Saturday, December 25, 2010

Who’s Been Naughty

It’s Christmas Eve and Santa is very busy, so I thought I would offer him some help by putting together my own ‘Who’s Been Naughty’ list. I will not be compiling a ‘Who’s Been Nice’ list as, obviously, it would appear the worldwide demand for nice has all but vanished.

Congress has been naughty. Naughty to the point where Santa should leave them nothing but coal. The soft smoky kind of coal, preferably on fire. This year Congress has shown the kind of budgetary restraint of a sixteen year old with a new credit card. After an election where the voters clearly screamed for an end to uncontrolled spending… Congress has spent billions more dollars. Personally, I think the only way we can stop this madness is to switch from borrowing money from China to borrowing from the mob. When a large guy named Vinnie shows up in Washington to collect, maybe Congress will wake up.

Airport Security and Homeland Security have been naughty. The kind of naughty that can only come from having the brains of a drunken terrier. I don’t want to spend any more time describing this stupidity except to say the obvious: America is at war with Muslim fundamentalist terrorists; America is not at war with every tenth person in line at the boarding gate.

North Korea is still naughty. I do not mean Kim Jong-il and the rest of the Ding-Dong-il family, but the citizenry of North Korea. Isn’t it about time for you people to gather up the torches and march up the hill to the castle and burn the monster out? There are a lot of governments that do not respond to the needs of their people, but very few with a leader who spends a fortune on Mickey Mouse memorabilia as his people starve to death while unsuccessfully attempting to survive by eating grass. When your leader takes advice from the governor of New Mexico, it is time to look for your pitchfork.

New Mexico has been naughty. As a state, we continue to hope that someone driving through the state will lose his wallet. This seems to be our only financial growth plan. The state’s major export remains college graduates looking for jobs. 20% of the people in this state work for the government-the third highest rate in the nation behind Alaska and Wyoming. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, since one of those employees is me.

Hollywood has been sort of naughty. Worse, they have been boring. Other than making movies out of comic books and endless remakes, I can’t remember Hollywood producing a movie that got me excited in a long, long time. I liked Avatar, but let’s face it: it was a remake of Dances With Wolves with an all Smurf cast. When Hollywood starts remaking John Wayne movies without John Wayne, it’s time to try something different.

I thought about adding the usual celebrity crowd: people like Jesse James, Tiger Woods, and a myriad of aging actresses who keep getting facelifts until they sport goatees. These people aren’t really naughty-they’re stupid-and I doubt if this server has storage space enough for the list of the stupid.

One last note to my wife, the Doc. Honey, you could stand to be a little naughtier.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Can You Make Meat Loaf With Alpo?

For the last month, teachers all over the state have been a little upset. All teachers, professors, and staff in both public schools and universities throughout the state are members of the Automatic Retirement System for Educators (ARSE). And the lovely people who run ARSE have suddenly admitted that if it cost a dollar to travel around the world, the collected educators of this state can look forward to a nice bus ride to the Arizona border. One way.

It seems that the wise ARSE people have been investing our money in the very best of blue chip securities. We educators own something close to a controlling interest in Studebaker, Enron, and a North Korean industrial growth fund. While our investment advisors specialized in long term speculation in a Capital Depreciation Fund, they did provide adequate diversification by taking a long term position in collectible Beanie Babies.

Actually, there is a very long list of investments; Romanoff government bonds, a chain of Baptist Book Stores in Saudi Arabia, preferred stock in a buggy whip concern, etc. You get the idea. The state might have done better if we had taken the money to Vegas and invested in blackjack and hookers. We would have still been screwed, but we might have enjoyed it more.

It seems that we paid several experts millions of dollars in commissions to provide the type of top-notch investment advice we could have gotten from Bernie Madoff for free. No, wait, I think we actually paid Bernie for that advice. It seems ironic that Bernie is going to have a better health care package during his senior years than many of the retired teachers of New Mexico.

So, instead of a widely diversified and sound investment fund that will provide for retired teachers after years of daily classroom abuse, basically we will be thrown out on our ARSE.

