Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Religious Upbringing of Children

The late Douglas Adams wrote a wonderful story in his incredibly misnamed five volume trilogy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, about a distant race of people who wanted to know the meaning of life, after thousands of years of work, and building multiple computers, they learned that the answer was 42. Unfortunately, after Adams gave us the answer, he never got around to explaining the question.

When What’s-His-Name was about 12, he began to leave childhood and become self-aware, he began questioning the world around him. So it was only natural that one day he asked me the same question.

“Dad?” he asked. “Why are we here? What is life all about?”

“42.” I promptly answered. I can’t say I was expecting the question, but I was ready. Thank you, Mr. Adams.

“Dad! Be serious, I want to know what life is all about.” What’s-His-Name was practically yelling.

“Son, if you don’t believe me, go ask your mother.” This was another great answer. My son and I both knew I had never missed an opportunity to play a practical joke on him, and he knew better than to completely believe me. His mother, The Doc, is absolutely trustworthy, having had her sense of humor surgically removed during the third year of med school.

So my son promptly ran to the other end of the house and asked his mother the same question and just as promptly got an answer, “42.” The Doc loves Douglas Adams as much as I do. She used to operate in scrubs with “Don’t Panic” stenciled on the back. Okay, some vestigial remains of her sense of humor are still attached.

You could hear What’s-His-Name wailing from the other end of the house. I’m still not sure if he was upset at an answer he couldn’t understand or the realization that all of his genetic material came from the two of us.

This incident happened years before I had worked out the tenets of my own church, St. Mark’s Buddhist Bar and Tabernacle, but even then I knew that every child needs some form of religious or ethical foundation. Eventually, we settled for something simple; Life Sucks and Then You Die.

Simple religions for simple people and this one fulfilled all the needs of a religion. It explains why bad things happen; Life Sucks. And it handles the question of an afterlife; You Die. It encourages a practical, though somewhat stoic, lifestyle. Okay, it probably fails one major test of a religion, it doesn’t coerce tithing, but my boys didn’t yet have the resources that would attract an established church.

Faithful readers by now realize that my philosophy of raising children is to take every possible opportunity to fill their heads with bullshit and lunacy. I believe in stretching their brains before life locks them into a role. Having been raised in Our Lady of Perpetual Motion, a church that was constantly terrified that someone somewhere was having a good time, I was determined to have my sons avoid this infection until they had developed sufficient antibodies. Besides, I was worried that if I was caught back on church grounds, they might burn me at the stake.

I wasn’t sure the boys completely understood this philosophy until I attended a parent/teachers conference when The-Other-One was in the third grade. The teacher was a little upset with my son’s history report about the hardships faced by the Pilgrims. She couldn’t understand why the son of a history professor would end his report with… and you guessed it… “Life Sucks and Then You Die.”

I could have told her there were 42 reasons, but she wasn’t ready for a religious breakthrough.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thoughts On Being a Grandfather, Honorary Second Class

When your children are small, it is amazing how little you know about being a parent. Every situation is new, the children are fragile, and the job is impossible. I distinctly remember trying to dress What’s-His-Name in a snow suit. I think he was three, all elbows and knees and it seemed impossible to get both his arms in that blasted suit at the same time. I suddenly realized that I was exerting on this tiny little arm approximately the same force necessary to remove a frozen lug nut from a truck tire. It was just blind luck that I didn’t end up with that arm ripped loose in my hands.

Right about the time I began to understand small children, I blinked, and suddenly the boys were teenagers. For a while, I thought this was an improvement, after all, I remembered being a teenager myself, I was a treasure trove of relevant information. Unfortunately, my sons had discovered that both their parents were morons; neither of them would listen to such unreliable people. The best they could hope for was that we wouldn’t embarrass them in public while they tried to borrow my pickup.

Then suddenly, they were adults. Now, they are not only willing to listen to us, but are plainly astounded at the sudden knowledge my wife and I possess. Obviously, we morons have been studying nights. Unfortunately, we still don’t seem to be of much use as either our lives have sufficiently diverged from theirs or our memory has degraded. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem we have much relevant advice.

Another possibility is that their father just wants to see the boys crash and burn. Bad mistakes make good stories. Somebody has to write this blog, otherwise there are no ads for you to click.

For whatever reason, it seems that as a parent, you are never really as much help to your children as you would like. Raising kids is a cruel joke that you play on yourself.

Then, suddenly, it is Act II and you have grandchildren. At first, this seems like a great joke on the parents bordering on sublime revenge. For Christmas, I’m thinking of giving the Munchkin a set of drums. I hear ferrets make horrible pets; I’ll buy her two.

Some of the fun of being a grandfather disappears when you realize there is work involved. Undoubtedly, the worst chore is the Christmas pageant. How many millions of hours have been wasted by men sitting in a school cafeteria, their ass wedged into a tiny chair designed for someone about 4 foot tall, while they listen to a flock of pre-pubescent tricycle motors sing Christmas songs in an octave only dogs can hear?

The entire herd stands on the stage like deer caught in headlights as they sing the same words to every song:

La –la Santa la-de-la-de-la

O Bethlehem’s Reindeer

La Holy Night O’ Holy Nose

You Better Be Christmas Bells

All around you, soccer moms are videotaping every second. Who exactly will ever watch this? This is a new age, we have internet and YouTube. When you are probably just a Google search away from watching a video of the most wildly improbable event you can possibly imagine; say a chimpanzee attempting to mate with a football, why would you suddenly decide that tonight would be a perfect night to watch a badly filmed video of tiny children singing, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’s Reindeer?”

Bored out of my mind, all I could do was sit there and ask myself questions. Why do schools have the acoustics of a snare drum? How do they expect a grown man to smile all the way through a Christmas pageant with nothing more fortifying than a plate full of vanilla wafers and a Dixie cup full of mystery punch? And most importnantly, exactly how much trouble can you get into if you spike the punchbowl in a pre-school?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas in New Mexico

It is Christmas in southern New Mexico. You can tell by the weather, it is unseasonably cold; it only got up to 60 degrees today. Blue skies and warm sunshine, New Mexico has the perfect winter weather. If you don’t go outside in the middle of the night, our winter’s amount to only a few cold days scattered across a couple of months. We had one of those days last week; it snowed half an inch in one day, the schools closed, people panicked as if they had never heard of snow, and then we were back to normal.

For us, snow is mainly a spectator sport; we can see it on the mountains as we play golf. Snow belongs on Christmas cards and Yankees’ heads.

But you can tell it is Christmas because all the college students have left town. It is so quiet! God knows I love my students, but it is nice to drive to work without 5 cars driving so close behind me they seem to be auditioning to become my own personal proctologist. I know a librarian who once wished the students would never return; “It would be so much easier to keep the library neat if we didn’t have all those students.”

The southwest has its own form of Christmas decorations; luminarias. A tradition that dates back to when this part of the country was part of Mexico, luminarias are small paper sacks partially filled with sand that anchors the sack and provides a base for a burning candle. My family uses a modern version, a plastic waterproof sack containing a small electric light. The traditional name for these is fakolitos.

My wife, the Doc, is unhappy that Christmas seems to become more commercialized every year. Once again, I disagree. I don’t think the holidays are commercial enough.

Let’s cut the crap, by commercialization, we are talking about money. Can you have too much money in something? There have been periods in my life when I didn’t have any money; if it had cost a dollar to go around the world, I couldn’t have reached the next county. And there have been times in my life when I was relatively flush. Trust me, flush is better.

Exactly what is supposed to be wrong with money? Somehow money has become synonymous with evil. While I have no idea where this silly idea came from, I can tell you exactly what is wrong with it. Money is nothing more or less than the present incarnation of an ancient idea. Thousands of years ago man worked and fought for meat. If you had enough, you did not starve. Today, civilization notwithstanding, modernization has simply substituted money for meat. And if you have enough, you still won’t starve. Money is meat.

So bring it on, commercialize the holidays all you want. Let’s start the Christmas season even earlier, put the tree up Halloween night. Turn Thanksgiving into a Christmas brunch, and New Years can be the morning after party. While you are at it, you can merge a few other holidays into Christmas.

