Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Solemnly Swear

Every year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions.  And most of these resolutions last about a week or two.  Since resolving to do something evidently never works, here are my resolutions for things NOT to do.  Not doing something should be much easier and more in harmony with my lazy nature.

I resolve never again to ask a woman when her baby is due regardless of how pregnant she looks.  If you look pregnant and you're not, wear a damn sign.
I resolve that while I am driving to work, I will no longer slam on the brakes just because a student is tailgating me so closely that he is probably trying to become my own personal proctologist.  For now on, I'll just fling trash out the windows towards them.  Then, I'll slam on the brakes.
I resolve to stop telling the obnoxious missionaries all over campus that I can't accept their free bible literature because "My coven wouldn't like it."

I resolve that while grocery shopping, I will stop showing children how to juggle vegetables in the produce department.
I resolve to stop marking "Deceased" on mail addressed to a former colleague, (long since moved to California) just because he is a horse's ass.  From now on, I'll mark it "Hopefully Deceased."

I resolve to stop tearing up all my junk mail and stuffing it into postage paid envelopes and mailing it back to the sender.  I have a gut feeling that the post office is not charging bulk mailers enough money. We tax payers probably lose money every time one of these letters is mailed.

I resolve to stop telling students that the largest engagement of the Vietnam War was the Battle of the Kao Pectate.  They actually believe this shit.

I resolve to stop eating in the university cafeteria until it stops serving road kill.  Why must the university lease its cafeterias to a company that specializes in providing meals to prisons?

While I am at it, I resolve to stop eating in Chinese Buffets or any other restaurant where the average patron weighs twice as much as I do.

I resolve to stop telling students that the last communist country on earth is the Sociology Department.  From now on, I'll include the Women's Studies Department.  The Domino Theory is alive and well at Enema U.  Even as I write this, outside agitators are infiltrating the School of Education.

I resolve to stop telling people at the bowling alley that I can’t keep score because I am still working on my GED and the numbers confuse me.  Might as well--some damned student outed me, anyway.
I resolve to stop answering the enormous amount of hate mail I receive from the state of Arkansas.  I have no idea what I did to upset people in this state, but most of their email starts with something along the lines of, “You will never see the sweet face of Jesus...”  Actually, now that I think of it, I did write one or two blogs about religion.
While I am at it, I resolve to write no more blogs about midgets, blind people, nuns, or retarded people.  At least until they develop a sense of humor.  I might write about a short blind retarded nun, but definitely not if she has breast cancer. Wow! Did I ever receive a lot of shit about that one!

I resolve to stop treating my recycling bin as an ordinary trash can.  Honest.    If someone in my neighborhood is putting ordinary trash in their recycling bin, it is definitely not me.  That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

I resolve to stop telling a certain faculty member that the best way to reset her laptop is to take her hands off the two white knobs, hold the laptop upside down over her head and shake it vigorously.

I resolve that the next time a failing student asks me (three days before the final exam) what he has to do to get a passing grade in the course, not to tell him to invent a time machine, go back about thirty years, and introduce some intelligent men to his future mother.

I resolve never, never again to let my wife take the cat with us on a car trip.  She said she had given the screaming furball a tranquilizer.  It turned out that I needed a double Xanax with a scotch chaser.  The whole way to Albuquerque, all I could think about were cat jokes.  (What has two legs and bleeds on the backseat?  Half a cat on a road trip.)

And lastly, I resolve not to take any of these resolutions too seriously.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pandering to Pandas

The old chief’s health was failing, and he knew that his days of leading the tribe were almost over.  Childless, he was worried about who he should select as the next leader of the tribe.  Finally, he called the young men of the tribe together and announced his decision.

“I have decided that the next chief of the tribe will be selected by a contest,” he said.   “I have three tasks for you.  First, you must climb the glass mountain.  Second, I want you to kill a mountain lion with your bare hands.  And last, I want you to make love to the wild woman of the north woods.  Whoever completes these tasks first will be the new chief.”
Immediately, the young men ran off towards the glass mountain.  By the end of the day, several men had returned, bruised and battered by the mountain.  For the next two days, men slowly returned to the tribe; either the mountain or the lion had proved to be an insurmountable task.  Finally after three days, only a single man remained in the woods.
The chief and the whole tribe waited impatiently for his return.  Finally, on the morning of the fifth day, the young man returned to the camp.  He was bruised, bloody, and dragging his left arm as he slowly crawled into camp using his remaining good arm.  He dragged his battered body to the old chief.
“Okay…the mountain was tough and the lion damn near killed me, but I did it.  Now, where the hell is this wild woman you want me to kill with my bare hands?”
Suddenly, I am at the end of the semester and have time to read all the journals and magazines I have collected over the last semester.  There are several stories about looming extinctions and endangered species.  For whatever reason, it made me think of the joke above.
It seems that sometimes, animals, both two- and four-legged, are just meant to die out.  Have you been following the current news about the wooly mammoth?  Scientists in Japan and Russia are working on bringing them back to life.  This is not quite Jurassic Park, as the mammoths have only been extinct for ten thousand years.  Don’t get me wrong, I like mammoths; I hope they let them live in Central Park.   Mammoths, however, have had their day, their place in the sun.  They lived, they played the game for a while, and evolution ruled them out.  Should we really be giving them a second chance at bat?
Which brings us to pandas.  While I am ambivalent about mammoths, I don’t like pandas.  You have to be about twelve years old to like an animal that looks like it lost a bet at a drunken frat party.
Pandas are growing extinct and all over the world, zoos are trying desperately to save them.  We are down to fewer than 2,000 pandas.  The problem seems to be that pandas suffer from a peculiarly embarrassing problem.  They don’t want to get laid.  Pandas in zoos evidently are given extensive opportunities; bachelor pandas have hot panda dates flown in from zoos around the world.  Food, drink, and romantic lighting are provided… but nothing happens.  I don’t suppose getting the big furballs drunk at a panda bar would work.
This sort of reminds me of an aunt I used to have.  She was bright, attractive, and lived the last half of her life very much alone.  As I used to tell her, “Let them that don’t want none, have memories of not gettin’ any.”
Though this is undoubtedly sound advice, it evidently doesn’t apply to pandas.  These animals, for some reason are special; we have to keep them, even if they don’t want to cooperate.   At the Chiang Mai Zoo in Thailand, for example, pandas are being shown special panda porn to help get them in the mood.  Pandas are also being helped by giving the males a version of Viagra formulated specially for them.

