Saturday, December 29, 2012

The End of Facebook

Sooner or later, it seems, every form of communication eventually comes to the end to its usefulness.  Frequently the end is caused by abuse.  When I was a child, my extended family communicated by mail:  postcards and letters.  I still receive mail every day, but these days I routinely sort the collection at the trash dumpster.  There are two mail events I can no longer remember--the last day I did not receive any mail and the last time there was a real letter mixed with the daily flood of junk mail and catalogs from Barn Outlet and Pottery Gluck.

There was a long period when the telephone was the primary means of communications.  I can remember when a long distant phone call (now an obsolete term) was a special event.  A little over four years ago, I received so many phone calls advising me how to vote in the upcoming election that I wandered around the house ripping phones out of the wall.  Now, four years later, I have never gotten around to reattaching those phones.  Without phones, the house has been so much more peaceful that I'm contemplating chopping down the mailbox, too.

The fax machine at work is scheduled to be disconnected.  In the last year, we have received hundreds of offers for cruises, a few unsolicited restaurant menus, and no worthwhile messages whatsoever.  We probably should have unplugged the device years ago, it is inconceivable that there is still a business with a fax machine that doesn't also receive email.

Speaking of email, of course I still use it--I must get a hundred messages from students every single damn day.  While there is an occasional useful message, the vast majority of these are from a recently awakened student asking me about something that is clearly stated in the syllabus.  Between student emails and spam, it is getting harder and harder to find my important business offers from Nigerian widows.

And then, Facebook was born.  And I am beginning to wish it had been aborted.  Not only has Facebook detracted from the true reason for the internet (the endless sharing of cat photos) but it seems to have all but replaced all other forms of family communication.  There has been a noticeable drop in phone calls and email since Facebook has become a part of our lives.

Facebook was a useful form of communication between friends and family for a while, but now, sadly Facebook too, has become so overwhelmed with abuse that it is easy to predict its inevitable demise.  The two topics that every intelligent person is never supposed to bring up in polite conversation--religion and politics--now seem to dominate Facebook.

I get endless posts concerning gun control from people who have never owned guns, posts about abortion from people who can't get laid, and way too many posts about Social Security from people on it.   The latter seem to believe that despite their generation supporting a government that spent like drunken sailors, the only important task left for society is to support them in their interminable declining years.  If the World War II generation was the Greatest Generation, then Ours is the Grating (on my nerves) Generation.

Frankly, the endless public sharing of private opinions is getting tiresome.  People who normally pride themselves on a political philosophy too sophisticated to fit on a bumper sticker will, on Facebook, trivialize profound problems by posting a dozen word opinion that could only be the result of either inbreeding or a higher education.  This rudeness is slowly destroying social media.

Naturally, I have a solution.  The only salvation for social media is anti-social media.  We need a forum reserved exclusively for political and religious rudeness.  I propose that we call the new social media service Septic Tank.  We can reserve Facebook for polite messages between family and friends, reserving the new service for the opinions we would not espouse at a cocktail party.  Then, every time you feel the need to share some profound insight from your imaginary friend--religious or political--you can just drop it in your Septic Tank.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Closed Shop Church

Dateline Chicago

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit today stripped the tax-exempt status from 1600 churches that participated in the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" last November.  The pastors deliberately violated the provisions of the tax code commonly called “The Johnson Amendment” that prohibits tax exempt non-profit organizations operating under 501(c)(3) of the tax code from engaging in political activities.  The churches had sought to challenge the constitutionality of the regulations--specifically those provisions that forbid the churches from endorsing political candidates.

On November 3, the pastors of the 1600 churches deliberately endorsed political candidates in the upcoming election, thus setting the stage for a court challenge to the provision that the churches claimed illegally stripped religious organizations of their freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Today, the Circuit Court disagreed and removed the tax-exempt status of the offending churches.  Lawyers for the churches said there would be no appeal of the decision.  According to one of the lawyers, “The churches have decided to appeal to a higher authority.”

In a surprising move, the 1600 churches today dissolved their 501(c)(3) status and immediately re-filed applications with the Internal Revenue Service as members of  501(c)(5) organizations, i.e. as labor unions.

"In this way," said Reverend Bill Clark, the new shop steward of the First Baptist Union of Chicago, "We will be able to continue to our political activities and retain our tax-exempt status.  This union can promise better long-term benefits than any other union!"

According to one of the attorneys acting for the churches, the move could very well be profitable for the newly formed religious unions.  "Remember," said the lawyer.  "Illinois is a closed shop state.  Everyone working in the state will be required to be a member, and their union dues will be automatically deducted from their paychecks.”

Protestant churches are busily reorganizing under the The American Federation of Churches (AFC).  In Boston, the former Archbishop Michael O’Malley--now union president,--announced that the local dioceses would be reorganizing under The Congress of Coordinated Catholic Parishes (CCCP).   

When Reverend Bill Clark was asked if the former churches’ parishioners would support the move to unionization, the new shop steward replied, “Why not?  This state has always supported unions, and this union can promise better longer long-term benefits than any other.  Besides, you can be a member of this union even while you are unemployed.  Hell, you can belong to this union even after you’re dead!”

Union President (Archbishop) O’Malley explained, “After all, all of us work for the same Boss.  We just haven’t met Him yet.”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

If This Is A Test—Someone Flunked

It is final exam week at Enema U.  This event produces some mixed emotions from me.  On the one hand, the population of the town drops by some ten thousand students.  This means I can drive to work next week without some hormone enraged student driving so close behind my truck that it looks like he is trying to become my own personal and private proctologist.  For a few weeks, the town is very quiet.

The downside to exam week is all of the exam papers I have to grade.  All semester long, I can delude myself that I am God’s gift to education.  Then I grade the papers and realize that I am just some old fool at the front of the room.  This year is certainly no different.  Please don’t misunderstand me; the majority of my students work very hard and learn despite the meager abilities of the professor they have to endure.  A few, every semester, however turn in tests that indicate they spent most of the semester pursuing interests other than academic.

