Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Three Appliances of Heaven

Looking out at my students in class today, I could count more expensive electronic gizmos than students.  There were more iPads, headsets, laptops, and cell phones than it would take to open a good sized Best Buy. 

There is also a similar scene in the parking lot.  Where do "starving students" get the megabucks to buy these new cars?  (And these are not used cars or economy models.  No–that kind of car is only found in the faculty lots).

Students today seem far more concerned with things than ideas.  When my wife and I were younger, perhaps we were materialistic, too–but our wants were much more modest.

There was a time--not that long ago--when my wife and I, too, were poor, starving students.  The Doc was in medical school with an annual tuition bill that made my eyes tear up every time I read it.  We lived in a tiny, cramped rental house near the campus, drove a $300 pickup that was old enough to vote, and had as our only luxury items, way too many books (and an indecent number of cats).

And we were pretty happy–the kind of foolish happy that can only come with youth, optimism, and hard work, mixed with an equal amount of stupidity, naiveté, and immaturity.  We didn't want for much, but there were a few things we deeply craved:  Appliances.  We really wanted appliances.

There was a Hell–and we knew exactly where it was.  It was the quarter-gobbling, hotter-than-a-pawn-shop pistol, and noisier-than-an-iron-foundry laundromat, located a mile from our house.  This was the Hell where my wife and I spent what little free time we did have--among the screaming children who ran up and down the aisles between the washers and the dryers.  Man!–but we hated that place!

So we dreamed of a washer and dryer.  The house we lived in had a laundry room, but the only thing we kept in there was a litter box.  We also wished for a dishwasher, but that was clearly beyond our means.

Then, beginning with the Doc's third year of medical school, she began her clinical rotations.  The first two years of medical school, she had spent mostly in classrooms or studying at home, but during her clinicals, The Doc actually saw patients and worked in medical labs...and pretty much stopped coming home.  There were probably widowers that spent more time with their spouses than I did.

Naturally, I got bored.  Speaking with the wisdom that only comes from being in my fifth decade of marriage–a bored husband is damn near certain to get into trouble.  Luckily for me, my "trouble" was my sudden decision to solve our appliance problem.

I scrounged around in the local junkyards until I happened upon semi-buried treasure.  I found a washing machine, a dryer, AND a dishwasher–all inoperative (of course!), all filthy, and all for sale.  For only $75, we became the proud owners of all three!  Of course, none of them worked and there was absolutely no way that we could afford to have them fixed.  Unless (of course), I did it myself.

Fixing appliances was something I knew nothing about–perhaps less than nothing.  But, I had tools and an empty garage.  I started with the washing machine.

What a hunk of junk!  I took that washer apart and put it back together at least a dozen times before I understood how it worked...or, well...didn't work.  If people could see the innards of major appliances and know how poorly they are made, before they bought them, they'd think twice about buying them.  

Once I got that enamel-coated exterior off, I had something that looked like it had been assembled by the Three Stooges.  The balancing weights were made of rebar and coffee cans filled with concrete, and the metal frame was a weak amalgam of old wheel weights and rusty beer cans, that had been case-hardened by dipping the whole mess into a languid pool of rancid butter.

It would have been easier to have crafted a better appliance out of nothing but pig shit and wax paper–but it was the washer I had, and it was still a hell of a lot better than going to the damned laundromat...well, it was going to be.  It took months, but with a few scrounged parts from the junkyard and a brand new worked!

Note:  The Doc just reminded me that we had to lift the lid during the rinse cycle for roughly five minutes or it would flood half the house.  Now, while this is true, it is also immaterial.  This minor sacrifice got our clothes clean and occasionally cleaned the laundry room floor.

The Doc and I were as happy as if we had won the lottery!  No more scrounging for quarters!  We could wash our clothes at home!  True–we had to dry our clothes on clotheslines stretched across the backyard (And sometimes, across the garage and across the bathroom, too–it rains way too damn often in San Antonio!), but it would wash clothes!  It also made enough noise to be heard from the street out in front of the house, but who cared?  It worked!

