Wednesday, December 31, 2008

To heck with Guy Lambardo

The song which has come to be synonymous with ringing in a new year is probably the most performed song in the country to which nobody knows the lyrics. Admit it, after “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind” you, like nearly everybody else, start to make unintelligible vowel sounds until you get to the “auld lang syne” at the end.
Not only do I have a problem remembering the lyrics I have a problem with the apparent sentiment of the single lyric I can remember. I don’t really want to forget all my old acquaintances and never bring them to mind. I like some of my old acquaintances better than a lot of the people I met recently.
Many people do not believe me when I tell them I am a shy person. I admit it is somewhat counter intuitive when there was a time in my life I would wear short pants and cowboy boots and purposely cavort in goofy ways in front of more than a thousand people at the Dodge City Civic Center (I was Marshal Hoops the mascot for the Legend basketball team). I also performed in several productions for what was then the Boot Hill Repertory Company, often in very silly roles. It is just my shyness manifests itself in that I would rather stand in front of a couple hundred people than a couple people.
Because of this basic shyness I don’t make new friends all that often. My wife is the truly gregarious one. She adds friends to her list more frequently and with greater ease than I do. There have even been times in the past when she tried to fix me up. She’d think I was being too reclusive and would arrange for us to spend time with another couple. She was friends with the wife and would scout out the husband to be sure there were compatibilities.
I would tell her I was perfectly content staying home and she would point out “Fred” (a fictitious name used in order to allow anonymity for these innocent by-standers in my blind, man dates) was a sports fan, had similar tastes in music and agreed with many of my political beliefs.
I have to admit most every time she did this I had a fine time. She has a good eye for people I will be compatible with and with whom I can carry on an interesting and entertaining conversation. If my wife ever decides to leave me just how pathetic would it be for me to ask her to find my dates for me when I’m single again?
Even with the success stories of these fix-up friends I still refuse to practice the “acquaintance Alzheimer’s” suggested by the song. In 2008 I celebrated the fortieth anniversary of my longest friendship. Rob and I met the first day of kindergarten at Wiley Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kansas,1968. Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States, the Green Bay Packers were the reigning champions of the National Football League, nobody had walked on the moon yet, a single computer was the size of those gigantic Easter Island stone heads and phones were heavy enough to cause severe blunt force trauma if thrown at someone and the dials were rotary. That was a long time ago. 1968 was the year Celine Dion, Vanilla Ice, and Molly Ringwald were born. Our friendship is the same age and infinitely more talented and entertaining.
Also, 2008 marked the 18th year of my marriage. If our marriage was a person it could now vote, buy lottery tickets and could have been married itself for the past four years if it lived in Arkansas.
The long term relationships are more important to me. Between Claudia and Rob, they possess the knowledge of every stupid move, irretrievably dumb decision, and patently dim-witted action I have ever undertaken, yet they still treat me well and do things which make my life better. Part of this may be due to the fact I also possess some information they may not wish to be made public, heh, heh, heh.
No matter what Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians tell us I suggest everyone out there take a moment to remember old acquaintances, to value what they have added to our lives and how they have helped form us into the people we have become. Also, to remember the time he walked directly into the pillar in our high school lobby making me laugh until I was in danger of losing proper control of my bladder.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

For want of something better

‘Tis the season to want things. I am not just talking about base greediness. Not to say there isn’t base greediness in the world (a student at my school when asked what he wanted for Christmas said he wanted two Xboxes, one for the living room and one for his room), but there is also altruistic wanting. The wanting to do good deeds for others, the wanting of a better life for all as the calendar turns from 2008 to 2009, and the wanting of a diminishing number of movie opportunities for Ben Stiller are examples of non-greedy wanting, but rather wanting for the greater good.
This begs the question: why do we want what we want? Recently I have explored several different facets of how our brains work and one of those facets revolves around how we make such decisions.
The basic conflict within our minds is between the forces of emotion and the forces of rational thought. Allow me to put it into simplistic imagery in order to clarify the concepts. The emotional forces, not surprisingly, look like one of those Orc things from the Lord of the Rings movies, a hulking creature of great strength and atrocious personal hygiene. It is not easily distracted from its primal goals.
Rational thought shouldn’t even be referred to as a “force”. It looks like a ninth grade civics teacher. This means the rational thoughts part of the brain is pleasant enough, erudite, introspective, conscientious, ergo rather boring and easily turned into a quivering mass of terrified gelatin.
Think about it. For those of you who went to Liberty Junior High the same years I did, would you place your wager on Mr. Zahorsky (ninth grade civics teacher in 1977) or an ax-wielding, knuckle dragging denizen of the Middle Earth underworld in a one-on-one grudge match?
Actually the two forces don’t even have to get into direct conflict for the emotional side to win. One university study illustrated the general weakness of rationality. It had been previously proven that the typical human mind can hold seven, plus or minus two, bits of information in the forefront of its memory, so some smarty pants college professors designed an experiment. The participants would go into a room and were told a list of numbers to remember. They were then asked to go from the first room to another room and recite the numbers to the person there. Some people were given very short lists and others were given a list at the top of the difficulty level of seven digits.
As the participants went from Room A to Room B an accomplice of the professors stopped them and offered a snack as a way of thanking them for helping with the study. They were offered either a piece of chocolate cake or some fruit. This is where the real experiment was taking place.
The great majority of the participants who were only asked to memorize a couple of numbers asked for the fruit and the majority of participants who were laboring to remember seven digits asked for the cake. The professor folks took this to mean the rational mind was so over burdened by trying to remember the seven numbers the emotional mind was able to make the selection. “Me want cake!” slathered the Orc and since the civics teacher was too busy reciting “one, three, seven, six, uh, blast, what’s next?” it wasn’t able to have the mouth ask for the much healthier and ergo more rational choice of fruit.
I use this learned experiment to explain why I sneak to Dillon’s after work and buy doughnuts. My rational mind is so preoccupied with the pursuit of enhancing the educational opportunities for the eager young people, who, after all, are the hope for the future of our nation, nay, our entire planet, I cannot be bothered to use my rational brain power to select a food which can sate my hunger without contributing to the unhealthy state of being well over the surgeon general’s recommended weight. This is a sacrifice I am willing to make for the benefit of today’s youth. You can thank me later.
Another tidbit of decision making is emotions really are necessary to make a choice. A man who suffered from a brain tumor was changed into a person who relied exclusively on logic. This man would spend hours working out the merits of using a pen with blue or black ink, sometimes not arriving at a decision. This shows extreme rationality is wishy-washy. The emotional person knows how to choose the best pen. Oooo, I like the shiny one.

If you decide you wish to comment you may contact Christopher Pyle at

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dear Santa, uh, I'll have to get back to you

I seem to have crossed over into a new stage of life. I don’t want anything for Christmas. On one hand this could mean I have reached a level of contentment in my life, a sort of serenity in which the base desire for material goods has been supplanted by higher thoughts leading to greater understanding of what is truly important in life. On the other hand it might mean I’m old.
When you’re a little person, with the wonder of Santa Claus fresh in your consciousness, it is easy to make a Christmas list only slightly longer than the collected works of Leo Tolstoy. This is not a sign of greed. This is a sign of the belief that the world is full of possibilities, that there is magic at the North Pole, and that the latest Major Matt Mason action figure will make life complete.
I can personally attest to that last fact. When I tore the paper from the green headed alien, Callisto, adding to my collection of Sgt. Storm, Astronaut Doug Davis, and Lt. Jeff Long there was a sense of joy not rivaled by many things in the life of quiet desperation pursued by most folks who work for a living.
As we get past the enchantment of those early years, Christmas often does get slightly tainted with greed. We want stuff for the sake of stuff. After the days of action figures, slot car race tracks (which worked until New Year’s Day) or for the girls, the Crissy doll (which had a knob on her back to retract her hair back into her head and a button in her stomach which made it possible to pull her hair out to a greater length - that was just weird) teenagers tend to want the latest and coolest gadgets and part of this desire is simply for the boost in status amongst their friends.
My stint in this time of life was before Blu-Ray, before MP3 players, before Nintendo, before DVDs, before CDs, before cell phones, before video tape players, before the wheel, oops, went just a bit too far there. I very distinctly remember getting a cool radio. Yes, I said a radio. It was AM and FM. It was designed so it looked like a bottom heavy circle, but it had a hinge of sorts which meant you could swivel it so it looked like a bloated “S”. With this ooh-neat-cool-wow radio I could listen to Casey Kasem tell me Debby Boone was at the top of the charts for the nine hundred and twenty-seventh week with an intensely insipid love song or Dancin’ Don Hall send out good night kiss dedications on KWHK (never to me, sigh).
Later the Christmas list shows signs of maturity. You start asking for things you can actually use. The ultimate sign a person has grown up is when he wants socks beneath the Tannenbaum. What was once the crummy present you resented wasting the time it took to unwrap goes from representing an unfeeling great aunt with a twisted utilitarian sense of gift giving to something else entirely. As a college student I saw each pair of socks as one more day I could avoid going to the Laundromat.
During the first few years of being an honest to goodness grown up it is still easy to make lists of desired stuff. Much of the stuff was placed on the list because it would make life a bit more interesting, fun, or easy to do. My lists would contain a smattering of things not unlike items from lists I made in other stages of my life. I would ask for toys because I thought it really didn’t count as Christmas if there wasn’t something to play with down there on the floor amongst the tattered paper and bows. I would ask for the latest gadgets partially for the coolness factor and partly because they were the toys of people over ten. I would ask for socks because I still preferred putting off laundry for as long as possible.
This Christmas I really don’t want anything. If I was forced to write what I wanted it would sound sappy. I want my children to be happy and healthy. I want my wife to be well taken care of and never to feel she goofed up by marrying me. I want my friends to be successful in what they pursue. For me, I want to expand my horizons as a writer and continue being with my wife, children and friends. Oh, and a couple of pairs of socks would be nice.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Truth, Justice and the Milky Way