Hanukkah lasts 8 days, Kwanzaa 7, but Christmas is limited to one? Let’s combine them all and shoot for 100% participation. Happy Kwanistmaskuh!

Not only would this maximize shopping time, but it would eliminate all the false pretenses that have cropped up lately by the university and most stores about Christmas. Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Winter Break, my ass. Who the hell do we think we’re fooling? By combining the various holidays, all of them lose their religious significance, and we can concentrate of the business of Christmas. The expanded economic season will mean full employment, rising industrial profits, and increased tax revenue for the government.

As a first step, I believe the government should enact a Christmas stimulus package. Uncle Sam Claus can leave cash in my stocking.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Who Wants To Be A Grandfather?

Suddenly, and without much warning, I seem to be a grandfather. My son, The-Other-One, not What’s-His-Name, has managed to find a shortcut. Instead of adhering to the Brady Baby Bill with the mandatory nine month waiting period, he found a loophole and started dating a young woman with a three year old daughter. The child is tiny, like her mother, The Leprechaun.

I have to admit the child is adorable. Cute, smart, loving, and already house broken. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I am ready to be a grandfather. There was a time when I wanted a lot of children, but 30 years later, I can no longer remember why. Unlike Angelina Jolie or Madonna, I have absolutely no desire to collect the entire set.

The Munchkin has provided me with several educational moments. Just last week, she informed me that as she was too young to be an adult, she was a “little-dult.”

And I have learned an awful lot about children’s clothes. Thank God I had boys. Boys will wear a paper sack if you cut holes in it for their legs, but little dresses for a three year old cost more than the clothes I wear to work. I remember an August a few years back when both boys and I needed back-to-school clothes. From the house to the mall and back home in under an hour, we had shirts, Levis, socks, and underwear for all of us and still had money for a pizza. We only had to go to one store; Sears. My motto: Buy your clothes where you buy your drill bits.

Evidently, clothing shopping for girls of any age requires the logistical support of a D-Day landing, a trip to every store in the county, and cost as much as my first car. I had no idea that a three year old girl needed jewelry. Mark my words; the first company that introduces a line of cosmetics for toddlers will reap a fortune.

I confess most of the problems are caused by me; it seems that you can’t raise little girls the same way you do boys. With little girls, you’re not supposed to cuss, threaten an ass-whipping, or teach them to shoot craps. The consensus around the house seems to be that if I had raised a daughter she would have turned out to be a sadomasochistic psychotic whore. Maybe so, but I bet she could make a decent martini.  (Both boys learned quite early to make a great martinin, but they never understood why I had them go outside to the far corner of the yard and whisper, "Vermouth."  I like a VERY dry martini.)

With the boys, I tried constantly to fill their heads with nonsense and bullshit. No question was ever answered truthfully, and story time was always a challenge to everyone’s imagination. When cooking, I used food coloring to dye every meal into outrageous colors. For a while, the favorite meal of both boys was a dish of my own invention; Monkey Blood Chicken. Rare was the breakfast without Green Eggs and Ham. Ours was the only house where Dr. Seuss was a cookbook.

Now, suddenly, this is frowned on. The Leprechaun doesn’t like it when I tell the story about Curious George and the Electric Fence. I’m not supposed to say that raspberries are actually blood clots. And personally, I thought it was hilarious when I had the Munchkin searching the house for our new pet, the Mexican Barking Spider.

I will admit the little-dult is adorable. She climbed into my lap and asked me if I would be her Grandpa Mark. I was so touched; I told her the story, Mr. Fork Marries Miss Electric Outlet.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Rules for a Happy Marriage

It seems impossible, but I have been happily married for over 35 years. This incredible record is probably a result of the marriage of the two most stubborn people in the world. Still, I do have a few words of advice for people considering committing marriage.

First, rules for the men. Years ago, my father gave me three great rules for marriage, and for the most part, I have followed them.

The first rule. Give your wife her own desk, and stay out of it. No matter what file you are missing, no matter how much you need a stamp, stay out of that desk drawer. This is not to give your wife a certain amount of privacy; it is actually to save you from losing your temper. Trust me, there are things in that desk that you really do not want to know about.

The second rule. This rule is very much like the first, but much harder to follow. Never, never, never look into your wife’s purse. Boy, this is hard. No matter how much you need her keys, or anything else, never put your hand in that purse. Take it to her and let her root around in that bag. Not only will you be respecting your wife’s privacy, but it is much safer. The inside of a woman’s purse is about as sanitary as a public toilet in Juarez. Can you imagine the infection that could come from a paper cut contaminated with a 20 year accumulation of rancid makeup mixed with petrified breath mints?

There is a hidden benefit in the second rule. In exchange for never violating the sanctity of the purse, men receive the right of cargo. This means that when asked, wives are supposed to carry something in the purse without complaint. My wife, The Doc, has to be reminded on a regular basis about the right of cargo.

The third rule. Inarguably the most important rule. If for any reason you find that during an argument your wife is demonstrably wrong and you are right; say about the capitol of Turkey or something else you can prove by consulting a dictionary… apologize immediately. It will save time and is cheaper than flowers.

Now, the rules for women. Actually, I don’t have any rules for you. Hell, I’m not even sure that women are the same race as men. The way women like jewelry and other shiny objects they could be evolved from crows.

Still, I do have some timely holiday advice for you. Women give horrible gifts. After 35 years of marriage, counting Christmas, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and Father’s Day, I have been the recipient of over 175 such gifts. Frankly, most of them sucked. The Doc, my wife, certainly was trying to give me a good gift, but she has no idea what to give me. Talking to my married friends, it turns out that this is a common problem. So here are the guidelines:

1. Don’t give us clothes unless you think you are married to a metrosexual. If your husband, like me, is not really sure what that word means, he doesn’t want clothes. Most mornings, I just wear what’s next in the closet. My wife once gave me a pink shirt with no pockets, and while it was a poor shirt, it made great rags for cleaning my guns.

2. Almost any man will be grateful for a new electric drill. I have nine, five of them cordless, nevertheless, I would be delighted to get a tenth.

3. Sporting goods are a great idea. Guns, fishing poles, golf clubs, or anything else in this vein. One caution, unless you actually go shooting, fishing, or golfing with your husband, don’t pick out the gift yourself. Ask his best friend to help you. (And Honey, if you are reading this, Chuck knows exactly which Ruger Single Action in .45LC with a 5 ½ inch barrel I want.)

4. Ladies, if you can’t bring yourself to buy any of the above, here is a sure fire winner. You will have to trust me on this, because you won’t understand it, this is a Y linked chromosome gift. Go to the hardware store and buy him 50 feet of good rope. I asked most of my male friends, and almost all of them said they would trade their last birthday gift for 50 feet of good rope.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Death by Stephen King

About 20 years ago, I had to make a series of trips across the state of New Mexico for business. I forget how many times I drove up and down I-25 from one end to the other. This is beautiful country, but after you have seen it a few times, you are mostly aware of the long periods of time with nothing out there.

It was at the end of the summer, and I was getting a late start as I headed north in my pickup. By the time I passed the chili fields of Hatch, it was very dark. The night sky in New Mexico is always fantastic, either the lack of lights make the constellations seem to leap out at you or as it was that night, the summer storms produce unbelievably beautiful lightning.

If you have never seen desert lightning, the blackness suddenly pierced by blinding flashes that reveal the mountains and valleys… well, you probably live someplace where you should stay. We don’t need any more damn Yankees living here. Don’t move here, you wouldn’t like it anyway. You wouldn’t believe how many square miles we have without a Starbucks. Hell, the entire state only has a single Costco, and its 200 miles away.

Somewhere north of the town of Truth or Consequences, I began to notice that my headlights were getting dim, evidently my alternator had died and the truck was running off the battery. Miles from a town, all I could really do was select the spot where I would spend the night. I couldn’t even pull the pickup very far off the road, but I stopped on the top of hill where when the lightning cooperated, I could see Elephant Butte Lake off in the distance with the mountains behind.