Next, I worked on the dryer.  Back then, these were actually fairly simple machines.  I replaced the nichrome wire that formed the heating element and thought I had it fixed.  But, when I started the dryer, I discovered that the drum was out of balance.  God!–I labored over that thing for weeks!  If the drum was not positioned perfectly, the result was immediate: wild shaking and a high-pitched screech that gave me the galloping shudders and made my eyes cross.  Imagine a motorized version of scraping fingernails across a blackboard.

I had originally wanted to learn how this thing worked by dismantling my mother's dryer, but she stubbornly refused to aid in my education.  These days, of course, I would spend 15 minutes with Google and download a service manual, but back then....well....I.... improvised.  Through trial and error (and even more error), I eventually figured it out.  I drilled out rivets and substituted sheet metal screws....only to discover that there was a reason why the original manufacturer had used rivets.  So, I took out the screws, drilled new holes and learned how to use a pop riveter.  

And eventually–against all odds–the damn thing worked.  True, too, just like the washer, the dryer shimmied "a little" during operation, but if we wedged a pillow between the two appliances, this was enough padding to keep the two machines from disassembling themselves.

By this point, my appliance repair skills had considerably improved.  I think it took me only a few days of tinkering to get the dishwasher to work.  It was a monstrous, roll-around box that had to be moved next to the kitchen sink and then connected by a special water line to a faucet.  The capacity was small and the unit was as ugly as homemade soap, worked!

What a difference these three appliances made in our lives!  Who knew that Heaven consisted of just a washer, a dryer, and a dishwasher?  That was forty years ago--and other than buying our home, no single purchase has ever made us as happy as those three busted appliances. 

In some ways, I feel sorry for the students today.  They will never experience the happiness of overcoming the challenge of a car so old that you push it almost as much as you ride in it.  No $900 smart phone will ever bring the happiness my wife and I received from a truckload of scrapped second-hand appliances.  We knew we were rich!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ricardo's Rule of Comparative Advantage

Economists have a tool called Ricardo's Rule for Comparative Advantage.  This rule states that instead of each country's trying to become self-sufficient in the production of all goods, it is better for each country to specialize in the production of those products where it possesses a material or cultural advantage.

Simply put, it is better for all three countries if Italy produces fashionable clothes, if Argentina produces meat products, and if Japan makes electronics.  In an open market, through specialization, each country would be able to afford more purchases of all three products than if each country tried to become self-sufficient in all three.  The reverse is just not practicalit is difficult to imagine any gaucho pants-wearing multitudes driving their Lamborghinis to drive-thru restaurants named Jap-In-The-Box for orders of Kobe beef to go.

Ricardo’s Rule works and it has applications far outside the world of international economics.  I propose that, since universities are also large businesses, it is time for small cash-strapped states to apply this rule to their state universities.  Let me, there is too much.  Let me sum up..

Universities employ two types of professors: tenure track and adjunct.  Tenure track professors are employed to teach classes, to conduct research and to publish their research.  It doesn't matter if the professor is a chemist or a choir director, an engineer or an English professorthey all have to conduct research, publish their research, and teach.  After 6 years, a committee of their peers reviews their work to see how well all these jobs have been done. 

If the committee approves, the faculty member is given tenuremeaning he or she has a lifetime employment contract.  This is to ensure that every tenured faculty member can maintain academic freedom.  That is, the tenured faculty is freed to pursue knowledge, publish, and teach without fear of being fired for publishing or researching "politically incorrect" ideas.  

Of course, it is also common knowledge that having "politically incorrect ideas" is the surest route to failing to obtain tenure these days, so the issue of having politically incorrect ideas AFTER gaining tenure is actually pretty much a moot point.  Even more to the point, no one cares what any professor says in a classroom anymore.