Students have given me quite a few original answers over the years.  According to one student, the son of Charlemagne was ‘Louie the Slugger’ and Minie Balls (the Civil War era bullet) was the name of a woman pretending to be a man during the war.  I also have been told that the first man to walk on the moon was Walter Cronkite and that Santa Ana was the patron saint of Texas.

A good student under the pressure of the exam suffered a total mental block while trying to remember the word ‘bayonet’.  While writing a stirring account of Joshua Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top, her otherwise brilliant essay had a slight comedic touch when she explained how his men counterattacked down the hill with their “long stabby things”.

Years ago, I had two different students who each wrote essentially the same wild story about the cause of the Spanish American War.  I knew they hadn’t copied each other--they were sitting too far apart--yet each of them had written a crazy story about how Spanish pirates sinking the Bismarck had started the war.  I just had to know how this had happened and had both students come to my office, where they admitted they had studied together for the exam the night before.

“Well, you see, we had your study guide, but neither one of us had a copy of the textbook” one of the students explained.  “So we asked my father and he told us how the war started.”

“By any chance,” I asked, “had your father been drinking?”

“Yes,” the student admitted.

“Then tell your father he flunked, too.”

I have never been able to explain an error that seems to come up every year.  Some student will explain in great detail how the military victories of Robert E. Lee were due to his brilliant tactic of hiding his army up among the branches of tall trees and waiting until the Union army was passing below.  Then—without warning—the Confederates would leap out of the trees, down on the unsuspecting Blue Coats.

I cannot explain how this peculiar answer seems to reappear annually.  I have carefully searched all my lecture notes on the Civil War, and while I do mention trees occasionally (fighting in forests, etc.) not once do I have a single soldier climb any tree.  Is there a movie or a television show that depicts something like this?  I am open to suggestions.

Research papers are not much better: using the wrong word is a frequent problem for students.  For two of the more commonly confused words, I have the world's smallest PowerPoint presentation.  The first slide shows a photo of a soldier  in a black silk uniform, a member of the Viet Minh, commonly called the Viet Cong.  Underneath the photo is the caption:  Guerrilla Warfare.  The second, and last slide shows a still from the movie Planet of the Apes, a gorilla on horseback carrying a rifle.  The caption is:  Gorilla Warfare.  Unfortunately, my students seem to use both phrases interchangeably.

This semester, I co-taught a course with Professor Holland.  One of the students had a vocabulary problem that Professor Holland corrected artistically.  Sadly, the student never picked up his corrected paper.  Maybe he will read this blog. 

For years, I have included a cartoon on the bottom of my final exams--usually a single panel ridiculing either education in general or something dealing loosely with the subject the class has studied.  What I intended to be something of an ice breaker, turned out to be the actual test for one student.  The student (I’ll call her Lisa because that was her name) wrote for two hours and filled an entire ‘blue book’ about the cartoon.  She actually din not answer a single question on the test!

Unfortunately, this semester was no different than previous ones.  Somewhere in New Mexico is a student who believes that an ‘ironclad’ is not an armored vessel from the Civil War but the type of shield used by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. 

The biggest surprise though was a student who completely misunderstood the test.  Ignoring the review session, verbal instructions, and even the written instructions, one of my students surprised me with a unique solution to the first section of the test.

While the student did use eight terms in his impromptu matching, and I am impressed by his unique-though ineffective—method of problem solving, I was shocked to learn that Oliver Perry suffered from such an obscure medical condition.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Paris of the Prairies

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting Fort Worth, I got a chance to visit the old stockyards.  When I was a child, the city was nicknamed Cowtown and was the major source of beef for a large portion of the nation.  The holding pens were full of steers, the area hotels were packed with purchasing agents and ranchers, and the cowboys in the local bars drank Lone Star Beer and made million dollar deals.  Well, to be honest, the area had another quality—a certain smell—but the locals knew it was a natural by-product of four-legged gold.

Actually, Fort Worth had a lot of nicknames, and most of them were somewhat colorful.  In the 1870’s, a blue norther ripped through Texas and damn near froze ever last steer in the state.  (For the Yankees among the readers, that is pure Texan and translates to “A blizzard froze the cattle.”) Within months the town was in such a bad way that a Dallas newspaper published a story about a panther taking a nap on Main Street in front of the court house.  If the paper thought the town would take offense, it was wrong.  The townspeople adopted the moniker “Panther City” with a certain amount of pride.  To this day, the local police have a panther on their badges and the panther icon can be seen on local business signs.

When the railroad extended its tracks to the town, businesses flourished and mills, factories, and meat packing plants came to Fort Worth.  It was a fast growing community and was quickly called the “Queen City of the Prairies”. 

This success, however, brought with it a few problems.  Within twenty years, Fort Worth was celebrated for its stock yards—and equally famous for what was called “Hell’s Half Acre”, a red light district just outside the rail head that had been established for the cattlemen.  The Half Acre was infamous for saloons, gambling parlors, cut-rate hotels, and other assorted adult playgrounds designed to efficiently separate a cowboy from his wages.  To the cowboys, the Half Acre was heaven, but to just about everyone else, the town itself was called the “Paris of the Prairies”. 

A newcomer to the town could stand on a street corner of Hell’s Half Acre—now about five times larger than its name indicated—and watch infamous gunfighters, local courtesans, card sharps, cattle barons, railroad tycoons, and buffalo hunters all walk past in just about the time it took to have his pocket picked.  Pick the right day, and you could have seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wander by after they had their photo taken.

The town had more than its share of share of colorful—though violent—characters.  The locals tried to clean the town up, so they hired Fort Worth’s first marshal, a notorious lawman named ‘Longhair’ Courtright.  Courtright did a great job, sometimes arresting up to 30 men in one night.  Unfortunately, the town quickly found that fighting crime also hurt business and so they fired Courtright.  Within a few years, Courtright--now turned to crime--crossed paths with Luke Short and the Half Acre became the location for one of the most famous gunfights of the Old West.