Too far to walk to the next town, well out of cell phone range in those days, all I could do was sit and wait for the highway patrol to find me. I raised the hood, tied a white rag to the hood, moved over to the passenger seat and tried to get comfortable. I like to drive off road, and in case of trouble, I carry a lot of gear in my truck, I had more than everything I needed, I even had a book to read.

I have and will read anything, behind the seat I had stowed a Stephen King novel. Horror books aren’t my usual style, but since I had never read one of King’s books, I was looking forward to trying one. I positioned a candle on the opened glove compartment door, lit it and began to read the book. Wow, that was a great book.

Each truck that went down that highway rattled the truck. Every few minutes I would get so absorbed into the book that I would forget where I was, but a sudden flash of lightning through the high desert air would bring me back to my senses. Stephen, you are a master, I was scared silly. If someone had walked up to my truck and knocked on the window, I probably wouldn’t have lived long enough to write this. Death by Stephen King.

At one point, either the thunder or the passing of one of those eighteen wheelers shook my tiny pickup so violently that the candle fell over. The fall didn’t put the candle out and I didn’t even notice this until the dash caught fire and the fumes from the burning plastic got my attention.

I never got any sleep that night; I spent the entire night reading that book, finishing a few hours after the sun came up. The highway patrol had been busy with a wreck on another highway, all together; I spent about 14 hours before they found me and arranged for a tow truck to take me back to Truth or Consequences. The highway patrolman felt bad about the delay in finding me, he didn’t seem to understand why I was happy about the night I spent on the side of the road or why I wouldn’t have wanted to have been found any sooner.

Horror books will never be my favorite, but I have read several Stephen King books since then. And though he’s a great author, I don’t think he can write a book that will compare with the first one I read.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cargo Cult Comes to New Mexico

During World War II, various Melanesian and New Guinea islands were suddenly confronted with the advanced technology of both the Japanese and American armies as they invaded and set up airbases. The islanders marveled at the technology the soldiers brought with them. To a stone age culture, even a trash dump must have seemed like a wonderland. Think 1989 and East Germans running through into West Berlin. Think kid in a toy store. Think my wife in a jewelry store.

To the islanders, this was a perpetual Christmas. They thought the planes were messengers from the gods bearing wonderful gifts. Too soon for the islanders, the war ended. The planes flew away and the strange men left. The islanders waited and neither the men or the gifts from the sky ever returned. Obviously, the gods were angry. There was only one thing to do; copy the behavior of the soldiers so as to attract the planes again.

So the natives dutifully built bamboo replicas of planes, painted USA on their chest, made fake headsets out of coconuts, and even constructed a bamboo control tower. They lit signal fires and waved signal flags on the runways. All to attract the planes. Sounds sort of like an episode of Gilligan’s Island where the Captain and the Professor build an airport.

Anthropologists call this a Cargo Cult; where magical thinking and ritualized practices are supposed to produce quick wealth. In New Mexico, we call this the Spaceport.

Several years ago, our state managed to convince the voters to raise taxes in order to build a spaceport in Southern New Mexico. This is a poor state, there are few jobs, and most young people who get a degree in our state promptly leave the state for a job somewhere else. In an effort to jump start the economy, we started our own cargo cult. If we built a spaceport, the rockets would come. A multimillion dollar industry would land from the sky.

If you build It, they will come. I think I’ve heard this before. Unfortunately, so have the states of Virginia, Wisconsin, Alaska, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona. All of these states, and a few other countries, are building spaceports. And several of these have actually launched numerous successful rockets. So far, New Mexico has a nice concrete pad and nothing much to show for the proposed $225 million dollar project.

Well, that’s not quite true, we can show that we raised taxes, and starting next month you can go on a tour of the site. Save your money and just imagine a large rectangular concrete pad in the middle of a desert. And we have launched a few rockets, a few even worked. We launched James Doohan’s (Scotty from StarTrek) ashes. The rocket fell into the mountains and for a while was lost. Scotty would have done better to beam off.

But, we have a tenant. Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic has signed a million dollar a year lease for 5 years. It is heartwarming to think that by the year 2234 we will break even, if he continues the lease. I think Branson has found another virgin.

Well, if it is any consolation, he found another one in Sweden. He signed a contract with them, too.

New Mexico needs jobs, but we don’t want to do the things that will help jobs come here; lower business taxes, repeal closed shop legislation, reduce property taxes, etc. I guess there is nothing wrong with a cargo cult, but I wish we could have just built it out of bamboo. I don’t mind if the governor wants to run around the desert waving signal flags, but why does it cost $225 million?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Travels With My Family

Oh, the joys of travel. I can remember a time where people put on their Sunday finest if they were traveling by airliner. Not a plane, an airliner, a word that conjures up an image of the dignity of traveling on a cruise ship of a hundred years ago. The important word here was dignity. ‘Was’ as in past tense. Today, traveling by plane is more like being sentenced to the county jail for the weekend.  Complete with the strip search.

Is it even possible to enjoy traveling by air anymore? The cost, the delays, the brain dead security, and the overcrowding are bad enough, but the true terrors of traveling are your own family.

My own very real brush with hell was a Christmas flight to visit my wife’s family. Not only would we take the boys, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, but we were taking Aunt Dingbat. Once a bright, incredibly talented woman whom I was proud to have as a friend, she had been turned into Aunt Dingbat by dementia. While this sounds unnecessarily cruel, it is important to realize that the previous tenant has moved out of the familiar body and the present squatter has no resemblance to the previous treasured member of the family.

Okay, I am a little cruel, but personally, if I don’t do it this way, all the great memories I have of a wonderful person will be replaced by memories of a clown.

So, there we were, traveling with small children and Aunt Dingbat. The children are bad enough; since even a trip to the grocery store and back requires that you tote enough luggage, baby bottles, and diaper bags that you resemble an African safari attempting to locate King Solomon’s Mine. If I had it all to do over again, I would buy stock in the parent company of Pampers before we had the children.

We checked Aunt Dingbat out of Our Lady of Perpetual Motion’s Home for the Habitually Stupid and made our way to the airport with just enough time left to catch the last seats on a late flight to Dallas Love Field. I’m not going to tell you about dragging this group through airport security, since we all know it is too ineffective to catch a drunken moose. I was once held up by security for over an hour for the sin of carrying a fountain pen. The security guard had never even heard of one before.  Would someone please try to strangle a pilot with a bra?  If we have to undress at airport security, I want to see something come off more interesting than feet.

The flight was delayed by bad weather, the flight was bumpy, and every child onboard, including mine, was screaming. We arrived late, so late that the rental car company was obviously doing me a courtesy by waiting for me to show up and claim the car I had reserved. Since the flight was on the ground, I reasoned the worst was over, my luck was changing.

I had rented the largest land yacht available, a real pimpmobile. I told myself that I wanted a car big enough to handle two child seats, five people, and a mountain of luggage, but in reality I was trying to rent a little dignity. Maybe a luxury car would make up for the fact that I had just flown on a cattle car to the colicky baby convention.

As I drove back to the airport from the car rental office to pick up my family, I could see the lights in the terminal building turning off. It was midnight; Merry Christmas.

I parked in front of the deserted airport where my family was waiting, hit the button on the dash to open the trunk, set the heater on high to warm the car, and got out to begin loading the trunk. I ran around to the passenger side of the car and opened the front door for Aunt Dingbat, then started to tackle a mountain of luggage.

Aunt Dingbat was impressed with the car. She leaned over, resting one hand on door’s armrest and admired the leather interior. “Wow,” she said. “This is nice.”

Then she stood up, hitting the door lock button, stepped back, and firmly shut the door, locking us out of the car. The key was in the ignition, the engine was running, the airport was deserted, and we were screwed.

Want a silver lining? The trunk was open. I got to pick the window I broke with the tire tool.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Winter Campaign

Even here in southern New Mexico, winter eventually came. It snowed on the mountains and got down to freezing here in the valley. Personally, I’m against it. I would prefer an endless summer. I don’t even want ice in my scotch, and as for snow, it belongs on Yankees and Christmas cards.

