Saturday, July 30, 2011

For Medicinal Reasons

I was given a nice bottle of port this week.  St. Clair Winery here in New Mexico bottles an excellent port.  Normally a little out of my price range, but free is always affordable.  Port is one of those contemplative drinks.  You stare deep into a glass of the wine, the color of pigeon’s blood rubies, and remember who and what and when.  Tonight it reminds me of my first glass of port.

Many years ago, I was working my way through college on the night shift at a hotel in Houston.  It was a rather small and very expensive hotel in an exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by museums, art galleries, and upscale restaurants.  About half the hotel’s rooms were rented out permanently to elderly, and very rich, people who enjoyed the excellent service and security the hotel offered.

I had a unique job: I did a little of everything.  Part desk clerk, part security guard, full-time flunkey and all around gopher, I was the guy who did whatever was needed and not normally assigned to someone else.  Whatever was not someone else’s job was by definition my job.

This was a great gig for a student: I had lots of time to study, there were cute waitresses in the bar to flirt with, and friendly cooks worked in the restaurant who understood the needs of an always hungry teenager.  The hotel attracted an endless parade of interesting people. Louis L’Amour, the western writer, stayed in the hotel for several days so he could interview an aging and retired former chief of police who, in his earlier days, had been a deputy of Wyatt Earp.  Famous artists came frequently for shows at the museums.

The best part of the job, however, was the year round residents of the hotel.  Most of these self-made millionaires came from the early days of wildcatting oil or the last great days of ranching.  Perhaps my love of history started by talking to these guests. I can still remember vividly some of the stories they told me about Texas in the 1920’s and 1930’s.    These residents were generous to a fault; I quickly learned that small services were rewarded by lavish tips.  Especially Mrs. Hutchings from the sixth floor, (rumored to be the wealthiest resident in the hotel).  She would tip $5 if you brought her mail to her door.  I confess that on the infrequent days she had received two letters, I would hold one back to ensure she had mail the next day.  Since she had outlived most of her family, I considered, but eventually rejected, the idea of writing her a few letters myself.

About two thirds of these special residents of the hotel were widowed women.  They formed a rather exclusive and eccentric club.  They would travel as a group to art shows, new restaurant openings, and to church, but I think their favorite outing was going to the doctor.  Collectively, they were as healthy as draft horses, but individually, each would privately confide (to all who would listen) how they were suffering from a life threatening collection of ailments ranging from the galloping galontis to the creeping crud. 

Somehow, most of the doctors they visited could not confirm these ailments by modern medical testing, but this lapse in their medical training didn’t matter since the ladies would not visit the same doctor long enough for any medical treatment to be effective.  Within a month or two, one of the ever hopeful patients would discover a new doctor, usually young, and they would all troop off to seek the advice of the new physician.

Eventually, one of these doctors hit pay dirt by prescribing the previously proscribed: a glass of port wine every night before sleep, supposedly for the benefit of the heart.  I have always wondered if this doctor knew that telling a group of Baptist women to drink wine was giving them a perfect alibi to indulge in a little secret sin.  The only caution was that the doctor told each of the ladies not to drink alone.

This was a problem, for none of the women could possibly drink with any of the other ladies.  After several women went privately to discuss the problem with the hotel manager, a solution was found: every evening about sundown, I would discretely make the rounds of the ladies’ rooms carrying two small crystal glasses of port wine on a silver tray.  I was actually tipped for drinking to the ladies’ health.  By the time I got to Mrs. Hutchings on the top floor, my level of inebriation was somewhere between witty and invisible.  I would usually end the evening sleeping in my office behind the front desk.  Unfortunately, this medical experiment ended about a month after it started.  This was just as well--while the tips were excellent, my grades were suffering.

The St. Clair port is an excellent wine.  It is a shame I cannot be paid to drink it.  I asked, but my wife refused to tip me.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Facebook, I Unfriend Thee

I started working with microcomputers in 1976, long before most people even knew they existed.  So, in the last 35 years, I have been able to observe how they changed society, how we work and live with these new tools.

To be blunt, the computer age hit its peak period of productivity about 1985.  Since then, I think they have been more of a hindrance than a help.

