Saturday, August 25, 2012

Man Vs. Nature, Part 1

Every so often, a news story just grabs you and runs through your head like an ear worm. (If you don't know what an ear worm is, that is one of those inane songs you can't stop humming until your brain rots.  Sandy, a colleague of mine at Enema U, claims to possess the perfect cure for ear worms—she is adamant that singing The Girl From Ipanema will work like antivenin.  This doesn't explain why she started screaming when I began singing the old Doris Day theme song, Que Sera', Sera'.)

The news story that caught my attention was the story about the West Nile Virus in Dallas.  From the news, this is the biggest disaster to hit Dallas since November, 1963.   Personally, I think the town is overreacting to a rather mild problem.  While I don't want to catch West Nile, Dallas has gone a little nuts.  West Nile won’t kill half the people this year that will pile up in deadly car crashes trying to negotiate a screwed up freeway system that has been under construction since my father built highways for the CCC.

My Dad always told me to be careful about Dallas---he said it was full of Yankees and Wanna-be-Texans.  According to him, if Fort Worth was where the West begins, then, by definition, Dallas is where the East peters out.

First of all, West Nile is not exactly Ebola.  The flu kills a lot more people every year than West Nile; over 80% of the people who catch the disease never even know they have it.  Most of the rest have relatively mild, flu-like symptoms.  While even one death is too many, this still doesn't explain the reaction in Dallas.  A problem does not sell newspapers or grab our attention on the evening news, but a panic will.

Dallas County has decided to use crop dusters to spray the suburbs with insecticide.  I have this sneaky feeling that the spray may be more of a problem than the mosquitoes.  I can confidently say this for two reasons:  First, I wouldn't trust the officials of Dallas with anything more deadly than a potato gun.  Second, insecticide is only effective against adult mosquitoes.  If you want to stop the spread of the disease, you need to kill the larvae.

And it seems that Dallas is having a little problem with the spraying.  They have sprayed some neighborhoods without warning, missed others, and worst of all...the devil has interfered with the weather.  Clay Jenkins, a Dallas County judge, recently told reporters, "I am asking all faith-based communities to please pray for no rain and light winds from 8:30 to 1 Sunday."  Evidently, God runs the weather (when the devil doesn't interfere) like a Swiss train.  Still, I can't help wondering why the judge doesn't just ask the faith-based community to pray for God to stop the epidemic.

When exactly did Dallas become a "faith-based community"?  Was it before or after the Caddo Indians were forcibly moved out of North Texas?  Was it just before the Civil War, when a fire broke out in the community of 700 and was blamed on the roughly 100 slaves--three of whom were lynched and the rest whipped?  The Klan showed up almost immediately after the war--did the night riders bring faith with them?  I could go on, but if you are looking for the golden age of enlightenment for Dallas--it hasn't happened yet.  As far as I am concerned, if God were going to give Texas an enema, he should shove the hose into Dealey Plaza.

Still I sympathize with the people of Dallas---killing bugs is tough, even if they aren't the disease-carrying Culex mosquito.  Years ago, a guy almost got himself lynched in the area when he advertised a device that could "kill every insect within two blocks."  Hundreds of people sent money and in due time--about a week after the salesman had fled—each received a device that would do exactly as promised.  It was two short pieces of 2x4 joined together with a rusty hinge, and---if you could get a bug to stand still while you slammed one end of the contraption shut---it would indeed kill any bug between the two blocks.

Years later, in my own modest fashion, I followed the example of that salesman myself.  While I was at college, I took a temporary job during the summer at a hardware store down on the Houston ship channel.  The store sold industrial items to large corporations on the docks.  I was assigned to handle the needs of Armco Steel.  Their purchasing agent routinely gave me a very hard time, usually referring to me as the 'Fuckin' College Kid' or worse.  No matter what I did, he gave me a rough time.  On my last day before the fall classes were going to start, I got the usual daily call from him.

"Hey, College Boy," he said.  "Send over something that will kill roaches.  And it sure as hell better work."

It was my last day, so I filled out the charge slip, and had the driver make a special delivery.  I never heard how it worked out, but I'm pretty sure that twelve pound sledge hammer was effective.

