Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Interstate Paving Foreman

The job of foreman on any road project is a tough one. Because roadwork only progresses at a snail's pace, he not only manages the workers' day to day tasks, he also must inspire them over the years. After all, any job where they both sign you up for Social Security on your first day and start collecting for your eventual Gold Watch comes with many ups and downs.

In my travels, I've passed many interstate construction sites, and have always felt something of the wistfulness of making friends along the way, then seeing them grow old and gray and retire. They get the job as young, fresh-faced boys. But it doesn't take long and many years have passed. After a while, I'm just giving them a feeble thumbs up and brave face, because they're so much older and, for a few, in failing health.

It's a great thing that they get the best men they can to fill the all-important foreman role. These guys have to wear many hats, not just the standard hardhat. They're like fathers to the men, guiding them every excruciating inch of the way.

Let's say you have a lonely stretch of interstate undergoing roadwork, maybe seven miles. That becomes a community, with its own zip code and culture. There are, however, differences. Since they're working on a road, they can't allow the trees to grow to their full height, meaning they have little shade. So about half the men go blind from the sun, and there's all sorts of other difficulties affecting morale.

The first few years pass, and the foreman sees a need to gather the men for a talk:

"Men, you've braved the troubles and elements for the last seven years. For that, I pay you tribute. This seven mile stretch has demanded a lot out of us, and you have given your all. You have all gone the extra mile, so to speak. If you're down, if you're blue, believe me, I understand. But you must not flag, you must not waver. I assure you, we will -- let me repeat that, we will -- eventually get this sonuvabitch accomplished!

Those are great words. Then it's back to work with renewed vigor. But time and the fatigue of road workers are inexorable, especially when many men have retired, going off to their golden years. The foreman, however, has remained at his post. No one knows this project like he does, and although there's still four miles to go of the original seven, he believes it can be done:

"Men, our community has been enriched by new blood. Which is not to say anything against those who have dropped off. They earned their reward. They paid for their watch with their blood, sweat, and tears. But it is now for you to carry on, as well as the old veterans who remain. I thank you each and every one. And let me assure you, I still believe, men, with every fiber of my being, that eventually we will get this sonuvabitch finished!"

Brave words, to be sure, even as that final four miles stretches out endlessly, looking something like a futile journey to the stars. We'll never reach the stars. The distances are so great. But it's good to have someone who believes we will, for it enriches everyone, certainly at the level of man's imagination.

But time finally yields to reality, and the foreman had to pass from the scene, with the rest of the old timers. It was boom time for the gold watch industry. As the old foreman left, a new foreman came on. A good man, able to read the old blueprints, which were substantially well-preserved, only about half deteriorated. Marks were made showing the passing of time. So many years!

The new foreman, with all new workers, gave the inevitable seven year talk:

"Men, there's only three miles to go. A lifetime for some. But I'm confident, that with advances in medical science, most of you will live to see this stretch completed. For those who do retire, you have my solemn pledge: I will personally see that you are brought back when the road opens. Until then, buck up, and get plenty of water. I need you, we all need you ... and your all.

"In closing, let me repeat the brave words of my great predecessor -- as true now as they were 50 years ago -- You have my pledge, my word of honor, We will see this thing through, and, finally, this sonovabitch will one day be accomplished!"

Friday, August 30, 2013

Eisenhower's Vision of the Interstate

I know a few of you like interstate highway humor. Especially when it's laced with acerbic commentary, calling attention to the major disaster that is the interstate. Of course, we all drive the interstate highways. I just got back from a trip today, and it's tough to go any other way. But that doesn't mean I like it.

Still, think of all the positives. You can buzz along at 75, and things are generally OK. And then there's all those times when there's a truck in front of you, a truck behind you, and a truck beside you. When you feel like you might die any minute.

That didn't actually happen to me today, but there were certainly those times when I had to grip the wheel with all the steadiness I could, timing myself in relation to the others around, and keeping the same speed, or decreasing it, or increasing it. In those moments you realize what a computer the brain is, even if you don't have all the information about your surroundings; you have most of it, but some of it would require glancing around when glancing around isn't advisable.

The first part of my trip had an interesting moment. Several lanes of traffic, one lane elevated from the others (blacktopping), bumper to bumper traffic on the way to work, and a major accident in the area. I look in the mirror and there's an unmarked police car and an ambulance behind me. I had to wedge into the crammed lane next to me, that went up in elevation, all the while maintaining the same speed as everyone else. It was a tight fit, I couldn't completely see every variable, but I made it. I could've just as easily been dead.

All this anxiety -- a lot of convenience and a lot of nightmarish moments -- thanks to President Eisenhower, who's even got the interstate system named after him. They have a few stars -- must be referring to his time as general -- and his name. He wanted this system and he managed to get it.

Today we're wondering what was the full extent of President Eisenhower's vision of the interstate? Did he just see the good things, and those more or less indistinctly, or was he able to look down the clogged lanes of of maniacal time to see the whole picture? I think anyone as smart as him had to see it all.