I’m not exactly sure why the state has set up two different retirement plans for their state employees. If you work for the highway department, you are under the regular state retirement program-the program that will provide for our legislators. If you work for a school, you are part of a different retirement system, the ARSE, a system that is currently in a hole. Insert your own joke here.

Are two plans run out of two different buildings, with two different investment staffs, with two overheads, cheaper to operate than one? A dual system like this wouldn’t make much sense in a large state, much less one the size of New Mexico. Why did the state legislature think it best to handle our retirement through their ARSE? I wonder if we could get Utah to run this state for cost plus ten percent.

To be fair, the ARSE did not cancel our retirements, they just announced potential changes to the program that pretty much scared the members to death: Small changes, like changing the retirement age high enough to guarantee that eventually most of the faculty would be negotiating the halls with walkers. As it is now, getting to class without being run over by someone on a skateboard is hard enough; just wait until we all run the risk of being flattened by a septuagenarian dance instructor in a motorized scooter.

There were other small changes; lower benefits, higher contributions, longer eligibility periods, and an announcement that all retirement benefits would be paid in Confederate money. Generously, we have retained the right to sit in front of our cabins at night and sing spirituals.

But then, the plan may be revised next year.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Tree By Any Other Name...

It is Christmas in Southern New Mexico again. This means I have to switch to my cold weather clothes: long sleeve shirts. Usually, we have 60 degree days and 30 degree nights. If you don’t go out at night, a light jacket will suffice.

And that’s fine with me. Snow belongs on Christmas cards.

My wife, the Doc, has started decorating the house for Christmas. And this means we have our annual argument over a Christmas tree and decorations. Don’t get me wrong, I like Christmas. How can you not like a holiday where you sit around all day in your pajamas and eat candy out of your sock? Of course, I want my stocking hung by the fireplace we haven’t used in 15 years.

Decorating the house for Christmas is another matter, though. There are several problems. Primarily because the Doc and I are a little absent minded. We can easily put up decorations and forget them for months. Possibly years. I once gave my wife a dozen roses; she put the vase on the top of a bookcase. By the time we noticed them again, they were a rather nice arrangement of dried flowers. I’m pretty sure we kept them more than a few years.

The Doc doesn’t care if the Christmas angels she hangs around the dining room slowly morph into Valentine cupids. And they don’t look bad at Easter, either. It is a little harder to explain them by Independence Day. Little Ladies Liberty?

Our biggest disagreement is over the Christmas tree. The Doc wants a live one. She prefers that we buy a 5 foot pine in a large wooden box so I drag the 100 pound monster into the living room. There, our two cats go into hyper-mode as they try to systematically destroy this combination jungle gym and vertical litter box. How exactly does a 10 pound cat knock over a 100 pound tree? Since it always happens at night, I suspect that the cat opens the front door and invites in lots of friends.

Then, after Christmas, I am supposed to take what is left of the tree out into the yard and plant it somewhere. Our house is surrounded by trees; the satellite dish on the roof is never going to pick up a high definition signal unless they park a satellite directly over our living room.

Still, well over half the trees died. And I’m not real happy about keeping something in the living room that can erupt into roaring flames if you rubbed two teenagers together. Luckily, our sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One have moved out; we don’t have any teenagers, but I still think forest fires are best outdoors.

The Doc won’t hear of a cut tree; she would much rather we buy a live tree and eventually kill it ourselves. Nor does she want a fake tree, either plastic or any other synthetic material. But mostly, she does not want my idea; the Christmas Bookcase.

If you walk into our house, once you get past all the trees, you will quickly realize that about all my wife and I own are books. They are everywhere, thousands of them. They are in every room and in or on everything. We obviously need more bookcases, so… Every Christmas, we could buy a new wooden bookcase (after all, it was once a tree) and put it in the corner of the living room. We can hang ornaments and lights on it, and put all the Christmas presents on the shelves. You could put a whole army of little angels on the top shelf.

