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.