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.