Short, a close friend with such infamous gunfighters as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holiday, had sold his interest in the Long Branch Saloon of Dodge City fame, and moved to Fort Worth to become a partner in the White Elephant Saloon.  When Courtright tried to extort protection money from Short, a confrontation was inevitable.  The two met on Main Street and Courtright drew first, but he was slowed down when his gun got caught on his watch chain.  Short fired first, blowing the thumb off Courtright’s gun hand, making it impossible for the man to cock his single action revolver.  Courtright then executed a trick shot maneuver known as the “border shift”, tossing his gun from his right hand to his left.  (I’ve seen this trick done successfully on television quite a few times.)  By the time the gun got to Courtright’s left hand, Short had shot him in the chest four times.

But that was the old Fort Worth.  I visited the new city, and while I personally would have enjoyed seeing Luke “King of the Gamblers” Short shoot someone on Main Street, it probably would have been bad for the local business. The area around the old Stockyards is beautiful.  Now the saloons are great restaurants, the old hotels are trendy establishments for tourists, and what used to be adult pleasure palaces are upscale antique stores.  I was impressed.

I guess the only thing that really surprised me was the almost total lack of livestock left in the stockyards.  In a stockyard where there were once thousands of steers, now there was one lonely longhorn—but he had a job.  For $5, you could sit on him for about 15 seconds while you had your picture taken.  And you had to use your own camera.  There was a long line waiting to sit on that steer.

What a business plan--no overhead, no operating expenses, and only a single employee who works for grass.  And that steer earns a larger salary than most tenured professors at Enema U.  And while he is just as full of BS as the average professor, at least he has an excuse.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Warren Burnett, A Texas Original

Thirty years ago, I was working quietly one Friday afternoon on a new Unix computer network in my store in Galveston.  It was such a beautiful day that the entire town had found something to do other than work--on an island in the summer, weekends start early.  We hadn't had a customer in the store for over an hour, so it was a great time to spend a little time learning something new.  The Fortune 32:16 System was state-of-the-art, and my two technicians and I needed a little peace and quiet to learn the peculiarities of a new system.

So, I was a little peeved when the old man showed up on a bicycle.  An island collects characters (hell, I was there) and this had all the signs of a drunk, a crackpot, or another schizophrenic homeless person.  The store had already semi-adopted one of the latter: Elijah.  Elijah lived on the street and ate out of the dumpsters he found on a regular route around the island’s business district.  He was harmless, but would not let anyone get within 20 feet of him.  At the same time, he had once been a respected CPA before he had some kind of mental break.  Elijah was capable of walking up to your car window while you were stopped at a traffic light and saying something like, “If you re-file your last quarterly return with the state, you should get a nice reduction on this quarter’s remittance.”  Then he would run off to look for chicken in the Colonel’s dumpster.

Obviously, Elijah had spent a little time in my dumpster reading my mail.  I liked Elijah, so we left cans of tuna fish and bottles of Coca Cola on the loading dock for him.  But, while I could tolerate Elijah, I had no intention of the store becoming the clubhouse for all the lost boys on the island—my business was to sell computers, not play Peter Pan.  So, I wasn't happy to see this new character ride up.

He was a short old man in khakis with a dirty t-shirt and a long-billed fisherman’s cap, and was riding a heavy 1950’s Schwinn bicycle with an enormous ice chest tied to the front basket.  He needed a shave and it was more than obvious that he had drunk his breakfast.  He parked the bike, came about 5 feet into the store, and then loudly counted the number of people in the store.

“One, two, three.  Yes, three.” he said.  Then he went back outside to the bike’s ice chest, removed 4 bottles of beer, and brought them into the store and gave each of us a bottle.  I was beginning to like the man a little better.  There are only two types of beer:  those I buy and OP (Other People’s).  I prefer OP.

He was friendly, and despite being a little drunk, he asked the same questions that most of my customers asked.  Which computer was the best, could it do word processing, which printer was the best, etc.  I humored him and showed him the kind of computer that I owned personally.  And when he asked how much it cost, I gave him a ball park figure of $4000.  He nodded his head and left, pedaling his ancient bicycle down the sidewalk.  The three of us went back to work on the Fortune computer.

The next afternoon, a very large car pulled up outside the store.  It was a Checker Cab that had been repainted an electric blue and converted for personal use.  While it was being driven by a young woman about 30, we were a lot more interested in the well-dressed man in the back seat: he was the drunk from the day before.  And when the man came into the store, he gave me a check for $4000 and asked when I could deliver his computer.

The man was Warren Burnett, the legendary West Texas defense lawyer--someone soon to be a good friend and one of my best customers.  I think I eventually sold him over a dozen computers--quite a few of which he had us deliver to people as gifts.

Warren was famous for his cars, his planes, his celebrated trials, and for the staggering amount of good whiskey he could consume.  When Warren was working, he didn't drink—but when he wasn't working he could put away an amazing amount of alcohol.  His main office in Odessa was a giant dome.  When Warren hired my company to install computers in his office (including one on his desk) I was amused to find that he had converted the knee well under his desk into a private wet bar.

I remember one of Warren’s pet peeves was that while drinking, he would watch late night television and fall victim to those middle of the night infomercials.  The next day, he wouldn't remember much of the night before, but in about two weeks the UPS truck would show up and deliver a dozen Ronco Pocket Fishermen or a case of Ginzu knives.  I visited his office one day and he had a pile of Buttoneers on his desk.  Warren always was generous to a fault: even while drunk he always bought enough toys to share with his friends.  He always claimed he was going to sue these companies for preying on late night drunks, but I guess he never found the right precedent.

In his early days, Warren had been a prosecuting attorney--one of the very last in Texas who got a jury to give the death penalty for the crime of rape.  Then Warren became a defense attorney handling high profile murder and drug cases.  His quick wit and sharp tongue could filet a district attorney and he was famous for winning the cases that could not be won.