Who exactly makes the panda porn? Is this a government job?  Is a degree in Animal Husbandry required?  When you are starting out in the business, do you make light romantic comedies for smaller animals?   When Harry met Hairy.  My Big Fat Goat Wedding.  Hitched.  Bringing Down the Horse.
Pandas evidently spend 16 hours a day eating, 8 hours a day sleeping, and no time whatsoever thinking about such important subjects as sex.  Up until now, I had no idea that pandas had invented tenure.
Any animal so disinterested in sex is doomed.  Hell, put any normal man in a cage with a panda and wait a few months--he’ll screw it.   It will only take weeks if it is a female panda.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Crackpot Solution

After the meeting, the Head of Housekeeping came to me and asked, “Can you help me?  I have a problem that just won’t go away.”  And then she told me the story.

The Flagship Hotel had a management meeting every weekday morning.  The heads of the various departments--security, engineering, food and beverage, accounting, front desk, and reservations--had breakfast with the resident manager and the general manager.  I was the resident manager, and I ran the restaurant from dark to dawn, so while everyone else was eating eggs and pancakes for breakfast, I was having steak for dinner.

The head housekeeper’s problem was the lobby bathrooms--specifically the toilets.  Several months before, the commodes had been treated with strong muriatic acid to remove water stains.  Unfortunately, the acid was too strong and it had not only removed the water stains, but had damaged the porcelain glazing, leaving hundreds of fine cracks in the bottom of the toilets.  These cracks caught, and held…let’s just say... some “unsightly” material that no one wanted to see in a public facility.   Commercial grade toilets were too expensive to replace.  The housekeeping department cleaned the restrooms several times a day, but the problem returned as soon as the toilets were used for their sole and useful purpose.

So every morning at breakfast, the management staff of the hotel would meet and we would go around the table discussing the previous day: what went wrong—and what went right.  Most mornings, the front desk manager would report that at least one guest had complained about the toilets.  This would be followed by a general discussion between housekeeping and engineering about possible remedies.

You might be surprised at how many attempts were made to repair those commodes.  Both waxing and covering with clear acrylic paint were tried--unsuccessfully.  Short of covering the seat with Saran Wrap, no temporary solution was likely to keep those cracks clean, so the problem persisted week after week, month after month.

So, finally, the head housekeeper asked me for help.  “Mark, can you think of something?  You seem to get your problems solved pretty quickly.”

Sunday night was the quietest night of the week for us.  The weekend tourists left Sunday afternoon and by dark, the only people in the bars were locals.  As soon as the bars closed at 2:00 AM, the hotel was fairly empty until Monday morning, when the traveling businessmen began checking in.  Since there were no management meetings over the weekend, the Monday morning meeting was usually the longest and busiest of the week.

The next Monday morning, the general manager asked, “Does anyone have anything important to report?”

“Yes,” the head of security answered.  “Sometime during the night, someone vandalized the lobby bathrooms.  All the toilets have been cracked and broken.  Looks like someone hit them with a hammer.”

“Bob,” the general manager asked the head of engineering.  “How long will it take to get new ones and replace them?”

“We can buy six new ones in Texas City and have them installed by lunch.”

“Good,” the general manager answered.  “Any other important news?”

The head of housekeeping glanced at me, but I just kept eating my steak.  We never discussed the matter again, but the complaints to the front desk stopped immediately.

The problem had been solved directly and if not “correctly”, then at least permanently.  There were eight managers sitting at that table, and if you consider what collectively we were paid, the amount of time we had spent discussing this problem (and the amount of time housekeeping and engineering had spent working on the problem) then as I calculate it, we were wasting enough money to replace those damn commodes about every 30 days.  And we did that for months.  Hell, we could have bought gold plated crappers.

Perhaps this is the way it is in any large organization.  Far more time is spent talking about work than actually doing it.  Sometimes, it is more effective to do something, even if it is not technically the correct action, than to do nothing.

