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.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Writing A Blog Is... Weird!

I started writing this blog about two months ago and immediately found it to be strangely addictive. Blog writing is a socially acceptable form of graffiti. If I use a black marker and scribble “St. Francis was a Sissy” on the side of a building, this is not only wrong, but illegal. Yet, if I write absurd gibberish on a blog, somehow this is not only socially acceptable, but is considered creative.

There are blogs out there that will help you worship a mailbox, tell you how to turn vegetables into nuclear power plants, and reveal the “real” truth about any number of government conspiracies. It would be absolutely impossible to calculate how many blogs have pictures of cute pets. If you look long enough, you will find a site that juggles pets, tortures them with forks, or hollows them out to make purses.

“But, if I write a blog,,” you say, “I can write one that is much more intelligent. My blog won’t be a train wreck into mediocrity like all the others. My blog will be one of the good blogs.”

Trying to improve cyberspace by writing one more good blog is probably the equivalent of trying to close down a whore house by sending it one more virgin. Good luck.

I’m not sure why I started writing this blog, but I quickly found it satisfying. As a history professor, I spend a good part of most working days trying to find a way to explain the complex in simple terms. Unfortunately, this sort of limits what I can say. The university, inexplicably, wants me to stick to the truth. This could be a mistake, these days “truth” is a valuable asset, and perhaps we should not waste it recklessly. The athletic department sure as hell doesn’t, or they wouldn’t keep using the phrase “student athlete.”

Writing a blog is different. For me, at least, it is very liberating to suddenly be able to say anything, about anything, and feel no restraints. And trust me; everything I say here is the truth. Really.

Anyone can write a blog. Google will let you have one for free; you give it a name, then start dumping your pearls of wisdom on it. Stop reading this and 15 minutes from now, you can be a blogger. And about half an hour after that, you will face your first dilemma. How do you get someone to read it? You pester your friends until they give in. If they read it, they tell their friends, and before you know it… you get hate mail.

Damn! I’m starting to get more hate mail than spam. I wrote about rabbit hunting and some lady thinks my son should be taken from me. (Hey, Lady! That was 24 years ago. He’s married. If you want to take him, ask his wife.) I got furious hate mail from people who thought I had made fun of the Special Olympics. Wrong! I made fun of the regular Olympics! Evidently, people get furious if you even mention the Special Olympics.

About the time you get regular readers, it suddenly occurs to you that if you allow Google to put ads on your site, they will pay you. Amazing. See those ads to the right of this column; those are wonderful companies who sell outstanding products that you desperately need! Click on the ads! Click on the ads!

Those ads crack me up. Google is trying desperately to figure out what to advertise. I wrote about my first disastrous attempt in a sailboat and suddenly there were ads for yachts and replacement sails. I wrote about teaching and you saw nothing but ads for mail order degrees. I mentioned the Trojan Horse, and for a week there were condom ads. I swear, I’m going to write about Wonder Bras just to see what shows up.

One last thing about ads. Since the more people who read your blog, the more money you make, you naturally want people to read your site on a regular basis. Strangely, the same people who write you hate mail are the people who read your blog every day. I guess to see if there is something new to hate. It doesn’t take you long to figure out that if you insult people, you make money. Special Olympics. Special Olympics.

A friend of mine has argued with me all week trying to keep me from writing the ultimate insult blog. He didn’t mind that I had planned to attack Mom, apple pie, and the American flag, but he was horrified when I told him my plan to confess to beating Dale Earnhardt to death with the family bible. He believed this would be suicide by redneck. Four guys from Arkansas would take turns driving to New Mexico in a pickup…

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Things About Teaching I Love

Teaching is the best job in the world. Sometimes it is very hard to believe that the State of New Mexico actually pays me to read books and tell people stories. This is a great job.

There are actually a number of reasons I like this job, I even like the pay. It’s not great, but I can’t complain too much. Besides, the job has a lot of fringe benefits.

These benefits do not include what many of my friends seems to believe is the best part of my job. Yes, the campus is over half female, most of them about half my age, most are fairly attractive, some of them are absolutely stunning. I will admit that occasionally as I walk to class admiring the view, I have to remind myself, “They actually pay me to be here!”

But what my friends do not understand is that these young attractive women will unfortunately, sooner or later, open their mouths and talk. And when they do talk, almost immediately, I feel ancient, elderly, and profoundly disinterested. A couple of months ago, I was walking past the library and noticed that my path was going to cross that of two young women returning from the pool. They were certainly pretty and I briefly thought of what my friends might say.

As I passed them, one turned to the other and said, “Ya know? This is the best gum I’ve ever had!”

There are some better rewards. One of them has to be the incredible feeling you get in a classroom. . A hundred pairs of eyes unblinkingly staring at you. Students believe anything you say. I swear, you could burp and 50 people would take notes. Years ago, I was teaching Western Civ, talking about the Trojan War when I suddenly noticed that everyone had stopped taking notes. The students were leaning forward, unblinkingly listening to my every word. This usually means the students are actually enjoying what they are hearing, in this case obviously because they had never heard the story of the Trojan Horse before. Evidently their high school history teachers/football coaches had never got around to that little nugget of history.

Suddenly, I remembered Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I confess that there are about a hundred students somewhere in New Mexico who can tell you all about the Trojan Rabbit.

I admit to enjoying that. I have already mentally planned my last class before retirement. For my final lecture, I want to talk about Caesar’s Gallic Campaigns. But I want to add air power. Nothing strategic, just tactical air power. Veni, vidi, strafi. I came, I saw, I strafed.

Teaching has a great dress code. Gone are the tweed sports coats with the leather elbow patches. I’m not certain there is a pattern. I would be hard pressed to find something in my closet that I could not wear to class. Shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes…. People expect a university professor to be eccentric.

And everyone expects a history professor to be absent minded. What a wonderful freedom it is to be judged non compos mentis.

Certainly one of the best perks of my job is getting free books. Not only will the library search the world over for me and try to find me a copy of the most obscure book I can think of (yes, I have read Robert Stroud, aka Birdman of Alcatraz’s book on the care and feeding of birds) but periodically, publishers give me books in the hope I will use them in my classes. Fantastic. I like books much better than people.

Of course, not all the books are worthwhile. Recently someone sent me “A History of the US Postal System Between 1808 and 1824.” I doubt that the author’s mother read this. These books have their uses, however. For this, I am indebted to a former history professor I had when I was a student. It seems that he, too, used to get unsolicited books. I know this, because one day, I was walking past his office.

“Mr. Milliorn,” he said. “I have something here that I think will help you in your studies.” And he handed me a book on Olduvai Valley tool traditions. Well, if the head of the department thinks you need to read up on stone tools made by early man, you read the damn book. And a couple of other books on the same subject.

After a couple of weeks, I went back to see him. At that moment, I was undoubtedly the best read person in the state on that somewhat narrow topic. I can’t say I enjoyed reading that crap, but I was ready to discuss it with the department head. Only to discover he didn’t remember giving me the book, and couldn’t have cared less about stone tools. Seems he did that regularly with history students.

Right now, I have a student learning all he can about early 19th century postal delivery.