Hey, Judge Jenkins, here's an idea for you: Make another special prayer request to the faith-based community.    I can just picture the results now: all of Dallas armed with sledge hammers and blocks of wood.  The mosquitoes won't stand a chance.  Judge, if you can promise to deliver this, you've got my prayer.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Buy Enema U!

It is that time of year again, and the students are returning to Enema U.  On campus, you see a few more of them every day.  They come looking for classrooms, trying to find the cheap used textbook, moving into the dorms, and seeking out professors for advising.  I generally enjoy the latter, even though I tell every student pretty much the same thing:  “Sex and real estate—get all you can while you are young.”

The university is doing a lot of advertising.  Signs, banners, and flyers are all over the campus.  Our bookstore has thousands of sweatshirts emblazoned with the school name and colors.  Every fraternity is pushing for fresh meat, professors are advertising half-filled boutique courses, and the Athletic Department is desperately begging students to attend games.  There is a frantic feel to some of the advertising, which is baffling when you consider that almost all of this can only be seen by students who have already “bought the product”.  Before any student sees this advertising, we have already cashed their tuition checks.

Instead of posting yet another flyer on an overladen bulletin board, perhaps the university needs to be a little more creative.

Years ago, I used to be a little more involved in advertising.  My company bought and sold computers and the various manufacturers all had co-op advertising programs to help small stores defray the large cost of marketing.  The typical arrangement was a 2% budget.  If I bought $100,000 worth of computers and printers from Epson, they would give me $2,000 for advertising as long as their products figured prominently in my ads.  I can remember negotiating a 4% budget once on a quarter of a million dollars of computers, but this only happened after the salesman and I killed two bottles of Absolut vodka in my backyard.   We woke up in the grass when the timer kicked on the sprinklers, but by then the contract had been inked.

Over the years, I have paid for advertising on the radio, have placed ads in newspapers, and have bought a lot of signs.  So it was only natural that, when one of my friends opened up a bar just off the docks of Galveston, he came to me for advice about how to publicize his new business.

“How much money have you budgeted for advertising,” I asked.

He scratched his head, looked at me and said, “I guess I can spare a hundred dollars.”  It was less than a week from the opening, and my friend had evidently thought that the advertising was something that would take care of itself.

Worse, the hundred dollars was not his advertising budget for the next week--this was all he could afford to spend for the next several months.  He had a bank loan to repay, and the bar wasn’t likely to turn a profit until the summer tourist season began in six months.  This was a challenge, but as we spent the evening testing his new bar taps, we worked out an ambitious advertising campaign.

This was more than thirty years ago, and the internet has changed our world so much that we missed the passing of some small ordinary items of our lives.  At one time, if you wanted to sell Aunt Tilly’s teapot, you posted a cheap ad in the local newspaper.  Before eBay, before Craig’s List, and before the internet, the local newspaper carried page after page of inexpensive want ads.  You could post a three line ad every day for a week for as little as $3.50.  This was a price that fit my friend’s advertising budget perfectly.

The first ad was posted in ‘Help Wanted—Professional’.  “Poet Laureate wanted for public cat neutering ceremony.  Apply Anchorage Bar, Canal Street,”

When the ad came out, I think it only took about four days before every person on the island knew about it.  By word of mouth, alone, everyone heard of it.  A few people even applied for the job, but they were disappointed to learn that the poet had to speak Gaelic.  Strangely, no applicant was qualified.

The second week, we posted an ad in the ‘Want to Buy’ section.  “Desperately needed, left-handed Camel blanket.  Anchorage Bar, Canal Street.”  No one showed up with a camel blanket, left or right-handed, but the need for one was discussed at length about town.

We offered employment for a steeple jack, but he had to be experienced and furnish his own safety equipment.  We also offered to sell the Canal Street lighthouse (there isn’t one), and at one point offered ‘Genuine Imitation Moon Rocks’ by the ton.  Business at the bar flourished, the newspaper probably sold more copies than normal, and we kept to the original budget.

Perhaps the university could try something similar.  They could try posting an ad in the student newspaper.  “Wanted—administrative harmony.”  “Desperately Needed--Students with a desire to challenge their preconceived ideas.”  “Library Seeking Patrons.”  “Now Hiring--Faculty who yearn for the classroom.”  “Lost--Regents who care more about the attendance in the classroom than the stadium. (Everyone will be rewarded).”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

This Too, Shall Pass

Almost 25 years ago, the History Department at Enema U had a visiting professor.  Keith and his wife were only going to live in New Mexico for a year, but they quickly became good friends with The Doc (my wife) and me.  Keith lived fairly close, and the four of us frequently had dinner together.  So, I was not surprised one night when Keith called me at home.