Twenty-five years ago, if you showed a legal secretary how to use a good word processing computer, the improvement in productivity was dramatic.  You could store forms, totally eliminate typing errors, and eliminate redundant tasks. And make perfect copies without using carbon paper.  (Can you still buy carbon paper?  I wonder if my sons even know what it is?)

Shortly after that, the computer world invented something that totally destroyed productivity; the internet.  I am willing to bet that legal secretary in 1986 was a lot more productive than her counterpart in 2011.  Today, most office employees seem to spend at least half of every day on their email.

How and when did email become work?  Why do we believe that responding to email is productive?  Sure, simple communication is faster and simpler, but the volume of communication has increased exponentially.

During the American Civil War, generals in the field frequently chaffed under the constant barrage of telegrams they received from their headquarters.  This was the first war with modern communications.  “How much gunpowder did you use yesterday?  How many of your men need shoes?  Did you file a requisition in triplicate?”

Without a doubt, this improved communication caused an increase in the size of general staffs, not always with a corresponding increase in efficiency.  Probably the same phenomena occurred with the arrival of the telephone.  While overall workplace efficiency increased, individual efficiency suffered as more employees spent more time on the phone talking.  Unless you are a history professor, talking is not work.
Have you ever gone to a store and been forced to wait while a clerk answered a phone and talked to a customer?  You actually drove to the store, but for some reason you have to wait while the clerk helps some slob still at home in his pajamas.  The next time this happens, pull out you cell phone, call the store, and scream at the clerk, “DO YOU REMEMBER ME!”

Which brings us back to emails.  If I were the Head Moose or Squirrel at Enema U, I would turn off the email servers from 8:30 in the morning until 4:45 in the afternoon.  Productivity would soar.  Yes, I would miss out on emails reminding me of Daylight Savings Time, The United Way, and special faculty season pass offers to the football games we will lose (these special offers invariably are more expensive than what they offer the general public…), but I might actually have time to spend with students.

The university needs to make a start somewhere, as the Internet is a black hole slowly sucking up all productivity.  It is getting really hard to keep up with the demands that the internet places on our daily life.   Not that long ago, a high school reunion was something you did once every ten to twenty years just so you could see who got fat while you reminisced about a past that never was.  Now, we all seem to be locked in a reunion that we call Facebook.

Facebook was great when I had a dozen friends and communicated once a week.  Now, I have 250 friends and can’t remember who a third of them are.  Do I really need to know what everyone is having for lunch?  Do you have a friend that tells you endlessly about the health of their dog?  Do you have a friend who regularly tells you they are rereading Proust in the original French, but this time, just to make it intellectually challenging, they are going to read the book upside down?

I have a couple of student employees (the Munchkins).  When not busy, they seem to spend a lot of time with Farmville.  Why would people, who wouldn’t spend 5 minutes in a real garden if they were growing an honest-to-God Money Tree, volunteer to pretend to be a farmer?  Enema U is an ag school, if farming seems like fun, switch your major!  It’s not like your current major is ever going to lead to a real job--there aren’t any openings for Behavioral Social Justice Workers for the Chronic Musical Bedwetter.

America currently spends $100 million real dollars a year in Farmville.  This real money buys imaginary seeds and make-believe tractors.  We spend more on fake food than some incredibly-dirt-poor-hell-hole-country actually spends on real food.  I least I think so, because I’m not going to look it up.

Computers are slowly destroying all real work place productivity.  Our only hope is that the internet will eventually become completely full of cute pictures of cats.  God knows by wife is doing her part.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

How to Commit Golf

This has been a busy month, so I am running way behind in almost everything.  Among the chores that desperately need doing is golf.  By this time of the month, I usually have given up golf at least once.

I am not a good golfer; it is probably questionable whether I am actually a golfer at all.  Looking at my scores, I golf a pretty good bowling score.  And the reverse is true as well.  I have great enthusiasm, and very little skill.  Unfortunately, the only time great enthusiasm can substitute for talent is during sex.  Still, I have a lot of fun on the links.  The foursomes behind me usually have a little less.