Philosophers and artists of all kinds have spent centuries looking for just the right thought or image to sum up the human condition. People are complex and there are innumerable points of view but occasionally one of these extraordinary individuals hits upon something which speaks to each and every human being who considers himself a seeker of the truth. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mozart, and Picasso, have transcended with word, tone or image into the world of truth and the planet is enriched because of it.
I realize I am just some yutz from Kansas who plays with words but I think I have found an image which illustrates the eternal struggle faced by man each day as he forces himself out of bed and forays out into the maelstrom that is life. This image comes from a dispenser. Not a dispenser of wisdom like the collected writings of Socrates. Not a dispenser of insight like the Oracle at Delphi. Not even a dispenser of down home good judgment like Poor Richard’s Almanac. I’m talking about a dispenser of hedonistic gratification: the snack machine in the break room at work.
It has to be a very specific sort of snack machine. It has to be one of those machines which has a glass front and all the tasty treats are visible. Laid before the seeker are all the tantalizing objects of his desire. The goals of life are just hanging there on those curly post thingees waiting for the proper button to be pushed. When that button sends its message to the curly post thingee it slowly begins to rotate, teasing the seeker. Will the object of desire drop into the catcher tray or will something cause it to get hung up just out of reach, taunting the pilgrim?
Today I visited the break room in search of solace, refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a salve to soothe dealing with people who would rather create problems out of thin air than work to make the world a better place, or more precisely, chocolate. As I gazed into the newly refilled automated giver of joy I saw something which went beyond mere melts in your mouth euphoria. This was a lesson, a piercing insight.
Curly post thingee number 17 had extra large size peppermint patties. A candy which gives the consumer a bracingly clean cool minty taste sensation while in the same bite offering the dark warmth of chocolate, the yin and the yang of sweetness. That in and of itself was a moment of insight, but the lesson did not stop there. When the omniscient manipulator of the snack machine had reached in to replenish the waning choices he had placed the enticing candy treats behind the last remaining lonely bag of CornNuts.
The symbolism was too stark. In order to get to the nirvana of creamy sweetness one must first shell out one’s hard earned money to chew one’s way through the hardest foodstuff ever invented. As I gazed at this eternal truth before me it dawned on me there might be a shortcut. If someone else would throw themselves on the curly dispenser sword and buy the bag of CornNuts it would clear the path to the soft goodness without me having to endure the callous hardness of life.
I went back later in the day. Blast! Nobody had the guts or strength of character, not to mention the proper density strength of teeth, to sacrifice for the good of the rest of us. The CornNuts still lay between me and the peppermint patties.
Since I am trying to adhere to a budget I have only allotted the price of one snack treat per day. So here was my dilemma: I could use today’s money to by a lesser treat giving less fulfillment or I could buy the CornNuts thus surrendering my own daily pleasure for the sake of others or I could not buy anything, save today’s prearranged allocation of coinage so tomorrow I could buy the CornNuts and then immediately drop the next set of quarters into the machine, buying the peppermint soothing the pain of masticating my way through a crunch so loud it can drown out the laughter of children, the twitter of songbirds and all other sounds of elation known to mankind.
That is when it came to me. My wife actually likes CornNuts. I’ll go get her.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Buddy Can Ya Spare a Billion

It seems the economy is suffering through a bit of a down turn. This down turn is somewhat akin to falling off Mount Everest and landing near the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Look at the newspaper. Oh, I guess you already are. I mean look at the depressing parts of the newspaper. The government is doing more bailing out than a Hell’s Angels lawyer on New Year’s Eve.
Can anyone explain to me why banks need money? Banks are where money lives. Banks are to money as dairies are to milk. Banks are to money as Blockbuster is to DVDs. Banks are to money as the Kansas City Chiefs are to football players…okay, bad example, but you get what I mean.
The government has already committed $700 billion to bailout various financial institutions. If you laid 700 billion one dollar bills end to end the line would reach from Dodge City to the desert planet of Tatooine and continue to the planet Mongo returning to Dodge City with enough left over to get to Jetmore. Okay, I actually started to do the math for a real-life analogy but after figuring 700 billion one dollar bills come to over 4 trillion 200 billion inches of money I gave up.
Now the car companies want $25 billion in what I believe they are calling some sort of loan. So does Congress mail them a coupon book which has sixty little perforated pages asking for monthly payments of four hundred sixteen million, six hundred sixty-six thousand, six hundred sixty-six dollars and sixty-seven cents to be mailed to United States Capitol Building, Independence Avenue, Washington, DC 20001? (Quick digression: When looking for the mailing address of the Capitol Building I found out it is common to use the abbreviation SOB when sending things to United States Senators. At first I thought it was a strange version of truth in advertising until I found out it stood for Senate Office Building.)
One more mathematical juggling act. If the government took the $25 billion the car companies are asking for and divided it into checks of an equal amount they could give 833,333 people enough money to buy a new car, cash on the barrel head. That might boost the economy for a few folks.
Since the government is not likely to offer any of us a couple of billion dollars to get ourselves out of debt we will have to figure it out on our own. One thing used by many different companies and groups is to sell advertising rights.
Remember when sports teams played in venues with names like Memorial Stadium, Soldier Field, or Boston Garden? Now most teams have sold their souls, uh, sorry, now teams have sold the “naming rights” for their home fields. The Pittsburgh Pirates play baseball at PNC (a bank) Park. The Pittsburgh Penguins play hockey at Mellon (another bank) Arena. The Pittsburgh Steelers play football at Heinz (a condiment company) Field. I always thought there should by a 57 yard line at Heinz Field. (I used that joke in a column I wrote in 2004 but I still think it’s funny. I may be alone in that thought, but I do.)
A math teacher at Rancho Bernardo High School in California has latched on to this idea to pay for supplies he needs for his students. He has sold ad space on his quizzes and tests. This makes sense to the kids raised on Sesame Street. They go from toddlers who hear “today’s episode was brought to by the number 4” to high school kids who read “today’s calculus test is brought to you by Fantastic Sam’s Hair Salon.” The ad ought to read: “If you bomb the test you can get your parents off your back by getting that haircut your mom keeps bugging you about.”
If this catches on companies will target the demographic groups at whom to aim their ads. Vo-tech automotive tests will have ads for Pennzoil. Advanced trigonometry classes will have ads for Apple computers. English literature classes will have ads for McDonald’s because that is where liberal arts majors end up working.
I am willing to do this at a high level. I have no problem telling people the Pyles live in Dr. Pepper House. It would be fine with me if Viagra wanted to pay me to paint my car blue and plaster their logo all over it. For the proper price I am even amenable to have the registered trademarks of and Google tattooed on my forearms.

Christopher Pyle has made it obvious he can be bought. All that is left is to haggle over the price. To put in your bids e-mail him at

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Comedy Writers Fantasy Camp

When we left our intrepid reporter he was preparing to fly off to Los Angeles in pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge pertaining to the arcane arts of story, character and the ever so important punch-line. Okay, so that doesn’t really make me very intrepid. The only genuine danger I faced was leg cramps due to being shoe-horned into an airplane seat for hours.
Traveling is full of interesting moments. Airports contain a diverse collection of people. One of my favorite individuals from this trip was found in the boarding area of my connecting flight in Dallas. This guy was amazing. If he had shown up on the set of The Sopranos they would have sent him back to wardrobe to tone it down. His hair was lacquered into perfect swoops and curves doubling as a helmet in case someone wanted to hit him with a blunt object. His pinkie ring was large enough to conceal a pastrami sandwich. The diamond bracelet on his right arm matched well with the sparkling necklace he wore on the outside of his multi-colored open at the neck untucked shirt. When the attendant called over the intercom for a Mr. Dino Gianetti I am pretty sure mine was not the only pair of eyes to immediately swing in his direction. Yes, it was him. (Author’s note: the name was changed not to protect the innocent, but to protect me in case he was being moved into witness protection and I run the risk of being whacked for having seen him) He paused to shrug into his purple velveteen sport coat and ambled over to the desk to pursue his upgrade to first class. I was sorely tempted to approach him and ask, “Please say it. Just once. Can you please say baa-da-bing?”
Another unusual aspect of my travels actually made me feel safer. Some sort of military or law enforcement dog was on the plane with me. At least if we crashed were carrying our own survivor sniffing dog. I lingered close to the dog for a while before boarding so he cold get a good clean hit off the Classic Club Sandwich I’d eaten for lunch. If the worst came to pass I wanted the highly trained olfactory senses on that animal tuned in but good. I need him tearing around with just one thought in his canine brain… “bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon.”
The design of the weekend was to have us work as if we were really staff on a sitcom. A small group of actors performed a single scene. It was pretty bad. But it was bad on purpose so we had more of a task ahead of us as we re-wrote it. The guy running the seminar wrote it. He is very adept at writing good scenes as he has written for “MASH”, “Cheers”, and “Frasier” among other highly popular shows. He gave us this stink burger in order to hone our own skills.
Each group adjourned to their writer’s room complete with cookies and Diet Coke. My group worked with few breaks from around three in the afternoon to a little after midnight discussing story, character and sprinkling in funny bits. I have to admit it did not feel like nine hours dedicated to one task. If I’d spent that same time frame doing my real job it would have ended in an emergency room visit, either for the victim of my unhinged tirade or my own need for psychotropic meds to avoid attempts at self-immolation.
It was a great experience and since it is the Thanksgiving weekend I wish to thank some people. First, Mom, the original supporter of my odd hobbies and dreams, who helped with the financial burden and a forty-six year old man asking his mommy for money adds an embarrassment price to the monetary one. Next, I thank my wife for being the continuous support system for my inexplicable desire to be a writer which so far contributes $40 a month to our family budget. I thank Ken Levine and Dan O’Day for creating the experience worthy of the cash and self-esteem expenditures. I thank my group of fellow writers for teaching me things and causing frequent fits of laughter. Finally, I thank the staff at the Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurant a couple blocks from my hotel who made it possible for me to eat without having to sell my plasma to afford the hotel restaurant food.