The other type of professorsadjunctsare hired sołely to teach.  They are not required to do research or to publish, and they have no job security whatsoever.  While they are incredibly poorly paid, they teach their asses off:  they frequently teach twice as many classes (with often a larger class size) than the average tenure track or tenured professor teaches.  In their non-existent free time, they scavenge through supermarkets in search of Bottom Ramen.  

This is the model that is followed by most universities, both public and private.  But should it be like this?  A state agricultural college in a poor state may want to excel in all fields, but can it afford to? 

Mention university research to someone not employed at a university, and what comes to mind is probably the mad scientist in a test tube-filled laboratory, working through the night to breed a mosquito that will suck fat instead of blood.  The truth is closer to someone who's sitting in an office, writing yet another article on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  (An article that almost no one will ever read.)

Last year, in just the sciences, over 1.5 million scholarly articles were published in 23,500 journals.  Remember, that astonishing number is just for the scholarly science articles.  This doesn't count the articles written about art, history, anthropology, sociology, etc.  There are other journals for those articles.

Last year, over 1500 scholarly articles were written about "Hamlet", alone.  How many baby seals would have died and how much of the polar ice caps would have melted if society were missing just one of those articles?  (How many trees were sacrificed to print those articles?Alert the Druids!)

Let’s take a hypothetical example:  Professor Carrabosse does research on popular culture.  After she was hired, she began a lengthy period of research on the historical inaccuracies found in Disneyland’s Frontierland.  It turns out that the Magic Kingdom’s version of Davy Crockett is not an accurate representation of the American West.

Eventually, with the help of a kindly editor who just "happened" to be her brother, Professor Carabosse published her research in a thin volume.  Despite the fact that there are about as many albino dwarves playing in the NBA as people who actually read her book, she was given tenure and a hefty pay raise.

Twenty years later, she is still teaching (though judging by the relatively few students in her class, somewhat badly).  Sadly, this does not really matter, as her annual evaluations are based mainly on her continued research.

And her sole book?  It turns out to be one of the most expensive books ever purchased by the state of New Mexico.  In salary, pensions, and employment benefits to Professor Carabosse, it cost the state well in excess of two million dollars. 

This is roughly the same amount that Christie's received the last time it auctioned off an entire Gutenberg Bible.  Save the funds from two such professors and you can buy a First Folio Shakespeare.  And it will even include "Hamlet".

And since Professor Carabosse is not a talented teacher, she influences relatively few students.  Nor could the department afford to replace her, she is tenured. 

Does every department in a state university need to hire research professors? 

Can New Mexico really afford this?  Does an agricultural college in an impoverished state have to pretend it is Harvard?  Does every faculty member have to be a researcher?

The sad truth is that no one who has worked in academia has ever heard of any professor—at any university—who has been denied tenure on the basis of bad teaching.  Nor has anyone ever heard of a professor's being tenured for good teaching. Sadly, there is no connection between good research and good teaching, either.

Every university claims that teaching is important, that it is respected, and that those who do it are rewarded, but this is more of a mantra than a statement of fact.  Sadly, teaching is one of the least important activities at a university.  If tenure must be given, then is time to hire some professors whose only goal is to teach, to tenure the outstanding ones, and to pay them adequately.

Critics of such a change would lament that I am proposing to turn research centers into trade schools.  Possibly.  Or perhaps, I am just saying that it is time for a fiscally constrained state to stop purchasing what it doesn't need.

Poor states like New Mexico need universities: they need them to help lift their citizens out of poverty and to create the economic opportunities that other states enjoy.  This means that the state universities should focus on education first, not researchat least not in every department with every faculty member.

Let New Mexico universities excel in those areas where they naturally have an advantage:  agriculture, energy, international business, and border studies, among others.  