By the way, the problem was solved, not with a hammer, but with a short tire iron (a tire iron slides under your belt and is much easier to cover with a sport coat). 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Truly Random Thoughts During a Faculty Meeting

I probably should be paying attention, as we only have these faculty meetings once a month, but there seem to be thirty-leven months each semester. And every damn meeting is exactly the same: the same people talk about the same things and no one is listening. They are, at best, only waiting patiently until it is their turn to talk (again). If Dr. Holland were to switch to Chinese (and he could) few in the room would notice!

Don’t get me wrong—these are good people and all of them are sincere (and God knows this campus has more problems than an adobe submarine) but nothing much will be done. The problem is that too many of my colleagues still believe the administration when it talks about “shared governance.” Personally, I find the idea that the faculty still naively trusts the Office of Moose and Squirrel’s banter about sharing the responsibility for decision making on campus to be roughly equivalent to adults still believing in Santa Claus.

Put another way, “shared governance” is about the same as a few wolves discussing the dinner menu with a herd of sheep.  No matter how the sheep vote, we all know what the entrée will be.

So meetings are full of well-meaning talk but little action, forcing my mind to wander.  I’m keeping notes with a stylus on my iPad, but there is little worth noting. It suddenly dawns on me how similar my iPad and stylus are to Tom Sawyer’s playing with his tick at school. He, too, had a slate and a pin. And, out of boredom, Tom passed the time at school by pushing the poor bug around the slate with a pin. I pass the time by writing random musings on my iPad during meetings. Same thing.


Has anyone ever questioned what really happened in “To Kill A Mockingbird?” After all, the entire story is told from Scout’s point of view and she was only a child. Perhaps she is lying, or told the story in such a way to make her father look good? There are clues to a possible alternative interpretation.  Is it possible that Atticus Finch was a Muslim? Why else did he dress his daughter in a burka? And look what he wrote on it! I bet his full name is Atticus Hussein Finch…

The state is changing our retirement program again.  The problem seems to be that, every few years, our state legislature decides to pass a law making two plus two equal some number other than four.  They keep promising us retirement plans for which there are no funds.  Unless New Mexico annexes some neighboring state, I don’t see how this is going to work.  Probably the only reason they still let us retire at all is that it is cheaper than building a whole mess of clock towers…

Of all the things I am truly passionate about, why do I teach history?  Because I love to tell a good story?  If that were true, half of Texas would be historians.  On the other hand, I’m glad I don’t teach something like math.  What fun would that be?  There’s a right answer.

Oh, God! They are talking about rewriting mission statements! Why does this come up every few years? No one knows the current statement, no one remembers the last one, and no one will pay any attention to the next one, unless we write something like: “It is the stated mission of this department to eat the brains of our students with a spoon...”


I wonder if there is a twelve step program for mimes.  First you have to admit you are a mime, then you have to recognize that there is a higher form of entertainment, finally, you have to seek the sponsorship of an ex-mime.  Probably not: how would you seek atonement?  Ritual seppuku?*  That might make it hard to fulfill the rest of the steps...

Professor Eagleton (whom I support 1000%) wants more diversity in the department. I agree; this department is full of free range Yankees who have slipped the fence and turned into feral carpetbaggers. I wonder if he would be satisfied if we hired a Cajun, preferably an albino dwarf who is a freemason snake-handling Buddhist who keeps kosher?  If more than one applies, let's take the tri-sexual with a trick knee.  I can’t think of anything that would terrify real minorities more than the idea that, once again, Whitey was going to help them...


I see on the faculty email listserv that Professor Maleficent wants something again… Who cares? She thought she wanted a career in teaching, but it turned out she just wanted a paycheck. She is living proof that hanging around a university doesn’t make you a scholar any more than standing in a garden makes you a potted plant--a perfect example that you are never too old or too educated to learn something stupid.  A new educational paradigm? How about teaching?


Thank God the students can’t read the nonsense that faculty write on that listserv.  If the students read our emails, we couldn’t fill a classroom with a net…


Oh good… they are talking about adjournment. I’ll bet the only part of Robert’s Rules of Order that anyone remembers is the section that says a motion to adjourn is always in order. I wonder if I missed anything?

*Seppuku—Ritual Japanese suicide. Also called hara-kiri. Literally translates as protracted faculty meeting.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Wood-Fired Hot Tub

Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine came across a unique item to purchase:  a wood-fired hot tub.  The tub itself was a massive barrel, constructed of giant staves held together with three steel rings.  This monster was four feet tall and five across.  To heat it, it had a strange submersible wood burning stove.  The chimney and combination wood hatch/air intake were the only parts of the heater that stuck above the water line.  It was billed as all natural--a green, or eco-friendly, hot tub.

Ira, my friend, worked for the state and heard through the work grapevine that another state employee had this tub for sale.  The price was right, and Ira had to have it.  So, early one weekend, Ira and I drove over to Lincoln, New Mexico to put the tub in the back of my pickup.  The hot tub was behind the old sheriff’s house in Lincoln, about 50 yards from the jail where, in 1881, Billy the Kid had escaped and shot two deputies during the Lincoln County War.  The sheriff’s house now belonged to the state, and was used as housing for state employees.