Christopher Pyle was amazed to receive something akin to a fan letter from a genuine comedy writer, a guy who wrote for The Simpsons, after he read my blog post about the weekend. If you wish to deflate Chris’s ego please write to

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

There are different kinds of smart

Being called an intellectual is often thrown at people as an epithet. Think back to your school days. Was the “smartest” kid in class looked upon with respect and considered to be cool? My guess is “no”. Smart people are often the butt of jokes and the preferred target of bullies. Until they design a new software system and make more money in a three year period than the entire population of western Europe, excluding the Principality of Monaco (Prince Albert II is not only not in a can, the dude is stinking rich).
The definition of intelligence does change as the culture changes. Several years ago Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist who may have been beaten up as a child for being an egghead, put forth a theory he dubbed Multiple Intelligences. Professor Gardner listed seven kinds of intelligence. To boil down an entire career into a single sentence, different people are intelligent in different ways. Man, I did that quite easily and it didn’t take years of research and more money than Prince Albert II spends on yacht wax.
There are times I wish I had a different mode of intelligence than I have. I am about as useful around the house as a guy who likes to write eight hundred word humor columns for a newspaper is around the house. That was a crummy analogy. Maybe I don’t even have the linguistic intelligence I thought I had.
When I have a clogged drain I go down the street and enlist the help of my plumbing Zen Master, Warren, to get the water moving again. When I have computer issues I go to my computer whisperer Seth. Whenever I need help of an artistic nature I go to She of the Pen and Brush, Sarah. I do not feel bad about seeking their help. They have skills and are willing to share. The problem is I have no skill to pay them back.
Really, when will they possibly need to know such marvelous facts like 20% of all species of mammals are bats, the theme to the Batman television show starring Adam West was written by Neal Hefti who also wrote the soundtrack music to the film Lord Love a Duck starring Roddy McDowell, and if trying to traverse a large expanse of ice covered pavement it is best to imitate the way Roddy McDowell walked when performing in the Planet of the Apes movies (it really works, try it). That is the coin of the realm in my world. Pathetic isn’t it?
I was probably destined for this from an early age. When I got home from school in the afternoon I wanted to watch Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas on television. Many kids my age would have been playing in the backyard. Maybe building elaborate roads in the dirt or using a magnifying glass to immolate ants to pass the time. Others would be shooting baskets in the driveway or tossing the pigskin around the vacant lot. Not me.
One particular memory has me watching Merv and Red Skelton is a guest. He does a marvelous physical comedy routine which would not be considered politically correct these days about a guy advertising a brand of Gin and getting properly toasted as he drinks more and more of the product. I immediately went outside, turned on the hose to get a good supply of water, and proceeded to work for an hour or so to perfect the spit take.
This set of priorities stuck with me through my college years. My very first year at the University of Kansas I made sure my class schedule was constructed so I could walk home to my tiny apartment in the student slums in time to see the midday rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show on KSHB, Channel 41. Reading St. Augustine and Machiavelli in my Western Civilization class could wait. I had to get my education on prat falls and bald jokes.
Fast forward to now. I am a 46 year-old school administrator who writes jokes in a notebook he carries most everywhere he goes. But that is not all. I am about to climb on a plane and fly out to Los Angeles to participate in a seminar. Is it a seminar about reaching severely at-risk students? Is it a seminar teaching me the latest methods for improving reading comprehension across the curriculum? Nope. I am spending loads of money to be locked into a hotel ballroom learning how to write sitcoms from one of the guys who wrote for Cheers.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The News Just Keeps on Coming

The election is over. I have to admit I was a bit of a political junkie over the last several weeks. I found myself going to lots of different websites to load up on information. I listened to a bunch of podcasts from iTunes which center on various issues and aspects of the presidential campaign. The televisions in my house only receive three channels so I often stayed at work to watch cable networks as they examined and parsed every conceivable aspect of the upcoming vote.
There was definitely a point where I reached overdose status. The day before the election I settled into my chair and fired up the internet and found I did not have the energy to go to my bookmarked political sites. Before I even new what was happening I found myself on a sports website. It turns out obsessing on the presidential race had saved me from some emotional stress. How is that? I’m a Chiefs fan.
Like a Western European Hedgehog rousing itself after hibernating through a tough Finlandic winter I poked my head out of the political news cocoon I had surrounded myself with and found there was a whole world out there I had been oblivious to for some time.
I was going to use the more typical bear in my hibernation analogy, but one of the things I learned as I went whizzing around the non-politically interested internet was bears do not actually hibernate. Their metabolism does not sufficiently alter to qualify for true hibernation status. I am sure this will come as quite a surprise to Yogi and Boo Boo who will no longer need to swipe quite so many pic-a-nic baskets to sustain them through the Jellystone Park winters, much to Ranger Smith’s relief.
Here is one news item I had missed. The Swiss Constitution has been amended in order to protect a certain segment of the native population. This on the surface sounds very positive. It is almost always a good thing to have government stand up to protect the down trodden. The odd thing is this segment of the population can literally be trodden down. They were referring to plants.
The Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians (and I am quoting from the Wall Street Journal online here) “to establish the meaning of flora’s dignity.”
I am a pacifist by nature, but if remaining neutral and never having to worry about running a war means you now have to spend your time creating panels to discuss the inalienable rights of begonias I may have to re-think some things.
Before going on I have to take a moment and try to picture a conference room full of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians. What a wacky place it must be. The philosophers are in their corner arguing if the Hemlock plant feels guilt for the murder of Socrates. The lawyers are considering a class action lawsuit against John Deere on behalf of wheat. The geneticists are bunched up discussing how to engineer a rose by another name which truly does smell as sweet. Finally, the theologians are debating if they had been pre-destined to be stuck in this room, if it was a matter of man’s free will or if it was a little known circle of Hell.
What sort of conundrum does this pose for Swiss vegetarians? Think of the poor potato. Peeled, boiled, mashed, and slathered in butter all for the personal amusement of some hominid who shamelessly uses the fact that he possess a few measly things the potato doesn’t (central nervous system, powers of cognition, and opposable thumbs) to subjugate the entire race of Solanum tuberosum (for those of you who do not remember you Linnaean nomenclature that’s the Latin name for potato).
Since Florida does not have to spend this November recounting ballots one community is looking to deal with another problem. Deltona, Florida is concerned about too many bugs. To deal with this they are going to bring in a large number of bats. According to Bat Conservation International, a charter member of the Association of Groups Nobody Ever Thought Existed But Do, bats can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in an hour.
A neighboring city is now contemplating bringing a large number of owls to keep the bats from taking over their airspace. This is called the “Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” method of species control.
It truly is amazing what was going on in the world while I was spending all my time with Wolf Blitzer.

Christopher Pyle hopes the Swiss laws pertaining to plants are not retroactive. While visiting Hilterfingen Switzerland in 1982 he decapitated (a.k.a. picked) a flower.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Road to the White House or Trail of Tears

As of Friday October 31, 2008 there are 80 days left in the presidency of George W. Bush. Judging from his approval ratings there will not be many tears shed as he totes his last box of personal effects out of the Oval Office. Do you think ex-presidents swipe towels? I would at least make off with some office supplies.
We are less than a week away from the official Election Day deciding who goes into that office after him. Do you think a new president sits at the desk and spins around in the chair laughing maniacally only stopping long enough to pick up the phone and pretend to authorize an air strike on the home of the sixth grade teacher who told him he would never amount to anything as long as he had that attitude?
These candidates have been running longer than Frank Shorter ever dreamed possible. Think about it. Sen. Obama officially announced 633 days before Election Day and Sen. McCain officially announced 558 days ahead. In that time frame a woman could have conceived, carried to full term and given birth to a child, twice.
Here’s a fun story problem. Usain Bolt takes a magic potion (not steroids) which makes it possible for him to run as fast as he does in the 100m dash continuously. If you figure he can run a mile in about two and half minutes and he started running when Sen. Obama announced his candidacy how many times could he have run the entire equatorial circumference of the Earth? This is even better than the train questions in those college entrance exams.
The question which truly comes to my mind is “Why?” Why would anyone want to put themselves through running for president? I would almost rather run the circumference of the equator, in ill-fitting army boots. At least when you run around the planet the likelihood of being interviewed by Sean Hannity is not very great.
The press has to be the worst aspect of the whole thing. Originally the word “press” was used in regards to the media because of the printing press. Now “press” must refer to a different definition of the word: to use a steady and significant force to put weight on something. No matter which guy you are voting for you have to feel sorry for them both as they are asked question after question by everyone from Larry King to the Live at Five reporter who has the same knowledge of international affairs and current tax laws as does your average sock puppet.
I could never run for president. The first time some hatchet man from the opposing party started saying I did something I never did I would give a news conference which would make Peter Finch’s character from the movie Network look like Mahatma Gandhi.
For years I have said the people who really ought to be president will never run because they are too smart to put up with all the (place your own word to describe animal solid waste here) which surrounds the process. One of the reasons I say this is because of a different George W. I knew.
George W. Pyle was a city manager for over 30 years. A city manager is a non-elected person whose task it is to serve the public. There are probably a few readers out there who remember him in Hutchinson. I knew him pretty well. He was my dad.
He took the public trust very seriously and he worked tirelessly to do what was right for the people in his community. He came from a background which included the sacrifices made during The Depression and World War II, and the call to arms of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”
I know who he would vote for. He would vote for the candidate who was most likely to ask the country to work together for the good of everybody, most particularly the least of us. He would vote for someone who wasn’t afraid of asking for sacrifice even if it meant a little hardship now in order to ensure prosperity later. He would vote for someone who possessed intellectual curiosity, valued ideas and was looking for the opinion of others. Most importantly, he would vote and then he would do his best to make his part of the world a better place no matter who won.