Lesser known were the cases that Warren Burnett defended for free.  He also represented Mexican-Americans fighting for school integration in the Rio Grande Valley, the United Farm Workers Union in West Texas, and various liberal causes in Austin, the state capital

The tenth anniversary of his death was just a few weeks ago.  Warren Burnett died the way he had lived: he was sitting with friends, rocking on a Texas porch with a bottle of beer in his hand, when he had a heart attack.  I bet he finished the beer before he died.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Four Stages of Santa

It would be very strange if I weren't thinking about Santa, today.   As I write this, it is Thanksgiving morning and Santa is all over the television.  Between the Macy's parade and the advertisements, Santa is receiving the kind of media exposure that just two weeks ago cost a couple of politicians a billion dollars, each.

Yes, I am thinking about Santa.  The Christmas tree is already up and the grand-kids are here, and one more is on the way and--with a little brandy in the coffee--it is easy to turn philosophical about Santa.  Specifically, I have decided that there are four stages of Santa Claus.

The First Stage:  You Believe In Santa.
This, of course, is the best stage.  Pity the small child who does not believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, John Wayne, or that, somewhere, Paul Bunyan is still playing with Babe, The Blue Ox.  The world for children is supposed  to be a magical place where Peter Pan will be back from Neverland momentarily.

For Children, Christmas makes so much more sense if they believe in magic, and so much less if they don't.  If there is no magic, then why do adults suddenly act so irrationally:  they bring a tree into the house, they encourage everyone to eat the kind of food that the rest of the year they forbid, and everywhere you go there is happy music for children.

My eldest granddaughter,The Munchkin, is six, and absolutely believes in Santa.  In fact, she just wrote a letter to Santa and asked him to send Mommy and Daddy a hug and a kiss for Christmas.  This is so cute it hurts.  I may have to give the girl a pony!

The Second Stage:  You Don't Believe in Santa.
This is the worst stage.  It is so sad when children stop believing in Santa Claus.  Hell, I wish I still believed.  Maybe there is no such thing as magic, but there should be.

Whenever a child begins to express the smallest amount of doubt, they should immediately be cautioned that children who do not believe in Santa only receive clothes for presents.

What kind of punishment should be reserved for people who tell children there is no Santa?  I can still remember when another kid told me that Santa was actually my father.  Luckily, I misunderstood and for at least a year believed that my father actually was the real Santa.  I even figured out when he was making all the presents for children--it was every morning when he was locked in the bathroom for what seemed like an eternity.  He was obviously using the electric razor to cover up the sounds of toy construction.  As a child, I had an active imagination.

The Third Stage:  You Are Santa.
This stage is hilarious, unless you have ever spent half the night assembling a pair of bicycles using directions that have been translated from Japanese into English by a computer.  (What did the bicycle call it's father?  A pop-cycle.  You start thinking like this when you hang around your grandchildren.)

It is a lot of fun sneaking presents under the tree in the middle of the night (the toys that you have hidden in the attic for weeks)--the same toys that your children discovered weeks ago.  You thought you had finished shopping early, but two days before Christmas, you realize that Santa forgot to find this year's must-have tickle-me-cabbage-stretch-wii thingy.  In blue.  So Santa will have to go back to the MallWart.

Have you ever looked for a good hiding place for a present only to discover a present you bought last year--early--and forgot about?  This is actually something that only happens to The Doc.  Since, I am a man, I have never bought a Christmas present early.

You will start assembling all this junk very late at night, because just about bedtime you will remember that you need a lot of batteries.  Nine volt, double A and triple A batteries are required for everything you bought, and the only place still open is the local convenience store.  Batteries at a convenience store cost more than a kidney transplant, but it is Christmas, so you just shell out the money.  That's Santa's job.

I would be willing to bet that over the years comprising my career as Santa, I spent more on toys, batteries, and holiday food than it cost my father to buy his first house.  For the life of me, other than a couple of bikes, I cannot remember a single gift that Santa brought the boys.  And I would be very much surprised if any of that stuff still survives.

The Fourth Stage:  You Look Like Santa
Alas, there is no denying it--I'm there.  There is more white in the beard than brown and the hair is decidedly more salt than pepper.  The waist band that moves in and out is now mostly out.  What were laughingly called love handles a few years ago have now sadly turned into a death grip.  I could easily pass for Santa.

I have arrived at that stage of life where I avoid Wal-Mart, not only because of the crowds, but for the simple reason that every time I enter the store, someone tries to hire me to be a greeter.

So now, as a grandparent, it is my job to promise my granddaughters that Santa will bring them everything their hearts desire.  Preferably, stuff that needs lots of batteries--so their parents can run frantically around town trying to find the latest Princess-Twilght-I-Pooed thingy.  In pink.  Who said payback wouldn't be a perfect Christmas gift for your kids when they have kids?

Recently, I had a sudden insight into the secret identity of Santa!  While I do not know who he really is, I have noticed a few clues.  Consider the following:  Santa is rarely seen, but you can regularly see his assistants.  Santa is very old, but no one ever talks about him retiring.  Santa doesn't really do that much himself, but directs the work of a lot of assistants who are poorly paid--yet he gets all the credit.  Santa doesn't keep regular hours and doesn't work anything close to 40 hours a week--and Santa travels a lot.

I'm not sure who he is, but obviously--Santa is a tenured full professor at Enema U!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Feud

Fifty years ago, I was mad for fireworks.  It is difficult to describe the consummate destructive joy of exploding firecrackers, the adrenaline-fired rush of totally unpredictable bottle rockets that never hit what they were aimed at, and the beautiful sulfur smell of burning gunpowder.  In some still unexplained connection, gunpowder is linked to the Y chromosome. Men instinctively love fire, destruction, and a good loud noise.  Taken together, beer and gunpowder provide 4 of the 5 things man craves most.

So it seems a little strange that thirty years ago I began to hate fireworks.  It probably had something to do with What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One.  Nothing screws up a love affair with fireworks more than having sons.  Suddenly, I was filled with an intense desire NOT to raise a one-eyed son whose nickname was Lefty.