Eisenhower saw all the gas stations and restaurants and shops that we'd get. Including -- does anybody remember these -- a place called Stuckey's. I was in Stuckey's maybe once or twice. I think they sold peanuts and butter brickle and other snacks, I can't entirely remember. But what I remember is that Stuckey's was always on the interstate, and they generally closed some time in the first couple years. They'd be open, then out of business, then a few years later open again, and then finally out of business, with their buildings staying vacant for 10 years. Eisenhower envisioned this and it almost made him reconsider the project.

Eisenhower saw how we'd get used to going down a lane and having to edge into speeding traffic. This is usually pretty easy. And I remember when we first did it how much I liked it. Because you didn't have to come to a complete stop and make a right turn to get on. Usually it's very easy. But when Eisenhower was envisioning this, he shrugged off the close calls we also get from folks who can't or won't move over. It's a matter of timing, usually, to know whether to move over, for those already in the lane, or whether to stop and wait, for those coming on.

Here's one of the worst things Eisenhower planned for: the entry to the interstate where you can take the wrong lane. Thankfully, I never have. They have a lot of red signs saying "WRONG WAY," but I've never gone the wrong way and needed to be alerted by these signs. But I've heard of people who have. And not just guys on TV police chases. I think this was a real mistake, not to have a dedicated lane for each direction. Doubling up isn't always the right choice. Way to go, Eisenhower.

I can't go on much longer. I'm about to pull into one of Eisenhower's rest stops. Why would they put the drinking fountain in the restroom on the interstate? Good grief, I'm going to the men's room, you think I'm going to drink out of the drinking fountain on the wall in the men's room. I've seen the way some of these guys drive, the bad choices they make on the road. What kind of mistakes can you picture in the men's room? "Hey, this is a cute little urinal!"

Eisenhower, your presidency lasted quite a while. You had a fairly decent idea, the idea of the interstate highway system, but in your envisioning of it, you made some huge mistakes.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Help From My Ancestors

I heard from someone about the Japanese being big into ancestor worship. That they serve their dead ancestors more or less out of fear. Because if they didn't, the ancestors would come around and stink up the place. Or something. If none of that's true, my apologies to them.

Part of it I think sounds fairly cool, although the word 'worship' doesn't really ring true for me. And the part that really doesn't sound cool is serving them out of fear. Come on, the only thing that's changed is they're dead and years have passed. We didn't worship them when they were around, and they weren't all that scary then. Maybe Clarence was scary, but more about him later.

I really think I could work up at least some devotion to them, especially if there were really positive something in it. What that might be, I can only guess; it might be a little more balance in my life, self understanding, introspection, and a deep and abiding desire to waste my time doing unusual things.

Lord knows, a little more balance would do me good. After all, I had a suicidal great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Grandpa Something, I can't think what his name was, so we'll call him Something. He was so far back that we never met. Anyway, the only reason I'm even here is due to Something's incompetence! Because that's the way it works: If he'd been successful, that would have ruptured the line leading to me. Isn't it strange how tenuous our existence really is?

One thing, for me, that came out of hearing about Grandpa Something's incompetence is the lesson that there really are good benefits to failure. To fail may be a disaster and disgrace most of the time, but sometimes it's a matter of life and death. Had Something not been a great failure ... you get the idea.

There's family lore that Something was so incompetent, he actually fell out of Heaven five times! Odd fact. We got this in a seance from one of his contemporary cousins. Heaven finally took drastic measures and locked him in a church, of course. Where apparently he howls almost like a banshee. I say almost because, remember, he's incompetent.

I'm definitely not worshiping Grandpa Something. Closer in time, there's Grandma and Grandpa themselves. And my own Dad and Mom. You can see Grandpa and my Mom in the little shrine I made, left to right. Then I added my Uncle Clarence, mentioned before, more or less for comic relief.

Looking at Grandpa and my Mom naturally would give me balance. I loved both of them very much, and learned so many lessons in life that ... forget-about-it, mission accomplished, checkmate, stick a fork in it! They said it and I believed it. As for Clarence, he and I never met. Just look at him, why would we? But I heard about him!

I think of Grandpa and Mom's character. I learned so much from them. From Grandpa, I learned the value of hard work. He worked so hard. And from Mom, I learned the value of keeping your word. She wouldn't ever lie, such a great person. From Clarence's character, I believe I learned to stay home and not mess with people. Since he was murdered when he was out messing with some other guy's woman.

Looking at the shrine, it's really stimulating a lot of thoughts in me. I've been meditating on it for 20 minutes between paragraphs. I have great memories of Grandpa. He used to take me fishing, pretty often. He was so patient, teaching me to bait the hook, how to set it, and how to reliably bring the fish to shore. Then Mom, a tender memory is how she used to make Spanish rice, then serve it with a rose sideways in her mouth, so cute! Things I heard about Clarence ... he always burnt his candle at both ends, which sounds very dangerous. How could he keep it under control? He didn't.