Then, after Christmas, we move the bookcase to some other room, assuming we can find empty wall space somewhere. All during the year, we put the books we have read in the new bookcase. It might make finding a desired book a little easier; all you would have to do is remember the year you read the book.

I’m rather proud of this idea, I think it makes perfectly good sense and is a tradition that would undoubtedly quickly spread across the country, if only my wife would let me initiate it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Don’t Ask About Honor, Either

The military has been discussing for years repealing 10 U.S. Code 654 (the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” law) that would allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

It would seem to me that this question was settled a long time ago. Ignoring the Greek army in general and the entire Spartan army in particular, there is still the example of the Sacred Band of Thebes. These soldiers were 150 pairs of matched lovers who fought together as an elite unit. In combat, the army of Thebes always positioned the Sacred Band on their right flank, the position of honor. And on a warm day of August in 338 B.C., this is where they were positioned as they fought to save their city of Thebes from an invading army.

Philip II of Macedonia wanted to invade the Persian Empire to his east, but before he could mount such a hazardous expedition, he wanted to control all the quarrelsome city-states of central Greece to the south. In his youth, Philip had been a hostage in Thebes, and he had learned of the effectiveness of the army of Thebes, including the Sacred Band. When Philip returned to Macedonia, he made major changes to the fighting methods of the traditional hoplite army, changing weapons, formations, and increasing the role and size of the cavalry.

Now, his army was facing the combined armies of Thebes and Athens on the battlefield of Chaeronea, just outside the city of Thebes. Needing a commander of the vaunted Companion Cavalry he could trust, Philip gave command to his young son Alexander and positioned him directly in front of the Sacred Band.

While exact details of what happened during the battle are unclear, it seems certain that eventually Alexander and the Companion Cavalry broke through the line and carried the day. Thebes and Athens each lost over a thousand men and three times that number were captured. The heaviest fighting occurred around the Sacred Band, who fought to the last man. Philip, surveying their bodies lying out in array and noting that each lay facing the enemy, wept at the sight of such devoted and brave men.

Plutarch records that Philip II, on encountering the corpses "heaped one upon another", understanding who they were, exclaimed, “Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly.”

Philip II did not live long enough to mount his expedition to the east, but his son Alexander went on to claim military victories as far east as India. Not long after his death, the people of Thebes erected a monument in the form of a stone lion at Chaeronea, at the grave of the Sacred Band. In the early 20th century the stone was restored and the graves excavated. 254 bodies in 7 rows were discovered; presumably the rest of the Sacred Band were wounded and captured.

It does not seem possible that anyone could seriously argue that homosexuals cannot make good soldiers. The argument today seems to be centered on the belief that allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military would be disruptive to the rest of the military. So the military allowed a survey among the troops. 70% of the people serving in the military have indicated that the effects of such a change would be negligible.

The Secretary of Defense agrees. So does the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and the head of the U.S. Navy. General Casey, the head of the U.S. Marines strongly disagrees. He has suggested that the military is not the place to conduct social experiments, and certainly not during a war.

I disagree. The military has always been among the first to try new technology, new methods, and yes, even to try social experiments during a time of war. While the British Navy was still pressing men into service to fight in their warships, our Revolutionary Navy allowed men to inspect a ship before volunteering. When the South was desperate for men during the Civil War, they would not allow their slaves to serve in the military. Yet in the North, 10% of the army were black men.

Long before there was any real form of integration in the enlisted society, both the US Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service (the predecessor of the Coast Guard) allowed integrated ships. In 1887, Captain Michael Healy became the first black captain of the Revenue Cutter ship. He retired from the service as the third highest officer in the service.

Embracing change and innovation, Philip II put together an army that his son used to conquer the known world. Maybe the time has finally come for even the Marines to try some changes.

I am proud of the United States Marines; I believe they can accomplish any mission given to them. I even think they are tough enough to allow every Marine to live his life without lying. The Marines are built around a code of honor, it is time they start extending that honor to each other.

Let us all look forward to the day when the head of the Marines, like Plutarch, can say, “Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly.”