“Mark, I feel horrible,” Keith said.  “I think I need to go to the hospital.  Can you give me a ride?”

By the time I got to his house, Keith had collapsed onto the floor. Waking him, I made my first (and only) diagnosis; Keith had a kidney stone.  Now, unlike my wife, I have never been to medical school, so I had the kind of absolute certainty that only comes from total stupidity.  Around our house, my wife allows me to put Band-Aids on the children, trusting only that I can remember to put the sticky side down.

Now this is a little unfair, because I have had several decades of semi-alert instruction.  You see, The Doc gets a hell of a lot of phone calls in the middle of the night.  The doctor at the emergency room calls my wife, who asks questions, makes a tentative diagnosis, and then orders lab tests and x-rays.  Over the years, I bet I have heard this done five thousand times.  So, when Keith was moaning on the floor, one hand between his legs and the other holding one side of his back, I knew exactly what to do. 

As I helped him through the emergency room door, a nurse came over and I very confidently said, “I think he is passing a kidney stone.  We need a CBC, a urinalysis, and an IVP.  And run a blood chemistry.”

Damn!  Even Dr. House couldn’t have done this better.  And to my surprise, people actually did what I had ordered.  By the time the test results came back, The Doc was in the exam room with Keith and me.  To her great amusement, they handed the test results to me, not her.  And it was at this point that I discovered the flaw in my unorthodox medical training—I had heard only half of all those phone calls--I had never heard the results.  Those lab results were as meaningless to me as listings in a Hong Kong phone book.  Neither Keith nor I appreciated The Doc’s laughing.

Keith, at least, had a happy outcome.  It turned out that he actually did have a kidney stone, and in time, he passed it.  A few years later, the story had a less than happy sequel.  This time, it was I who was passing the kidney stone.  I would have gladly given the honor back to Keith.

As I went to the emergency room, I was very conscious of the fact that this was a place where my wife worked, and I really did not want to embarrass her.  Now a kidney stone hurts like the hammers of Hell are beating you in a place that usually does not stand much…hammering.  I know women will disagree, but it must hurt a hell of a lot more than childbirth.  After a few years, women will frequently happily decide to have another child, but I have never heard of a man wanting a second kidney stone.

I took a book to the ER, sat as quietly as I could in the exam room, and calmly read a Tom Clancy novel while a rock the size of my pickup truck (trust me--I saw the damn boulder) slowly ground my insides into paper pulp.  Well, that’s my memory of it.  After ten hours, I passed the misshapen monolith.  The ER doctors had not given me even an aspirin.

“You know,” the doctor said, “we didn’t think you actually had a kidney stone.  Usually, people who have a kidney stone make a lot more noise than you did.”  To this day, I sincerely hope that lightning hits that doctor--in the crotch.

Adding insult to the injury, the insurance company steadfastly refused to pay the hospital--claiming that the entire event was “elective,” as opposed to a real emergency.  An elective kidney stone?  Evidently, the insurance company believed that I had taken a rock to the emergency room and asked to have it shoved up me.  In front.

The years went by, and last week, it started all over again.  This time, I went to the university clinic.  (I just realized how predictable I am—I didn’t take a book, but I was listening to a Stephen King book on my iPod.)  Don’t get me wrong--the clinic was great--they gave me great service, and I really like those people, but the lab tests were inconclusive.  The last thing the doctor said to me was, “You don’t act like someone with a kidney stone.”  I must really suck as a historian because I missed the obvious connection.

Less than an hour after the clinic closed, I passed the stone in the men’s room down the hall from my office.  Before they paint, they will need to use some putty to get rid of the claw marks in the wall above the urinal.

According to The Doc, men who have one kidney stone have a 50% chance of having a second one.  After the second stone, you are probably pretty well doomed.  Only now do I realize what kind of rock Sisyphus was pushing.

