In the current era of stock market swoons, subprime mortgage crises and overextended consumers, I am pleased to note that I am a veritable paragon in the area of personal finance. I am an eager savings contributor and credit card interest despiser. My kids’ electronic game and cell phone technology consistently lags that of their peers – a point that has been brought to my attention repeatedly. Upon reviewing my ledgers, the eminently tight-fisted magnate Henry Ford would beam with approval, clap me on the back, and split a discount raspberry phosphate with me in celebration.
And yet. And yet. I have to own up to one Achilles heel here: a series of questionable purchases made overseas. A fairly minor issue for most Americans, but exacerbated somewhat for me in that I, uh, live overseas. So perhaps it is more like an Achilles tibia than an Achilles heel in my case. It’s not that I don’t make a dedicated effort to be circumspect while operating in the foreign marketplace. I just fail miserably. Away from the structure and familiarity of U.S. shopping malls…as the fundamentals of offer and consideration get hazier, as the need to haggle escalates, as the environment becomes increasingly caveat emptor...the tables tilt more and more away from me.
As a buyer abroad, I am like Santa Clara tipping off against a John Wooden-era UCLA team at Pauley Pavilion. I am Cumberland facing Georgia Tech across the line of scrimmage. I am a New Zealand infantryman stepping on to the shores of Gallipoli. I am Bill Little sharing a long taxi ride wedged between two poets laureate. I don’t lose. I get obliterated.
Let me illustrate with an example. Last year, while on a visit to Beijing, I am on a stroll around Tiananmen Square. I don’t exactly blend in with the denizens, so I naturally attract a bevy of souvenir hawkers - one of whom is selling a copy of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. Aha! The icon of the infamous Cultural Revolution. The archetypal symbol of megalomania. The item brandished by the Red Guards as they marched against foreigners, the intellectuals, and the bourgeois. A critical piece of world history that I must have.
Negotiations commence. Let’s make a deal. I summon my inner Monty Hall with only the vaguest sense of foreboding.
"You can keep your book of leftist demagogue quotes or trade for this microwave oven and whatever is behind Door #3."
"How much for the book?" I ask. "300 Yuan" (at the time, about $40) is the reply. Ha! I know how these sharpies operate. "Too much. $7." I reply. The seller staggers. My unreasonable counter sags his shoulders and trembles his knees. He gives every visible sign that his ability to afford his meager lunch of noodles in watery broth now hangs precariously in the balance. "Where you from? Very not found book! Important book of Chairman Mao! Only find here. Good price for you. $35!" I give a bit underneath my steely exterior. "$10. No more." Back and forth we go. After finally forking the equivalent of about $15, the book is mine, and I turn to go.
I turn to find that I have apparently now kicked over an anthill of Little Red Book sellers. They swarm around me. "Little Red Book for you! $3!" yelps one, waving an armload of them. "Two books for $5!" assails another. "No thanks", I say looking ruefully at the copy in my hand. "It appears that I have bought about, oh, 5 of them already." Shooing them away is impossible, so I duck into a nearby tunnel for refuge. There against a wall, I notice two discarded copies of my new souvenir lying next to some torn newspapers and other big city detritus. Yep. It’s a real collector’s item that I have.
So a Little Red Book has now been added to my inventory of overseas mementos. The inventory also includes:
1. A pair of ruby earrings purchased in Thailand for my wife. They once gave a jewelry appraiser in Houston an exercise in maximum restraint. I appreciate his forbearance in merely grinning at them rather than bursting into laughter. At least until after I had left his shop.
2. A cuckoo clock from Zurich. About half the small wooden twirling milkmaids have fallen off. You can get the best approximation of the time of day if you take the square root of the number of chimes heard.
3. A couple of small Brazilian emeralds that have never been submitted to an appraiser for valuation. See 1) above for reason.
4. A handmade dagger and scabbard originally from Yemen. The proceeds of that particular sale may have been used by the hardscrabble Bedouin seller to expand his camel farm considerably. And perhaps also put a child or two through college.
5. A once attractive but now rapidly fading Persian rug with painstakingly crafted detail that conjures images of exotic nights in the Casbah of ancient Isfahan. A rug later determined to have been woven by a modern mass-producing rug conglomerate in India, naturally. (At this point, Henry Ford has now snatched the raspberry phosphate from me and begun to share it with the clever designer of this faux Persian rug assembly line.)
6. A finely crafted and richly smelling cabinet purchased in Singapore – a piece alleged to be made of prestigious old growth Burmese teak. It now has a prominent crack along the top, thanks to its placement in an air-conditioned room where I (apparently unreasonably) keep the ambient humidity just a tad lower than that of a tropical rain forest.
7. A genuine aboriginal boomerang procured in Sydney. Flies in a perfectly straight line with each toss.
Several of my dubious acquisitions have been for others. While in Hong Kong a decade or so ago, I custom designed and commissioned an attractive rosewood chest – complete with exquisite mother-of-pearl inlays – to hold my mom’s silverware. When the package arrived at her house two months afterward, she opened the rattling package and politely exclaimed, "How thoughtful! A rosewood and mother-of-pearl jigsaw puzzle."
Bruce Lee could shatter 5 rosewood silverware chests with exquisite mother-of-pearl inlays with just one punch! My mom has one!
All of this is to announce that Chris Applewhite and I will be going into business together providing counseling services. He will be guiding clients in the areas of building loving relationships and rekindling the romance with that special someone. I will be leading sessions in conducting negotiations and making winning business deals. Y’all come on by. 10% discount if you mention Barking Carnival. It will be an Arizona-based operation. Great views of the ocean from our office, according to the lease I just signed.
"Marla and I are so there for the counseling service. May I offer a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge as payment?"