Saturday, September 29, 2012

If You Plant It

I listened to a great lecture this week by one of my colleagues: “The Four Great Chinese Inventions”.  These were gunpowder, the egg roll, paper, and rice wine.  Or something like thatI wasn't really listening all that closely to Dr. Holland--I was just waiting until it was my turn to talk.  I learned this behavior in faculty meetings.

Actually, like my students, I smiled a lot and nodded my head periodically while I let my mind wander out of the classroom door, down the street and out in the fields and pastures that surround Enema U.  We are an ag school, so it isn’t that far to travel—or at least not currently.  If the Board of Regents get its way, we will pave over the last of the fields, build another parking lot, erect a second indoor equestrian center, or throw up a building to house the world’s largest ball of string that some rich—and bat shit crazyalumnus gave us. 

While I don’t know for sure, I imagine the Dean of Agriculture has nightmares that the Regents will suddenly want him to convert the ag program to ‘virtual farming’.  We could become the University of Farmville. Don’t laugh--I bet you that even as you read this, one of my colleagues is writing a grant proposal to the Department of Agriculture for a manual on how to safely drive the virtual tractor on the virtual farm.  And if he can work the words ‘social justice’ into the title of that grant, the check is as good as written.

No, I wasn't really listening as Dr. Holland droned on about the Tang Dynasty.  (Who knew?  I thought NASA invented that.)  I was wondering why the seed drill wasn't included in that list of great inventions.  For those of you who don’t work at an ag school, a seed drill is a device that plants seeds at a uniform depth in the ground and at a uniform distance between the seeds.  Without a seed drill, the farmer is forced to wander around the field, throwing seeds into the air, plowing the fields a second time, all the while hoping that some of the seeds end up where they more or less should be.  Most of the seeds don’t cooperate—so the farmer has to work twice as hard to produce much less of a yield.

Without a seed drill, the population of China never would have grown so rapidly.  Without an abundance of food, China never would have had large numbers of people turning their attentions away from agriculture to perfecting art or technology.  Without the seed drill, China never would have developed those four great inventions: the paper umbrella, printing, kung fu movies, and the compass.

China invented the seed drill 2200 years ago, and agriculture immediately made a great leap forward.  In Europe, a good working seed drill wasn't perfected until 1701, by Jethro Tull, more than 1900 years later.  While this was an important invention that started the European agricultural revolution, today no one would remember him if he hadn't started a progressive blues band.

In America, we seem to take agriculture for granted.  (Or, possibly, we just don’t care.)  As long as the supermarket shelves are full, where it came from is not important.  While millions in the world go hungry, the average American is so confident of his food supply that he only keeps a three-day supply of food in his house—at most.

Did you recognize the caricature at the top of this post?  Need a hint?  Well, in an era where the Nobel Peace prize is occasionally awarded for dubious political achievements, this man won his (along with his Presidential Medal for Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal) for saving a billion people from starvationso far. 

I cannot imagine why every university throughout the world does not have a statue of this man.  Certainly every ag school should have one.  This shy, modest man was Norman Borlaug, who worked extensively in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to develop high-yield and drought-resistant strains of wheat.  Without a doubt, he doubled the yields of farms throughout Asia and Latin America.  Yet, when he died three years ago in Texas, most Americans had never heard of him.

Even a great ag school like Enema U (a school wise enough to pay me to drift off during Dr. Holland’s lecture) doesn't have a course on the history of agriculture!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Jaw Bone of an Ass

Briefly, years ago, I entertained the idea of becoming an archaeologist.  Several things deterred me, such as the inevitable conclusion that while a degree in history might lead to a career involving a deep fat fryer and a lot of potatoes, this was still preferable to living in a VW camper permanently parked in a desert (that being the usual result of a degree in anthropology/archaeology).

Eventually I decided to get both degrees, and sure enough, I do seem to be parked permanently in a desert.  While I was a grad student, I tried to visit as many active archaeology sites as I could.  Eventually, this led to me meeting Dr. Robbie Unleashed.  At least that is what I am going to call the distinguished scholar (it doesn’t seem fair to use his real name since he can’t fight back).  I have no doubt that most archaeologists will figure out who I am talking about, and probably a few of them will want to challenge me to a duel with Marshalltown trowels--the preferred weapon of the true archaeologist.