Hot is good. That’s why I live in New Mexico, hot means cold beer while reading a book next to the pool. Summer is warm nights on the deck, meals on the patio, and green grass and flowers. Then winter comes. I wish Congress would quit trying to build a fence to close the border with Mexico. Instead, let’s spend the money on weather stripping the Canadian border. Cold means… freezing your ass off. Winter is raking up leaves, cleaning the fire place and dead gardens. Cold means stockpiling weapons-grade hot chocolate and an icy wind as cold as a mother-in-laws heart.

And I know exactly who to blame; my wife.

Women are in charge of the weather. I can prove it; after 35 years of marriage, I know exactly what I am in charge of. I could hardly forget, as it’s a short list. First, and this is most important, I am in charge of bugs. All bugs, everywhere, are my responsibility. Secondly, I am in charge of busted plumbing. And last, I am in charge of loud noises after dark. That’s it, three responsibilities, and I do them pretty well, although I admit my wife thinks I could do more in the bug prevention department.

Naturally, if that is all I am responsible for, my wife must bear responsibility for everything else. And that includes weather.

Lately, my wife has decided to up the ante and make this winter business so much more difficult. For a variety of reasons, my wife has decided that her favorite toy is the thermostat. The joystick on the boy’s Playstation doesn’t get as much action as that thermostat. I go to bed in a warm bedroom and wake up in the middle of the night to find the heater turned off, the windows open, and two cats trying to build a nest between my knees. Why do the cats love me? You can sum it up in two words; body heat.

I checked on the boys, What’s-His-Name was under three blankets and showing early signs of hypothermia. The-Other-One, obviously his mother’s son was sleeping soundly in his underwear. He didn’t have a blanket, What’s-His-Name had stolen it.

Sometime during the night my wife had decided it was too hot and turned off the heater. Evidently, she quickly changed her mind, because by the time I had woken up half frozen, she had decided to wear a sweater and wrap herself up in the comforter that had originally covered both of us.

In the temperature wars, I decided to start an arms race; I bought a new thermostat. It took me a while to find the right model; I bought the computerized Swiss army knife of thermostats. I have seen airplanes with fewer controls and buttons. Insanely difficult to use, you can program it to adjust the heater to a preset temperature four times a day. After memorizing and then hiding the instruction manual, I set the thermostat to reset every two hours all night long. If my wife turns the heater off, by the time the house cools off, the thermostat will reset itself and turn the heater back on.

My victory was only temporary. Somehow, my wife through trial and error is starting to understand how that thermostat works. I need a new strategy. An electric blanket with a combination lock? Bigger cats?

My current plan is to look for an additional pair of computerized thermostats. I figure if I replace the current model with a new one, then keep rotating them every couple of weeks, winter will be over before she figures out how to run them.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trick or Treat by the Book

In 1976, I worked for a large book publisher based out of New York. What a wonderful job. I read books, drove a company car, and talked to the owners of book stores about our forthcoming titles. Not only did I get paid for this, I had an expense account.

Occasionally, I was asked to read advance copies of books and try to predict how they would sell in Texas. In two years, I doubt if any of the reports I turned in were as accurate as a New Mexico weather forecast. Frankly, I was horrible. If I liked a book, the author probably couldn’t give a copy to his own mother. And without exception, the books I hated not only sold well, but ended up as major motion pictures starring Harrison Ford.

I have no idea why I wasn’t fired, as I had the kind of accuracy you normally associate with a government agency. Unless the editors routinely did the opposite of whatever I said…well, perhaps that’s possible.

Meanwhile, totally oblivious to the fact that I was a black hole of marketing advice, my biggest problem was my expense account. It was too big. Seriously, the home office in New York routinely sent me notices wondering why I wasn’t spending more money. No one seemed to understand the difference between a 5th Avenue hotel and a motel room in the valley of Texas.

Padre Island at spring break is crowded, noisy, and expensive. During January it is abandoned. I once rented the Honeymoon Suite just outside of Corpus Christi for $14 a night. And the room came with a private pool.

I was expected to entertain, and I certainly tried my best. Unfortunately, you could take half of Beeville, Texas to the diner for a chicken fried steak and still not put a dent in a hundred dollar bill. Even if you took someone to the steak house, the most expensive drink on the menu was a bottle of Dr. Pepper; most of Texas was still dry. An exotic beverage was a can of Coors beer smuggled in from another state.

One day, a book store called me with an unusual problem. There was a brand new thriller out in paperback by an author who is still widely read to this day, and yes, I hated the book, and yes, it became a movie that you have probably seen.  In any case, the bookstore had ordered 40 copies but they had received 40 cases or 920 too many books.

At that time, a paperback cost about a nickel to make, hardly worth the cost or trouble to ship back. My boss asked if I knew anyone with a truck. (Yeah, that was a tough one, who in Texas would own a pickup?) My boss instructed me to take the books to the dump and dispose of them.

Impossible. I like books; I would rather have taken infants to the dump. I took them home and put them in my garage. 920 copies of the same book, any one of which was an insult to trees everywhere. This caused a little trouble in my home, my wife kept giving me what I call the Gregor Mendel look. This is the wide-eyed stare you get when your spouse suddenly realizes you will donate half the genes to your future children.

Ahh, but I had a clever plan. I explained to her that Halloween was coming and these books could be given out to the children who came to our door. At the time, we lived in a suburban area of San Antonio. At Halloween, hundreds of kids came to our door. This was a kinder and gentler time before we realized that children should be kept at home and locked in a closet for their own well-being.

Come Halloween night, the plan worked pretty well. Every kid who came to the door got candy, and a brand new paperback book. I gave away hundreds of books, and felt pretty good about it. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest book in the world, but it was a book. I was advancing reading and the love of the printed word. I was a hero.

These good feelings lasted all night long, right up to the point where I got into my car to drive to work. As far as the eye could see, up and down the street, books were in bushes, on rooftops, in gutters…

It took me hours to round them all up.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Raising Small Children Redux

There is an old and somewhat dark story about a very wealthy couple obsessed with the safety of their soon to be born first child.  The daily newspapers were filled with reports of accidents and horrible reports of the dangers that awaited their new child.

Realizing that the chance of their child surviving and reaching adulthood was simply a gamble, the couple decided to spare no expense to insure the absolute safety of their newborn.  They purchased a remote property where a massive bunker was dug into the side of a hill.  The bunker was a combination of hospital and home where an infant could be born and raised in absolute safety.  When the child was born, he breathed purified air, ate a perfectly balanced diet, and was daily attended by nurses, teachers, dieticians, and doctors in a home as free from all dangers as could possibly be arranged.  He lived in rubber rooms, never saw a sharp object, or experienced the slightest risk.

The child lived, grew, and thrived in this perfect world until finally his twenty-first birthday arrived, the day when he was to finally step out into the real world.  The young man stood in front of the giant double steel doors as they slowly creaked open, revealing a new world where the young man was to enter for the first time.

And when the doors finally opened, the young man promptly died as his heart gave out from the excitement.

Raising children is always like this.   No matter what you try, you cannot keep the little monsters safe.  When our first son, What’s-His-Name, was born, we certainly tried.  I think I boiled everything in the house except the cat.  By the time the second one was born, The-Other-One, I’d let the boys play with power tools.  I had learned you can’t keep children safe.

It was a lesson that I had to learn, and relearn every few months.  Perhaps the best lesson was the tree-climbing incident. 

Our back yard was built on the edge of a small cliff, and while the rock wall surrounding the yard is several feet high, if you were to manage to go over the wall, it’s about a 20-foot drop.  One day, when the boys were about 6 and 8, they had been playing quietly in the back yard for about 15 minutes.  This is always a bad sign: boys are not naturally quiet.  So I looked out, and there they were, about a dozen feet up a tree and out on a limb that stretched out over the wall.  Say, roughly about 30 feet down to the neighbor’s concrete driveway.

I admit it, I chickened out.  I convinced them to come inside and play in their room.  Not an hour earlier, I had told them to go outside and play; now I wanted them to come in.  This is not terribly consistent, but as I explained in my earlier post on raising children, the true secret of raising children is to be larger and meaner than them.  Both boys went to their room and played.

They played for about 15 minutes before I heard a loud thud followed by, “Ow!”