I believe the answer to the Usain Bolt story problem is 46.

Friday, October 24, 2008

To Uni-Hemisphere Sleep, Perchance to Dream

For thousands of years various cultures have done many different things to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. Some are simple ceremonies and others cause many different parts of my body to tighten and my stomach to get queasy just having them described. I am very grateful the culture in Hutchinson, Kansas circa 1975, as I entered adolescence, did not require ritualistic scarification to be considered an adult; otherwise I would be a bearded, pot-bellied, gray-haired eighth grader still today.
As is often the case with the human race it seems to me this “now you are a man” stuff has been made more complicated than it needs to be. As a father of three and a former child myself I can easily point to the moment when children cross the line into maturity. It is when they start to sleep, voluntarily.
I fully realize toddlers cannot spell but they seem to think “nap” is a four letter word. The energy expended every day in this country by parents trying to cajole, beg, trick, force, and coax kids to just lie down and go to sleep far surpasses anything T. Boone Pickens ever dreamed of. If we could harness that domestic renewable resource the chant would go from “drill, baby, drill” to “naptime, baby, naptime”.
Recently I learned a bunch about sleep, a subject very dear to my heart. Every animal does it, but there are big differences in how. The reason for the various methods used by different animals in order to get sleep is simple, death. One scientist stated it is dangerous to sleep and if natural selection could have gotten rid of it it would have.
Think about it. You are a happy little mallard blithely napping on the shore of a happy little pond. When a happy (and hungry) little fox, who is very much awake, comes strolling by. Suddenly the happy duck is a happy meal without the toy.
Well, I learned mallards can sleep with one eye open. They actually rest one half of their brain at a time. Each eye is connected to the opposite hemisphere in the brain so the duck places itself in a group with other sleepy ducks. Some ducks watch one direction and different ducks watch the other way. This gives one half of the brain a right good snooze. Then they switch sides and the other half sleeps.
Another one of the many animals who does this “uni-hemisphere” sleeping is the dolphin. These animals live under water a good deal of the time. They also need to breathe air. They also need to sleep. Because of all of these factors a dolphin cannot go into complete sleep. They have to keep one half of their brain going at all times or they would drown.
Truthfully, I had never considered the fact that dolphins are conscious breathers. Unlike us they have to make a distinct decision to breathe. It requires thought. The obvious joke would be to say it is a good thing there aren’t any blonde dolphins, but luckily I would never make the obvious joke.
Smarter than me scientist guys explained that man can sleep with both eyes shut and truly go unconscious to the world around them because we do not have the predation risk most animals have. This started a long time ago when we would go into caves and hide from saber toothed tigers and continues today when we go into condos and hide from predacious sub-prime mortgage lenders.
This uni-hemisphere sleeping intrigues me. I love sleeping. I never get as much as I would like to get. Yet everything I do does not require my full attention. If I could sleep like a dolphin I would love to. There are meetings I have attended that I could easily grasp the content with one cranial hemisphere tied behind my back.
One last tidbit about sleep. It appears sleep is integral to learning. No, I am not suggesting kids sleep in class, even though I had a couple of social studies teachers who seemed to be trying to induce unconsciousness. As we sleep the brain gets “washed”. All the clutter from the day’s activities, important and trivial, is eroded. This leaves the ones which were most prominent still standing and the others all but unnoticeable.
Therefore the special maneuver you learned while playing Mortal Combat XXIX: The Revenge of the Torn Spleen for five hours remains fully remembered and the thirty minute discussion in school about Gandhi is washed away like crumbs off a plate. Wait a minute, that can’t be good.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It's Not What You Know It's When You Know

I may have mentioned this before, but I am surrounded by people who do not understand me. The previous statement was not made due to angst ridden self-absorption like a morose teenager. I truly mean they do not understand me.
My place of work houses over 500 people who were born fifteen years after I graduated from high school. Age has caught up to me in many ways. The waist measurement will never be 32 inches again. My hair is getting lighter in color and in weight. My knee twinges when the barometric pressure fluctuates. But, the times I feel the oldest are when I make references to things I think everybody will understand and they look at me like I just spoke in the language of the aboriginal inhabitants of Outer Mongolia.
Years ago I was teaching a sixth grade class. A kid in the back row was tapping his pencil on his desk, incessantly. I was able to ignore it for a while, but it finally got to me. Instead of racing to his desk taking the pencil from his hand and breaking it into tiny pieces, which is what I wanted to do, I stayed professional. I calmly put my hand on his shoulder and asked him to stop doing his Ringo Starr impression. I received that speaking Mongolian stare. Neither he nor anyone else in the class knew who Ringo Starr was so my statement made as much sense as asking him to carefully insert a lobster into each nostril.
I recently learned there is a phrase other than the over used “generation gap” to point out the different worlds in which different age groups live. It is called a “mindset”. This makes sense because the mindset people have is dictated by the world they know. There is a website published by Beloit College in Wisconsin which makes lists of things pertaining to students who would be graduating in the years 2002 to 2012. It makes for interesting reading.
Technology is the starkest difference between the generations. This is discussed at the website, but I am reminded of another instance I came across as a teacher. This was many years ago. We were doing a fire safety lesson with fourth graders and in order to make it more physical we had the students do actions for the different things one should do in case of a fire. They would actually stop, drop and roll. They would crawl a short distance to show them how they should move in a smoky house. Then we had them run a short distance (as in getting to a neighbor’s house). The last thing was to pretend to call 9-1-1.
This was downright funny. The kids would be in a lather as they did all the physical activities and then they would come sprinting up to the phone we had sitting on a chair for them to make their emergency phone call. They would grasp the receiver and their pointer finger would be poised over the dial. The dial?! They had no idea how to “dial” a phone. They had only seen buttons. There was that Mongolian look again.
Stop and think about the most memorable things in your lifetime, the cultural things, not just your first date with that hot girl from algebra class. Kids going into college this past fall do not have the same collective unconscious we had. They can’t discuss where they were when Kennedy was shot, when Reagan was shot, or even when J.R. was shot. For them the argument has always been Mac versus PC, not Ford versus Chevy. A text is a group of letters on a tiny screen not the book you have to read for history class. These people have no idea why whenever there is a controversy in the world we tack on the suffix “-gate”.
Personally, I look to one very particular aspect of my life that my children will not experience. It is not earth-shattering, deeply philosophical or something that will be discussed by historians in the 22nd century, but I think it is representative of how the world has changed. They do not get to watch Johnny Carson each night.
The persona of Carson showed kindness, intelligence and humor. These traits are not played up nearly enough in the mass media of today. There is more interest in Simon Cowell, political knife fights (still only figurative and verbal, but it could turn literal very easily), and jokes about human effluvia. The mindset has changed.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Being Articulate and Stuff

I like to learn things. Let me put a qualifier on that. I like to learn some things. Learning how to properly eviscerate a large woodland creature for the sake of crawling into the fresh cavity in order to avoid freezing to death on the frozen tundra of an area of the world from which one can see Russia, is of no interest. Learning how to use such phrases as “properly eviscerate” and “frozen tundra” in the same sentence is. Now, if I could only learn how to add the phrase “a touch of whimsy” to the same sentence I would feel truly fulfilled.
Education was highly valued in my family. This did not mean my folks fussed about grades or cracked a whip as we did homework. My mother did try to help me. The difficulty for my mother was not the work. It was the attention level of her pupil, who could often be found playing with the honey filled bear left on the kitchen table while she slaved over quadratic equations. She learned algebra. I learned if you squeeze the bear just right the little plastic stopper can reach gravitational escape velocity.
Since the job which allows me to pay my mortgage is in education I probably shouldn’t say this, but maybe I can get some of that bailout money if I get fired. My father used to say school was ancillary to education. The very fact that he used the word “ancillary”, properly, in a sentence reinforces the fact that smart was important to him. I think he meant school is important for getting a good education, but if you only actively try to learn within the confines of those ubiquitous blond brick buildings you will not be a fully educated person.
Learning new words has always been a pursuit of mine, in and out of school. I like finding words which really express something in a very precise way. The French have term for this. I think it is “c’est la guerre”. Nope, that’s wrong. Maybe, “pate de foie gras”? That’s not it. I need just the proper word, the perfect fit, le mot juste. Oh, well, I guess I’m not going to remember.
People who try to throw words around in order to put lipstick on a pig (sorry couldn’t resist) bug me. The other day I was at a meeting and there was a whole set of things we were to do. One of them was to write down our thoughts on a “tuning protocol”. I found out that was a piece of paper divided into categories. After that we were to spend some time on “silent reflection”. Back in my day we simply called it “thinking”.
I learned a new word earlier this week reading the New York Times online. This electronic newspaper has the coolest feature. If you’re reading an article and you come across a word you do not know (which is to be expected while reading the big city left-wing elitest press) you can simply double click on the word and a screen pops up with a dictionary entry giving the pronunciation and definition of the word. If only those Green Lantern comics I read in my youth did that. The word I learned was “lacuna”.
Lacuna means an empty space or a missing part. The word was used to describe a certain politician’s gap in knowledge. Now you may ask of what use is it to know this word? Well, it was immediately obvious to me how I could use it. I could write the William F. Buckley version of a song from a Disney movie. It would be all about the voluminous empty spaces where intelligence should lie in the world of politics. A song telling the story of no WMDs, a missing Osama Bin Laden, and politicians who seem surprised that CEOs of big corporations could be greedy. I would call the song “Lacuna Matata”. No smarts, no worries.
It just doesn’t seem the general population values intellect. The word intellectual is used as an epithet. The dictionary in my computer says the word means: having a highly developed ability to think, reason, and understand. Call me crazy, but that sounds like something to aspire towards. But, no, intellectuals are thought of as pocket protector geeks only good for programming your TiVo, working on particle colliders in Switzerland, and being an expert witness in the trial of the cool guy in class who embezzled millions of dollars to maintain his trophy wife and jet setting lifestyle.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fifty States of Mind

