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!”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tough Enough Not To Wear Pink

Enema U is having its annual drive to help raise awareness in the fight against breast cancer; Spineless Enough To Be Coerced Into Wearing Pink Against Your Will Even Though You Damn Well Know It Is Pointless.  At least, I think that’s the name.

This is probably the point where I should point out that while I admit to being an insensitive brute, I actually do sincerely care about breast cancer.  My mother and my grandmother both died of breast cancer.  My wife, the Doc has performed countless operations for people suffering from breast cancer, both men and women.  I just object to group feel good exhibitions.

My university disagrees.  Half the administration is running around in pink t-shirts emblazoned with the words,  “Tough Enough To Wear Pink” while the rest are sporting sweatshirts that say “Cinco de Pink,”  Evidently, this is the 5th year that “we” have done this. 

I’m sure the university doesn’t mean to stereotype people, but isn’t this  blatant macho challenge to men to wear pink a little over the top?  Do we really need to stereotype both sexes?  Next year, will we ask if women are feminine enough to wear a blue jock strap to help raise awareness of testicular cancer?

A lot of the research institutions involved in finding a cure for breast cancer are equally tired of the endless breast cancer walks, breast cancer runs, and enough pink t-shirts to keep half of China employed.   As one researcher put it, “If one more pink tschotske would cure cancer, we would be there already.”

It’s not like it hasn’t been tried.  Go to and search for the words “breast cancer” and you will find 51,000 cute little doodads for sale.  You can buy anything from pink golf balls to pink bracelets, each with a cute little pink ribbon and a promise to forward a microscopic portion of the sale price to some organization claiming to be a cancer institute.  There is a lot of green in pink.

Do we really need to raise awareness of anything related to breasts?  Almost everyone I know either loves them or has them.  Short of a telethon co-hosted by Hugh Hefner and Christina Hendricks, I think it’s been done.  Hell, two of my best friends are breasts.  If a few more million little pink ribbons would do it…. No, that’s just not going to work.  And aren’t we focusing on the wrong thing?

Heart disease kills more people, both men and women, than breast cancer.  But if numbers are not the point, maybe raising awareness of cancer actually is a good thing.  But enough of breast cancer, that has been done.  Let’s pick a new cancer, one that really does need more attention drawn to it.  That is why I am pleased to announce my new campaign to fight cancer.

Are you tough enough to smell like ass?  If so, please wear one of our new brown scratch and sniff ribbons for colorectal cancer.  Are you tough enough to get a colonoscopy?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Depression Impression

This country is either in a recession or so close to being in one that the difference only matters to television economists.  Despite what the talking heads on television say, however, this is nothing close to the great depression of the 1930’s.  The difference is not to be found in the endless statistics of the number of people out of work, the percentage of the underemployed, or even the numbers in poverty.  I think the real difference is in the attitudes of the people who lived during those difficult times between the two world wars compared with those of people today.

The history books contain a story about a man who was suddenly unemployed and found it difficult to adjust to the changes in his life.   Unable to find work, for three years he painted his house, over and over again.  This man wasn’t just passing time--he was desperate to regain a sense of purpose, to retain his pride.  I think this is the main difference: how the people of the Great Depression found ways to cope with the depression compared with the people of today.

I don’t have to resort to the history books to find examples--my parents told me of their own difficulties during that time.  My mother’s family lost their farm and moved to the giant metropolis of Plainview, Texas, where my grandfather could find work.  For the first time, my mother and her sisters lived in a town and had to get used to a new way of life.  She told me that one of the small ways the family coped was that they tried to ‘pretty up’ the trash in the garbage can waiting at the curb for the trash truck.

When my mother told me this, I thought it was hilarious.  “Why did you want to make your garbage look good?”  I asked.

My mother patiently explained, “We were poor, everyone was poor, but we didn’t want people to see the proof of it.  So we tried to make the garbage in our trash can look like we had more money than we actually did.  We would put the prettiest trash on the top of the can where people could see it.”

“What in the world is pretty trash?” I asked. 

“A piece of colored ribbon or a shopping bag from a fancy store,” she explained.  “But the prettiest trash was to show you could afford luxuries--something like a watermelon rind.  If you could afford a watermelon, you must be doing all right.”

Food as a luxury was something that must have been common in West Texas in those days.  My father had a similar story.  The farm he grew up on was not a financial success before the depression—when hard times hit it must have been only a few steps above hell itself.  My father was not quite a teenager when the depression hit.  Within just a few years, he would have quit school to find work and help the family.  For a while, however, he found a few odd jobs after school for small amounts of change.  He literally had to save his pennies.  If he was lucky, by the end of the week, he could finish chores on the farm and walk the few miles to town to spend that saved nickel at the small local grocery store.