If you carefully link several belts together and throw it over the top shelf of the closet and hook it on a nail in the back wall of the closet…   Yeah, you can climb onto the top shelf.  At least until The-Other-One pushed What’s-His-Name off.  He fell five feet onto a thick carpet and broke both bones in his wrist. 

Should have left the little bastards up in the tree.

There were many, many refresher courses on this subject.  What’s-His-Name totaled my truck 25 feet past the railroad tracks while giving a young lady a ride home from school.  This makes perfect sense when you learn she had a large chest and no bra.  I couldn’t even get mad at him, as 30 years ago I used to speed up for railroad tracks when his mother rode in my car.

One day, coming home from work, I saw The-Other-One on the roof of the house.  With my lawn mower.  I just drove right by and kept on going.  Didn’t come back for over an hour.  To this day, I don’t know what he was doing and I don’t want to know.

My wife and kids and I went camping at Carlsbad.  We had two tents, Karen and I in one, while the boys shared the other.  In the middle of the night, I woke up when I heard The-Other-One say, “Nice Kitty.”  I looked out; he was petting a skunk.  I went back to sleep.

I once got a phone call from the local police at 3:00 in the morning.  It was raining heavily and while the policeman personally thought it was really cool, would I please stop my sons before any more people complained?  Seems the boys were waterskiing behind my pickup as it drove up and down a flooded street.

I’ll boil it down for you; Milliorn’s Rule of Child Raising:  Children have a right to be eaten by bears. 

As surely as missionaries should be eaten by natives.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Missionaries, the Other White Meat

Missionaries devote their lives to selfless sacrifice and working for a higher power. Naturally, I hate them.

And why shouldn’t I? Instead of them bothering poor helpless people in some jungle where if they don’t behave themselves the natives could at least eat them, I usually see missionaries when they stand at my front door. I really wouldn’t mind the intrusion if I, too, were given the option of slow roasting the more obnoxious.

Sadly, the local gentle customs will not even allow me to chase them from my yard with a garden hose. If you think about it, this isn’t fair to the missionary, either. Missionaries have a God given right to be eaten by natives, and I firmly believe that we should oblige them. Without the risk of suddenly becoming part of a balanced diet, a missionary turns into nothing more than a Mary Kay lady with an empty sample case.

Have you ever considered exactly what these people are doing when they show up at your home? You are minding your own business, in your own home when uninvited guests intrude on your privacy by ringing your doorbell. You open the door to discover a pair of slack-jawed yokels who appear to be about as mentally acute as empty buckets.

Next, the pair of them begin to explain to you that your moral philosophy, your sense of ethics, in short the personal code that makes you who you are, is wrong. More importantly, you must adopt their views as your own. At this point, in any truly civilized society, a garden hose would be required by law.

A missionary doesn’t know anything about you; for all he knows, you may belong to the same faith, might even go to the same church. All he really knows for certain is that you are wrong while he is right.

What makes missionaries so certain they are correct while you are completely ignorant? It is not because they have achieved any great success in any realm of their own personal life. No, most missionaries are convinced they alone are morally and spiritually gifted because either they were chosen by God himself to be born into the one true faith, or they have discovered it within the last six months.

My university has various missionaries that arrive annually as the weather pushes them south for the winter. Where Capistrano has swallows, and Hinckley has their buzzards, we have Reverend Jed, the prodigal moron. Reverend Jed is passionate about preaching his personal version of holy hatred, a message that he delivers at campuses around the country.

Several years ago, as I leaving the classroom, I found Reverend Jed surrounded by my students. This particular day his sermon was on the various evils of women. He pointed a long, bony finger at me and screamed, “Women in pants are an abomination!”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “Women should be removed from their pants whenever possible.”

Of course, this doesn’t faze a missionary. Anyone who has regular communication from his very own personal imaginary friend cannot be bothered with reality. When you are on a holy mission, people expect you to have the manners of a steamroller and the empathy of a plague.

This is what is so scary about a missionary. Did you ever notice that if you admit to hearing voices, they label you a schizophrenic? But if those voices are God speaking only to you, you’re just being pious.

Why is it that when God gives these people personal instructions, they always seem to be such self serving, if not loony, orders? I have a suggestion; if you think you hear God talking directly to you, perhaps you should ask for a written confirmation, or at the very least, wait for the burning bush. If there really is a spiritual and heavenly message system, I suspect some people are only reading their spam mail.

Years ago, I worked out a foolproof tactic to deal with the missionaries who come to my door. Invite them into your house, sit them in the living room, and offer them a cold beer; as long as there are two or more of them, they’ll refuse. Don’t accidentally make this offer to a single missionary, you’ll quickly run out of beer.

Then drag up a chair and sit next to one of them. Invade their personal space, get as close as possible while you stare into their eyes. And most importantly, before they can start their spiel, you say; “Have you ever considered the inner peace and infinite joy that could be yours if you would just accept Satan into your life?”

It is very unlikely you will see them again.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Coffee in the Morning

I need coffee in the morning; it is not exactly an option. I’ve been known to chew coffee beans to wake up enough to remember how to use the coffee pot. My one true talent is sleeping, but this talent does not include waking up.

I rarely make my own coffee, thankfully, the munchkins at work make it for me. Since neither drinks coffee, they don’t mind making it strong enough to induce heart tremors. Wonderful! Coffee should not only have a flavor, it should be felt in the chest.

Sadly, I think the true enjoyment of drinking coffee is vanishing. I seem to be the one of the few who still truly enjoy a cup of Joe. Oh, half my class shows up every morning carrying something from Starbucks, but a half-decaf-double-mocha-skinny-fat-crappachino hardly qualifies as coffee. It’s more like a hot milk shake.

If you truly like the taste of coffee, why put all that crap into it? You put enough milk, sugar, cinnamon, and chocolate sprinkles into 30 weight motor oil and it won’t taste bad either.

Coffee is usually one of the things professors list when someone mentions “poor students.” Somehow, a student carrying a cell phone that cost more than my first car, an Ipod, and a $5 designer coffee does not exactly fall into the category of poor.

Have you ever wondered why coffee is called a cup of Joe? There is a great story that Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels outlawed alcohol on US naval ships in 1914, ending the long tradition of grog and rum. Since the strongest drink left on ships was coffee, they called it a cup of Joe in his honor.
This is a great story, not true, but still a great story. That’s okay. I’ve always believed that there is so little truth in the world that we shouldn’t waste it, we should use it sparingly.

So, unofficially, I can tell you there are five grades of coffee; Coffee, Java, Joe, Jamoke, and Carbon Remover. On any given day, I’m happy to have anything in the top three categories. The bottom two can only be made by true coffee illiterates; tea drinkers, the US Army, and Mormons.

I didn’t believe another category was possible, at least I had always believed this until today. Now, I can now add to the top of the list; Peaberry. I don’t mean the chain of coffee shops; I’m talking about a type of coffee.

Peaberry, or caracoli, is when the coffee cherry produces a single seed instead of the usual double. With more space to develop, the bean is pea shaped. Since the bean is rounded and lacks edges, the bean roasts more evenly. In all, the taste is far more intense and robust.

Robust is putting it mildly. Think coffee on steroids. Coffee good enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. Strong enough to grow hair on a billiard ball.

Unfortunately, it is expensive enough that you may have to finance your first cup.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

When Pigs Fly

Is it just my university or is everyone going crazy over the H1N1 flu? All this while the Center for Disease Control tells us that this particular flu may not be as bad as the regular flu. So why are we close to a panic?

Isn’t it possible that people with mundane lives are desperately seeking some drama. It’s either that, are the world as we know it is half way down the storm drains of hell. I think some people would prefer a little catastrophic disaster than continue their boring lives.

So, the university has published disaster plans, flu advisories, H1N1 warning letters, and my personal favorite; an email that tells us to develop a three-deep roster in case key personnel become ill.

This is several impossible things. First, that a university strapped for cash would have three people capable of doing the same job. Second, if there were two people in the department that could do my job, I’d admit it. And probably most important, if this flu season turns out to be so bad that the first two people on the roster were sick, the third listed person would be willing to come to work.