That tub was enormous--there was no way in the world we were going to lift it up and put in the back of my truck—where it wouldn’t have fit in any case.  We had to loosen the turnbuckles on the steel bands and remove the staves, move it to the new site, and then reassemble the barrel.  And we had a spot all picked out.  My family owns a tiny little cabin on the side of Sierra Blanca, bordering the White Mountain Wilderness Area.  It’s so remote that you can’t see another home for the forest.  The cabin is a ramshackle little affair that was built by drunks—I know, I was one of them. 
With the help of a large wrench and a ten foot cheater bar, we got those rings off and the staves went SPROING!  For a little while there, we had flying lumber, but eventually, we herded all the pieces and the submersible stove into the back of the truck and we were off to the cabin. 

There is a damn good reason why coopers, or barrel makers, are considered master craftsmen.  Trying to put a barrel back together is like trying to assemble a jig-saw puzzle while inside a rotating clothes dryer--except that the pieces are big enough to hurt you.  Neither Ira nor I had any idea how coopers actually perform this miracle, so we had to invent our own technique.  The damndest thing about this task was that, as near as we could figure it, while we were driving down the road, people had seen us and decided we were gathering barrel staves and had generously donated several extras to our collection.  We had enough wood to build at least one hot tub and still had enough left over to construct a foot bath.  And just as miraculously, our steel bands had shrunk.

A four foot curved barrel stave under enough pressure can smack you into the middle of next week, and figuring out how to put the staves together took a lot of thought, beer, effort, and beer.  In hindsight, it might have made the job a lot easier if we had numbered each stave with a chalk-drawn number.  And an arrow so we could tell which way was up on each stave.   And if we had been really smart, we would have left that damn barrel in Lincoln, where it was resting happily under a tree.

Eventually, using techniques and tools that would have left a real cooper laughing hysterically, we had the barrel together.  The staves were solid, the steel bands so tight you could pluck them like guitar strings.  And as we began to add water, that tub leaked like a congressional committee.  Like a newborn’s diaper.  Like a Polish submarine.  That damn tub threw water out faster than we could put it in.  Ira and I tried everything; we tightened, we wedged, and with the advice of an old mountain carpenter, we added about ten pounds of corn meal.  Supposedly, this would wedge in the cracks and expand.  I have no idea what did it, but eventually we got that tub water-tight.

The weekend was over and Ira had to go back to work, but luckily historians work by a more independent and flexible time schedule (known as rarely).  As Ira drove off, I stayed at the cabin to enjoy that hot tub by myself.  It took a long time (hours) to fill that tub.  The well at that cabin wasn’t designed for producing large volumes of water all at once.  Finally, I looked off the deck towards the tub and saw it was full enough to start a fire in the submersible stove.

Luckily, (really luckily as it turned out), the cabin was well-stocked with wood.  I had a couple of cords of wood ready for winter.  It was the beginning of fall, not nearly cold enough yet for a fire, but I had been gathering and cutting it for weeks.  I dropped a little kindling down that hatch, shoved a few pages of newspaper down the hole and lit it with a match.  It caught and I began shoving ever larger pieces of wood down that hole into a roaring fire.

I pushed a lot of wood down that hole--a hell of a lot of wood!  It seemed like that stove could actually dissolve wood.  A large log would just seem to melt into a large cloud of blue gray smoke.  Maybe it was because that firebox was cold--the water coming out of that mountain well was frigid.  Or maybe you were supposed to burn something other than the soft pine wood of a New Mexico forest.  Maybe you needed hard wood, or charcoal, or pellets of plutonium.  All I know is that I ran back and forth between the wood pile and the not too terribly conveniently located hot tub as I chunked the better part of a cord of wood down the hatch of that submersible stove.  It was quite a while before I could notice much improvement in the water temperature.

This was all hard work in that thin mountain air and I had worked up a sweat carrying wood by this time.  The day was mostly over before I finally decided that the water temperature was up to an acceptable level.  Maybe it wasn’t a hot tub, but it was definitely a more-than-tepid-and-fairly-warm tub.  Close enough!  I ran through the cabin, flinging clothes every which-a-way, grabbed two bottles of beer from the fridge, and headed for that tub, naked as a jay bird.

Ahhh.  The hedonistic pleasure of a solitary skinny dip in a private hot tub in the middle of the forest.  After 40 hours of backbreaking, and fairly dangerous, work, I have to admit that the hot tub wasn’t bad.  There I was, neck deep in warm water, a beer in each hand, and grinning like a moron.  At least until the volunteer fire department showed up.

It seems the smoke had drifted down the mountain for quite a ways.  As it was the wrong time of year for a fire in a fireplace, someone had called it in as a forest fire.  The fire department thought it was hilarious, especially the women of the crew.

I never fired up that hot tub again.  For several years, the tub was mostly used as a bear watering hole.  Eventually, Ira was transferred to Lincoln and was given the old sheriff’s home to live in.  Using a large trailer, and a lot of help, the hot tub moved from my cabin back to the exact same spot under that same tree where Ira and I had first seen it.  As far as I know, it’s still there.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy Something

I didn’t know there was a local Occupy Something group until I read a story in the local newspaper about a young woman who had, at the time of the story, spent three weeks camping in the park in front of the local city library.  This really surprised me; I was at that library a week ago and hadn’t noticed any sign of a protest.  I didn’t think we had any 1% types in our small town to protest against, in any case.