We always say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Actually, we don’t always say that. If we always said that we would be really crummy conversationalists.
“Hey, Jim, what do you think of the presidential candidates?”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“OK, Jim, what about the financial situation the United States is facing?”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Well, where do you want to eat tonight, Jim?”
“You can’t judge, ooowwww…”
Jim did not finish that sentence because his friend just gave him a swift kick in the shin and walked away muttering something about judging a friend by his intelligence.
Anyway, it is fairly common for people to prejudge things. Sometimes that way of thinking makes sense. If a man walks up to you wearing a leather jacket, a patch over one eye, boots with spikes capable of ruining Ben Hur’s chariot, and a tattoos of a skull and crossbones on one shoulder and the phrase “Waterboarding is for Sissies” on the other, chances are he is not going to ask you if you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior. Chances are more likely you are about to meet your personal savior.
One way people judge each other has to do with where a person calls home. Admit it. If you ask a stranger where they are from and they answer Scranton, Pennsylvania you will draw different conclusions about them than if they answer San Francisco, California.
A recent study discussed in an article in the Wall Street Journal seems to say there are things one can assume about a person who comes from a particular place in the country. A research scientist from the University of Cambridge in England (this immediately brings to mind a stereotypical tweed wearing, meerschaum pipe smoking, crumpet eating, Shakespeare quoting, aesthete who tips the machismo scale somewhere between Clay Aiken and that kid you knew in eighth grade who was the target of choice in every single dodgeball game ever played) has put together information from over 600,000 questionnaires in order to tell the “personality” of each of the fifty states.
These questionnaires measured what is called the “Big Five”. The five personality traits defined are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. Can you imagine a person strong in all five? I’m sure after you imagine a person like that you can easily imagine yourself resisting a powerful urge to slap him across the face because he would be more annoying than fingernails on a chalk board and Dennis Miller, combined.
Just like people, no state was strong in all five areas. Extraversion sounds like it is the director’s cut of a movie on DVD, but it really refers to the outgoing nature of a person. The number one state for this was North Dakota. There will now be a slight pause as all readers go: “Huh… North Dakota?” My guess is in North Dakota there isn’t much else but each other to occupy one’s time.
The winner amongst the fifty states for agreeableness is North Dakota. I am starting to smell a conspiracy here. Is it possible the Cambridge researcher was given a sizable bribe to make North Dakota sound like a wonderful, friendly place to live thus increasing its population and making South Dakota insanely jealous?
The top state in the conscientiousness department is North…just kidding, New Mexico. This is also the only personality trait for which Kansas made the top five. This is no surprise. Kansans pride themselves on their sense of duty and self-discipline. This might explain why we don’t score very highly in the two remaining categories.
Kansas is 34th in neuroticism and 38th in openness. Neuroticism measures things like stress and anxiety. (Digression for an old joke: A psychotic person thinks two plus two is five. A neurotic person knows two plus two is four, but hates it.) Well, we Kansans have too much self-discipline to allow ourselves to be anxious. That and a very high per capita intake of Prozac.
Being 38th in openness must be a surprise. There cannot possibly be thirty-seven states with more open spaces than we have. Wait. When this study says openness they mean openness to new ideas. We can be a bit set in our ways. The majority of Kansas voters voted for a Democratic presidential candidate forty-four years ago, a Democratic senator seventy-six years ago and each election still has a number of write-in votes for Eisenhower. We still like Ike.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

From Monogamous Mice to Androgynous Anchovies

Many scientists are reporting that Genes may be even more influential to how humans behave than was previously thought to be the case. I can kind of see what they mean. Gene Rayburn hosted my favorite game show, Match Game. Gene Kelly was one of the best dancers ever. Gene Simmons has one of the longest tongues ever. Gene Moore is considered the top window dresser of the 20th century. (I did not make that up. I found it on Wikipedia.) But I fail to see how these giants in their fields influence all of human behavior.
What’s that? Oh, I feel somewhat embarrassed. It is not “Genes” its genes. Genes are those tiny little doohickeys hanging out within our DNA which lay out the blueprint for the building of people. Back in the 1800’s a scientist guy named Gregor Mendel studied inheritance in pea plants and hypothesized about how traits are passed from parent to offspring. Most the time this concept was simply applied to what color a kid’s eyes would be due to the eye color of the parents. Do you remember doing those Punnet Squares in tenth grade biology? I hated those things.
It seems the more we learn about genes and how humans are hard-wired the more it becomes clear we really don’t know how much influence they have over many more nuanced aspects of who we are. A recent study done by a group of Swedish scientists discusses how a certain gene in men can lead to having better marriages.
This relationship enhancing gene is in charge of modulating the hormone vasopressin. The word “vasopressin” is from an archaic East Indian language and translates to “one who admits he is wrong even when he is not”. Okay, I made that up. It really means “one who considers having power over the remote control a god given right”. I made that up, too.
The thing is all this stuff I’m making up is not all that strange compared to the real story. The scientists first became tuned into this gene and the attendant hormone while studying voles. Voles? I had to run to Wikipedia yet again.
Voles are rodents. Great, when deciding what to study in order to get an insight into how men do well or not in a long-term relationship scientists look to rodents. I’m offended. I mean voles are not even tough rodents. Why couldn’t it have been capybaras? They are rodents with attitude, weighing in at over 170 pounds. But, no. They had to go and compare us to male voles. Animals that have a list of predators longer than the list of people who want to slap Britney Spears. They do not even grow bigger than seven inches long, and here’s the kicker, the female is larger than the male. That might explain why a vole is monogamous. She can kick his short hairy tail.
Here is a direct quote from the article as it appeared on the Yahoo News webpage. “They (the researchers) found that men with a certain variant, known as an allele, of the vasopressin 1a gene, called 334, tended to score especially low on a standard psychological test called the Partner Bonding Scale. They were also less likely to be married than men carrying another form of the gene. And carrying two copies of the 334 allele doubled the odds that the men had undergone some sort of marital crisis over the past year.”
Well. I have only one thing to say to that. Huh?
The very next day after I read about rodents being a “vole” model for men committed to their relationship I read another scientific report. This report talked about how all those chemicals man keeps pumping into the environment have effects on genes. Pair that with what I just learned about the importance of genes in regards to how people function and this news is as frightening as one of those John Stossel reports on 20/20.
The scientific genius guy reporting in this article said the chemicals leaking out into the water supply are likely the reason why many fish species are mutating. How are they mutating? They are developing both male and female sex organs. That’s quite a mutation.
If this phenomenon expands to humans there is a bright side. Men with the 334 allele will have a better chance of maintaining a long term relationship if it is with himself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To Be Paid in Kind

Whenever a person takes up pen and paper (or, in a more contemporary tone, keyboard and laserjet) it is known to the author the message he is trying to impart has probably been done. I realize what I have to say has been said before. We have John Milton, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Mel Brooks. I cannot possibly measure up to their skills. This does not mean I am going to give up.
One of those great writers was Henry James. He was a brilliant man from a family of great thinkers. He wrote over twenty novels not to mention numerous novellas, criticisms, journals and plays. I have read almost none of his stuff, but I still think I can accurately say the best thing he ever wrote was the following: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
I am going to put my spin on what Mr. James said because I fear kindness is as common in everyday life as Big Macs are at a convention of Vegans. Okay, I’m dabbling in hyperbole when I say that. I do see acts of kindness on a regular basis. Working at a school affords me opportunities to see children do small acts of kindness, teachers take extra time to help a kid grow, and counselors go above and beyond the call of duty to make a kid feel better about himself.
This week I was an audience member for a presentation from a group known as Rachel’s Challenge. This group was named for an extraordinary young lady who was a victim of the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado. I am already straying too far from my job as a humor writer so I will spare you the horrible details. Luckily, the bulk of the message revolved around her outlook on life and how acts of kindness can make a difference in people’s lives. The chief hope of this program is that getting others to chip in with acts of kindness will create a chain reaction, snowballing until kindness becomes the norm instead of the anomaly.
I truly believe kindness is the most valuable character trait for people I want to spend time with and the one I try hardest to impart to the next generation. The fear which is growing in me is people will see that the antithesis of kindness gets people what they want. The chain reaction this behavior sets into motion is dangerous.
I recently listened to a lecture by Phillip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and the author of the book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He discussed how situational and systemic factors can make people behave in awful ways they would not think of doing if the environment was different. He specifically looked at prisons and the horrific behaviors at Abu Ghraib.
If you look around it seems the situational and systemic factors most prevalent are impolite if not downright mean-spirited. I just read an article on the CNN website about the presidential election. 15 paragraphs into the article they started talking about education after getting all the important sniping and downright lying taken care of first. I have liberal leanings so there may be a smattering of partisan prejudice, even though I try not to do so, but the Republican convention seemed chock full of sarcastic comments and invectives. The Democrats took their share of shots at their opponents, but it didn’t seem to be as bitter or nasty.
Political talk on Fox and MSNBC is angry far too much of the time. I have never missed John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite, and David Brinkley so much in my life. If Edward R. Murrow tunes his astral television (even better than Hi-def) to present day television news there wouldn’t be enough cigarettes or bourbon in the world to get the bad taste out of his mouth.
Reality television trades on the worst of people. Duplicitous behaviors can win you a million dollars (as well as eating bugs and foregoing personal hygiene for weeks on end). If Big Brother is watching he is watching people stab others in the back. If you want to be just like Donald Trump I think it is time to reexamine your value set.
This country should be a beacon of humanity. Instead it spends too much time peddling pettiness and impoliteness. That is not who we are, but it could be who we become.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Life Isn't Always Fair