Men, I have a plan, and I encourage you to adopt it as your own.  At the first sign of pain from a kidney stone, go to the nearest emergency room.  Walk in, look carefully around the room… then punch the smallest person in the room right in the mouth.  Scream at the top of your lungs, then drop to the floor, rolling and moaning piteously.  At the very least, you will get some aspirin.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Don’t Eat Chicken?—Go To Hell!

I am so tired of the Chick-Fil-A controversy.  I am equally tired of the gay marriage controversy.  I am beyond tired of the hate-filled rhetoric from both sides of each question.  We have mayors of major cities vowing not to let businesses expand into their cities just because the corporate managers are narrow-minded paranoiacs.  We need to remember that Chick-Fil-A is a franchise--not every owner necessarily agrees with the company president.

And a peaceful colleague of mine, a woman who is probably incapable of any physical violence, is publicly hoping that the people who eat at that restaurant die from arteries choked with chicken fat.  This is a warm-hearted individual whom I respect, and while I know she doesn’t really mean this, it shows the level the rhetoric has reached. 

The problem, of course, is not the food, but that the president of the company has a narrow interpretation of what constitutes a marriage.  This angers the more “open-minded” people so much that they are staging protests and boycotts in front of the franchise owners' property until the corporate president agrees with them.  People who agree with the company president and wish to show support are force-feeding themselves chicken in the name of God.

If I am supposed to choose between these two positions, I pass.  I don’t eat at that restaurant very often as I don’t like the food that much and I don’t frequent the mall.  If you want to eat there, that is fine with me.  If you don’t want to eat there, then it is like the advice I gave my maiden aunt: “Let them that don’t want none have memories of not getting any.”  The president of the company is allowed to have his opinions and make up his own mind (tiny though it obviously is). 

Since neither side will settle this argument with the time-honored tradition of pulling a wishbone apart, I have a suggestion:

Why don’t we just ignore what other people do as long as it doesn’t abuse children or bother me?  I am particularly interested in the latter.  Let's all agree:  the people who are against gay marriage will not be forced to participate in one.  I can just hear the arguments now:

 “But if we allow gay marriage, somebody will want polygamy or will want to marry a horse.”  I really don’t care.  How many consenting adults have to have a polygamous relationships with farm animals in order for the polar ice caps to melt?  Until we reach that number, I do not care.  I have owned horses and spent more time than I care to admit with livestock (platonically, of course).  When it comes to livestock, as long as you own it, I don’t care if you marry it or kill it with a power sander. 

“But my religion is against it.”  Read your bible.  Your bible—and every other version of the bible—is against every damn thing.  The Old Testament will freely allow me to sell my sister into slavery, stone most women, and smite parking violators.  If we strictly followed the words of just the King James Bible, there wouldn’t be enough people left on this planet to play bridge.

Personally, if I had spent my whole life waiting for a direct personal message from God, I would be a little disappointed if it turned out to be nothing more than, "Eat mor Chikin."

And this whole religious argument could be nothing more that an accidental misreading of the bible.  If you will consult Mark 11: 13-14, you will see it is  FIGS that God hates.

“But marriage is about taking care of children.”  The Doc and I are finished having children, but I’m reasonably sure we are sticking together.  When the preacher said, “Til death do you part,” little did we know we were setting a goal.  And we continue to call this a marriage.  If marriage were really just about raising children, wouldn’t a partnership with multiple partners provide for more stability for the family, anyway?  

Robert Heinlein, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, described a linear marriage: a pairing where the collective marriage added a new spouse every few years, alternating the sex of the new partner.  Over time, the marriage would acquire property and wealth, care for aging spouses, and be the most stable possible home for the children.  If marriage were only about caring for children, this might be the only permissible form of marriage.

“But this violates my freedom of religion.”  If that’s so, don’t participate.  There are seven billion people on this planet, and the overwhelming majority of them have a different imaginary friend than you do.  If your religion is against something, odds are that somebody else is worshipping a sentient mailbox who commands them to do just the opposite.  And I don’t care what either of you do--just leave me (and each other) alone.

The famous English actress, Mrs. Pat (Beatrice) Campbell once said, “My dear, I don’t care what people do as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”  While this may have been excellent advice 100 years ago, it is irrelevant today—there aren’t that many horses on the street.    As far as I’m concerned, go ahead and do it in the street, just stay close to the curb so as not to block traffic.  My pickup has seen worse.