It turns out that we are a hot bed of wild and angry protest.    The dozen, well… half-dozen protestors were just boiling with rage as they cooked their Dinty Moore stew over on a Coleman stove.  If not rage, then they were at least filled with seething apathy.  I know for a fact that the dog that licked my hand could have turned violent--he had that wild feral look you only see in a demented cocker spaniel.
 There were several tables displaying literature, a few more tables for food, several propane barbecue grills, and half a dozen tents.  Except for the pamphlets, it looked like a deer camp.  I wondered about camp sanitation until I spotted one of the protestors walking back from the library.  What they do after dark, I have no idea.  Perhaps they depend on the kindness of the police station across the street.  Nah!  I’m sure that the Voice of the People wouldn’t want to take anything from The Man. 
Truthfully, it was a sad little protest.  They seemed mostly to be upset at the coming orgy of shopping on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving).  “Stay at home, don’t go to the stores,” explained one of the protesters from the comfort of a folding lawn chair.  “If you do go shopping, only buy things made locally.”

I think this is an excellent idea.  This Christmas, I’m going to only give gifts made locally.  Would you like pecans, chilies, or sand?   While I may not go shopping, I’ll bet my wife does.  You have a better chance of slipping a hamburger past a fat man than of getting the Doc to miss a sale.  If I stood between her and a 20% off sale at Tuesday Morning, she’d stomp a mud hole in me and never look back.
Other than being upset at large box stores, I’m not too sure what they were protesting.  There was a general sense of anger, but I’m not sure what they were angry about.  I did take a picture of a protest sign, but I’m not sure it really provides much in the way of answers.
I’m fairly sure the author of the sign does have a degree in Social Work.  That would explain the grammar and spelling.  And possibly the author’s confusion.
 Who promised her a free education?  Or free housing?  Or free medical care?  I work at a university and I want their paychecks to clear the bank.  I own a few apartments, and I expect rent.  And my wife, the Doc, wanted to be paid for medical care.  In actuality, the university doesn’t pay me much, my tenants usually have problems with the rent, and my wife only got paid about 50% of the time.  Maybe I should start my own protest movement.
I believe there is some confusion about the American Dream.  This phrase is frequently bandied about, but I don’t think too many people understand the concept, so let me explain.  You can count this as your free education.
In the days of Thomas Jefferson, the American Dream was to own a farm.  Jefferson did not trust cities or the men who worked in them.  If you drew wages, you would always be beholden to the man who paid you, and thus you could never truly be free.  But the owner of a farm could truly be independent and subject to no one.  Only a free man could be trusted with the reins of citizenship in a democracy.  Jefferson believed that a young man might have to work for a while, but eventually he could head west and start a farm of his own.  Obviously, there are a few logical holes in this plan: some don’t want to be farmers, somebody had to make the farmer’s iron plow, and eventually there is no more land to the west to “win.”
The American Dream changed over time.  By the beginning of the Civil War, the American Dream for many was to work and learn a trade until you could save up enough money to start a shop or a business of your own.  Ante-bellum America was full of small businesses; the largest employer in the country was the Baldwin Locomotive Works, where roughly 600 men worked.  You might start as an apprentice, but you could aspire to own a shop of your own.
Early in the Twentieth Century, the American Dream had changed again, to the desire to learn a skill, become a professional, and start a career.  This takes more education, but just as much work and forethought.
The American Dream has evolved constantly in our history, but a few of the details remain the same.  If you work hard, save for the future, and plan and put forth an effort, you can achieve independence and financial security for yourself and your family.  Nothing in the American Dream has ever said anything about something being free.  And it shouldn’t.  Anything that comes that easy is rarely worth keeping, and is never a dream that will inspire you to achieve.
I had a nice long talk with the protestors; I read their signs, took their handouts, smiled, and even wished them the best of luck.  I probably spoiled the effect a little when I got in my wife’s Mercedes and drove away.  Of course, they don’t know we bought it second hand.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Target the Trash

Volkswagen is sponsoring a new and fun initiative—literally.  It is called the TheFunTheory.Com and as the website explains, “This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”