If I were to actually pray to my ancestors -- which is a foreign concept, although I could probably just substitute "talk" to them --  I might say to Grandpa, "Help me be more like you, showing your good qualities." And to Mom, "Your compassion for people was always so amazing. Help me develop that more in myself." To Clarence, what do you pray to a guy like Clarence? "Clarence, help me learn from my mistakes, even though I know asking you of all people is itself a mistake."

I think I'm going to ask Grandpa and Mom a question I've always wondered about. I'm looking at the shrine here, staring at it, 20 more minutes have passed by, and I've sat with this question solidly in my mind: "Is it true we become angels in Heaven?" They answer jointly: "No." "No?" I ask, "Can you explain?" "What's there to explain? We said no," they say, end of discussion.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Are the Butchers on My Side?

I'm the big man. I exercise a lot of control and throw around a lot of weight. With me, exercise and weight go together. As big man, I oversee this area, saying what goes and even what's true and false. It's from an abundance of grace that I stoop to say this much.

I was recently shaken ... upbraided by someone. My lieutenants told me about him, calling him a pipsqueak, someone who needed to be crushed. Of course, I said, "Crush him!" But the signs weren't good. As soon as I took him on, I felt resistance. The people had gone over...

My grace, it turned out, had to end. Instead, I needed to work the levers of supply and demand, and lack and demand. The big man, to keep his place, has that one last key. Too much grace, the people rise up. Too little, they're listless, drifting.

The latest problem was the greatest problem. I was that close to losing it all. I had given too much. The people were on the pipsqueak's side! "What he says, goes!" was their retort. I found myself in the command room, surrounded by the latest command gear, machetes and night goggles. And yet, seemingly, there was nothing I could do to turn the tide. Every threat was ignored.

Other signs were also bad. The sky was cloudy, it hadn't rained in two weeks, all my darling locusts were dropping dead left and right. Otherwise, I could've sent them on the fields and starved the people into submission. Which, actually, I guess I eventually did, except I did it in such a way as to keep the crops. Thanks to my all-knowing football...

"They're against you, Big Man," my chief lieutenant said. I trust him implicitly. He knows which side of the bread has Blue Bonnet on it. He listed the revolutionaries: The pipsqueak himself, the little old ladies, the little old men, the middleaged, the young, and the children. What about the divisions of labor? The farmers, the delivery men, the manufacturers, the newspapers, the copy desk, filmmakers, artists, educators, nursing home executioners, tadpole importers/frog exporters, morticians specializing in insect burial -- the list went on and on, including my chief listmakers.

So basically it was just me and a few lieutenants, suddenly a lonely reign. "What do you suggest, Lieu?"

"I've read mythology, Big Man, and you could offer yourself a sacrifice. Go sit in a lonely place, and when you feel the people and the pressure closing in, you will the energy that makes up your physical form into your spine. Then as it comes together, much like an atomic blast furnace, you channel it out the head, consuming this whole area, and leaving your form behind, like a charred locust husk."

As good as that sounded, I waved him off. "No, there has to be a better way. Bring me ... my things ..." My things include a football without the lacing. I love the challenge of turning it inside out, then back. It gives me time for intense thinking. So there I sat, hour after hour, internalizing like you wouldn't believe, turning that football over and over in my hands, inside and out, thereby thinking of every option.

Finally, I hit on the key: The Butchers. "Are the butchers on my side?" Short answer, they could be! Butchers are gregarious characters and solidly secure in every way. Only two occupations are like that, TV meteorologists and butchers. And I lost the meteorologists with all the cloudy weather. But not the butchers, surely not them. My meat was still showing up at every meal and was cooked to perfection. They were, however, hunkered down in fear of the people.

Long story short, we brought in the butchers, who liked my plan. We would deny the people meat until they fell back in line! I would get it all! Steaks, chops, fish, chicken, hamburgers. Everything but red slime, which is what they would get. That would hit them where it really hurt, in the gut. Even the vegetarians were upset, since it took away their status as contrarians. Submission was quick and complete.

As for the pipsqueak, he was brought in for chastisement. I punished him the best way I could, not with death or banishment, which would only martyr him, but by kicking him upstairs, making him my chief science officer. Now he is kept busy in the tower, figuring out how nature works and keeping it all to himself. I supply him $500 worth of chemistry sets a year and he's content in his curious vocation.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

From the Unexplained Files

Clara would've never done Ed like that. I suppose everyone knows in their heart of hearts that's true. And yet, you know how stories are ... they're "good" and they get around.

I don't remember who said it: Bad news travels 'round the world in a flash, but good news drops to the ground, or something. So true, certainly in a case like this. That's exactly what happened -- the truth was lost along the way -- and it wasn't right.

So now we have all the terrible wreckage, the debris of a broken relationship. And for what? I'm not going to say everything I think about it, because hearts have already been broken, lives are already damaged beyond repair. Apparently. But we have someone somewhere getting their little jollies. Reveling in it. Disgusting.