And if New Mexico isn't a world-renowned center for research on "Hamlet" and that one extra scholarly article is never written?  Then I guess we will just have to let the ice caps melt and allow the baby seals to die.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Lincoln's Favorite Rifle

When it comes to rifles, most men are predictably conservative.  Tell me which gun someone first learned to shoot well, and I'll tell you what he considers the finest rifle ever made.

Take that guy who has shot 70-pound white tail deer in the hill country of Texas with his Daddy's old .30-30: he's going to be hard to convince that he needs a rifle with a little more authority when he crosses the border into New Mexico in search of Rocky Mountain elk.  He will never even consider replacing that antique lever action.

Interestingly, this rule works the same way for military rifles.

In the late 1930's, the Marine Corps started issuing a new combat rifle, the M1 Garand.  In  hindsight, there is now fairly universal agreement that this was the finest rifle of the Second World War, but at the time, the Marines hated it.  About the nicest name the Jarheads had for the rifle (and certainly the only one I can put in this blog) was "the Mickey Mouse rifle."

The Marines had been using the Springfield Rifle since 1903 and had used it in the First World War, the Philippines, and Nicaragua.  It worked, they trusted it, and they knew exactly how to use it.  The Marines--more than any of the other services--consider themselves riflemen, and they treasured the '03 Springfield, and refused to consider a replacement.

Guadalcanal changed their minds.  The Mickey Mouse rifle did a great job--it was accurate, it was reliable, and it could fire eight times as fast as you could pull the trigger, so it didn't take long for the Marines to fall in love again:  with a new, treasured rifle.

An even more extreme example can be seen a decade before the Civil War.    This was a period when firearms were starting to change dramatically and there was pressure for the US Army to modernize.  A cavalry unit stationed at Fort Stanton, New Mexico was issued Sharp's Rifles to evaluate.

The Sharp's was a breech-loading rifle that could be easily loaded and fired accurately while mounted on horseback.  These cavalrymen had been using the Model 1841 carbine.  Not only was the musket clumsy and so inaccurate that they couldn't hit the side of a barn unless they were inside it, but the muzzleloader was almost impossible to reload on horseback.  (You can imagine the difficulties of trying to use a musket's ramrod while on a moving horse!)

It’s easy to understand the difference this new rifle made to the soldiers.  They loved the Sharp's Rifles, and when the testing period was over, enthusiastically encouraged the military's adoption of the rifle for all mounted troops.

When this endorsement reached a general higher up in the chain of a command, he rejected the new rifle, claiming that the new firearm was "a breech-loading toy."  This general knew that the M1841--a gun he had used during the war in Mexico--was the better firearm and wouldn't even consider a new firearm, so the cavalry never got the better rifle.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had heard of a new "super rifle".  Not only could it accurately fire seven rounds without reloading, but was easy to operate and maintain in the field.  While most muskets and rifles of this period used paper cartridges that were extremely sensitive to even the slightest moisture, this rifle used metallic cartridges impervious to moisture.  This weapon could even be used reliably in a driving rain! 

With paper cartridges, even the lightest rain forced soldiers to fight with bayonets, knives, or even their hands.  At the Civil War Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the two armies fought for 18 hours in a heavy rain that made gunpowder all but useless.  The fighting was the worst at the Bloody Angle, where the men fought until the muddy earthworks had become so slippery with blood that the men could hardly stand.

Lincoln had heard of the new rifle and wanted to test it for himself.  Now, these days, the idea of a head of state personally firing a military firearm seems ludicrous.  (Hell, I still can’t believe that President Obama shoots skeet!)

In Lincoln’s time, however, it was actually fairly common.  Honest Abe was fairly besieged by inventors--each promising that his newfangled gizmo would win the way by the end of the year. 

So many of these crackpot inventors wanted to demonstrate some form of bullet-proof armor that Lincoln finally established a new rule:  anyone wishing to demonstrate body armor had to wear it, himself, while Lincoln personally tested it by firing a rifle at the inventor.  This rule considerably thinned the herd.