The whole idea is similar to Freakanomics--that behavior can be changed by altering the monetary incentives--but Volkswagen has decided that fun is a better incentive, at least in advertising, than cash.
One of the better examples of Fun Theory is a trash can that produces the sound effect of a falling whistling bomb whenever someone puts something in the receptacle.  The explosion at the end of the fall is worth the wait. 
I like this idea so much that I want to expand it.   If the addition of a simple sound effect will more than double the amount of trash put into a park trash can, what could we do for highway litter?  We need to think BIG.  And sounds!  And lights!
I call it the Trash Target.  Put a large drum on the side of the road and surround the drum with large metal rings so it looks like a bull’s-eye target.  Naturally, it needs a lot of paint (mostly red).  I picture something about ten feet across.  These targets could be put on the side of the interstate about every 50 miles or so.  Since every driver will want to legally dispose of the car’s litter even while driving alone, the targets should probably be placed on the driver’s side of the highway. 
Picture it with me.  You drive down the highway drinking Dr. Pepper and eating beef jerky when you see the sign:  “Trash Target Ahead 3 Miles.”  This gives you about three minutes to get your window down and reach under the seat for that empty bottle.  You have to time this right, gauge the distance, judge the speed and calculate for the wind—and you toss the bottle at the target.  As you pass the target, you check the rear view mirrors just in time to see the pulsing strobes and hear the klaxon.  A direct hit--success!
Naturally, most people will probably miss the target, so I suppose we should have some form of consolation prize.  A donkey’s bray?  A recording of the governor saying “Thank You?”  No, wait--that’s redundant.
I would imagine the ground around the trash target might get a little messy.  But at least the trash will all be gathered at one point instead of spread up and down the highway.  It should be easier to clean up that way.
In the spirit of Fun Theory, I have one more suggestion for your car:  a new ashtray.  A fun ashtray.  All you have to do is put a venturi (that’s a funnel-shaped intake that forces air through a narrow opening to create a vacuum effect) under the car, run the vacuum hose up into the car and have it come out of a hole mounted flush with the dashboard near the driver.  As you are driving along, just flick the cigarette anywhere near the vacuum hose.  The suction will suck up the ashes right out of the air, through the tube and eject them safely under the car.
I know what you are thinking.  No, it’s not going to start a fire.  It’s a cigarette ash, not a piece of burning coal.  By the time that the rushing air pulls that ash through about 6 feet of hose, then dump it under the car, those flakes of cigarette ash will be about as cold as a mother-in-law’s heart.
I don’t even smoke, but I’d be tempted to play with this thing.  I call it the Ash Hole.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Men Do What They Do

Sandy, a colleague of mine at Enema U, was bragging this week about her husband rescuing her from imminent doom: he changed a flat tire on her car.  I know and like Sandy’s husband—and I know exactly why he changed that tire.  And so does every other man alive.

It is absolutely amazing what men will do for…uh…women.  I maintain that women are the main reason that man has ever accomplished anything.   Continents have been explored, rivers bridged, and castles built--all for women.  The Taj Mahal is not the only monument built for a woman--everything created since the invention of the upholstered cave qualifies.

To be fair, man--alone without female companionship--would eventually have created a few other things (a list most likely limited to hunting, fire, and beer).  I am sure that one day primitive man would have sat around a campfire, sated after a large meal of burnt meat, and as he slowly sipped his beer would have daydreamed about inventing a large block V8 engine with dual carburetors.  And then that same man would have thought about how much work that would require and probably would have gone back to drinking beer.  Civilization, without woman, would have peaked at the invention of the barbecue.

Naturally, I will offer you a story as proof.  Whole broad swaths of this story are demonstrably and provably true.  There are a few details, however, that might possibly be a little hard to track down, so I am changing a name.  It probably wouldn’t be that hard to figure out the guy’s real name--after all, I am using his real photo.  If you want to take the time, go for it.

Starting in the 1950’s and for the next 40 years, Red Adair was famous for blowouts (oil well fires).  Some of these oil rig fires shot flames hundreds of feet in the air.  Adair’s method of battling these fires was about as dangerous a job as imaginable.  First, a catskinner (that’s a bulldozer operator) would slowly approach the fire, with the rest of the crew walking behind the dozer to escape the heat.  An explosive charge was placed at the wellhead, and then the crew, all of whom were wearing special suits to protect them from the incredible heat, would withdraw.  With a large enough explosion, the fire could be blown out.  Then a new valve could be lowered onto the wellhead and Red Adair could fly home to Houston with a very large check.

Some of the fires put out this way are legendary. The Devil’s Cigarette Lighter shot flames 450 feet into the air for 5 months until Red Adair blew out the fire.  On average, Adair put out about 40 such fires a year.  After helping to extinguish the fires in Kuwait following the first Gulf War, Red retired.

In 1962, as Adair and his crew were flying back from one of those famous fires, a newsman and a camera crew were waiting for him on the tarmac at Hobby Field in Houston.  Live cameras were new, and this reporter was hoping to get a story big enough that the New York office might notice him and move him out of Houston and off to the big show back east.  It was a longshot, but just the year before, a local reporter named Dan Rather had taken a camera down to Galveston and reported on the approach of Hurricane Carla.  That story had earned Rather a job in Washington D.C.

As the firefighters got off Adair’s private plane and made their way to their matching red Cadillacs, the reporter, followed by his camera crew, ran up and shoved a microphone under Red’s nose.

“Why do you do such dangerous work?” the reporter asked.  Adair glowered at the man and walked around the microphone.  Before the reporter could turn around and face the live camera, Three-Fingered Wallace reached out with his mangled hand and pulled the microphone over to him.

Three-Fingered Wallace was a catskinner and had worked oil fires alongside Adair for years.  Driving that bulldozer was dangerous work, accidents were frequent, and in one of those, Wallace had lost two fingers. 

“Son,” he asked as the camera focused on him, “did you ever try to fuck a hungry woman?”
Why do men do what they do?  That pretty well sums it up.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's Still 'Gee Whiz' To Me

Not long ago I was driving across West Texas.  It had a long time since Interstate 20 had been repaved and the tires hitting the sundried cracks in the asphalt produced a rhythmic thump like a cat in a clothes dryer.  It pains me to admit it, but the scenery isn’t much to look at either.  If you have seen one pumping station, the next few thousand aren’t much to look at.