In 1932, a nickel would buy quite a few things in there, but my father had two favorites.  Occasionally, he would buy a brown cardboard box containing five large white marshmallows.  I can picture in my mind my father describing that box and how he would open the lid and lick some of the powdered sugar off of one of the treats before putting the entire marshmallow into his mouth. 

Those marshmallows were good, and my father had a powerful sweet tooth his whole life.  I have no doubt that my father bought quite a few of those boxes over the years, but that wasn’t his favorite purchase.  Instead, he usually bought a can of cling peaches in heavy syrup.  A nickel for a whole 12 ounce can of sweet, sweet peaches!  Once the can was purchased, my father would sit on the curb outside the store and open that can with his pocketknife, and then slowly eat those peaches, one by one, until they were all gone.  Then he would carefully drink the syrup out of the can, making sure not to cut his lips on the ragged edge of the can.

Why didn’t he take the can home?  My father was one of eleven children.  His mother may have raised an idiot son, but that’s my uncle.

The Great Depression changed the people who lived through it.  It created values and built work ethics in those people that I’m not sure we will find in today’s generation.  I don’t think hard times will bind today’s people with a shared identity or a sense of accomplishment.  When the economy inevitably improves, will it have changed today’s people at all?

There is no doubt it changed my father.  He died fifty years after the end of the Great Depression.  When we cleaned out his kitchen pantry, there were 18 cans of peaches stockpiled there. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Probably Incurable

For the last few years, Enema U has been conducting an interesting psychological experiment.  As the university is blessed with an abundance of surplus office and classroom space, the New Mexico State Psychiatric Hospital at Fort Bayard, in cooperation with the campus Psychology Department, has been testing a new form of treatment for the severely mentally ill.

The patients being treated share similar psychotic fantasies, the most notable being an incredible conviction of holding advanced degrees, of having vast amounts of specialized knowledge, and of being employed as professors of obscure yet vitally important arcane trivial subjects.  While generally harmless, these self-proclaimed “professors” are maniacally driven to “teach” the knowledge only they possess.   In most cases, this specialized knowledge actually amounts either to endless repetition of a minute amount of information or total gibberish, complete with an invented vocabulary.
Dr. Potluck from the New Mexico State Psychiatric Hospital at Fort Bayard has devised an innovative treatment situated on the campus of Enema U.  Why not group these patients into an imaginary department of teaching faculty?  Allow them to use some of the empty offices, conduct “research” as they wish, and even allow them to teach classes.  In other words, if the only way these patients could cope with reality was with the gentle fiction of being real academics, then humor them, observe them, and learn from them.

Office space was secured, the patients were assigned offices, and they even selected a department head from among themselves.  In almost every way, the patients behaved and acted as real functioning faculty.  Their habits were unusual, their dress strange, and their interpersonal skills almost nonexistent--In other words, they blended in perfectly with the real faculty.
The charade was so complete that even assigning these pseudo-faculty to teach classes was accomplished.  While some of the students in the classroom were actually attending physicians and nurses, most of the students attending the make-believe classes were actually students majoring in psychology.  According to one of these students, “It is amazing how long this patient can talk about absolutely nothing, almost like a real professor.  Sometimes, the nonsense almost sounds like it makes sense.”

Another student added, “Unless you listen to what they say, they act pretty much like everyone else on campus.  It is amazing--they really believe they are actual professors.  As long as you keep nodding your head and agree with what they say, it is pretty much like being in a real class.  I really feel sorry for them.”
The doctors have had to be creative with some forms of the treatment.  Group therapy sessions are called faculty meetings or committee meetings.  Many of the more severely affected patients are required to attend multiple such meetings each week.  Most of the patients take their arts and crafts projects seriously, even though most of the projects involve nothing more than chalkboards and finger painting.   The patients invariably call their creations “PowerPoint Presentations” and insist they are for their students.  Similarly, medications are often administered at after work drinking sessions.  Occasionally, you will even hear the patients referring to erstwhile Scotch as a “medicinal drink.”

Though generally mild-mannered and timid, occasionally patients suffer a relapses.  While still harmless, the patients are returned to Fort Bayard for treatment—usually shock treatment.  These absences are usually explained as sabbaticals.  Surprisingly, the patient invariably believes in these sabbaticals as well, frequently commenting after their return to the campus as “feeling recharged” or “energized and ready to teach.”
Dr. Potluck firmly believes in the efficacy of these experiments.  While the patients themselves are probably incurable, locked into endless cycles of denial and delusions of grandeur, they may provide the key to unlocking the secret to how these damaged minds function.  Close examination of the inner working of these poorly functioning brains may reveal how real academic minds work.

Dr. Potluck has recently revealed that one of the patients has promoted herself, and has just announced that she is now a Provost.