So, in August of 1863, it wasn’t all that surprising when Lincoln met Christopher Spencer on a small hill close to the partially constructed Washington Monument.  Aiming at a target 40 yards away, Lincoln fired and hit the target seven times in just a few seconds.  Impressed, Lincoln wanted the new lever action rifle for all of his troops.

This was a sound decision.  In time, the Spencer Rifle was the most sought after rifle in the Union Army.  Besides being a superb combat weapon, it had a little known extra advantage:  if captured by the Confederates, the weapon became all but useless.  The southern states were suffering a copper shortage so severe that the moonshine stills of Kentucky and Tennessee temporarily vanished.  When Southerners give up Bourbon, you know there wasn't enough copper to manufacture ammunition for the Spencer, either.

After the war, Major General James Wilson wrote: “There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral.  Our best officers estimate that one man armed with [is] the equivalent to three with any other arm.”

Today, some historians have argued that if the Spencer Rifle had been issued to Union troops, the Civil War might have been concluded two years earlier.  So, why wasn't it used?

Brigadier General James Wolfe Ripley, the Army’s Chief of Ordnance, refused to purchase breech loading rifles.  His arguments included the fact that the North had large supplies of older muzzle loaders in warehouses that could be used and that rapid firing rifles would encourage the soldiers to waste ammunition.  His arguments delayed the large scale purchase of better weapons for years.

By the end of the war, the North had purchased only 12,472 Spencer rifles.  This is a pitifully small number when you consider that 2,896,537 men were mustered into the Union army.

After the war, The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was sold, eventually being bought by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company which still manufactures lever action rifles.

And Christopher Spencer?  He went on to make quite a few other things.  The first successful pump shotgun, a steam powered horseless carriage, a sewing machine, and the first automated machine to manufacture metal screws.  By the time he died in 1922, he held 42 patents, and despite being 88, was taking flying lessons.

And what happened to General James Wolfe Ripley?  Who cares?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

President Hottentot

Forty years ago, I worked for Bantam Books.  It was a fantastic job: I finally had a boss who would let me read on the job. 

And I actually met my boss, Ian Ballantine, on more than one occasion.   Ballantine was one of the most fascinating men I have ever met.  The founder of Penguin Books, Ballantine Books, and Bantam Books—he probably put more books into the hands of the common man than anyone else since Gutenberg.  I had several long conversations with this genius, and I have to say that he was always far more kind to me than I deserved.

On one occasion, the company brought me to New York for a conference that was postponed so often that, eventually, no one could remember why it was originally scheduled.  Besides a wonderful week exploring New York, I got taken on a brief tour of the corporate offices by Ballantine himself.  I was astounded by the artwork on his office walls--particularly a couple of M. C. Escher prints.

Naively, I asked how he could come to possess so many incredible originals.  Ballantine smiled and told me a trade secret: the publishing houses looked for prolific, young, and not yet well known artists who could be put under contract.  Some, but not all, of their work would be used for book cover illustrations.  After a few years, the company would produce a coffee-table book of the collected work of the artist, then begin selling off the collected pieces.

The fact that the art world could be…manipulated…to create a market was astounding to a poor dumb ol' Texas boy.  I guess I thought the art world was regulated by pixies or elves or something.  (Come to think of it, Ian Ballantine did look like a large pixie.) 

“Who have you done this with?" I asked.

Ballantine just pointed to the work hanging on his office wall.  The works of  Frazetta, Froud, and Escher were easily recognizable, even to a country hick like me.

Years later, the famous editor founded yet another publishing house:  Rufus Publications.  Ian, acting exactly like a real pixie, named it after his wifes dog.  This new company put together illustrated art and fantasy books, like "Faeries," by Brian Froud, as well as the 1992 best seller "Dinotopia," by James Gurney.  (You probably own one of these.)