All of us know Ed. He's a proud man, but he can be stubborn. I'm not saying anything he wouldn't say about himself, at least when he's more with it. And it's only worse when everyone's feelings are raw, when the hurt is red hot. Most people are that way, at least to a degree, but for Ed multiply everything by 10.

Then there's Clara. Dear Clara, who wouldn't hurt a fly, as far as I'm concerned, let alone do something like that. I know I heard it going around and I immediately said, "No!" ... "Good grief," I said, "if you'd believe some crazy thing like that, there's nothing you wouldn't believe!"

And to that add in the fact that the kids are beside themselves with worry. Their family's shattered, there's no two ways about it. Yes, I know they're grown up, but they were tight, they still had it together. And I'm hoping they get it back, but if they do, it's not going to be easy.

How much simpler everything was -- the past is always like that. But it looks like we always have these things looming just ahead. Thankfully, we don't know about them. And yet, I'll check that, if we knew they were coming, perhaps we could head them off. It'd be worth a shot, see which way worked out best, to know or not to know. Certainly, it seems if I knew both paths, I believe I could make my decisions accordingly.

Now, however, it's all water under the bridge, done, finished. No warning, no nothing, just BAM, it all blows up in their face, just like that.

I'm going to say it just one last time: I will never believe it! Put the so-called proof in front of me, I won't believe it. I've known Clara most of my life. It's crazy, it's sickening. She would've never done Ed that way -- NEVER -- final word.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Ideograms of Ancient Chinese Orthography

I'm indulging my orthographical proclivities today, specifically relating to the evolution of Chinese writing. As with anything taking hundreds of years to develop, naturally, the process took centuries. In the interest of time, we will not be able to cover it all.

Our study isolates itself in the earliest centuries, a time way before now. The time is so long ago, and memories so poor, that we can say virtually anything and no one will be able to disprove it. In that spirit of serious inquiry, let me simply state, the ancient Chinese system of writing used ideograms as seen in the illustration, presenting concrete situations, everyday occurrences, as a way of re-presenting them for the record, for reading and passing on. This system evolved, then, into today's writing, being much more abstract and yet still all of one piece.

OK, enough blather. Let's simply look at the pictures and see what they tell of us of ancient Chinese writing.

NUMBER 1 - This is what the Chinese had to write every time they wanted to say, "A man [or name] was riding a chicken." That looks like a lot of strokes, with the saddles, the feathers, and the detailing on the reins! It'd take quite a while to write it out if it came up very often.

Think of the challenge if you had a story like this: "I am just back from the chicken riding competition. There were four riders. Lee Wong was riding a chicken, Pong Ping was riding a chicken, Ulysses S. Po was riding a chicken, and Ea Ting was riding a chicken. Right there you've got an hour's worth of writing! Then if you had to sketch out the details you'd be exhausted: Lee Wong was in the lead riding a chicken, but midway through the race he was overtaken by Ulysses S. Po riding a chicken. Not to be outdone, Ea Ting, riding a chicken, moved up on the rail and overtook the others. Then, with one lap to go, Ea Ting's chicken, which he was riding, went down, and Pong Ping flew his chicken across midfield and, by this unusual way of riding a chicken, won the race! Whew!

We want somehow to consolidate the story. Like write the Chinese character for riding a chicken and simply diagram the race by who was in the lead on the various laps.

NUMBER 2 - Finding money is probably the same in every language. I like the Chinese version, though, for the real excitement conveyed. We try to evoke the same sense when we simply add an exclamation point, "The man found money on the sidewalk!", but it's not the same. However, when pictured, then there's a human story we can share joyfully.

I have to chuckle a little at this one, at the hat springing off in the man's excitement. It's those little touches that first gave me the sense of fun needed to learn Chinese.

NUMBER 3 - This literally takes us into flights of fancy. We have a nicely plump marshmallow-like man in a turban on a magic carpet, the Chinese letter for a messenger from the gods. I think this letter shows something of the vivaciousness of Chinese orthography. You have to picture him coming down in a flash, at super sonic speeds. As in others of the world's cosmological systems, it's all downhill from the Chinese heaven. So their messengers can only build up speed.

But for all that, we see no anxiety on his part. There's no grab bars, no seat belt, and even no trouble keeping the turban affixed. The mat is perfectly straight, showing in the simplest way the complete trust of the Chinese that help is assured, that it arrives with little trouble.

It might be good to see the messenger's return trip, but, alas, there's no such ideogram. Probably because of the embarrassment of the messenger's limited thrust going up.

NUMBER 4 - The Chinese word/letter for two friends having coffee is, appropriately, the picture of two friends having coffee. Given the ancient province of these letters, the illustration is surprisingly modern. The hats seem almost to be in the style of western hats for women in the 1920s, proving that the more things change, at least for the ancient Chinese unfamiliar with recent fashions, the more they stay the same.