The next ten days are a big deal for Hutchinson. There will be tractor pulls, arm wrestling contests, chainsaw artists, pigs racing and pigs just standing around, bands who last hit the Billboard charts in 1986, a performer who had his first top ten hit when you could still buy 8-track tapes and a performer who was born seventeen years after that song was on the charts. The Kansas State Fair is off and running.
I grew up in Hutchinson so the Fair is part of my earliest memories. The very first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Fair, not something their PR guys would want me to say, is mud. It always seemed to rain during the Fair. The second thing is road signs. The first real hint the Fair was coming was when I was walking home from Roosevelt Elementary School there would be sign posts with no signs. The city would put up “No Parking” signs on several streets close to the fairgrounds, but the posts would go up before the signs were added.
We lived close enough we would be serenaded by the dulcet tones of race car engines on weekends and we could catch occasional bars of music wafting over the treetops from the rock groups at the Grandstand. We also lived close enough I could easily walk there. This meant when I got old enough to go without parental escort I could do so without even asking for a ride. Asking for money? Yes. A ride? No.
My best friend, Rob, and I would go to the Fair. As was the case in many aspects of our friendship, he was the adventurous one and I was not. He wanted to go on the rides which would make Alan Shepard throw up. I did not. He would talk to long-haired men with tattoos chiding us to play their midway games. I would not. He would actually get the little crane thing to grab a prize and drop it through the little door which meant it was now yours. I would not. The crane thing isn’t really all that adventurous; it’s just another example of his fair going skill and my lack thereof.
Another thing Rob loved about the Fair more than I did was free stuff. He would load up on giveaways from businesses and political candidates like it was pirate treasure. Once Rob loaded up on stuff at the Democratic Party booth. The Republican booth got more trade so the Democrats probably didn’t mind. Anyway, he got a bunch of bumper stickers which simply read “Glickman” for no other reason than we both thought the name was funny. We didn’t know at the time that little known Glickman guy would go on to become the Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, the group who brings us the Oscars and decides if a movie has too many dirty words to be rated G.
When I was in high school I worked on the school newspaper so I was actually able to attend press conferences for two performers in the Grandstand: Bill Cosby and Red Skelton, two giants of the comedy world who are personal heroes of mine. As stated above, I am not adventurous so I didn’t say anything, but I do have framed on my office wall Red Skelton’s autograph and a picture of a much skinnier, bad hair wearing Chris Pyle sitting quite close to a comedic genius. Awfully cool.
I haven’t been back to the Fair much since I moved out of the family home. I will be taking my ten-year-old son there this weekend. I am looking forward to a few things. I want to see the place through ten-year-old eyes again, even if it is vicariously through George’s reactions. I want to get free stuff from booths in the Sunflower Building. I want to see a gigantic sculpture made from butter. I would really like to get a candied apple, but the last time I went you could only get the caramel kind. Some government watchdog probably found the glass like candy substance used to encase the fruit was carcinogenic, darn them. It’s food on a stick. It’s not supposed to be good for you. I’ve never seen a Pronto Pup represented on any food pyramid, yet they haven’t stopped selling those.

P.S. They had candied apples. I bought one. It tasted...horrible. You can't recapture those halcyon days of one's youth.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lack of Generation Gap Backfires

I am lucky in many ways. One way I’m lucky is my children don’t listen to music I hate. Oh, sure, there was a time I was forced to listen to insipid children’s music when we went on car rides to Grandma’s house. There was a Barney tape (remember the purple dinosaur) I would have paid to have ground into barely visible dust by an eighteen wheeler on the turnpike during one trip to Missouri. But since they outgrew that stage it has surprised me what they choose.
A few months ago I saw Emilyjane (the oldest kid) downloading a song from iTunes. As I crept up to look over her shoulder I expected to see a picture of some overly pierced, weird-haired performer who sings about truly depressing things or a large man with his hat on backwards and more jewelry than all the Gabor sisters combined. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a picture of a very wholesome lady in a turtleneck sweater. It was Rosemary Clooney. Yep, the co-star of White Christmas and a hit machine in the 1950’s was going to reside in my 15-year-old daughter’s iPod. I’m sorry, but how cool is that?
Alice (the middle kid) also spends some of her time in the 50’s. She is an Elvis fan. She is not a fanatic with maps of Graceland pasted all over her walls and velvet paintings of the young sexy Elvis in black leather and the older, tubby Elvis in the white leather and sequins adorning her bedroom. She likes his music. She also listens to the Monkees and the Go-Go’s (who were basically the Monkees with estrogen).
George (the youngest) was involved in the high school production last year of “The Music Man” and has developed a liking for musicals. Recently I downloaded Ron Moody singing “Reviewing the Situation” from “Oliver” to share with him.
They all listen to other things which are more hip. I have just shown my un-hip-ness by using the word “hip”. Maybe I should say they listen to musicians who are more “fresh”, “sweet”, “clean”, or whatever other adjective stolen from detergent commercials they are using today to describe modern, popular cra…uh, stuff. Anyway, they do listen to some of today’s music but I don’t think they listen to music I, like so many out of touch generation gap dwellers before me, refer to as devil-worshipping-boom-de-boom music.
As is so often the case for parents, this point of pride has turned to bite me in the wallet. Emilyjane has a wicked crush on Michael Buble. He is a thirtysomething big band, swing singer in the mold of Sinatra or more recently Harry Connick Jr. Well, Buble is going to have a concert in Wichita. This is where the fact she prefers this kind of music backfires on me.
She really wants to go, and I do not have the A #1 arguments to combat her going. I cannot say his music will rot your brain (I do not have any of Buble’s albums but my Frank, Dean and Sammy albums have many of the same songs). Nor can I claim the audience will be full of recidivist sociopaths looking to turn her into just another tattooed wastrel. Ergo, she is going and I am paying.
Since the last concert ticket I purchased was for Billy Joel (in 1978) I had no idea how expensive tickets were. The only feeble counter attack I had to the pretty brown eyes staring up at me asking to go was the cost. I said, thinking this might actually dissuade her, “Those tickets are going to be really expensive. I bet they are as much as $40.” I thought I was exaggerating in order make her realize what a bite it would be. Not only didn’t it work, it made it more depressing for me when I found out how much they really did cost.
That is a story unto itself. The first attempt to buy tickets showed the cheapest ones were $124. At this point I was prepared to tell my daughter that I did not love her enough to sell one of my kidneys in order to afford the ticket and the gas to get to Wichita. After an hour long rant, out loud and via e-mail, about how too many people are just greedy *#&@#^% making it impossible for normal everyday working guys to send their kids to concerts, we found the proper website to buy the tickets. They were just (gulp) $66 dollars a piece.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Going for the Gold...naaahh