Don’t get me wrong--I am an admirer of Dr. Unleashed, who had a long and distinguished career, winning awards from the Sherman Wayback Museum, writing several brilliant books, and conducting famous digs in Turkey, China, and New Mexico.   Robbie Unleashed was always controversial, more than a little irascible, and constantly outspoken.  He died in Central America at the age of 82 while visiting Mayan sites.  I want to die like Robbie--peacefully in my sleep--not screaming my head off like the passenger in his car.

When I heard that a famous archaeologist had a project underway about two hours from my home, I immediately began maneuvering for permission to visit the site.  Eventually, one of my professors arranged for me to drive over on a weekend and visit the dig, where I was to get a personal tour by Dr. Unleashed.  I gassed up my 4-wheel drive truck, drove to the motel, and picked up the distinguished scholar.  It was a long drive through the desert to the remote site that Dr. Unleashed was working on, and along the way he explained his theory about some of his controversial discoveries.

Most anthropologists believed that humans migrated to the New World from Siberia about 12-15,000 years ago during the Wisconsin Glacier Age, when so much water was bound up in ice that the level of the world’s seas had dropped dramatically.  This meant that a 1200-mile-wide “bridge” linked the two continents.  A band of hunter-gatherers following game crossed the bridge and inadvertently settled both North and South America.

“Wrong!” said Robbie Unleashed.  “I have proof that man lived in southern New Mexico at least 60,000 years ago.”  Perhaps now would be a good time to mention that Robbie could find a 25,000 year old Coke bottle while attending a backyard barbecue party.  Still, he claimed to have proof at the site, and he was going to show it to me.

After a long drive across the desert, we came to the cliff where Robbie was conducting a dig inside a rock cave he called Pinche Cuevo.  This is Spanish for “Home of the Nice Guy”.  (Or something like that.)  We climbed the ladders to the cave and carefully ducked under the low opening.  While the cave was not very large, the contents were astounding.  I vividly remember looking at straw sandals and the remains of a cooking hearth.  Carbon dating had determined that most of the material from the top layer of stratigraphy dated back between 300 to 500 years, meaning that most likely this cave had been used by the Apache right about the time Columbus was getting lost.

Lower strata contained artifacts dating much earlier--indicating that this cave had been used for at least centuries, and (according to Robbie) millennia upon millennia.  The question was just how old those lower strata were for it was at one of these lower levels that Robbie had discovered his prize.

“Look!” he commanded and pointed toward a fossilized bone.  It was a strange looking fossil, and certainly not one from a deer or any animal that I had ever hunted.  While it was obviously a knuckle bone, it was not from any animal I knew about.

“That is from a camelop.”  Robbie explained.  “And carbon dating says that this camel died over 50,000 years ago—yet we discovered the bone inside this cave.   This is obvious proof of human habitation reaching far earlier than previously proposed.”

For the Education and English majors among you, I should point out that the camelop did indeed live in North America, becoming extinct about 10,000 years ago from the effects of climate change and probable over-hunting by the descendants of those hunter-gatherers who got lost up in the Arctic.  (My wife, The Doc, says the length of that last sentence is proof that a German is perched somewhere in my family tree.)  The camelop was bigger than today’s camels and would indeed have been hunted in southern New Mexico.  You may have heard them called by a more common—and unfortunate—name: the “Wal-Mart Camel” after the fossilized remains of one was found while digging the foundation of a new superstore in Phoenix a few years ago.

Looking back at this incident, I would really like to think that I disagreed with Robbie because I had been taught to always challenge and question my teachers.  (This is something I am still trying to teach my students—just last week I taught my students about the giant wooden rabbit used at the battle of Troy.) An alternate theory is that I challenged Dr. Unleashed because I subconsciously realized that extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof.  Unfortunately, I probably argued with the famed archaeologist because there was more than one irascible pinche man in that cave.

“Yes…that could be.”  I heard myself say.  “Or maybe 500 years ago, an Apache saw a weird bone out in the desert and brought it home with him.”
Boy, it was quiet in that cave for a few seconds.  Then Robbie blew up like a slow moving frog on the interstate. 

“GET OUT OF MY CAVE!” he screamed.  “How dare you?!  Get out!  Get out!  Go away!”

No matter how hard I tried to apologize, Robbie just kept screaming for me to leave.  He was furious, and looking back on it, I was being rude to a man who had gone out of his way to do me the huge favor of guiding me through his site.  I left as fast as I could, and the last I saw of Dr. Unleashed, he was sitting inside that cave.