That’s a straight and flat road, so either the monotony of the drive, or the constant thump-thump-thumping of the wheels lulled me into thinking about what this country must have been like a hundred years before.  There I was, driving my wife’s SUV just outside of Abilene, my iPod playing through the car's stereo, and the trip was being tracked on the car’s GPS, picking up signals from multiple satellites orbiting the earth in space.

Fairly fancy technology when you consider that this is pretty much the same ground my grandfather traveled in a covered wagon.  Has it really been so little time?

Recently, I told a student that my grandfather had been born in the nineteenth century; she looked at me as if I had just admitted to having personally participated in the Battle of Troy.  In her eyes, I must have been the very personification of old age.  Yet it is true--a little over a hundred years ago, my grandfather decided to move the family from West Texas east to Arkansas.  The family possessions were loaded into an old mule-drawn wagon and he drove the team the long trail to the rail station in Abilene.  There, the wagon was loaded and tied onto a flat car along with a wagon belonging to another family.  The fare to Arkansas cost each family $21.

The family did not do well in Arkansas, and in just a few years, the same trip was done in reverse, and the Milliorn family returned to West Texas.  I have no idea what happened, but it could very well be that my grandfather couldn’t adjust to the idea of farming with both good soil and adequate rainfall.  Within a few years after their return, my father was born.  So, my grandfather had traversed by covered wagon the area that I was driving through--twice.  I guess I was traveling about twenty times faster, and my version of a covered wagon had air conditioning and a few other amenities.

Somewhere along the line, all the high-tech gadgetry we all possess today fades into the background and we cease to actually see it.  At what point can I pick up my iPhone and not automatically think, “Gee Whiz!” in marvel at this impossibly clever device?  Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  But when does the magic wear off?  How many times do we have to see the trick before we stop being in awe of the magician?    

I know it is a generational thing.  Of course we take for granted the technology that was around when we were born, no matter how revolutionary.  I can remember when my nephews visited and looked in puzzlement at a rotary dial phone; they kept stabbing their fingers into the holes trying to push some non-existent buttons.  My sons cannot remember a life without cell phones and the internet.  But I can.  When did I stop being amazed?

It was at this point that I realized I had missed my exit by the same distance my grandfather could have covered in about a day with his covered wagon.  I really should pay more attention to my driving.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  So does a fall down a flight of stairs.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Splish-Splash, There Goes Your Cash!

Someone once described a boat as a hole in the water which you try to fill with money.  While I have no direct experience with boat ownership, I can tell you that owning a swimming pool is pretty much the same thing, it’s a hole in the ground that you dug with money so you can fill it with water.

After 25 years of owning a pool, I’m an expert.  And I have all the receipts to prove it.

Having a pool can be a lot of fun.  I have fond memories of teaching the boys to swim.  Warm summer days and lots of sun, laughter and cold beer.    I also have plenty of memories of endless hours of vacuuming half the sand of Arizona out of my New Mexico pool.  I can remember adding chemicals to the water until my backyard would qualify as a superfund site only to have the pool turn emerald green the morning of a party.   Somewhere, probably deeply buried in the filter, is a critical need detector.  When you most want to use the pool, this sensor will shut down the pump motor, short out the wiring, or burst a pipe.
Oh, the joys of standing in the deep end of your dry pool as you slowly paint it with rubber based paint!  Actually, this job isn’t too bad--after about ten minutes of breathing in the fumes, you start to giggle uncontrollably.  It’s pretty much the same effect as quickly downing three dry martinis on an empty stomach.  Getting the pool clean enough to paint isn’t much fun, however.  It’s sort of like scrubbing a bathtub, only its 27 feet long.  Every time we paint the pool, I try to convince my wife to let me decorate it.  I’ve always thought we should paint an image of a drowned person on the bottom of the deep end.  She doesn’t want to tempt fate.
Years ago, I was writing late at night--it must have been about 3:00 AM.  My head was in a fog, I had been at it too long, and so I took a break and walked out in the backyard.  The night was warm, it was a moonless dark night, and the pool had been perfect the day before.  I stripped off all of my clothes, left them on a chair and jumped into the inky dark pool.  It felt wonderful: the water was cool and skinny-dipping in my own pool in the middle of the night was perfection.  I was really enjoying it as I slowly swam across the pool—at least until I swam face first into the dead squirrel!
It was amazing—I could tell it was a drowned squirrel without even seeing it.  What kind of leftover evolutionary trait is it that allows a man to distinguish, with only his face, exactly what kind of dead rodent he has swum into?  Was this a useful skill for cave men?
I immediately did my Jesus Christ imitation and levitated up out of the water and walked—on the surface—to the edge and turned on the light.  Yep.  It was a dead squirrel.  Actually, it was the first one that we had ever seen in our back yard.  He probably came over for a swim.
Strangely, I’m not the only one I know who has had a problem with squirrels in their pool.  A few houses down, a neighbor had an above ground pool that mysteriously drained in a single night.  On investigation, it turned out that a ground squirrel had tunneled up into the bottom of the pool.  Poor thing was probably thirsty--but he probably didn’t want the whole 10,000 gallons.
Another friend of mine solved the pool vacuuming problem by buying one of those robotic devices that crawl around the bottom of the pool sucking up leaves and sand.  She looked out her window one afternoon and noticed that the robot wasn’t moving.  She went out to investigate, and you guessed it—it had sucked up a dead squirrel, head first.
Maybe we aren’t meant to have pools in the desert.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