The Olympics are starting to wind down. We have all witnessed fast people (runners and swimmers), strong people (shot putters and weightlifters), all-around athletes (basketball players and gymnasts), and people with amazing endurance (marathon runners and those who watch Bob Costas for hours on end). The dedication shown by these athletes as they set aside all else to reach the very pinnacle of their chosen sport is unbelievable. The entire Olympiad is a testament to the over-arching ambition present in the human race. Something I completely do not have.
I realize the Olympics are populated by individuals from all over the world, but I think this drive to be the best at something is taken to the greatest extreme in the United States. I am not just saying this because it was American Michael Phelps who won so much gold it caused him to keep looking over his shoulder in fear of a bowler hat wearing oriental assassin. The preceding sentence was not some racist dig, but rather an overly obtuse reference to the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. Remember Oddjob trying to knock over Fort Knox? Anyway, everywhere you look in America things are only seen to be truly valuable if they are the best.
At the end of every calendar year newspapers and magazines are awash in Ten Best Lists: the Ten Best Movies, the Ten Best Television Shows, the Ten Best Books, even the Ten Best Weird Band Names (my new favorite is Lady Chatterley’s Hamster). What’s next The Ten Best Entrees Made Mostly out of Vegetables Which Can Grow Larger than Your Head? (Hey, that might be a good name for a band.)
I have no problem if Usain Bolt wants to push himself to run 100 meters like he is being chased by rabid cheetahs on meth. (Digression: The only name better than Usain Bolt for a sprinter might be Usain Spastic Colon.) My concern is this continuing drive to be the best will lead to more people doing things which are dangerous and/or stupid to get there.
The use of steroids is the top example of the perversion of becoming the best. Some guys want to hit a baseball farther than anybody else, which means somebody named Steinbrenner is willing to give them more money than oil company executives spend on campaign contributions. It doesn’t matter that taking steroids not only causes leather wrapped spheroids to fly out of ballparks, but also causes one’s left ventricle to thicken leading to cardiac arrhythmia, one’s liver to malfunction, and even a wicked case of acne, as long as they can whack that ball.
In the kinder gentler days of the fifties if a guy wanted to be the best baseball player he didn’t ingest fake testosterone. He just sold his soul to the devil who looked a lot like My Favorite Martian. The chief side effect of that was Gwen Verdon in silk stockings danced around you. Compare the side effects and it’s no contest. (For the people in the audience who are completely confused put Damn Yankees on your Netflix queue.)
This preoccupation with the idea of the “best” can have other drawbacks. This is most obvious to me in regards to technology. Think about the world before cell phones. In order to have people call you you had to be near a fixed point phone. Now the technology is such a device, not any bigger than a deck of cards, can be strapped to your belt making it possible for your boss to get in touch with you in the car, in the park, in the bathroom to ask you a question about that big presentation which you did not finish because you spent the last three hours at the office playing internet Scrabble.
This land of ours was built on a precept of individual achievement. We are supposed to be the place where anybody can grow up to be president. (Unfortunately, that has been proven true on more than one occasion.) Constantly striving to be the best drove the actions of many famous Americans. What I would like to point out is the Constitution also says the “pursuit of happiness” is important to us. Well, the first synonym of “happy” my computer volunteers is “content”. Content can mean satisfied with things as they are. I think there are times we should pursue leaving things as they are in order to make things the best.
What is my proof? Anne Murray’s recording of The Monkees song Daydream Believer.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Brain Hurts

I have been having frequent headaches the last month or so. I don’t know what the reason might be. It could be stress from my job. It could be the fact I have cut down my caffeine intake precipitously. It could be I need new glasses. It could be the little man sitting between my ears running all the different communication systems to the rest of my body is pursuing a musical career which has him using my skull as a steel drum playing the entire Jimmy Cliff oeuvre.
I went to the eye doctor to see if my glasses needed to be adjusted. As many people have found after passing a certain age looking at small things becomes more and more difficult. It started with the tiny print on medicine bottles. Then the print in regular books became blurry. Then faces in photographs were hard to identify. Then my youngest child started to appear fuzzy.
Glasses became part of my daily life several years ago. I have upped the power more than once and the previous visit to the optometrist moved me into the wonderful world of trifocals. All of us with trifocals know the most dangerous thing in the world is no longer taunting Dick Cheney, but rather walking quickly down stairs whilst wearing trifocals. Coordinating the distance between your foot and the next step takes more algorithms and geometric theorems than NASA uses figuring the exact launch place and time so its space probe will pass the dejected former planet, Pluto.
Anyway, I decided to go to the eye doctor. I peered into a number of little machines. One of them has little fluttery blobs which indicate how good my peripheral vision is. Peripheral vision is not as important as it used to be. No longer do men have to be able to perceive as wide a field of vision in order to avoid predators. No we just use it to peer at attractive women without making it obvious to our wives we are doing so (or so I’ve heard).
If the eyes truly are the window to a man’s soul those machines have mapped out my soul pretty well. I wonder if the eye doctor sits in his office after hours and giggles at the fact the deepest essence of my being spends a lot of time contemplating whether life is truly better with an afternoon nap or a trip to Dairy Queen.
The outcome of my trip was making each sector of my trifocals more powerful. The good doctor used a poster on the wall showing the interior of a human eye to explain what was happening. He pointed to one particular place and said it was becoming thicker and less flexible as I grew older. If there was one spot I thought might be able to avoid the thickening and becoming less flexible which has struck most every place else on my body, it would be the inside of my eyeball. What’s next? A fat and creaky uvula?
Being healthy for everyone is not as easy as it used to be. When I was a kid people were always encouraged to spend time in the great outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are just what the doctor ordered. Well, now going out in the sunshine requires SPF 37 (also known as a sweater) and the air in some parts of the world has to be chewed before it can make its way down to the lungs.
Recent reports of a scientific study on diet now calls into question a food which was previously thought to be healthy. The report stated the consumption of tofu could lead to dementia. Here, I always thought it was the other way around.
One of my best friends is a very serious vegetarian. He makes fabulous vegetarian meals. However, there was one time he served tofu hot dogs. In an attempt to be polite I tried to eat it. Then in an attempt to be polite I tried to hide it. The family dog was no help. Even he realized this meat imposter was about as enticing as cauliflower stuffed with lima beans.
Another scientific study shows spinach, even though it is a great source of Riboflavin, can lead to elephantine forearms which may be wonderful for showing off large anchor tattoos, but make it nearly impossible to find shirts which fit.
Okay, that last study about spinach. I made it up. I know it is irresponsible journalism. I hope I didn’t frighten anyone. I apologize but, I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam. Nyah, nyah, nyah.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The alchemy and science of words

Words are magic. I am not just talking about Abracadabra, Open Sesame, or Expelliarmus. Words have magic in them. Creating words by calling out one letter at a time is called s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g, spelling. Which sounds remarkably like what witches of the west, and any other direction, have been doing for years: casting a spell.
Stephen Pinker is a Harvard professor and the author of books about language and how people approach it. In his book “The Stuff of Thought” Mr. Pinker says “… one of the foundations of linguistics is that the pairing between a sound and a meaning is arbitrary, most humans intuitively believe otherwise.” People tend to think words contain some of the essence of what they represent. This idea contributes to the world of dirty words. (And why nobody is supposed to say “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter books.)
When you think of words you shouldn’t say in the presence of your grandmother many of them pertain to…how shall I put this…bodily by-products. It turns out there is a very understandable reason why so many of these words cause discomfort. If a word contains some of the essence of what it represents it follows people want to avoid such terms. The actual “waste” is a likely place for germs and pathogens so people have been hard-wired by evolution to avoid contact with the actual “product”. So, just the words can cause a similar visceral reaction.
There is an organ in the brain which helps with this reaction. The amygdala invests memories with emotion. These little almond shaped do-hickeys light up big time when we peak at people’s brains as they are exposed to emotionally unpleasant images, even words, especially taboo words.
This is part of the brain I, as the father of teenaged girls, need to harness. I would like to make other words push those little amygdala buttons causing a sense of revulsion. Here are a few words I would put on the list: allowance, texting, mini-skirt, backseat, and Victoria’s Secret. I suppose I shouldn’t leave out my ten year old boy. His list of words would include: allowance, Wii, rap music, and more pets.
Mr. Pinker describes how maledicta (fancy Harvard term for curse words) do have a place in our vocabulary. Using them can be cathartic. Walking to the bathroom at two in the morning one invariably finds the missing lego blocks with one’s bare feet. Saying “I do so wish young Ronald would put his toys away properly” does nothing to ease the pain. Whereas, saying words which are easily recognized by stevedores, sailors and stand-up comics truly helps deal with the throbbing.
So, the next time you find an Indonesian mountain weasel has attached himself to your earlobe using only his incisors and your wife chastises you for letting loose with a stream of maledicta in front of the children, you need to elucidate upon the “rage circuit theory”, which explains the emotional release accomplished by utilizing taboo words (loudly) helps deal with sudden unpleasantness.
Here is another new word I learned: dysphemism. I had heard of euphemism, a word used in place of another more offensive word. People do this all the time. An example would be saying “pig fertilizer” instead of the less socially acceptable “works of Corey Feldman.” Anyway, a dysphemism is a word which is less acceptable purposely used to play up the negative aspects.
There are times it makes no sense to sugar coat something. It is important the audience understands the gravity of the situation. An example of this would be when there is an impending happening of cataclysmic proportions. It would not be right to simply tell possible victims there might be an uncomfortable situation in the offing if in fact they are going to be forced to watch a twelve hour marathon of “Three’s Company” episodes, especially if they are from the Mr. Furley years.
Words have power while sounds do not. Your brain is an amazing contraption. It has instant reactions to sounds which are connected to ideas and pretty much ignores sounds that do not. I can shout “purdel” from the roof tops and even though it sounds like a word it will illicit no other reaction than mild puzzlement from people hearing me. But on the other hand, if I go to the roof and yell “melon baller” I will illicit major puzzlement from people wondering why I am teetering on the edge of a building crying out the name of a handy kitchen implement.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Loading up the Family Truckster