With my modest accomplishments at golf, I should probably refrain from writing about the sport, but it has been my observation that an expert is usually someone with average intelligence who happens to live in another state.  Since most of my readers do not live in New Mexico, I am eminently qualified to offer sage advice.

Always take pecans and peanuts to the golf course.  This idyllic park-like landscape is simply teeming with tame rabbits and bushy-tailed squirrels.  Unfortunately, without food to offer them, you will never get them close enough to hit with a club.  God knows, I’ve tried.  Most of the golfers I know are constantly buying new clubs; absolutely certain that some company must make a driver that even an orangutan can use to hit a ball 350 yards.  Personally, my dream club is a silenced .22 rifle that looks like a nine iron.  I could then, for the first time, honestly say I shot in the low eighties.

Years ago, a couple of new cardiologists came to town and the doc arranged for me to play a round of golf with them.  In hindsight, this was probably a mistake; these doctors had gone to a medical school back east where a low handicap was part of the school admission requirements.  I think my score was about equal with both of theirs added together.  Still, everything was fine until we were on the long par 5 course.  I was standing on the tee box trying my best to concentrate on a long drive that I would inevitably put into a tree when a dove flew right over my head.

I would like to remind the reader that I am from Texas.  Doves are food--we shoot them regularly.  Doves are targets that taste good and that is their only purpose on this planet.  Without even thinking about it, when that bird flew low over my head, I had an instinctive reaction:  I dropped my driver and grabbed for it.  You could try that for a thousand years and never, ever catch that bird.  That day, it whacked into my hand and instantly, I had a fist full of bird with wings, head, feet sticking out between my fingers.

I was shocked.  The two Yankee cardiologists looked frightened.  One of them looked a little shakily at me and asked, “Hungry?”

Select your golf balls with great care, inspect them carefully, and keep them clean.  Whoever finds them will appreciate this.  Personally, I do not put my name on my golf balls.  This practice is about as useless as Robinson Crusoe carving messages on coconuts and tossing them into the sea.  Besides, I am not sure I want to admit how far from the fairway my ball is likely to end up.  I do have two positive pieces of advice; first, water hazards should only be played with range balls.  Secondly, playing even on any hole means that you find as many balls as your lose.

Take great pride in your worst drives, if for no other reason than waiting to brag about a great drive may be about as pointless as France waiting for a military victory before they begin celebrating VE day.  I still remember a fantastic drive off the tee box of the Links Golf Course in Ruidoso.  This may be the longest drive I have ever accomplished; it certainly was the most spectacular slice anyone present had ever witnessed.  I remain dumbfounded at the stupidity of the management at the Lincoln County Savings and Loan.  I would never put a burglar alarm on a window facing a golf course.

Take great care in picking the players of your foursome.  The right group can enhance your golf game tremendously.  My best game ever was with a guy I will call Jay.  (Because that is his name.)  Before we teed off on the first hole, Jay violated club rules and drove his golf cart over to his pickup where he strapped an enormous ice chest to the back of the cart.  When he drove the cart back to the fairway, a young man came running out of the clubhouse.

“Sir!  Sir!” he yelled.  “You aren’t allowed to bring your own drinks onto the course.”

Jay turned and gave that poor kid a withering stare that you can only learn from being a Chief Master Petty Officer of the Coast Guard.  His voice was dripping with scorn as he said, “Son, I’m a diabetic.”

“Oh, sorry.” The young man was almost in tears as he ran back to the clubhouse.  Up to that moment, I hadn’t even known that Michelob made a sugar-free beer.

Obviously, you want to play golf with Jay.  On the other side of the equation, you do not want to play golf with Gimpy.  Gimpy is the brain dead one-legged ex-boyfriend of my sister-in-law, the lawyer.  (Now that is a sentence filled with such dangerous concepts that it deserves a warning label.  To craft a sentence with more potential hazard I would have to write about a toxic dumpsite protecting its daycare center with a mine field.)  I want to make it absolutely clear that it wasn’t his wooden leg that made Gimpy the worst golfer in history, it was his wooden head.  For some reason, the Doc, her sister, Gimpy, and I played a round of golf at the university course.  And for reasons that still escape me, Gimpy wanted to play the entire course with just a seven iron and a putter.