There's not much more to say. I have always had a few quibbles over this letter, because the friends don't have faces. That seems a terrible omission since it conveys the idea of drinking coffee. Where's the coffee going, down the hole where their necks would be? My other major quibble is the unsteadiness of the chairs, missing as they are the back legs. These should be replaced, for safety if no other reason.

NUMBER 5 is one of my sentimental favorites. Again, it's from ancient China, but it's so modern and universal as it shows us the backbreaking work of women in every era. I say it's a sentimental favorite because it reminds me so much of my own mother and grandmother. They would work till they were bent, carrying heavy pails of water and mops.

Of course, water is always heavier than it looks. If you have a small pail, as is portrayed in the letter, that's not so bad. But it all adds up if you're carrying buckets all day, as some women must do to keep their homes appropriately spic and span.

Lest we are alarmed at the backbreaking work, there's another Chinese letter that goes with this one, showing the woman's work after carrying buckets and mopping. She reaches her brooms high into the corners of rooms, literally taking hours to knock down cobwebs and dust bunnies. This has two purposes, to clean the room adequately, and also to straighten out her back, preparing her for the next day's strenuous labor.

NUMBER 6 is one, that for some mysterious, unknown reason, my eye is always drawn to. I think it has something to do with the relationship between the woman and the man, although I can't be sure. The lack of lines within the figures, as is common in many Chinese letters, in this case suggests nudity, which, it can be argued, does indeed catch people's attention.

Then there's the setting, some isolated, rural locale, where inhibitions are few. The man is comfortable, holding a bottle of heavenly nectar, and his form is splayed out suggestively. The woman, her hair decorated almost as if she is the queen of heaven, waves a palm branch over him. This could be to fan him, to cool his ardor, or could even be out of her own seductive repertoire.

Looking closer, we see what appears to be a tree in the background. Honestly, I think this should have been dropped over the course of the centuries from Chinese script. It doesn't add anything to the letter, and almost makes it look like the woman has hair trailing from her-- from her-- from her form.

What precisely does this ideogram stand for? I hate to say, except I will mention that you still see it in the titles of many Chinese adult films.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

There's No Time Like the Past

You're interested in the past. That's why you're here. We have spent our whole lives in what is now the past, and those are moments for us to celebrate.

Today, we are holding a gala celebration for the past, with the purpose of moving on from it. We are bidding a fond farewell to the past, that it all might be left behind, not with a bum's rush but in style and with honor.

I want you to enter the grand hall, with the audience where the audience always sits, and at the front a dais and lectern for the various leaders. Everything has been arranged in advance, you really don't have to worry about a thing. Simply stand and cheer at those times you feel would be most appropriate. Or remain silent.

There will be various ones, divisions of people, marching in. There will be the giving and receiving of awards and certificates. There will be so many different things happening that I won't even be able to write it all. You will have to imagine it where you are. And if you need to shed a tear over something, so be it. Let them flow.

On this occasion we will be extending our thanks and appreciation to those of the past. We will be applauding one another, listening to one another's stories with laughter and sometimes tears. There may be fist-pumping and backslapping. We will be holding up the glories of the past, revisiting the stories.

In comes the magnificent banner with our theme! "THE PAST WAS OUR HOME FOR MANY YEARS, BUT NOW ITS WORK IS DONE."

And here comes The Cavalcade of Decades! With representatives from each one! The 1800s flag is carried in (the whole century, not decades) by someone they found who had ancestors from then, as there are no living representatives from the 1800s. A moment of silence. Imagine that, we couldn't find a single living representative. They've all gone on to their reward.

Next are the flags for the decades spanning from the 1900s to the 1930s. There's a few from the 1900s, a few more from the 1910s, a few more from the 1920s, and several more from the 1930s, getting progressively younger. They plant their flags and we see a symbolic picture from each one. I'll mention the 1920s, a megaphone. And the 1930s, a sign saying "APPLES 5 cents."

The representatives from the 1940s through the 2010s are more numerous, and the symbolic pictures closer to our own experience: World War II, Elvis, Kennedy, Bicentennial, Big Hair, Computers, 9/11, and Guns. I'm personally proud to have lived through quite a few of these. I'm still doing the whole Elvis thing, and of course working with a computer. As for big hair, I'm virtually bald, but I still have decent sidewalls.

I get a tug at my heartstrings with the '50s flag, since I was born then, was one of the world's first Elvis impersonators, at the age of 5, started school then, and crossed the road one time without my mother's permission. The '60s flag tugs at me, too, JFK. I was in an antique store the other day and saw a huge picture of Kennedy. I told him what I've already told his picture a thousand times, "Do not go to Dallas!" The '70s flag doesn't tug quite as hard. I couldn't wait for the Bicentennial to be over, and now it's ages ago. Probably should've put the Fonz on the flag.

Shhh ... they're doing one of the obligatory moments of silence for some past atrocity. I was typing when they announced it and accidentally tuned it out. But it must really be something, because people are putting their hand on their heart. Which I better do, too. And ... there ... OK ... the man at the lectern said, "Thank you," followed by lots of us clearing our throats and coughing.

