

I thought it was smoke from the Tinpan fire, and went for my camera, but by the time I got back it was very clear that this was a brand spanking new forest fire, less than 3 miles away and on our side of the lake, driven by 100° temperatures and a wind I estimate at about 20 MPH.  Here's my very first photo of the infant Flick Creek Fire:

We'd been there less than 4 hours.  By evening the fire was 1,000 acres.  Here's a later photo I took that day:

We actually stayed our scheduled two nights.  The saving factor was the wind; it never once slackened or shifted, and it blew the fire away from us, and of course the first thing they did was saturate the area right near the resort, with helicopters dumping lake water.  Nonetheless, the jet boat I mentioned was taken out of daily service and berthed in Stehekin for the rest of the time we were there.  Just in case.  By the time we left the fire was over 3,000 acres, and it was still smoldering as we passed it on the way out:

The rest of my photos of the area and the fire are in my gallery The Flick Creek Fire.

I'm not sure I recommend Stehekin, although they don't have fires every year, I'm sure.  The food was mediocre and low on fresh produce - almost everything they cook has to come up the lake by boat.  The cabins are, well, spartan.  But the surrounding area is stark and beautiful - mixed forest, some pine, some broadleaf, very dry and dusty.  It has a small permanent community of people for whom the wilderness is more important than the availability of cars or dry cleaners, who don't mind sending their kids "down" to Chelan to boarding school past the 8th grade.  If you like being a long way from civilization, this may be your spot. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Baroque Opera

We had an unusual treat last Friday.  We attended a performance of Handel's Xerxes, one of the forty-some operas he composed and put on for the delight of 18th century London.  Handel's operas are unusual now because, well, the male leads tend to be sopranos.  Georg Friedrich was nothing if not fashionable, and the height of opera fashion in his day was the castrato. It's very hard to find castrati these days, so Handel operas have a lot of women singing male roles, although you do get the occasional counter tenor.

The singing - all the music - was wonderful; never having attended a live opera at the opera house, I was fascinated to discover that they do not amplify the singers.  No lapel mikes here.  This means you actually have to listen to them; and because the War Memorial Opera House has fabulous acoustics, you can hear them, at least where I was in the orchestra section.  But you will not be deafened by an amplified orchestra, as we were when we saw Wicked.  If you're interested in the details, including the names of the cast and more about the plot than you could ever need to know, it's all on the S.F. Opera's web page for XerxesIn fact, you might still be able to get seats - as I write this there are 2 performances left.

Most of Handel's operas were tragedies, opera seria, but Xerxes is a comedy.  (This may be why the premiere bombed in April 1738; the audience was Not Amused.)  Xerxes the king (sung by a soprano, originally by a castrato) and his brother Arsamenes (sung by a counter tenor, but originally sung by a woman soprano!) are both in love with Romilda, the daughter of a general.  Romilda (sung by a woman, phew!) is in love with Arsamenes.  Romilda's sister Atalanta (another soprano) is also in love with Arsamenes and is willing to lie, cheat and steal to get him, and she does.  There are a lot of sopranos in this cast.  In fact, the only  non-sopranos are Elviro, Arsamenes' servant (a bass), Ariodates, Romilda's father (a bass), and Amastris, Xerxes' official fiancee (a contralto).  Amastris has come, disguised as a soldier in Xerxes' army, because she can't bear to be separated from him, only to discover that he plans to jilt her for Romilda. Amastris as sung last Friday is the most masculine presence on the stage, and sings several fabulous arias, swearing revenge.

If this sounds like something you might have seen on Days of Our Lives, only with royal courts and good singing, you're right.  It's actually worse - I don't think anyone in Days of Our Lives ever declared their love for a tree, but when the opera opens that's what Xerxes is doing.  And he's doing it in an aria that I've known for years without ever realizing what it really was:  it's called Ombra mai fu, but if you know Handel's music at all, you know it as Handel's Largo.  I'll never hear the Largo quite the same way again.  In the next scene, Romilda entertains the court with a charming aria explaining how silly it is that Xerxes is in love with a tree, Xerxes hears her and is smitten, and off we go. It's bad luck to make fun of the king.

In the third act, Arsamenes, who thinks Romilda has betrayed him, and Romilda, who thinks he has betrayed her, have a major lover's spat which, of course, is a soprano duet.  Sorry, in a soprano argument, the female has the bigger voice - the counter tenor is all in his head voice.

I had a wonderful time.  I've always loved Handel's music, and here was a whole evening of it, brilliantly performed, with gorgeous costumes and hilarious staging.  The chorus was gray - they wore grayface makeup, gray clothing, gray caps.  They moved around in a stately way, being the crowd, and singing a couple of short pieces.  A small group of stagehands was made up as servants, in whiteface, bald, wearing black clothing with white collars, stockings, and shoes, and walking in perfect step to rearrange lawn chairs and other furniture, move giant Assyrian statues in and out, and so forth.  Nobody but the soloists ever displayed any expression of any sort, they were like statues.  I'm sorry, but Arsamenes' costumes too often looked like pajamas, maybe it's the way he wore them.  The one with the gorgeous 18th century male costumes is Amastris - I'd love to have that hat!  And that voice, and that lung power!