Trying not to expose your children to fireworks in New Mexico, however, is fairly difficult.  They are legal.  Hell, they are damn near required.  Enema U has a fireworks show every time they lose a football game.  The Fourth of July around my neighborhood would impress the Chinese on New Year’s.  So it was only natural that my two rugrats began clamoring for me to buy some fireworks--something I should have seen earlier, since (as I have already explained--see first paragraph) this desire is inevitably linked genetically.

Eventually, I gave in and went to the fireworks stand.  (For a very long time, I used to believe that it was just me that had violent, evil thoughts about fireworks stands.  To be specific, I can never see a fireworks stand without thinking about shooting a flare gun into one, just to watch it explode.  After all, this (and my total inability to enter a shopping mall without thinking about hand grenades) is why The Doc, my wife, says I have some unresolved anger management issues.  Then, one day, I confessed this to The-Other-One’s father-in-law, a fire marshal, and he confided that he had the exact same fantasy when he saw a fireworks stand.)  Looking over the line of fireworks available, I eventually found exactly what I was looking for:  a cone-shaped device that shot sparks into the air along with a few about fireballs.  It was fairly tame, but I positioned it in the middle of the backyard and had the boys observe from the far side of the pool.  Luckily, this dangerous experiment ended with both boys physically intact and without any need for an ambulance.

So, about 15 minutes later, I was a little surprised when the police showed up.  It seems the crazy neighbor over the back fence had called the police, claiming that I was trying to burn down his house.  The two policemen were actually embarrassed.  According to them, this neighbor was one of their “frequent flyers” and reported somebody, somewhere, doing something he disapproved of, about once a week.  I showed the police the remains of our one and only piece of ordnance, they laughed and told me to forget about the whole affair.

That is not the only time the local police have been wrong about something--for what they didn’t know was that this was just the opening salvo in “The Feud.”  If some rotating son-of-a-bitch (this is a son-of-a-bitch that--no matter how you rotate him--remains a son-of-a-bitch) hates you for no reason, then by God you should give the son-of-a-bitch a reason.  The feud was ON.

My neighbor was a bachelor, and evidently believed that a feud was something to be conducted by just yelling obscene insults across a fence.  This was a major reason why he eventually lost.

It would take an entire book to describe everything my team (in every war, the best generals have staff) did.  So let me just gloss over the minor skirmishes.  Of course you enroll the enemy in every book, record, and cheese of the month club you can find.  And you go to the post office and fill out the little form that forwards his mail to the address of the Anchorage Wal-Mart.  Then two months later, you fill out the little form that lets the post office hold the mail while someone is on vacation.  And you cancel the subscription to the paper he is receiving, while subscribing him to a new and different newspaper.  These are just opening preliminary skirmishes.

The next step is when you ask the local utility company to come and use spray paint to map out the gas lines across the lawn because you plan on digging ditches for the new sprinkler system.  Then you order a load of manure to be left in the driveway.  Did you know by just using the phone, you can turn off his cable, hire a lawn service and even have his second car towed off to have the transmission repaired? But, petty acts like these are just getting warmed up for the main events.

It was a slow day at the store, so I had every salesman, secretary, and even the bookkeeper, go through the phone book and help me make calls.  It turned into one of those company team-building exercises.  You have no idea how many companies will come to your house on a Tuesday evening at 7:00 if you simply ask them to.  We told realtors we wanted to sell the house.  We told insurance salesmen we were interested in purchasing whole life.  We got quotes on aluminum siding.  I told the Mormon Church I was depressed and thinking about suicide.  People will give you quotes on new windows, gutters, venetian blinds, house painting, financial planning and feng shui.  And we told all of them to show up on Tuesday at 7:00 on the same night.

By 6:30, you couldn't get within two blocks of that house.  Thankfully, we had also ordered the party a lot of pizza.

Thinking back on it, however, the turning point of the war were the Bob phone calls.  By this point in the feud, my army was actually…well, an army.  Even some of the other neighbors were helping me.  It turned out that no one--damn near no one liked this guy.  Remember, at one time or another, he had called the police on a lot of people.  Here is what they did: individually, they all called his house and asked for Bob.  That’s all.

Well, dozens of people called his house.  Men, women, and quite a few children called at all hours of the day and night and asked for Bob.  That guy, the enemy, was really a rude jerk—he usually cursed and just hung up on people.  We did this for weeks and weeks….and weeks.

Finally, after about two months and perhaps 300 phone calls, I made my one and only phone call at 3:00 in the morning.

“Hello,” I said.  “This is Bob.  Any messages?”

Shortly after Bob stopped screaming, he moved.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The BEST All Around Defense Gun

Recently, I attended a small gun show in Southern New Mexico.  You would not believe the number of people who actually seemed to be preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse.  Or maybe they were making a movie about the First World War--it was a little hard to tell from what they were selling. 

This was a fairly small show, but I can remember much bigger shows.  When I lived in Galveston, a friend of mine, Colonel Klink, was the range officer for the local police department.  I’ll leave it to your imagination how he got the nickname, but twice a year Klink and I would drive to Houston and attend a gun show at the Astrodome Complex.  That show was enormous, and it was almost impossible to see all the tables in a single day.  You could find anything you wanted at that show—from an elephant gun in .600 Nitro Express to a vintage BB gun. 

Klink and I loved that show, we looked forward to it, discussed what we wanted to find, what we hoped to see and which antique firearms we might get a chance to actually hold in our hands.  While we rarely bought anything, we really loved that show.  There was only one small problem:  Steve.

Have you ever had one of those friends that you didn’t dislike, but you never quite liked?  The husband of my wife’s college roommate, Steve, was an obnoxious pharmacist with decidedly more money than brains, and while we certainly didn’t want Steve to go to the show with us, somehow he always managed to bum a ride.  And for Steve, the best part of the trip was that he could actually afford to purchase what Klink and I could only look at.

The ride from Galveston to the Astrodome took over an hour, and Steve would sit in the back seat of the car listening to Klink and me talk about what we hoped to see at the gun show.  Now, Steve didn’t know enough about guns to figure out which end of a rifle to put up to his shoulder, but he knew enough to sit in the back of the car and learn what it was that we liked.  And as soon as we got to the show, he would disappear among the tables and we wouldn’t see him again until the prearranged time for us to meet at the car for the ride back to Galveston.  And invariably, Steve would have purchased whatever it was that Klink and I had discussed on the ride to the show.