I'm taking it all in. It's overwhelming, what the past means for us. And now, here, today, we're leaving it all behind! It's going to be tough! But rest assured, we will carry on. If we ever wonder then, "Whatever Happened to the Old Days?", we can know, with every fiber of our being -- it's like Doritos -- we're making new old days all the time.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Hillbilly Voice Synthesizer

I've had many opportunities to hear some of the hillbilly reality shows on TV, not intentionally but because they're on when I pass by. These include the one I know by name, "Call of the Wildman," which has something to do with the work of one good old boy, who's capturing ducks and other wild animals that are found where they're not wanted. I'm definitely not an expert in the show.

As I go by, I hear a few of the hillbilly-type interactions, the whiny voices and dialect. I have a couple of strong feelings on this. One, even though I'm completely interested in hillbillies in the abstract, when I see actual ones with TV shows, I'm not interested at all. But, two, I have a a sense of gratitude that some of my distant "cuzzins" are at least working, and evidently doing well. And after so many generations of dissolution, degeneration, and chaos, that's really saying something.

I'm definitely not sure that it says anything good about the state of TV, though. Back in the day when we were first so excited about the endless possibilities of cable TV -- fools that we were -- had we known it would come to this, we would've kept the family radio. Or bought an interest in the barber shop, so we'd have a place to sit with impunity and watch haircuts.

Still, there they are: guys rasslin' gators, guys pulling coons out from under people's houses, and I don't know what all. In the few bits I've seen -- the parts I haven't blanked out -- I believe I saw five or six ducks with rabies either get well or die. Which is a big deal.

But my interest isn't to document the episodes, but to see what we can do about classing them up. In my opinion, the whiny dialect needs to go, or at least be tinkered with to make it not quite so grating. For this, I'm looking for an inventor. I also see on TV that there's lots of opportunities for inventors, even though they admit that most inventions fail. This is one that would completely succeed, because imagine the gratitude, if we had someone would could synthesize the dialogue and have it changed to something classy.

It would go from that backwoods heehaw talk to polished English. And even if the lips didn't match up, it'd still be good. Our inventor makes a machine and synthesizes or translates them on the fly. The hillbilly with his ducks says, "What we're lookin' at right here is a whole passel of ducks foamin' out the bill, them quackers are in a right bad fix with the hydra-phoby." But after being synthesized, replaced, it'd come out more properly, "We're presenting the sad case of five ducks with rabies, their misfortune being properly named hydrophobia. We hope to staunch the dreadful foaming and restore them back to their normal lives." See how much nicer that is?

Or just for another scene, to really sell you on the idea, the hillbilly's chasing a family of coons around the room. One's hiding in a closet, one's under a table, one's swinging from the lights, and one's behind the TV. He's armed with nothing but a stick with a rope looped around the end. In he goes! Instead of talking about the "dirty little boogers" with sharp teeth likened to "the beer openers at a church picnic," it's all synthesized as something more impartial and academic: "In fear, the raccoon shows something less than cheerfulness, baring its teeth as a means of defense against what to it is likely an enemy."

I could almost watch that ... IF there wasn't anything else to do in life.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Kids of 1912

The kids of 1912 were recently in the news, for a test they had to take in those thrilling days of yesteryear, and presumably most of them were able to pass. I honestly can't say much about the actual test. I took one glance at it -- all my attention span could handle -- and knew it was beyond me. Of course, I'm ashamed, but at least I was smart enough to know I couldn't do it. That being the one thing I'm always good at.

I see all kinds of things I can't do. My expertise is lacking in certain key metrics. Is that how you say that? I'm not great with reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. You can see my spelling's completely off right there. And when it comes to 'rithmetic's grown-up brother, 'athematics, I'm 'atrocious. I seriously wouldn't be able to fight my way out of a 'athematical brown paper bag. I might be able to handle a cardboard box, since the volume and dimensions are easier to figure with straight lines.

I've always been lackin' in book larnin'. It's just that I always had other things to do. I believed kids ought to be out in nature playing, so that's what I did. I ran away from home early, lived in a jungle, became the king of the apes, and swung from vines. I talked with the only words I knew, "Me dumb, you smart." After that, I had a school teacher who came from the city to teach me the basics, which started out as pure academics, but slowly degenerated into biology.

But enough about me. What about the kids of 1912? They were people like you and me. Like you, let's say. They could do the basics things of life with no problem. They had their setting, their opportunities, the various expectations of society for them. If society expected them to learn X, Y, and Z -- the three last letters of the alphabet -- they managed to do it. Or if they thought it was important to memorize a list, like the state capitals or Klingon vocabulary, they could do it.

Kids today aren't necessarily dumber. It's just they seem dumber, since they haven't gone through the same grueling process of the memorization of facts. The only grueling experience they've had is with the gruel the school serves up for lunch. And that, they've had plenty of. But education itself has changed, making it more a matter of preparing for a future of limited possibilities and unlimited anxiety. The kids of 1912 were blissfully ignorant of this future, seeing the future in optimistic terms. It's definitely easier to memorize the capital city of some Mideast capital if you don't associate it with being beheaded when you get there.