If that many of the faculty are out sick, the remaining healthy ones will be hiding under their beds with a pair of panty hose over their heads in lieu of surgical masks.

Still I want to do my part.  I have two work study students; the Munchkins. One works in the lab in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Today, at lunch, while the two Munchkins overlapped, I called them into my office and explained our departmental health safety plan.

“If you think you might have any of the symptoms of the flu,” I said, “you still need to come to work. Just place a plastic bag over your head and secure it firmly around your neck with duct tape. Be sure the bag is clear, the university has told me several times they believe in transparency.”

Then, in case either of them actually got the flu, I gave them both a short list of the faculty office doorknobs I wanted them to spit on. No one can say that I am not prepared.

These plans won’t work and I know it. You probably cannot count on the average Munchkin to do her patriotic duty to prevent the flu from spreading. I’ll bet you anything they won’t wear a bag. I wonder how long they can hold their breath.

If there is a flu epidemic, the faculty are doomed. Each and every student, at least in my opinion, carries more germs than an open trench sewer in Belize. And they all sit there; mouths open, staring at their instructors. Each of those mouths is a virus cannon just waiting for a cough to fire their deadly salvo at the innocent instructor standing helplessly at the front of the room. We need body armor.

While I won’t get body armor, the university has plans to place large bottles of hand sanitizer at strategic locations. I am sure that someone, besides me, has already thought of sabotaging those bottles by adding a little super glue. That would almost make the entire epidemic worth while.

And you can count on me to believe this nonsense just as soon as pigs fly. Or in this case, swine flew.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

21st Century Technology with 18th Century People

Have you noticed that the world we live in has changed dramatically? The future is now; all around us we have the technology that 20 years ago was only available in science fiction. This technology would be fantastic if it wasn’t being used by cavemen. We have Version 2.0 gadgets with Version 1.0 people.

It’s not a lack of education; the people around me have the kind of crazy ideas that could only be the result of higher education. These are people with a great engine under the hood, but it’s a real shame they don’t have their hands on the steering wheel. How else can you explain why a colleague of mine was recently found standing in front of the copier "creating" blank paper by copying his last remaining blank page?

Arthur C. Clarke once said that technology sufficiently advanced was indistinguishable from magic. For my colleague, the copier must have been the supernatural.

Email has to be the best example of good technology used badly. Sure, I get a few good emails every day. When you consider that Napoleon lost at Waterloo because he couldn’t send a message 15 miles, it is remarkable that I can receive messages from around the world almost instantaneously. Somewhere along the line, however, we over did it. I get hundreds of ridiculous emails every week, and I’m not even talking about the spam.

At one time, I used to believe the least democratic device ever invented was a jukebox. A room full of people could be enjoying some peace and quiet only to have interrupted by a moron with a quarter. The musical taste of the biggest jackass in the room could override the desires of everyone as long as the jackass had two bits. I realize now that email is worse; one person can send 200 people an email asking the bureaucratic equivalent of where your lap goes when you stand up. And each and every one of us has no choice except to answer. There is not enough time in the day to answer every email. Email is not work, but has sure as hell replaced it.

Cell phones have to be just about as bad. Do we really have to be in constant contact with each other? The first time I got a phone call while rabbit hunting, I damn near shot my phone. Why do I pay to carry a box that delivers a steady stream of bad news and intrudes on my privacy wherever I go? Why do we want to stay in touch 24 hours a day, when we obviously have so little to say? I can text, twitter, instant message, facebook, email, and call my wife. And presumably tell her the great events that have transpired in the two hours since I left the house. News so monumental that it could not wait the 8 hours until I return?

Back when I sold computers for a living, my service technicians used to be amused by how infrequently they actually had to work on anything when they went on a service call. This was called the “No Screwdriver Required” call. The two biggest complaints were “It don’t Print” and “It don’t work.” We had codes for this on the service tickets: IDP and IDW. Usually IDW meant the electrical cord was not plugged in while IDP meant the printer was not online. Privately, we called these “Operator Headspace Errors” or if we could be overheard, ID-10-T malfunctions.

All of this is probably not anyone’s fault. No one understands the machines we all own. We all have thermostats, Ipods, and home entertainment systems that would baffle a NASA engineer. Why did my newest computer come without a manual but my new blender has an operators instruction booklet 70 pages long? My oven has features Julia Child never dreamed of and probably wouldn’t want.

There is probably no real solution for any of this. I doubt we will start school courses in beginning technology in elementary school, if for no other reason than a lack of teachers who understand the subject. This brings us back to Arthur C. Clarke and his quote about advanced technology being magic. Have you noticed that the people we used to call “geeks”’ are now called “wizards” on a regular basis?

I think my university should just run with this idea. Change the name of the engineering school to “Hogwarts School of Industrial Magic.” Enrollment would go up. Issue every student a new wand/screwdriver. At least we would have more wizards around. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why is the Grass Greener?

Michael Pollan once described Nature as a war between grass and trees. Agriculture was man’s enlisting in that war on the side of grass. It’s a brilliant concept, but in this war, my family has always been collaborators.

I don’t mean we love trees, though without a doubt we do. My parents once put a house on a lot at a strange angle just to avoid cutting down a few small trees. My wife and I have a fairly running battle about cutting a few limbs off trees in our yard. No, by collaboration, I mean my family has a constant love/hate affair with our lawn.

My father loved a great big lawn, partly because he loved croquet, and partly because he never had to mow the damn grass. The only part of this chore my father enjoyed was the lawnmower. He loved to find them, buy them, and then kill them. Dad only bought used mowers, a collection as large as his made new mowers impossible. He would read the want ads carefully, looking for a great bargain, then drag the new machine home in his pickup.

Dad would not stop shopping just because we already had several mowers; we needed a fairly constant supply of new mowers. There was always a wide assortment and not a single damn one of them could be counted on to run. For the life of me, I cannot understand how the same man who maintained four engine bombers during the war could not keep a two cycle lawnmower running long enough to last a summer. If the Army Air Corps had maintained their planes in this same manner, this blog would be written in Japanese.

New, or mostly new, lawnmowers arrived on a regular basis; healthy, vigorous, and sturdy. Within a few weeks, they would begin to cough, smoke, and shake. Obviously, they had caught the disease. Unfortunately, the disease was uniformly fatal, none recovered. All too soon, they would join the elephant’s graveyard collection behind the garage.

Still, there was always at least one working mower. I was never lucky enough to escape the mind numbingly boring and useless task of giving our yard a haircut. How many hours have been wasted by men going around and around in a circle just to make grass a little shorter? My father had a very large, and mostly square, field with trees around the edges. That large empty area took me hours to mow while I baked in the sun.

One day, I had a sudden inspiration. At the time, the working mower was self propelled. I laid the mower on its side, and then carefully measured the width of the blade. Then I drove four stakes into the ground as close to the middle of the field as I could. This part has to be done carefully; the circumference of the four stakes needs to be about 2 inches less than the width of the blade. I tied one end of a long rope to one of the stakes, the other end I tied to an eyebolt I put through the front right corner of the lawnmower chasis. Then I started the mower and let go of it.

The beauty and simplicity of the idea! It went round and round the stakes all by itself! Each rotation brought it closer and closer to the middle of the field as the ropes wound around the stakes. It was doing my work, without me! I was the first twelve year old boy ready to receive the Nobel Prize in lawn mowing.

At least until my father came home for lunch. I was sitting under a tree reading a book, occasionally glancing up at the mower working all by itself, rarely since then have I felt more contented and happy. My father was of a different mind. Simply put, he was furious.

I was committing a cardinal sin, I was not working. No part of work included sitting in the shade idly reading a book, I was violating a deeply buried legacy of the Puritan Work Ethic; working effectively meant you had to suffer. And didn’t I know how dangerous this was? That mower could have cut its own rope, escaped and gone rampaging through the neighborhood. The mower moved about as fast as a crippled hearse horse and I would have had to fill the tank a few times to reach the nearest neighbor, but still… My father obviously rescued Austin from being mowed to death.

I dismantled my invention and went back to mowing in the sun. Somewhere during the countless hours of standing behind that mower I undoubtedly came to the conclusion that someday I would earn my living reading books and not working in the sun.