I wonder how long it took him to remember that I was his ride back to the motel.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Please Don’t Let the Students Read This

A little more than forty years ago, a horrible injustice was done in Houston.  Lee Otis Johnson, a student activist, supposedly gave an undercover policeman a single marijuana cigarette.  Despite the fact that the joint was a gift--an act that Johnson denied had ever occurred--he was arrested for “selling” drugs.  A new district attorney (seeking to further his political career) personally prosecuted a case that normally would have been dealt with by an Assistant District Attorney so fresh out of law school that he hadn't yet learned how to play golf.

Why would a district attorney prosecute such a small case?  Did I mention that the defendant was black?  Hell, he was a Black Panther.  And worse, he had been a voice for civil rights at Texas Southern University!

The district attorney pulled out all the stops and passionately demanded that the jury give Johnson 15 years in jail.  The jury, equally impassioned, gave Lee Otis Johnson 30 years.    Thirty years for a single marijuana cigarette—even after more than forty years, this stings to even think about.  

Naturally, this became a cause among the students.  “Free Lee Otis” became the rallying cry on campuses in many towns in Texas.  There were bumper stickers, signs, and a lot of chanting at protest marches.  We students wanted Johnson freed!  We wanted civil rights!  We wanted an end to irrational drug laws.  It turned out that it didn’t matter what we wanted: what we got was a harsh education in reality.

Governor Preston Smith came to the University of Houston and gave a speech.  For the life of me, I can’t remember what he talked about.  Probably omething about hosing the homeless and two legs being better than four—it was an election year.  Not that any of the students were listening--we were too busy shouting.   “FREE LEE OTIS!”  “FREE LEE OTIS!”  “FREE LEE OTIS!”  God, it felt so good to be young and involved.  I can’t remember, but we were either passionately brilliant or brilliantly passionate.

Then Governor Smith put his hand over the microphone, turned to his aide and asked—loud enough for all of us to hear through the public address system—“Why are they yelling ‘frijoles’?”

That crowd got as quiet as a funeral—aptly, it turned out—as a lot of young idealism died right there.  The shouts stopped as wide-eyed and freshly-matured students began slowly leaving the auditorium.  We had peeked into the back room of the political butcher shop and caught a glimpse of how sausage was really made. The process was ugly and quite a few of us became social vegetarians.

The conviction was eventually overturned and Lee Otis Johnson got out of jail after serving four years.  He lived a rather quiet life and passed away ten years ago.  Very few attended his funeral.  On hearing of Johnson’s death, the former district attorney told reporters:  "Times have changed so much that the sentence he received would not make sense in accordance with today,"   It is nice to see that one thing has not changed: the district attorney is still a jackass—that thirty year sentence makes no sense in any age.

It has been an interesting week at Enema U, a week that has frequently reminded me of my sudden disillusionment at the hands of Governor Smith.  Increasingly, the faculty seems angry, but it is a little difficult to understand exactly why.  Is it the sudden realization that after years of neglect, the state pension fund has a wealth of empty promises and not nearly enough assets?  Or is it the gloomy acknowledgement that this may be another hard money year when it comes to raises?   Or maybe everyone is just tired of the administration of Moose and Squirrel being about as organized as a soup sandwich?  Whatever the cause, you can see all the evidence you want on the faculty email listserv.

A listserv is a group mailing list where any member can mail a message to the email server and every member gets a copy of the message.  Then any of the recipients can respond.  Run properly, it is a great tool for communication; it is a public bulletin board where anyone can voice his opinion.  This same tool, when given to faculty members turns a few of them into angry children with magic markers scrawling graffiti on a public restroom wall.  Thank God only the faculty can read these messages.

I think it would be safe to generalize that the vast majority of the messages come from the same tiny handful of people, say a dozen people out of a total faculty of almost a thousand.  If each member were restricted to only a single comment a month, it would improve the quality of the postings immensely.  

What would happen if our students could read these postings?  Would they suddenly question why so much time and money was spent on learning from people who cannot even hold civil conversations among themselves?  Would they suddenly silently stand and slowly walk out of our classrooms?  I can just imagine the students whispering among themselves; “With so many important issues out there, why are they talking about frijoles?”

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Packing It In

My one true talent is falling asleep.  I have no musical ability, no artistic talent, and few out of the ordinary capabilities.  But I can fall asleep on a concrete floor within minutes.  And in a bed, when I say goodnight to The Doc, if she doesn’t answer me quickly, I won’t be awake to hear her answer.