For generations families have stepped out of their comfort zones. They’ve taken stock of their finances, packed their belongings and ventured forth into an unknown section of the world and a whole different dynamic of familial relationships. I am, of course, speaking of the Family Vacation.
There have been big evolutionary changes in most aspects of this rite of passage. It is no longer Ma and Pa strapping the water barrels to the side of the Conestoga, wedging sacks of flour between the cradle holding little sister and the small keg of gunpowder, and hoping to get to Grandma’s house before the snow started flying. Modern travel is characterized by each individual in the car being wrapped in a cocoon of personal space aided by the technology of iPods, portable DVD players, specially designed neck pillows filled with heated therapeutic granules and potpourri, and Dad praying they get to Grandma’s house before the power supply for the electric doodads has been drained, requiring actual interaction amongst the occupants of the minivan.
I may just be a typical overly nostalgic middle-aged person, but I think many aspects of the family trips I took as a kid surpass the hyper-technological, safety first travel of the early 21st century. As I have stated before in these pages, I am pro car seat. My children were always wedged into a great tightness, like Pooh in Rabbit’s front door, as we drove anywhere, often to their chagrin. In contrast, in my youth we did not have the rules or even the availability of anything beyond a lap belt in the back seat. The four Pyle siblings would bounce around the interior of the station wagon like free range potato chips in their airy bags before the communistic sameness and compactness of the Pringles can car seats and seat belts were imposed upon us all.
How many of you remember those pre-minivan station wagons, with the inexplicable fake wood paneling on the side (was it supposed to resemble an English professor’s den)? There was a bench seat in front and another one behind it. Beyond that lay an expanse of metal and plastic which was perfect for spreading out an unzipped sleeping bag, a plethora of pillows, a supply of cookies, G.I. Joes, and Danny Dunn, boy scientist, books in order to pass the time. (For girl memories, substitute Barbie and Trixie Belden into the preceding sentence.)
The memories I carry of our family trips have Dad behind the wheel wearing one of those porkpie golf hats, often of a purposefully ugly color, with his elbow crooked out the open window. I was sitting right next to Dad with my oldest brother, George, sitting in the front passenger seat to my right. He wore a military hat which looked like the one Fidel Castro was always seen wearing. (Which was odd, because George may be the least militaristic person I have ever known.) Mom (with no hat) sat behind Dad. Not in some subordinate role, but rather to handle all responsibilities which required more than one hand or taking one’s eyes of the road, i.e. handing out Space Food Sticks and drinks from the thermos of water or tending to the child who was car sick or felt slighted by a barb from another sibling. The baby sister, Mary, would be sitting in the back seat with Mom. The “Back Back” which is what we called the furthermost recesses of the vehicle would be inhabited by number two son, Eric.
There was no technology used. We very seldom even turned on the radio. There was conversation and no fear at all of silence. I believe my dad liked the silence for two reasons. The first reason is the obvious desire for a calm environment in which to drive. The other benefit was if it had been particularly quiet for twenty to thirty miles he would, with no warning, reach out and slap my thigh. He used a cupped hand which did not cause any discomfort, but added optimum volume making sure the surprise was felt throughout the car, not just on my thigh.
This week I will be the guy with the ugly hat, hanging my arm out the window taking my family on a road trip. None of my kids sit close enough to me to slap thighs. I can, however, speed up just enough to cause a kid’s hand to jump as he/she brings a drink to his/her lips putting a dollop or two of water right down the shirt (another trick of the “dad trade” left to me by my father).

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Dad by Any Other Name Would Still be Clueless

I am not the first person to be a dad. That may have been the most patently obvious statement ever. Right up there with phrases like “It can get a little windy in Kansas” and “Dean Martin was cool”.
Even though there have been so many fathers before me there is no master class or even a fully reliable brochure which delineates how to do it well. This is probably due to the fact no two children, fathers, or situations (even similar situations hours apart) are ever truly the same. That fact is really starting to tick me off. So, I, like every father before me, just muddle through as best I can.
The family joke is we are not socking money into education funds. We are saving to pay the therapy bills my kids will accrue when they get old enough to realize the sheer volume of stuff I did not understand. There are also the occasional times I do things completely on purpose to cause them grief. One of those things is writing about them in the newspaper (insert diabolical laughter here).
I have to adjust to the fact that my children are starting to leave the truly childish existence I am used to, not good at, just used to behind. Emilyjane, the oldest one, is fifteen. This means she is in high school. This means she is driving. This means she is going to date (ack) boys. This means dad has some adjusting to do.
My wife, Claudia, is adjusting better than I am, but that is to be expected. Just the other night I had between 7 and 249 teenagers in my basement. Okay, it was twelve, but that’s within the range I mentioned. (I’m not lying. It’s hyperbole, a tool writer’s have used for generations.) Anyway, my wife came into the room I was hiding, uh, working in. She was very excited that our house was the “go to” house for my daughter and her friends.
She was focused on the facts that our daughter was in our house, she had friends who were good kids, her friends saw our house as an acceptable place to be, and we knew they were all safe. I was focused on the facts that there were several hairy legged boys near my daughter, I was paying for the snacks and soda pop they were drinking, and since I am an old man with a job I would be going to bed as they were raucously laughing below me. (Actually, they wouldn’t keep me awake. I can go to sleep lying in the middle of a forest being cut down by thirty or so chainsaws, more hyperbole.)
Alice is child number 2, in birth order, not in my heart. (Each child thinks one of the other kids is my favorite, which plays to my advantage from time to time. Insert more diabolical laughter.) Luckily for me Alice is not to the high school, driving and boys stage…yet. I can still pretend she is a little girl, even though she has grown nine inches in the past year (not much hyperbole), developed a sharp wit (sometimes at the expense of other family members) and started spending inordinate amounts of time fixing her hair and using her cell phone. It happens to all of them sooner or later, like that old movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both girls were lucky enough to land featured roles in the Depot Theater Company’s production of Seussical. Emilyjane does a great job playing a larger than life character. Her character is a self-absorbed vamp. This role is nothing like her in real life…thank goodness. It shows off her acting chops, her singing talent, her dancing skills and entirely too much leg for the comfort of her old man. Alice plays the kid who “thinks big thinks”. I have to admit I was taken aback by her performance. She showed a professionalism beyond her years which again forces me to face the fact she too is growing up before I have a chance to get used to the idea.
Now for the kid riding drag on this herd, George. He will be going into fourth grade in August. Alice may have played the kid who thinks big thinks, but George lives the role. He can devise elaborate scenarios and characters which would make any Hollywood screenwriter jealous. He does it daily. He loves to describe in minute detail his latest creations. The little dude could talk the bark off a tree, the fur off a sasquatch, and any politician under the table.
I enjoy being a father. I just thought my in charge-ness would last longer. Wrong again, Dad.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Seussical Children

Both the girls have featured roles in the Depot Theater production of Seussical.

Alice is JoJo and Emilyjane is Mayzie LaBird.

Alice was great. She doesn't perform around the house like EJ and George do so it was a bit of surprise to see her really shine up on stage.

Emilyjane had a fun part to play, larger than life and not her personality at all. The role allowed her to show her singing talent, her dancing talent and entirely too much leg for her father's comfort level.

Emilyjane is just out of shot in the balck and white photo shown here and in the newspaper today. Which caused some consternation.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Oil companies can be pretty slick

You may not have heard. The mainstream media isn’t paying a lot of attention to this situation, so I thought I’d point it out as a public service. Gas prices are getting a tad high. According to a Department of Energy website the national average for a gallon of gasoline on July 7th was $4.11.
The line graph on that webpage resembles a mountain range. There have been some real ups and downs over the last two and half years. Unfortunately, the graph point representing the current price is a Mt. Everest, 29,035 feet above sea level, peak, not a Mt. Sunflower, 4,039 feet above sea level, the highest point in Kansas, peak (I can be educational while depressing everyone).
Of course when things like this happen everyone wants to point fingers. The price of gas is going up and up because the oil producing countries are gouging us. If somebody on eBay has a Beanie Baby collection that the United States, most of China, the entire European Union and a great deal of India wants he is not listing it for twenty bucks. Supply and demand is the simplest law of economics. Even the guy left staring at a warehouse full of “Giuliani for President” bumper stickers understands supply and demand, at least he does now.
Maybe it isn’t the fault of the big oil producing nations. Maybe it is the fault of big oil companies. Naaah, it couldn’t be their fault. Those guys are barely making ends meet as they struggle to pay the oil prices and at the same time do all that scientific research into alternative energy resources, renewable ones, which are plentiful right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
I have just been handed this piece of information. Three of the top five companies in the United States, as far as pure income generated, are oil companies. Wait that’s income. It doesn’t mean their making any profit. What? Exxon made a profit of 40.6 billion dollars last year. Which is enough money to purchase 9,878,345,498 gallons of gas at the local pump. That ought to get the family truckster to Disney World and back a few times. Try 68,126,520 times to be exact. This means the entire population of Hutchinson could, individually, drive to Orlando and back once a month for the next 138 years. (As an educator I must point out to all young people reading this that math skills come in handy no matter what your profession, even newspaper columnist. Stay in school.)
Fortune Magazine, the home to all things obscenely rich, lists the top five revenue earning companies, in order, as: Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, General Motors, and Conoco Phillips. Wal-Mart makes its money often trading on the hardship of others, but we are not bashing them at the moment. General Motors brought in a ton of money but they were able to lose much more than they made for a negative profit margin. That leaves the three oil companies.
Exxon made more money in profit than all but fifty-seven of the Fortune 500 made period. Their profit was 11% of their income. Yet we are not supposed to vilify them for making any money off this increase in gas prices. That is like saying the Joker is not to blame for using the money from his bank robberies to buy a mansion, a swimming pool, a private jet, a condo on a remote tropical island, heck, the whole tropical island, like the C.E.O.’s of oil companies do. Rex Tillerson, the C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil has a compensation package (you and I get paychecks, these guys get compensation packages) of $13 million a year. That is (more math girls and boys) $35,616 dollars every day of the year, even Christmas and John D. Rockefeller’s birthday.
T. Boone Pickens announced he wants to put money towards utilizing wind power. He says we ought to exploit the “wind corridor” stretching from the Canadian border to west Texas. Think about it. Instead of dealing with Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad we have to deal with farmer guys from North Dakota. Talk about a no-brainer.
My solution will utilize wind power and find a use for politicians. Place wind turbines around Denver from August 25th through the 28th and Minneapolis from September 1st through the 4th. All the hot air being blown at the political conventions would create enough energy to power electric cars for each citizen of Hutchinson to go to Orlando and back once a month for 139 years.