Here's a few of the questions from the 1912 test. See how you do!

If you're 12 in 1912 and live till 2012, what does that make you?
a) Centenarian
b) Humanitarian
c) Vegetarian
d) A drag on society, endlessly sucking the teat of Social Security, bankrupting the world. Die already!

Which of these was NOT a Cal Stewart record?
a) Uncle Josh's Trip to Coney Island
b) Uncle Josh's Trip to Boston
c) Uncle Josh at the Opera
d) Uncle Josh Harasses Women in San Diego

A catchphrase of the future will be:
a) 23 skidoo
b) Bee's knees
c) Razz-ma-tazz
d) I got yer daddy right here
e) All of the above

Your future is bright, including:
a) Full employment
b) World peace
c) Health and happiness
d) The Great Depression and 2 World Wars
e) All except D.

Which of these is plausibly the price of a pound of bacon? Choose three.
a) 19 cents
b) 29 cents
c) 39 cents
d) $6.98

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An Old Man Down on the Police

I met an old man today who was very down on the police. I don't meet many guys and this is the guy I get.

I really didn't know what he was talking about for a while. It was like some foreign word. He said something about "the po-po" being over there, pointing. I had zero clue what he meant, and said, "What's that?" "The po-po." "What do you mean, po-po?" "The police." I turned and looked in time to see them driving up the hill.

I was curious if he knew what they were up to, since it's usually an interesting story, but he didn't know. It could've been a huge jewelry store robbery, busting a major drug ring, or, more likely, waiting for speeders. But he didn't know. So I said, "You don't like the police?" And he said  -- and these were his exact words -- he'd "rather have a sister in a whorehouse than a brother on the police force," which sounded rather harsh. But he had a reason, that at least she'd be bringing joy to someone, whereas the brother would be "dicking" with someone. His words.

Of course that rankled me, since I don't have any problem with the police, and I'd hate it if my sister took that as her career choice, but what could I say? I took the therapeutic approach to find out why he didn't like the police. It turned out, according to his version -- looking just for the facts -- that one time the police wanted him to sit down, and he refused. So six of them, apparently, jumped him and took him to the ground. Big shout out to those six guys: Way to go, dudes! If it happened that way...

OK, we were off on other topics...

Then after a little while, we were talking about some old stomping grounds we had in common, although from different generations. He mentioned an old friend by name up there, probably from the '50s, "a man who wanted to be a pig." Again, I was oblivious to this kind of foreign tongue. I said, "What do you mean?" He acted like, "Isn't it obvious?" But I repeated it, again honestly having no clue, "a man who wanted to be a pig?" Then he clarified, the guy wanted to be a policeman. I hadn't heard that kind of "pig" language in decades!

I just had to say, No, I never knew that guy.

This is an old man, ladies and gentlemen. 80 years old! To all the police out there, he's very bitter against you. How can you tame the current generation of lawless youth when you have even bitter old men hating you?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Old Days of Razor Blade Disposal

Wouldn't it be fun to see what goes on inside the razor blade disposal of an old medicine cabinet? I can only imagine, which is all I've been able to do, since I've never had the actual pleasure.

I know it must really be something, too, because I've known builders and home-wreckers who've seen it. But like in the battles of war, these veterans are suspiciously silent. In the case of war, they don't want to say what they had to do. With the blades, it must be something similar, too awful to describe.

Which is precisely why I'd like to see it. What kind of mess is it? You know it has to be bad. The old blades were immediately prone to rust. I used to see a blade set out too long on the shelf and it was rusty within hours. And it has to be just like rust on a car; it grows, it creeps, it starts attaching to things, and pretty soon the whole thing falls apart.

Just to imagine, then, what it's like in a well-used razor blade disposal, the blades are attached to one another, a big rusted assembly. Like modern art, maybe, just not as good. Rust is going up in a spiral, like in a cave. Every few days, more water drips in from a new blade entering and from the normal humidity of the bathroom or kitchen. (I have two such disposals, one in the "new" bathroom, made after the '70s, and one in the kitchen, the original one Grandpa shaved by.)

It'd do too much damage to the kitchen, I know, for me to start prying and tearing it out. So all these years, there it's set. Grandpa's been gone since 1977, so that's given the old blades a long time to settle. For all I know, they might be eating through the wall. If that ever happens, I'll take appropriate measures, fight them back as best I can. Use a fire extinguisher.

Grandpa didn't have any qualms about using the thing. For me, though, I look at it as a kind of small terrarium. It's an ecosystem for razor blades, but it's so finite, you don't want to put too much in it. But if you're not using it when you need it, why have it? That would be my original question? Why even have it? Of course it's for safety. When you need to throw away a razor blade, there's all sorts of dangers about putting them in the trash. Anyone could slice open their leg.