I don’t think I would trade this skill for the ability to play the piano like Van Cliburn.   Hell, even Van Cliburn has to sleep, and I have a CD of him playing the piano.

Tonight, I feel generous and will share the secret with you—why not?  It’s free, and so far, I have shared the method with dozens of people over the years, and not one of them has ever tried using it.  I sincerely doubt that you will, either.

Forty years ago, I was working my way through college as a night watchman at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel in Houston.  It was a great job for a student with few job skills, I could study in solitude and all I was expected to do was stay in a guard shack and keep an eye on the alley.  I did this job so well, that even now, years later, though the hotel is completely gone, that alley is still there and in perfect shape.

One of the problems with working the ‘graveyard shift’ is that your biological clock needs constant rewinding.  It is hard to sleep when the sun is out and everyone else is up and making noise.  (And it is impossible to find a restaurant that will serve you dinner while everyone else is eating breakfast, but that is a different story.)  Worse, when you have a couple of days off, the tendency is to stay up all day and sleep at night like everyone else, thus re-breaking your own sleep cycle.

One of my co-workers was an elderly man who had been working the front desk for decades and seemed to have no problem with this weird sleep cycle.  And when I asked him how he did this, he told me it was a form of self-hypnosis.  At this, I almost stopped listening.  Hypnosis was, and still is, mostly the kind of bullshit that is relegated to infomercials and quacks too stupid to pass the test to be a chiropractor. 

To be polite, I kept listening, and it didn’t take too long before I was interested.  I’m not sure this is even hypnosis; I think it might be nothing more than developing a habit.  What my friend did was simple—when he shut his eyes and tried to go to sleep, he started thinking about his next spring garden.  He would imagine getting the tiller out of the garage, turning the soil, and planting the vegetables.   He would imagine deciding how many rows of corn, where to plant the tomatoes, and how to fertilize his crop.  He would keep this up until he finally drifted off to sleep.

According to my friend, he had no measureable success for weeks, then for months it didn’t work very well, but before long, as soon as he started to mentally work on that garden, he fell asleep.

I was way too young to think about a garden, that sounded like something that would interest some ancient person-say about 30.  While I wasn’t interested in tomatoes, I was interested in traveling.  I longed to travel through South America, Europe, or damn near anywhere but the all-expense paid tour of Southeast Asia my government was planning if I flunked out of school.  And flunking out was a real possibility if I didn’t start getting more sleep some place outside of my freshman English class.  (Though I have to admit, that even today I wonder about some classes at Enema U.  If they don’t want students to fall asleep, why do they let a jackass drone through a lecture?  Sleep is a very objective student evaluation about the quality of teaching.)

So, every time I went to bed, I would plan how to pack a suitcase.  I would imagine that I was about to go to Paris for a month—what should I pack?  How many shirts should I take?  Should I wear my cowboy boots on the plane and pack the tennis shoes?  Mentally, I would carefully stuff that suitcase. 
I didn’t always go to Paris; I mentally packed for trips all over the world.  Sometimes, I was packing for a hunting trip, or a hiking trip through the Grand Canyon.  The destination didn’t matter, and I didn’t think about the destination much, I just mentally made a list of the things I would take and imagined packing the bag.

For a very long time, it didn’t work.  Some nights, I packed that bag several times while I tossed and turned in bed.  I was beginning to think it was an absolutely idiotic idea and probably only kept it up because I was stubborn.  
Then suddenly, it started working.  And it worked very well.  I rarely get that bag anymore.  Hell, most of the time I have mentally placed the suitcase on top of the bed and I’m just opening it up when….Zzzzzzzzzz.  And the alarm clock goes off.

This really pisses my wife, The Doc, off.  First, she has a horrible time going to sleep.  Now The Doc is a great person with the patience of a saint.  There is not a mean bone in her body and she has an alabaster conscience.  By comparison, my conscience was misplaced in the dark and hasn’t yet been located.  (See last week’s blog for an example.)  In spite of this, most nights she has a horrible time falling asleep while I snore blissfully beside her. 

Secondly, as it turns out, there is a side benefit.  It takes The Doc roughly two days to pack for a weekend trip.  Invariably, she ends up packing enough bags so that we resemble an African safari.  Unfortunately I’m the only bearer.  It takes me about 30 minutes to pack my one soft-sided suitcase for a two week trip to Europe.  It usually takes longer to get the cat out of the open suitcase than it does to pack.

