Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lower Expectations for Higher Education

My oldest daughter is starting her junior year of high school. This means she has homework which may as well be a nuclear physics textbook translated into ancient Greek for all the help I can be. It means any would-be suitors are now able to beat me up removing any threat capacity I might have had. It means she has a calendar of events which would make Gloria Vanderbilt’s schedule look like Ted Kaczynski’s. It also means she gets anywhere between five to twenty-five pieces of mail a week from various colleges and universities trying to entice her to attend their esteemed institutions. This makes me feel old and gives me a sense of impending poverty, but it also makes me more than a little bit wistful.

It was twenty-eight years ago this month that I first packed up the ol’ Chevette hatchback with my most important possessions (record player, black-and-white portable television, twenty pairs of white socks, and my single setting of flatware) and drove off to begin my scholarly career as I matriculated at the University of Kansas. I was only slightly excited and more than just a little bit scared. This was because I was unusual compared to most recent high school graduates. I really liked my family. I had no problem envisioning myself living with them for the rest of my life without it seeming Norman Bates pathetic/psychotic.

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to go to college. I just wasn’t gung ho about the whole thing. My older brother filled out the majority of my application paperwork and took me to orientation helping me do all the registration stuff and even found the apartment I was going to occupy. So, if it wasn’t for him it truly is possible I would still be sleeping in my single bunk bed while my mother does my laundry fixes my supper and pays all my bills. Hmmm…curses.

I was not a social college student. There was no desire to join a fraternity. I didn’t even live in a dorm. My freshman year I lived in an apartment slightly smaller than the backseat of your average SUV. It was in the thick of what we called the student slums, an older house chopped up into single sleeping rooms with a shared bathroom and miniscule kitchen. It was close enough I could roll out of bed, put on a semi-less dirty shirt and pair of jeans, jam a hat on my head and be in class after a ten minute walk. Here’s the kicker, it cost ninety bucks a month. Nowadays ninety bucks a month wouldn’t buy a college student a place to park his car, much less a place to park his carcass.

As hermit-like as the description of that apartment sounds it was not the most socially removed place I lived during my college career. There was the basement apartment at the bottom of a hill on a dead end street. Really, by that time I should have had a better eye for the stark symbolism of my living arrangement. I was a film studies major at a university in one of the least Hollywood-esque states in the country. Such a degree just screamed career prospects akin to a basement apartment at the bottom of a hill on a dead end street or at least a life spent trying to convince the customer at the video store (at which I am the assistant manager working for an hourly wage only slightly more impressive than the chief French fry salter at McDonald’s) out of renting the Sylvester Stallone movie in his hand and convince him he really ought to rent Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion because of its brilliant humanistic portrayal of men held prisoner in a World War I prison camp used as a lens through which to examine the rising tide of fascism in Germany in 1937. It never worked, but I tried.

Looking at my daughter’s mail many colleges today advertise themselves as offering a personal touch, a place where you are a full-fledged person and not just a faceless number at an institution of thousands of faceless numbers. This would not have been an inducement for me to rush to enroll. I wanted to be a faceless number amongst thousands of faceless numbers. Life is easier if you are camouflaged. Just ask the nudibranch (a sea slug very adept at hiding itself within sea plants and a very fun thing to say).

Friday, August 07, 2009

Dogs and Cats and Guinea Pigs, Oh, My

Many of you out there have probably heard of Dave Ramsey. He’s the guy who helps people become more independent, financially. When people successfully crawl out from under their burdens they call his radio show and gleefully scream, “I’m debt free!”
I have a different goal in mind. One day I hope to call a talk radio show and announce to the world in a voice indicative of my overwhelming joy and sense of liberation the following paraphrase of Mr. Ramsey’s sentence: “I’m pet free!”

Now, before I am inundated by angry readers labeling me an evil person and calling for my firing or public lynching or death by hamster nibbling, I want to make it very clear I am not an animal hater. Animals significantly enhance the value of life for all mankind. Animals add beauty, wonder, humor, affection, and can be delicious as well (sorry, that took an ugly turn). I would have you know I cried like a menopausal woman watching a marathon of Lifetime network Delta Burke movies when we had to put down the family dog. I truly believe cruelty to animals is in many ways much worse than meanness to human beings. Think about it. Would you be more bothered by watching somebody tease a koala bear or by watching someone poke Adam Sandler with a stick? Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind being the guy with the stick.
Disclaimer now in place, I can safely proceed. My household currently contains two dogs, two cats and an immortal guinea pig. Due to the sheer number of pets some of you will understand my desire, but others need more convincing.

First let me address the cats. I am not a cat person. Some of my favorite people are cat people, not in the Malcolm McDowell, Nastassja Kinski kind of way (give yourself 35 bonus points, and my condolences, if you actually saw that movie), but in the way that they really adore cats. I do not get this. Cats are aloof. Cats obviously feel they should be the species given opposable thumbs. Cats feel the only reason humans were given opposable thumbs was to make it possible for them to operate the can opener necessary to access the food cats require.
Currently our primary cat has decided to shed fur at a rate which makes visitors think there may be an alpaca living in our basement who frequently visits our couch. The secondary cat seems to always require the door she is next to should be opened to allow her inside or outside the house whichever place she currently is not, and this exercise must be repeated at an interval approximating the number of times your average middle-aged man pushes a button on his remote control.

Now, I do admit I am a little bit of a dog person. Dogs do not look upon you like cats do, as staff. Dogs seem to freely give you unremitting affection based on a minimum amount of effort on your part. As pleasant as that may seem it is really just another indication they have the intellect of a spatula.

Our younger, smaller dog is very endearing. She does many cute and amusing things. Her favorite maneuver is to pretend she is invisible when we find her lying on our bed, because she does not want to be moved. She is not successful, but she is adorable as she lies there stock still except for her eyes which follow you with predatory intensity. Her biggest drawback is her prodigious talent at creating (insert your own personal euphemism for digestive by-product here). Who would ever have guessed a twelve pound dog could produce enough (repeat euphemism here) requiring a constant policing of the basement floor, her favorite place to (euphemism).

The older dog seems to believe he has never been fed and may never be fed again. Anything remotely suggesting the presence of food demands his undivided and immediate attention. This includes, but is not exclusive to, bags which at one time contained food, napkins which at one time touched a mouth which ingested food, anytime anybody enters or leaves the kitchen, the sound of cellophane crinkling, and the sound of cabinets opening, even the cabinet in the hallway which only contains light bulbs and the ironing board. Whenever any of these are perceived he rapidly appears and jumps about trying to look cute and adorable (which is really the other dog’s job) so you will feed him, even if he just finished consuming something unspeakable from the trash can.