But that was decades ago--a lot of decades ago--and I am no longer a poor dumb olcountry boy.  (Now, Im no longer a "boy"!).  And, despite knowing better, I was shocked at the recently declassified  government records that revealed that a lot of popular modern art from the fifties and sixties was a result of—wait for it--the CIA.  (Writing that last sentence gave me giggles.  I feel like an Arkansas conspiracy nut!)

“Them durn black helicopters is puttin' mind-controlling chemicals up thar in them sky contrails—.”  Shit!--I cant even joke about that crap--theres a couple of professors here at Enema U that actually believe that nonsense!  Lately, you wouldnt believe some of the whoppers professors tell about each other!  (I've even heard that one professor thinks that people sneak into her office in the middle of the night and... no, I'll save that nonsensical story for another night.)

The CIA was founded in 1947, during the Cold War.  For those of you under the age of 40, the Cold War was a period when both the United States and the Soviet Union were the only two Superpowers and we disagreed on everything.  (Mostly, there was a lot more shouting than shooting.)  The rivalry was as intense as it was...well...stupid.

What was the American policy on bananas?  I don't remember, but it was the polar opposite of the Soviet Union's.  So when the land of Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, and Tolstoy declared that America was a cultural wasteland, we had to prove that we weren't.  Painting--as with most art in the Soviet Union--had become locked in an ideological straight jacket.  New styles of painting were not going to be accepted by the Communist Party.

So what was the polar opposite?  The CIA embraced, funded, and (more than occasionally) bought paintings in order to artificially support the price of Abstract Expressionist artwork, such as the works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.

This was surprisingly easy to do in the fifties, since the boards of major art museums read like a roster of the founding fathers of both the CIA and the OSS (the WWII precursor to the CIA).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded by Nelson Rockefeller, who chaired the board of directors for the museum.  The CIA set up a dummy organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom--which was a collection of historians, artists, jazz musicians, and writers--that eventually had offices in 35 nations.  Funded secretly by the CIA, it exported American culture, including Abstract Expressionist artwork.

While this program certainly elevated the public acceptance of abstract art, it would be impossible to ever determine how successful this artistic school would have become without the infusion of government support and funding. 

It would be wrong to say that the CIA invented Abstract Expressionist art, however, it would be entirely correct to say they made it popular and helped create a market for it.

The movement did have its detractors: at the very beginning, the President of the United States, declared that he didn't like the new art.  "If this is art," declared Harry Truman, "then I'm a Hottentot."

The program was more successful than the CIA had ever hoped and American culture flourished across Europe and Asia.  To what extent this was due to our clandestine efforts will never be known. 

To be honest, I have to admit that--like Truman--I have never really understood the works of Jackson Pollock.  I've always wondered: if I were to turn any one of my four granddaughters loose on one of Pollock's masterpieces, armed with a brush and similarly colored paint--after 5 minutes could anyone tell any difference?  Could even Jackson Pollock?

I sure as hell couldn't.  But then, I'm just a poor, dumb ol' country boy.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

La Cuetlaxochitl

Emperor Agustin I of Mexico had a problem--he was out of money.  If it had cost only a dollar to go around the world, he couldn't have made it out of Mexico City.

This should have been an unlikely problem for the ruling monarch of Mexico to have to face:  for centuries, Mexico had been the primary source of the gold and silver that supported literally the entire Spanish Empire.  In addition, in order to maximize profits, Spain had not allowed Mexico to develop a manufacturing base.

Mexico was expected to export raw materials--primarily gold and silver--then purchase its manufactured goods from the mother country.  This was calculated to keep the colony weak and dependent while making Spain rich (at least that was the plan).  In reality, Spain didn't bother to expand its own industrial base and simply purchased the necessary goods from neighboring European countries.  Why bother to develop a textile industry when the fabric was available at such cheap prices from Flanders?

So the gold and silver just flowed right through Spain and on into the rest of Europe, where it fueled wars, expansion, and world domination for centuries.  Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican historian, said it best:  "The wealth that made Spain rich made Spain poor."