We teed off about nine in the morning.  Roughly an hour later, we were on the third fairway.  You could not have tracked our progress up to that point without GPS.  Think chaos.  Think Ping-Pong balls during an earthquake. 

Legions of groups played through us.  Some of them didn’t even know we were there, as our carts couldn’t be seen from any fairway on the course.  By the third hour, when we were still on the front nine, I had developed a facial tic and trembling hands.  I had spent most of the morning apologizing to foursomes that looked like they wanted to beat me to death with a sand wedge.  Finally, the course marshal drove up to me in his golf cart.

The marshal smiled politely and asked, “Is there a problem?”

“Yes, you idiot!” I roared.  “I’m playing with two women and a one-legged moron!”

Evidently, this happens more often that you would think, the marshal just nodded and drove away without a word.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

I'll Drink to That!

Thirty-seven years and five months ago, a good friend gave the Doc and me a wedding present: a blender.  About ten minutes ago, the poor thing died with its boots on.  It finished making a strawberry-lime pina colada and promptly initiated—and failed—a smoke test.  This is the cocktail equivalent of throwing itself on a grenade.  If that blender had died before it finished making that drink, right now I would be in the kitchen beating strawberries with a roofing hammer.

I’m tempted to bury that avocado-colored appliance (it WAS the seventies) with a bottle of Bacardi in the back yard (next to all the pets that we told What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One we had sent to the pet retirement farm to run and play with the other pets).  It has been a good and faithful friend providing cool refreshment while living in a hot dry desert.  I should bury it, but New Mexico is also a poor state and I’ll probably just leave it on the sidewalk for ten minutes and let someone steal it.
I just remembered that I have already written about this blender before.  Strange, but then again, I do start writing this on Friday night after a liberal dose of educational brain juice.

All this is prelude to my main point: what has happened to the cocktail?  How did the art of making a good drink die?  Don’t tell me Americans drink less--they don’t.   There is more alcohol in a couple of bottles of beer than in a single good martini, but I don’t know of a bar in town that makes a good martini.
Probably every bar in town can figure out how to make a rum and coke, but call the drink a Cuba Libre and no one will know what you are talking about.  The recipe for a scotch and water is probably not too hard to remember, but it seems to be a growing trend that waitresses cannot tell the difference between “straight up” and “on the rocks.”  And every bartender should know how to make the simple martini.

When the Doc and I moved to this town, all the local physicians gave each other bottles of booze every Christmas.  Single malt scotch, infused vodkas, Irish whiskey… by New Years Eve I had enough bottles on hand to host a Tailhook Convention, or about half as much liquor you would need for a party for the local cops.   Then suddenly, everyone was giving each other bottles of wine.  A few more years passed and we received two dozen pies, some dried pasta and a quiche.  What the hell happened?  I know damn well, from personal observation, that the local physicians didn’t stop drinking.  I’m all for drinking responsibly, but why pretend we aren’t drinking at all?
Chuck, a close friend of mine, and I were on a bowling team for a while.  Well, actually, we were on a drinking team with a bowling problem.  One night, on a whim, we went into the bowling alley bar and ordered a couple of Gibsons.

“What’s that?” the bartender asked. 
“It’s a martini with onions instead of olives,” Chuck explained.

“How do you make a martini?” asked the bartender.  Now this was the regular bartender, and yes, a bowling alley rarely has a lending library attached, but we are talking about a damn martini.  It’s not like I asked for a triple rum punch served in the navel of a virgin concubine.
“Stir gin in a shaker with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and wave a bottle of Noilly Pratt over it while whispering ‘Vermouth.’  Add onions and you have a Gibson.” I explained.

The poor guy looked like I had asked him for the Holy Grail, but he did his best with gin, ice and two glasses.  I even managed to keep my mouth shut when he added lime juice for no apparent reason.  Then he disappeared into the kitchen behind the bar for about 5 minutes.  When he returned, he was holding a large plate in each hand.
“I didn’t know if you wanted chopped or sliced onions, so I brought you both,” he said.