In 1971, I was a house dick at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel.  In case you don’t know, a house dick is not a freelance fluffer, but a security guard.  I have written about the Shamrock before, and sadly, that is all that remains of the old hotel as she has been torn down.  When constructed, she was the largest hotel in the United States--18 stories tall and 1,100 rooms.  She had multiple night clubs, several bars, and a pool so large that guests were occasionally entertained with exhibitions of water skiing.

The hotel was built by a great old Texas wildcatter by the name of Glenn McCarthy who had won and lost a few fortunes in the heyday of Texas Oil.  To be frank, the oil wasn’t the only thing that was crude.  After Glenn had tossed back a few, he used to ride his horse through the 5.000 square foot mahogany-walled lobby.  That wasn’t too bad; it was when he took the horse up and down the elevator that a few of the guests (most likely Yankees) complained.
McCarthy had built the hotel to be his home; it is possible that is why it contained so many bars.  Glenn had a personal and very private suite on the 17th floor with an exclusive elevator that only stopped at his suite and a small underground parking garage just large enough for 6 cars.  The entrance to the parking garage was in the alley behind the hotel, secured by a private gate that could only be opened by a security guard behind a very tall fence topped by barbed wire.
Show me a wildcatter who got rich on oil and I will show you one that will gamble his fortune on the next well.  Once that black gold gets into your bloodstream, you are unlikely to ever find a cure.  About six years after the grand opening of the Shamrock Hotel, still the biggest social event in Texas history, McCarthy had to sell the hotel to the Hilton hotel chain.
Let’s move forward to November 1971.  I was a starving student so poor that the only place I could afford to live was a dump of an apartment next to a cemetery.  Actually, this had certain benefits; my dates always received fresh flowers.  At night, I worked the graveyard shift at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel.  I guarded the alley.  This was a pretty good job, as I had a lot of time to study and very little else to do.  Very few people actually tried to steal that alley.  Even today, although the hotel is gone, the alley is still there.
Besides protecting the alley from theft and trying not to be eaten by huge packs of stray dogs attracted to the incredibly large number of industrial trash cans in the alley, I was also in charge of the two buttons that opened and closed the gate to that private underground parking garage.  By 1971, the only thing left of the old Glenn McCarthy days were wild stories and an impressive number of horseshoe shaped scars in the parquet flooring of the hotel.  While I worked there, his old suite was used by security-conscious guests.  During my employment, that private suite was used by Governor Ronald Reagan, Vice-President Spiro Agnew, Jerry Lewis, and…  Elvis Presley.
I really don’t remember much about most of those other guests.  When the Vice-President stayed, all I can remember is that a Secret Service agent walked my rounds with me.  This guy scared the pee-widdling crap out of me—by morning I was ready to confess to the Kennedy assassination.  This guy never said 10 words all night long, but somehow made me feel guilty about sins I hadn’t yet had time to commit.
Elvis was different.  That hotel was alive with the talk about his stay.  By the time I arrived at work, he was already performing at the nearby Hofheinz Pavillion.  Naturally, he was booked into the secured suite on the seventeenth floor, the private elevator was at the ground floor, the small private underground garage was empty and waiting for his chauffeured limousine, and I was waiting by the button for his arrival.  I was pretty sure I could handle this job, being proficient in the operation of both the open and the close button.  The hotel management was a little less sure--I got a call on the radio about every ten minutes.
A little after midnight, I finally got the call; Elvis was coming!  Within a very few minutes a long black limousine was in sight.  I waited until they pulled up to the gate and stopped while I carefully stared at the limo to make sure it was the right one.  Actually, I was just hoping to see Elvis--no one had actually told me what the car looked like and it wasn’t like I had seen a lot of black stretch limousines driving down that alley at midnight.  I pushed the button and the gate slowly opened.
The insides of that car were as black as a congressman’s soul.  I couldn’t see anyone inside; I couldn’t even tell if the car was occupied.  Then, just as the car slowly crawled through the gate, a hand appeared in the passenger side window, a white-sleeved hand waved briefly at me, and then the car disappeared down the ramp into the tunnel.
That’s it.  I hope you don’t feel too disappointed.  Yes, I had a brief ‘brush’ with Elvis—he waved at me.  There isn’t much left to the story.  I pushed the other button, the gate closed and I never got anywhere near Elvis again.
Well, it’s almost the end of the story.  About two minutes later, several cars pulled up outside by fence.  Almost a dozen middle-aged women climbed out of the cars as fast as their somewhat plump bodies would allow.  To a man-er…woman, they ran up to the chain link fence, clawed at it with plump fingers and screamed for Elvis.  A few even begged me to open the gate.
I can distinctly remember seeing Elvis wave at me.  A far more clear memory is me staring at those housewives and thinking…”My mom’s that age!”