I was only half right. Today, I don’t have to sit under a tree to read. My office is air conditioned. And I make my two sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One mow the yard.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Recently, I asked one of my classes if they knew what Juneteenth was. I was fairly happy to learn that no one had any idea what the date commemorated. This is New Mexico, not Texas, but the state border is not that far away. At long last, the event is beginning to leave our public consciousness.

Normally, I’m not thrilled when gross examples of public stupidity are on display. Jay Leno used to do a bit called Jay Walking where he would walk down a public street and ask people the kind of questions a hamster on crack should be able to answer. It’s a funny bit on television, but it is too much like my job. I’ve had more than one student ask, “Which side was the Confederacy? The North or the South?”

Juneteenth started in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. The Civil War was over and the day before, General Granger and several thousand Federal troops had arrived to take possession of the state. While the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1863, no one told the slaves. Cruelly, no one told them even after the war was over until General Granger showed up. I imagine a few newly freed slaves may have been a little unhappy with their former owners.

“What do you mean? You forgot to tell me?!”

And for many years, Juneteenth turned into a celebration sometimes called Emancipation Day. While 31 states officially recognize the holiday, it has been pretty much forgotten.

In 1962, it was a little different. My family lived in a small town where if there were racial tensions, they were certainly invisible to a 9 year old boy. Frankly, I rarely saw black people, few lived in our town. I can’t remember anyone ever mentioning them. Then one day, my parents had some sort of business in Ft. Worth. I begged and begged and finally was allowed to accompany them. Even better, I was to be dropped at the Ft. Worth Zoo while they took care of their business.

I loved the Ft. Worth Zoo. This was my favorite place on earth. ELEPHANTS! MONKEYS! LIONS! I can still get excited just thinking about the place, if I shut my eyes, I can still smell it. And the Ft. Worth Zoo had an amazing device. In front of each cage was a small box that looked just like a drive-in movie speaker. For $.75, you could buy a small plastic elephant that was actually a key. You inserted the elephant’s trunk into the speaker and it would activate a recording that told you all about the animal in front of you. I think my love of technology started right then. I still have that key.

This was an innocent age, my parents thought nothing of dropping me off at the zoo while they went downtown on business. What could happen to a small child in a public place? Nothing but fun, lots of fun. I ate popcorn and put my elephant key in every speaker box at least twice. And with my trusty Timex watch, I met my parents at the entrance hours later. What a great day.

When my parents picked me up, I could tell they were a little apprehensive. Had I had a good time? Did anything happen? Was I okay? My parents had forgotten the date. When they got downtown, they saw almost no white people, and only then did they remember it was Juneteenth. In Texas, in 1962, black people still celebrated the day. This was the segregated South that I didn’t really live in, knew very little about.

On Juneteenth, Blacks could go to movie theatre and not have to sit in the balcony. They went to parks and had picnics. And they went to the zoo. Evidently, by contrast, whites stayed home and hid under their beds. I had sort of noticed that I was the only white kid at the zoo. It really didn’t concern me much, there were a lot of black people around, but they weren’t nearly as interesting as elephants.

Today, I think it is a date that needs to be remembered for what it was, and I’m happy that It is no longer needed to be celebrated for what it is.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Raising Small Children

I am one of the managing partners in the First National Bank of Dad. In other words, I have children. Don’t get me wrong, I love What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One.

I can say that with absolute certainty. I love my sons, perhaps because fathers are hard wired to love our spawn. I can remember looking down at What’s-His-Name for the first time and suddenly feeling an absolute tidal wave of true love for what, to be honest, resembled a drowned rat. And as it happened, he was slightly blue and smelled funny. At least he didn’t stay blue.

My children are grown, which puts me in the category of elder statesman when it comes to raising small children. So I am free to offer new parents advice and wisdom. And I want to do this in part because I think none of my friends are raising their tricycle motors correctly. I think raising children is easy, I probably didn’t think it was at the time, but after all, I have a notoriously bad memory.

The first rule of raising children has to be; always remember which one of you is the child. I simply do not understand parents who try to bargain or plead with their children in a forlorn hope of convincing their child to behave correctly. Who the hell is the boss? There is a reason that children start small and get bigger with time. If it was the other way around, the little bastards would have wiped us out a long time ago. Small children are terrorists and you do not negotiate with terrorists.

Children should behave in public. And if they can’t, they shouldn’t be in public. Lady, if you can’t get that brat to stop screaming in the grocery store, someone needs their ass kicked. And the child should be disciplined, too. My sons weren’t sweet little angels, but if they couldn’t keep reasonably quiet, refrain from running up and down aisles… well, the first offense resulted in 10 pushups.

My sons did a lot of pushups for a lot of reasons. And they did good ones; back straight, butt down, and the nose had to touch the floor. I counted while they did them. It was simply amazing how quickly the boys developed real skills at pushup. It wasn’t too long before they both could do a pretty good one-armed pushup.

I’m not saying that I never made mistakes, but it is incredible how fast you will learn by your mistakes. For example, I learned the first day the baby was home that you should not use the “Dipstick Method” to check for a dirty diaper. Sliding you finger between the baby’s butt and the diaper will indeed determine whether the diaper is dirty, but let’s just say there are unintended consequences.

Some of my ideas at parenting seemed inventive at the time, but field tests revealed latent flaws. The-Other-One was a natural born escape artist. Even as a toddler, he would get up out of bed in the middle of the night and do weird things. Like eat a stick of butter. That wasn’t too bad, as it says in the Bible; “This too shall pass.” I decided to thwart the little sneak by smearing the inside door handle to his room with Vaseline. The very next night, when I went into his room to check on him, he slammed the door shut while I was in his room. I used a whole box of diapers cleaning that doorknob before I could escape.

Eventually, I learned enough to realize that raising a child was exactly like housebreaking a puppy. No matter how hard you try, your puppy will sooner or later have an accident. Probably not the puppy’s fault the living room carpet looks like grass. When this happens, you talk loudly and sternly to the puppy so he knows you are mad. You shove the puppy’s nose into the mess he made so he knows what it is that made you mad. Then you paddle his butt with a rolled up newspaper so he knows that making you angry has consequences.

With children, it is pretty much the same, except that you add a step. After you paddle the child’s butt, you pick him up and hug and love him so that he knows you still love him. This has always worked, and always will.

Of course, with either puppies or children, you’re going to have to replace the carpet a lot faster than you think. Worse, while a well trained puppy will eventually make a pretty good dog, no matter what you do a child turns into a teenager.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

New Mexico State Politics

I love living in New Mexico. I love the food, the open spaces, and especially our climate. We have the best weather in the country. I even love the hot summer days and the occasional dust storms. I figure if it wasn’t for these, we’d be about ass deep in Yankees.

For years I used to think New Mexico politics was the best joke in the state. Somewhere during the last dozen years or so the joke stopped being funny. That’s a real shame, too. My favorite TV show used to be the local news. I watched everyday to see if the herd of drunken weasels we call a legislature had decided to repeal the law of gravity or mandate a 28 hour day.

For a long time, I don’t think the politicians wanted us to take them seriously. This is not hard to accomplish when your major piece of legislation is to adopt the State Official Question; “Red or Green?” If you don’t know, they are referring to which type of chile you prefer.

No longer funny, what used to be a comedy show has become a form of Greek tragedy. And like every Greek tragedy, we have formal steps. First is the prologue, where the principal actors, in our case politicians, moan the horrible condition of the state and beseech divine intervention to save us from our self-inflicted stupidity. Then a local champion is elected, is acclaimed for his heroic deeds, suffers a tremendous downfall brought on by excessive hubris, and concludes with the whole state forming a chorus to sing lamentations.