The truly sad part of this story is that it isn’t the worst martini I have ever been served.  It would appear that very few bars even bother to keep a bartender’s book behind the bar.  Or maybe they hire bartenders who can’t read.
Chuck has decided to fix this problem.  He has found a very old bartender’s guide, which was originally published in 1903.  And he is working his way slowly through the book--one drink at a time, he is remaking the old recipes.  A beer flip, an Astoria, a Side Car, and, the other day, he made me a Moscow Mule.  Fantastic!  How in the world did this drink ever stop being popular?    Vodka, lime juice, and ginger beer served in an iced copper mug: the perfect hot weather drink.

Now that Chuck has agreed (not that I have actually asked him) to become my personal bartender, I have decided not to drink any more.  I have also decided not to drink any less.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Traffic Drives Me Sane

Recently, I made a trip from Southern New Mexico to Albuquerque.  The journey from my sleepy little town to the big city is a big trip in more than just miles, the difference in the way people drive is jarring.  City traffic is faster, ruder, and infinitely more dangerous.  I think half the city tried to be my personal vehicular proctologist.

Normally, I would wait until the car is very close, and then suddenly stand on my brake pedal with both feet.  I have an old truck, old enough to drink and I would love to introduce someone to my trailer hitch.  Unfortunately, we were in my wife’s car and she is rather fond of it.

Everyone claims either to be patient or love people who possess a great deal of patience.  Personally, I think this is a great lie; people may admire the patience of drivers behind them, but never the serenity of the drivers in front of them.

The problem with driving is that it’s too impersonal.  You can cut someone off and the party you have offended will never know who you are—and that’s a damn good thing.  Can you imagine what would happen if people standing in line at a movie theater acted the way most people do driving a car?  Would you run ahead of someone, jump in front of them, and then shoulder your way to the front of the line?  The resulting fist fights might be a lot more interesting than the movie.  Somehow, we must add an immediate penalty for rude behavior, even while driving.

Years ago, Harlan Ellison wrote a great science fiction short story titled, Along the Scenic Route.  George, the protagonist, is out for a Sunday drive in his Chevy Piranha when a young punk cuts him off with his Mercury.  Interestingly, the Mercury has twin-mounted Spandau machine guns.  Frustrated, George calls traffic control on his radio and gets permission to challenge the punk to a highway duel.  The story is a masterpiece, but I should warn you--once you read it, the memory will distract you forever while driving.

Dueling might be one possible answer to our problem.  A lot more traffic police is another solution.  Naturally, I have an alternative suggestion.

In his short story, Ellison gave his dueling vehicles machine guns and lasers.  On a much smaller scale, I want to give every car a simple air powered cannon that fires a giant purple toilet bowl plunger coated with super glue and purple paint.  I call it the dumb-fuck gun.

Here is the general idea.  As you drive around town on your daily routine, sooner or later you will witness Typical Automotive Ridiculous Driving (TARD—yes, I know, I used this term before, but there is more than one kind of TARD).  If you believe the driving offense to be serious enough, shoot the car with your dumb-fuck gun.   You won’t fire the gun without a lot of serious thought behind it, because you are only allowed to buy a new plunger-bullet once a year.  In short, the other driver has to be a real dumb-fuck for you to shoot at him.
All the police would have to do would be drive around and look for cars with a purple plunger stuck on them.  They would pull the dumb-fuck driver over and write him a stiff ticket.  If the car had several purple plungers stuck on it, the police could pull the car over and perform a curbside execution on the offending dumb-fuck.

I really like that last provision.  If your car has been dumb-fucked, you are either going to start driving very carefully, or get out of the car and walk until you can have your car repainted.  Either way, we have one less dumb-fuck on the road.

Fire trucks and ambulances should have dumb-fuck machine guns--they would never have to worry about a blocked intersection again.  School crossing guards get a tripod mounted gun.  And certain car models would come pre-dumb-fucked.  This would include turbo charged Audis and all Snaabs.  (Is there some kind of test to insure that only dumb-fucks drive these cars?)
In Albuquerque, the freeway would be mostly empty.  Abandoned on the side of the road would be a long line of purple porcupines.