Now, the ruling monarch of Mexico had just barely enough remaining gold and silver to mint a limited number of coins bearing his likeness.  Pitifully few in numbers, these coins were pleasing to the royal ego, but inadequate to jump start his nation's shattered economy.  The turbulent years of revolution had brought Mexico independence, but had also left her treasury looted, her mines flooded, and her economy destroyed.

Emperor Agustin needed help, and he needed it in the form of hard currency, so  he tried to borrow a few measly million dollars from the United States. 

President Monroe was a little uncomfortable with the idea of America's propping up a monarchy, even if it was a neighbor.  While Madison never did send the desired money, he did send a special envoy to Mexico to enhance the relationship between the two countries.  (Why not an ambassador?  The United States did not start appointing ambassadors until 1896.)

So, the American envoy went to Mexico and explained to the monarch why he wasn't going to get any financial help.  Then he stayed in Mexico for years while Mexico deposed its king and went through a series of Presidents.

While in Mexico, the American representative traveled south of the capital to Taxco de Alarcon.  An amateur naturalist, he became enamored with a plant the Aztecs called Cuetlaxochitl (ket-la-sho-she).  The strange looking plant--which only bloomed during the winter--had a different name among the Spanish in the area: Flor de Noche Buena or the Christmas Eve Flower.  This plant had bright red leaves and had long been used by Franciscan monks to decorate altars during Christmas.

Naturally, when he returned to the United States, he brought the damn plant with him and started giving cuttings to his friends.  For reasons that escape me, this envoy--Joel Poinsett--wasn't tried for treason.  Within a few years, the plant was known (at least in the United States) as the Poinsettia. 

As you can probably tell, I'm not exactly fond of the damn plant.  My reasons are something that Emperor Agustin could understand--the cost.  The damn plants are fairly expensive and every damn December, my wife starts buying the damn things until the house is lousy with them--paying about $10 each for something that is considered an obnoxious weed in Southern Mexico!

If you really want the silly plants, buy the seeds mail order.  Then, if you plant them in August, within a few months, you will have a healthy looking plant with normal green leaves.  About Thanksgiving, the "leaves" (actually, these are "bracts") turn red.  Many people mistakenly believe that this is the blossom, but in late December, the real blossoms appear as tiny red and yellow berries.

Personally, I don't think the plants are very pretty:  those red "leaves" just look wrong and the plants look unhealthy.  But what I really dislike is the fact that the damn plants die rapidly.  I think our house's personal record is keeping one alive about a month.  Then, suddenly, all the leaves fall off at once and we have a $10 collection of ugly, knobby sticks. 

Truthfully, it is probably not the plant's fault, but it is probably because The Doc and I are the most absent-minded people in the world.  We once left a bouquet of Valentine's Day roses in a vase on top of the television for three years.  Even then, the only reason we "noticed" them was because a guest in our home commented on the "unusual" arrangement of dried flowers.

Poinsettias, however, don't just die, they damn near self-destruct.  Now before any of you write me with bogus stories about how you have one that has been alive for 5 years, let me warn you that I know better--and so did the Aztecs.  Their name for the ugly weed, Cuetlaxochitl, translates to "flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.”

So about a year ago, I decided to take matters into my own hands and keep the damn plants alive long enough so that my wife wouldn't replace them before Christmas.  I religiously watered the half dozen ugly weeds my wife had bought to decorate our house.  Every damn day, before I left for work, I watered the poinsettias.  I even left myself notes on my computer keyboard to remind me--this year, I was going to get one of the stupid plants to survive at least into the new year.

And it worked:  as I watered the plants day after day, the ugly red things looked (if not good) at least as healthy as the day The Doc had brought them home.  I had succeeded!--by  the time New Years rolled in, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

And that's when my wife finally admitted to me that she had bought plastic poinsettias that year!