That pretty well describes half the governors that have ever served in this state. Not that we have never had a good one, there was Lew Wallace. Before we were a state, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed General Lew Wallace to be our territorial governor. Wallace didn’t believe New Mexico was a fit place for a woman; he was reluctant to have his wife accompany him. Evidently lonely, he spent most of his term writing his novel, Ben Hur. Luckily for him, his next posting was more hospitable, be took his wife with him when he was appointed to be the Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Unfortunately, New Mexico became a state in 1912, and since then we have been allowed to elect our own governors. Most people in the United States forget that New Mexico has a very small population, so being elected governor is roughly analogous to being elected mayor of a city the size of Phoenix. In the last 20 years, I have lived within a block of the homes of the mayor, two county commissioners, and the governor.

What is wrong with our state? Too damn much. You know those various polls that rank the states? We come in 43rd in intelligence, 47th in teacher salaries, 49th in per capita income, 34th in business taxes, 42nd in lifestyle, 40th in health, 48th in opportunities for small business, 4th in teen pregnancy, 1st in violent crime, etc. I wonder if there is a connection between the first two? Every time the local papers print one of these statistics, the last line in the story is; “Thank God for Mississippi.”

And without a doubt, the state of New Mexico is first when it comes to feeding at the public trough. For every dollar New Mexico pays in taxes to Washington, we get $2.03 back for public programs. It constantly amazes me that the US government does not declare war on Mexico and force them to take us back.

Our politicians do try, but their efforts are somewhat laughable. The two current plans to jumpstart an economy is for us to attract more Hollywood movies while simultaneously building a space port. We should change the state motto to “We’ll Try Anything But Hard Work.”

Look at our state capitol, the Round House. New Mexico has the only round capitol building in the nation. This, at least, the state did right. The round shape is ideal; politicians cannot be backed into a corner and can walk miles down circular halls, giving the appearance of accomplishing something while not actually getting anywhere.

I do have a few suggestions for our state. The first is relatively simple. Our politicians should follow the example of NASCAR drivers and wear patches on their suits to indicate their corporate sponsors. Every voter could tell at a glance which company owns which politician.

My second recommendation is just a little more radical. We should petition the federal government to become a territory again. By giving up statehood, we can let the president appoint our governors, closing the curtain on our Greek tragedy. We could save a lot of money on elections, and the quality of state leadership would have to improve.

Failing this, perhaps we could select our politicians the same way we get jurors; lottery. One morning, you could walk out to the mailbox and discover to your horror that you had been selected to serve a term as state senator. Chosen at random, the legislature would have to improve, hell, you could dig a pit in the desert and catch better people by accident. It would certainly eliminate the problem of term limits. There is only one small problem; how do we get the current politicians to vote for this?

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Haircuts today are nothing like they used to be. I can remember telling my mother that a haircut cost a dollar, which was actually a quarter more that it really cost. This gave me an extra quarter to spend, usually on comic books. When Batman and Spiderman were only a dime each, this left a nickel to spend on a candy bar. I had to buy the comic books one at a time, since any purchase over twenty-two cents was subject to a penny sales tax. I can remember how angry I was when the price of a comic book was raised to twelve cents each. I had to scrape together more money, usually by a careful search under the living room sofa cushions, or forget the candy bar.

In any case, I always got the haircut first. And for this I had to walk to a barbershop. Barbershops are almost gone now, replaced by salons and styling centers with cute names like ‘The Klip Shop’ or ‘Unisex Center’. This is a real shame, because barbershops weren’t about cutting hair, they were more like men’s clubs.

The barbershops of my youth were smaller than the hair salons of today. Big enough for two or three barbers, they were small narrow shops usually paneled in wood, with a row of plain chairs down one wall, and barber chairs along the other. At the front of the shop was the cash register, at the back was a shoe shine stand. Discreetly put aside in a wooden box under the shoe shine stand were magazines different from the fishing and hunting magazines liberally distributed among the chairs. Needless to say, children weren’t allowed to read the other magazines.

All along the walls were stuffed deer heads, antlers, and photographs of other hunts. The conversations among the men in the shop were usually about hunting, or fishing, or camping.

The male barbers, for there were no women cutting hair, stood behind the massive barber chairs. Each of these was a work of art. Ornate cast steel with intricate patterns of scroll work and gleaming gratings. Stuffed leather cushions. A foot rest that could be flipped back and forth between two positions for maximum comfort (actually, since my feet would just barely reach it, gave me something to play with while my hair was being cut). Best of all was that the entire chair swiveled, reclined, and could be raised and lowered by pumping a long lever that operated a hydraulic cylinder under the chair. By comparison, a dentist’s chair was a mere child’s high chair.

When it was your turn to have your hair cut, you walked forward with a mixture of fear and hope. What if the barber thought you needed a booster seat? Once safely seated, with a length of toilet paper clipped around your neck and covered with a large cotton apron, the haircut itself was a series of ear nips, head twists, and chin lifts, all of this accompanied by the feeling of hair falling down your face. I can remember desperately wanting to scratch my nose, but I was determined to wait it out. A barbershop was a place for men, and you never heard a barber tell a grown man to sit still.

The barber rarely had to ask you how you wanted hair cut. After all, it had only been two weeks since your last visit. Besides, there were only about three main styles. The regular cut with a part on one side, the crew cut, and the flat top. And some features were universal; long sideburns were those that extended to the middle of the ear and the back of the neck was bare well above the collar.

Finally, the barber would finish cutting your hair, and he would turn the chair around to face the mirror behind him. “What kind of hair tonic do you want?” he would ask.

On the shelves behind the barber were glass jars full of combs, an assortment of scissors, and drawers and small wooden cabinets full of electric clippers. In a long line in front of the mirror were long-necked bottles of hair oil. The greasy contents of these bottles differed little in viscosity, but greatly in fragrance.
“I want the one with Hop-Along Cassidy on it,” I would always answer.

The barber would lift the bottle with the picture of my favorite cowboy and shake onto my head enough oil to lubricate the family car. This oil was massaged into my hair in such a manner that after my hair was combed, a blue norther’ blowing through town couldn’t have mussed a single hair.

Now that my haircut was complete, the barber would remove the apron from around my neck with a flourish and loud pop, all the hair clippings falling to the floor around me. Has anyone ever watched all that hair accumulate on the floor without wondering if there was some possible use for it?

If I had been older, the elderly black man who shined shoes in the back of the shop would have stepped forward at this point with a whisk broom lightly dusted with scented talcum powder to help remove the last trace of hair clippings from my clothes. At my age, I was unlikely to part with a tip, so the barber would lift the air gun from its hook, stretch out the long hose and blow any remaining hair from my neck and shoulders. This usually just blew the hair down my shirt where it scratched and tickled me for the rest of the day. It was a fitting tribute to the American petroleum industry that my hair did not need combing after this operation.

Not being an adult did have one compensation. Bubble gum. When you paid the barber, he gave you a piece of bubble gum that was better than anything you could buy in a store. And it was big, a giant cylindrical piece of pink gum in a blue and red wrapper.

Barbershops were always closed on Sundays and Mondays. Someone convinced me into believing there was a law forbidding barbers from working on Mondays. I always had visions of an army of barbers off in the woods hunting and fishing every Monday. After all, this was the main topic of conversation in the barbershop. By the time I was a teenager, I must have listened to a hundred discussions concerning the merits of various bass boats and endless debates pitting the .30-06 against the .30-30 for the title of ‘Best Deer Gun’.

Every Sunday, I received instruction in the official religion. But it was at the barbershop that a boy received his education in the unofficial religion. That was where I heard my first political argument, and where I learned my community’s opinions on subjects ranging from the condition of this year’s crops to foreign policy.

There was a real tradition of democracy in the barbershop, too. Every man got to speak his opinion, especially when he was sitting in the chair getting his hair cut. The barbers would solicit opinions, ask questions to get the conversation started, and then mediate the argument. While it might be rare for a barber to actually disagree with a customer, he could ask another customer for an opposing viewpoint. This was pretty rich stuff for a boy to listen to.

I wonder what is taking the place of the barbershop today. Hair salons may be cutting the hair, but that was only one of the jobs done by old-style barbers. Where are all the other jobs being done? It seems that today, boys, and maybe the men, too, are missing a lot of fun.

One more pleasure is gone, too. The best part of the haircut was the walk home. No one ever walked slower than a boy with fresh cut hair, munching on a candy bar, and totally absorbed in the life or death perils of Batman.