That was always a long ride back to Galveston.  There is not much in life worse than a greedy, nasty little child with a new toy that he damn sure will not share.   Steve would gloat all the way home.  Worse, whatever it was that he had purchased that day was never quite the same for Klink and me.  The very fact that Steve owned the gun tarnished it just as assuredly as if Steve had stored it in a bucket of salt water.  Something had to be done.

Many beers later, Klink and I finally decided that we would try to get Steve to buy the most useless, ridiculous, and absurd gun ever made this side of France.  So Klink and I had to do some research, and there was only one possible scholarly journal to turn to:  Shotgun News.  In those days, Shotgun News was a weekly magazine--each issue about the size and thickness of the Sunday New York Times.  It wasn’t actually a “news” newspaper—it was more like an “advertising” newspaper.  Every gun made and sold in the world was advertised in that paper.  Klink and I spent an afternoon searching for the perfect--actually the least perfect—gun.  Eventually, we selected a winner.  Or is that a loser?

Strangely, this gun is STILL being made.  It is a derringer--one of those very small handguns with two barrels--one superimposed over the other--that supposedly can be used for self-defense.  Well, not really.  There are a couple of small problems with derringers.  First, the gun has practically no grip, so at most you can wrap about two fingers around the gun.  This means that it is fairly hard to hold unless the cartridge you are shooting is too small to be of much use.  Secondly, the sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sight) is so short that you cannot hit anything with the gun.  So the derringer is a gun whose time never was.  At best, the gun is of marginal use unless you use a very small cartridge and get your attacker to obligingly hold the end of the barrel in his mouth.

Which is why it is so strange that the company offers a model chambered for .45-70 (a rifle cartridge).  This is a huge cartridge, so long that the tip of the bullet is flush with the end of the barrel.  This is the firearm equivalent with putting a short block V8 engine on a wheelbarrow.

Well, the day of the next gun show finally came, and once again Steve begged a ride from us.  On this trip, Klink and I focused on how much we craved a .45-70 derringer.  “What a perfect self-defense gun!” we said.  “It will tear apart a rhino, if needed.”  And so forth and so on for over an hour.

As soon as we arrived at the show, Steve was off like a shot (if you will pardon the pun).  Klink and I spent the rest of the day looking at new scopes and shotguns, somewhat blissful in the knowledge that somewhere in the Astrodome, a moron was attempting to purchase a midget elephant gun.

And when we gathered back at the car that afternoon, sure enough, Steve had his prize.  The damn thing was the smallest gun firing the largest cartridge that either Klink or I had ever seen.  All the way home to Galveston, Steve bragged about that gun, and I will admit that Klink and I encouraged him, because, this was only step one of our plan.  We didn’t take Steve home; we drove directly to the island’s gun range--we wanted to see Steve shoot the monster. 

The police gun range had a 25’ pistol range that was just perfect.  The firing position was covered with a corrugated metal roof to provide both a little shade and some protection from the rain.  Steve, however, was smart enough to realize that 25 feet was a little extreme for his gun, so he moved halfway to the target.  Although Klink and I were a good 30-40 feet away, I can still picture him standing there, left hand on his hip, his right arm extended as he carefully lined up the two inch sight radius on his portable howitzer.  And I can absolutely remember him firing it.

BOOM!  Oww!   Clang!

The boom was the noise that impossible gun made.  The painful oww noise was from Steve; his right arm seemed to be pointing somewhat crookedly up and slightly behind him.  The clanging noise was the derringer coming down on the metal roof a dozen feet behind Steve.  Strangely, Steve seemed to have missed the target.

Using a broom, and standing on Klink’s shoulders, we managed to retrieve the derringer.  I don’t think I ever saw Steve again after that day and I doubt that Klink did either.  I know I can remember the last thing that Steve ever said to either of us.

“You guys want to shoot it?”

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Help Wanted--Must Be Willing To Relocate!

It seems there there are suddenly a few job openings at Enema U.  Our president is... missing.  Shortly, we will begin a national search for a new president.  And we will undoubtedly hire a consultant to help us with this task.  We do this a lot.  A consultant is someone with an advanced degree, who lives out of state, and who can, if the search goes badly, be blamed for egregious errors.

At the university level, one of the most curious things about consultants who help you hire someone, is that, within a few years, that same consultant will try to lure the new hire to yet another school.  In Texas, we frown on buying cattle from a rustler who you know in advance will steal the cattle back.

Yet, the university keeps hiring consultants to help fill all the top positions. This makes about as much sense as a sailor on shore leave asking a pimp to help him find true love.  No matter what the consultants say about a candidate during the job interview, the candidate always ends up being a cheap hooker who tells us exactly what we want to hear.  Then the pimp--I meant consultant--finds the next john.

Why in the world doesn't the university promote from within its own ranks?  We have very good people on campus who have roots here, know the university, and know both our weaknesses and our strengths.  To continue to hire outside candidates to use our campus as a stepping stone to a "higher" office is madness.

I understand that some professors are so valuable in their current jobs that it would be counterproductive to take them out of the classroom or laboratory to put them behind an administrator's desk.  For example, there is a professor working down in the basement of the biology building who is crossbreeding mosquitos that will suck fat instead of blood.  Leaving this genius in the lab means there are still over a thousand other potential candidates on campus.

In the twenty plus years that I have been at the university, the procession of deans, provosts, and presidents has been nearly endless.  Thinking back over the people who held these jobs, the best were nearly always the ones who had been promoted from within--usually only as an interim position holder, while yet another "national search" was conducted to replace them.

Naturally there have been a few exceptions--we have had several good people come to the university.  It is amazing how some people can rapidly adjust to a small town in the southwest, and I truly admire the ones who do.  Quite a few people never truly make the town their home.  And why should they?--The promise of a promotion in their career brought them here, so it is only natural that the same enticement draws them away.

