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.