The Doc spends half the night before the trip finishing packing.  I fall asleep.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Man Vs. Nature, Part 2

Hardly a week goes by without reading a story about someone doing something incredibly stupid with deadly animals.  This week, an idiot in Alaska was killed and partially eaten after getting more than 10 times closer to a full grown grizzly bear than was allowed.  When he received his permit from the park officials, he indicated that he had 30 years hiking experience.  Still, he went through the mandatory bear avoidance course that mandates a minimum distance of a quarter mile from bears.  Then our “expert” hiker got within 40 yards of the bear and took a couple of dozen photographs; the last few show a bear looking directly at the hiker with what could probably be labeled as ursine annoyance.

If the hiker had been using a video camera, I’m willing to bet that last photo would include the photographer saying something like, “Oh, Shit!”

So far, this is okay with me.  The photographer was a grown man and if he wanted to become part of a balanced diet for a bear, I think he had the right.  Unfortunately, at this point the story turns tragic.  Park Rangers shot and killed the bear.  Evidently for the crime of being and acting like--a bear. 

It wasn’t that many months ago that we heard the shocking story that a man had been killed while swimming with a killer whale.  He broke into the amusement park, voluntarily jumped into a tank and swam with a killer whale.  Evidently, the name was not a sufficient clue.  Hell, I’m not swimming with anything that big and with that many teeth--even if it were called a Happy Smiley Bunny Whale. 

But the best story of the summer, hands down, is about the Pentecostal snake-handling preacher who, during a religious service, was killed by his co-preacher, a timber rattlesnake.  And it wasn’t like the preacher didn’t have an advance warning-- just a few years ago the man watched his father die in exactly the same way.  I wonder if it was the same snake.   I hope they didn’t shoot the snake--that preacher may have had a son who wants to follow in the family business, and ordained snakes are hard to find.

I believe that everyone has a right to be eaten by bears and whales, bitten by snakes, or even buy tickets to a Will Ferrell movie.  The first freedom that we allow someone is the freedom to make mistakes.  Even massive ones.  Survivors are seldom burned the same way twice.  And sometimes, you can make a conscious decision to take a large risk because of the reward.

While I was in high school, I dated a girl that I’m going to call Melinda.  Why not, that was her name and I haven’t seen or heard from her in over 40 years.  Last time I saw her, she was furious, and there is no particular reason to change her mind now.

Melinda and I went to movies, ate pizza, and occasionally went with friends to the lake.  I owned a car, but had very little money.  I can distinctly remember one night where we parked at our high school and I got the jerry can out of the trunk and poured a puddle of gasoline on the sidewalk.  Then, we sat on the hood of my car looking at the pretty colors the moon made in gasoline.  I am beginning to understand why I haven’t heard from her in 40 years.

Our favorite activity, (well, one of them) was to go down to the piddly little 9 hole local golf course and sneak through a break in the fence so we could go skinny-dipping in the water hazard on the 8th fairway.  In the night, that pond was magical, and it was our own special world.  We went as often as the weather would allow.  Even now, when I hear that song from the Broadway show Cats, I think of Melinda.  I don’t remember the name of the song, but the words go something like this:  “Mammaries… All Alone In the Moonlight…”

Months later, the father of a friend of mine decided to teach us the rudiments of the game of golf.  So, for the first time, I got to see what that golf course looked like in the daytime.  I discovered that golf (or pasture pool as we say in Texas) is a lot of fun, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.   And I was anxious to get to the 8th fairway to see what “our” pond was like in the daylight—but when I got there, I was horrified.  That water hazard was infested with water moccasins.

For the Yankees among you, water moccasins are not the newest type of boat shoe.  The cottonmouth, stump-tailed viper, or Texas moccasin is a nasty, mean-looking poisonous snake that is about as evil as Darth Vader with hemorrhoids.  These snakes can swim, they are territorial, and their bite is as painful as it is deadly.  And Melinda and I had been swimming with them for months.  I have no idea how we survived the experience.  Hell, the damn things even scare Pentecostal preachers!

The very next night, I had a date with Melinda.  We went to Shakey’s Pizza and listened to Cozy Powell on the jukebox.  When we finished eating and I asked her what she wanted to do next, she gave me a little smile with a mischievous glint in her eye and suggested that we go swimming.

I thought about those snakes, the risk, the danger…for at least ten seconds.  Then we drove to the golf course.  I never did tell her about those snakes.  I think that any man that doesn’t want it bad enough to swim with snakes…just doesn’t want it.