One of the problems with bringing in outside people is the constant need for these new people to build something--anything!--to prove to the next search committee at some future university, that they had been a successful administrator at their last job.  This Edifice Complex inevitably leaves the campus with new buildings, but not necessarily the buildings that we need.

Enema U has two medium-sized library buildings.  Does anyone really believe that two library buildings, which are together smaller than the one really needed to do the job, make sense?  The president at the time of the construction of the second building, did not have the funds to build a single library big enough for the campus, so we built half a library, about half a block from the old library.  This doubles the operating expense, but still leaves us with an old, inadequate library building, and gives us a new library building that cannot be expanded, and will never be big enough to handle our needs--and we did not double the shelf space.

Enema U needs classrooms.  We need more seminar rooms.  We need the kind of classrooms that seat 40-75 students.  We need them so badly that classes are cancelled for lack of space.  But that is not the kind of buildings we get.  I'm not sure, but the university seems to be planning to build the THIRD set of new office spaces for the coaches since I have been  at the university.  I know professors who have offices in rooms that used to be dormitory BATHROOMS.  (You can still feel the drains under the carpet as you walk across their offices!)  Exactly how are the coaches wearing out their old offices so fast?  Indoor archery?  Maybe someone should tell them that animal husbandry is under the jurisdiction of the school of agriculture (and should be housed in barns?).

We have a new mega-million dollar performing arts building--a building that just might be the ugliest building in the state.  Evidently, no one in the art department had any input into what the building was going to look like.  Was that really the most pressing need for the university?

The problem is that no one was ever hired by a large university for listing "Built classrooms" on a resume'.  They are hired because they built the new stadium, or took the athletic program to a conference in which the the school could not conceivably compete. They got hired because they left a university saddled with debts for bonds the school did not need to incur. 

One of the key jobs for any administrator--in either academia or business--is to train the people lower down the ladder from them for eventual advancement.  Show me a manager who has no one under him ready to take his job and I will show you a manager who should immediately be replaced.

It is not exactly like the university is short of mid-level managers, either.  We have enough brigadier generals to run a small African army.  I do not know of anyone who can explain the job functions of some of the new Vice Presidents running around the campus (and I've asked quite a few people). We have at least one upper administrator whose only useful job seems to be periodically walking a dog across campus--and that's not even our mascot.

No, I am afraid that we will conduct our national search, pay a consultant, and hire some Vice-President of Student Hypermatriculation from another university and make them President of Enema U.  Then, within months we will have a ground-breaking for the new Social Justice Center for Chronic Bed-Wetting Students.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

La Llorona

It is the time for Halloween, so I thought I would share a few ghost stories.  In Mexico (and for that matter New Mexico) there is an oft-told story about a ghostly woman who lives near water.  Depending on who is telling the story, this phantom is a danger to children, to young men, or to teenagers.

Where did the stories of La Llorona start?  Was it Medea in ancient Greece?  Lorelei in Germany?  Every culture seems to have a story of a woman who lures sailors to their grave.

Or is it an Aztec tale?  In 1502, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtítlan, the goddess Cihuacoatl took the form of a beautiful lady draped in white garments.  Throughout the night she walked the streets crying out in misery, “Oh my children…your destruction has arrived.  Where can I take you?”  Many believe that Cihuacoatl was speaking of the future conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards.

Maybe it’s just a universal desire of mothers to scare their children away from the water.  Whatever the reason, every location has its own version of the story, so I thought I would share a few of them from the southwest.

La Bruja or the Witch

Sofia lived in a small town in Mexico--the kind of place where, if you weren’t married by the age of 15, you were an old maid.  Sofia was already 19 and still single, even though she was beautiful.  Unfortunately, Sofia was also egotistical and selfish and the gossips of the town whispered that she was actually a witch.

Then Sofia met Luís.  He was charming, handsome, and soon the two were lovers.  Within a year, Sofia had a baby boy who was the very image of Luís.  Shortly after the child’s birth, Luís disappeared.  Sofia was heartbroken, but the local people blamed her, saying she had run him off.
One afternoon, Sofia overheard two men talking about how they had seen Luís in a nearby town, with another woman.  As they laughed, Sofia grew into a terrible rage.   She ran to the local lake and pushed her struggling infant underwater and held him there until he stopped moving.  When Sofia realized what she had done, she stayed by the lake, wailing and refusing all food until she passed away.   Since Sofia’s death, several small children playing near the lake have vanished without a trace.

La Sirena, the Siren

Laura was an attractive girl from a desperately poor background.  As soon as she could walk, she began working to help her family.  When she was 16, she got a job in a store where she soon met Miguel.  Miguel was everything poor Laura had never known—he was a rich and handsome man who relentlessly pursued her until she agreed to go out with him.  Within a few weeks, he asked her to marry him.  Trembling, Laura said yes, and that very night she made love for the first and only time.

But after that passionate night, Miguel refused to see her again.  Laura soon discovered she was pregnant, and when her parents found out, they threw her out of the house.  She was penniless and her poor poor baby was born premature, weak, and malnourished.  Laura had no other choice; she went to Miguel and begged for his help.  Miguel laughed at her, saying the baby wasn’t his.

Laura walked to a nearby lake and slowly walked into the dark water until both she and the baby disappeared.

A few weeks later, Miguel, too, mysteriously disappeared.  And since then, men who have been out drinking or cheating on their wives have regularly disappeared; all having been last seen following a mysterious woman through the winding streets of the dark city.

La Ramera, the Harlot

Linda grew up in a tough neighborhood, so she had to learn early to use what she had to get what she needed.  A single mother, she worked as a waitress and was desperately tired of her dead-end life.  One night, she met Alejandro, a sexy man with a good paying job.  He was alone and an easy mark for Linda, who easily seduced him.

Within weeks Linda was talking about marriage.  Alejandro said he couldn’t marry her because there were always prying eyes--he didn’t think he could open up to Linda until they had some privacy.  Since Alejandro had always avoided being around the baby, Linda decided to get rid of the obstacle to her happiness.  A week later, the poor baby’s body was found in the river. 

The day after the funeral, Linda told Alejandro that since she had taken care of the problem, now they could be married.  Alejandro was horrified and said he had meant that his mother was always watching the couple.

Linda turned into a crazed animal, screaming and swinging her arms at Alejandro.  Suddenly, she grabbed a knife and fatally stabbed both Alejandro and herself. 

To this day, small children playing near the river hear her cries and run from her screams. 

La Fantasma, The Ghost

Barbara was a school teacher in a small town.  Alone, and desperate for someone to befriend her, she fell in love with the school’s coach.  Strong, confident, and assured, the coach assured Barbara that the most important thing for the school to do was focus on dodge ball. 

Soon, Barbara was neglecting her classroom and the pupils of the school were spending more and more time in the playground.  Barbara was worried, but the coach assured her, that eventually the people of the town would realize how important dodge ball really was to the students.  If the school could beat the dodge ball team from a nearby town, the coach was sure the parents would be appreciative.

But, the parents grew angry.  “Our children can’t read!” the parents screamed.  That very night, the school board fired Barbara.  Barbara turned to the coach for support, but the coach turned his back on her and told the school board, “I tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen.”

Barbara ran to the school, and went to the far end of the playground, where the duck pond was located.  To this day, no one has seen her, but occasionally, students playing near the pond still her wailing, “But we could have won at dodge ball!  I know we could have—just one more year!”

While no one else has disappeared yet, we all know they are going to.  It always happens that way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

History of New Mexico—Part 2

Two weeks ago, we left our poor Hunter Gatherers in a precarious condition: they had become farmers.  Unfortunately, early farmers had all of the work and few of the benefits.  Surprisingly, for centuries, farmers didn’t even eat very well. At least the hunter gatherers had a naturally varied diet.  For centuries, our poor malnourished Paleo-agriculturalists subsisted on the ragged edge of failure.

It will take a long time before our farmers acquire the knowledge necessary to become successful, but eventually, we see activity that even today would be recognizable as farming--raised terrace farming using digging sticks.  While most of the crops sound familiar—corn, squash, beans, and peppers---we might have trouble recognizing them.  These are the cultigens (original variety) of the crops we enjoy today.

The original ears of corn contained only 5 rows of kernels and were about the same length as today’s okra.  Today, on Facebook, several of my friends are very concerned about genetically modified organisms.   Through thousands of years of selective breeding, all of our crops have been genetically modified.  If you want to only eat non-GMO foods, you are going to have to restrict your diet to water and salt.  I can’t think of anything else in the store you could eat.

There were very few animals on this farm, for very few animals in the new world were domesticated.  A few small dogs were used as food—though technically, the size of the animals violates the dog rule.  To qualify for the dog status, the animal has to be at least 10 pounds.  Under that, and it is called bait.

In all the new world, only a few more animals were domesticated:  turkeys, llamas, alpacas, honey bees, and guinea pigs pretty much round out the list.  And the last animal was used for food, just like the dogs.  Every other animal that we associate with farms came from the old world.  Do you remember the old kindergarten song, Old MacDonald Had a Farm?  If you can sing about the animal in that song, our farmer did not yet have it.  EIEIO.

Did our simple farmers live in harmony with nature?  (You know, kind of like Iron Eyes Cody in the classic Keep America Beautiful public service announcement where after watching people littering along the highway, a single tear forms in his stoic Native American face?  Well, probably not like him, since he was actually Italian and just looked Native American.)  The idea of Indians living in harmony with nature just never seems to die. 

Native Americans exploited their environment to the limits of their technological abilities.  If you remember, a couple of weeks ago, our natives hunted wooly mammoths to extinction.  And if you need more proof, look at ‘Head-Smashed-In-Site’ in Alberta, Canada.  The Indians put up stone markers along a trail for over five miles so they would remember the trail they used to stampede herds of buffalo off a cliff.  Far more animals were killed than were butchered—and the site was used for seven thousand years.

Eventually, our small gathering of farmers will be successful enough at farming that there is time for other activities:  pottery, basketry, and weaving.  Eventually, we see the signs of regional variation and artistic differences.  And sometimes these items are found far from the point of manufacture, meaning that trade between our groups has developed. 

Our natives have almost no metal, no system of writing, no beasts of burdens, hell—these rock-biting and bone-tossing savages don’t even have digital watches.  Obviously, this is a primitive society.  At least you might think so.

Do you know what an epiphany is?  That is the wonderful moment when you are studying—usually alone—and suddenly you understand something.  It is your “Eureka” moment when you have a breakthrough and understand something.  An epiphany is the second best feeling in life—and if you don’t know the best feeling in life, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog.

My epiphany was when I suddenly understood that everyone on earth, anyplace and at any time had far more in common with me than there were differences.  The more I studied a people, the more I realized they were just like me.  If you could really get inside the heads of our Paleolithic farmers, we would probably realize they worried about their children, their spouses, and they work they had to do.  In short, they were just like us.

Every culture has rituals, taboos, and customs.  There are no primitive cultures, only primitive levels of technology.  And even primitive technology need specialized knowledge.

If you find lumps of copper, they can be hammered into tools, but as you do this, the copper gets brittle.  How do you keep this from happening?  The ashes from which trees cure leather the best?  How do you make soap from cactus?  How do you keep the poisons in acorn flour from killing you?  How do you boil water in a clay pot?

You and I can probably both make fire from two sticks, but only if one of them is a wooden match.  Our Paleolithic farmer knows the answer to all of this, and more.  His life is probably just as complex as yours, just different. 
Our Indians have not yet started making communities, but we will cover that in a few weeks.

Oh yes, heat the copper until it is red hot, and then you can hammer it again.  Oak trees contain tannin, and if you don’t know which ones are the oak trees, just chew bark off of every tree you find.  You’ll know when you find an oak tree even if you have never tasted tannin before.  Blanche the acorn flour with boiling water that you got by adding and removing  hot rocks to the clay pot until you have the temperature you want.  But you knew that.