But they could've just as easily put in a detachable disposal system, like you see in the doctor's office, the sharps container, where you simply throw away the whole container when it gets up to about a pound. But no, for some reason, back in the old days, they thought, "We'll just hard-wire these things in the wall behind the medicine cabinet." Maybe make them eight inches deep, or better yet, let them go all the way to the floor. The razor blades then, even if you were in the house for 100 years, would never pile up enough to fill it.

Quite the idea, till you start imagining what's going on in there. Rust, doing all sorts of things. For all we know, it could be doing a DNA melt with your whiskers and skin cells, along with the moisture and mold, the house, and the souls of the people there. Pretty soon you've got a wall full of half metal, half spirit ghosts, or other beings come to life. Seriously, why else would builders be so quiet about what they've seen? Why else would builder be the only profession where they beg their sons to do anything but that?

The more I think of it, the more I'm willing just to let it go. I myself use disposable BIC razors. And they won't fit in the slot. The simply go in the garbage. And if there's any weird DNA/metal amalgamating to be done, it's happening somewhere else, not here at home. Still, I think I hear some tapping in the wall!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meeting Bigwigs in Heaven

A big anniversary, forgotten! I suddenly remembered the other day that it was 40 years ago that I worked for a big appliance factory. Meaning, actually, that it's been 40 years since I quit, since I was there a while before that. That's huge. Time has passed!

I have lots of memories of factory life. That's the only factory I ever worked at, so anytime I think of factories, of course that's what I picture. But probably in 40 years it's changed a lot. I'll just assume it has, because I won't be back.

One of the huge memories I have of the place is the periodic visits to the plant by various bigwigs. The bigwigs, I guess, were mostly guys from corporate, although I'm sure there were politicians mixed in, other industrialists, and stockholders. They definitely came around a lot, getting tours and wined and dined.

When the bigwigs came, it was always the same a couple days before. We, the loyal peons of the place, had extra cleanup duties, making the place spic and span for them. This included all the obvious things, like sweeping and mopping, straightening out things, making sure everything was in its place, etc. Maybe the most unusual thing that I always associate with it is the painting of lines. The factory had big aisles for workers to walk in and for forklifts. I drove one of those forklifts you stand on, moving supplies around.

These aisles were all demarcated from the rest of the floor by bright painted lines down the side. And guess what? The floor wasn't good enough for the bigwigs until the lines were painted fresh ... every time! Kind of a nasty job. You're down there doing it. No fun. I used to think something like this, "Don't they think the bigwigs know we did all this stuff before they got here? They surely don't think the place looks like this all the time."

But what a compliment, huh? You get fresh lines, fresh floors, straight stacks, the works!

OK, here's our thought for the day. I was a kid of 19 and 20 when at the factory. The bigwigs were mostly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. And there was a bunch of them. That means that for any who are still alive, they're now in their 80s, 90s, and 100s! Really aged bigwigs, in most cases. That also means, statistically speaking, that a bunch of the bigwigs have now passed on, and are a'moldering in their graves.

These bigwigs have now gone to the great factory in the sky, where the angels no doubt painted fresh lines, straightened out stacks of heavenly things, and mopped the streets of gold. But since they've been there a while, they've seen what real life is, grubby paint, things tipped over, and gold dust.

Now, since spiritually speaking we all know, "The last shall be first," since I was a peon when they knew me and they were the bigwigs, when I get to Heaven, I'm going to be the bigwig and they're going to be the peons. They had their painted lines here on earth, now it's my time, baby! I've seen stacks of crap falling everywhere all my life. Now it's my time to see things neatly arranged! And I've tripped over dirt and had dirty feet from the moment I stepped out of my crib. Now it's my time to see things spic and span!

Right now I'm feeling very well. I'm not sick. The doctor gave me a clean bill of health. I'm likely to live another 5 to 25 years. It could happen. But when my time comes -- and listen up, please -- I want all the bigwigs in Heaven to get ready for me. Because I'm the biggest thing to happen, when the time comes! You're going to know I'm on my way. I'm going to be shouting, "Put those peons to work, Lord! I'm on my way!"

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Death Pangs of a Locust

Holy cow, I'm leaving my ectoshell behind. Like a spaceship, we've got separation. But instead of falling into the ocean -- there's no ocean for miles around -- I'm just hanging on that piece of concrete I was on.

What a meditation, to go like this. I trained the inner eye on my bottom and drifted away. I'm free, sort of -- but what now? Probably shouldn't worry. It's an escape, apparently; separation comes with the package. Meaning life is a package deal. I've always gone a la carte, myself, making decisions to this point. But now it's happening to me, not so much me doing it. What's a me?

Everything is melting, including the ability to make strict, accurate judgments about the present circumstances, this immediate sentence included. All I feel is I'm drifting, drifting, seeing what must've been my life flashing before me.

I see now that I was one of 40,000 siblings, proudly among the top 10,000 in aptitude. Maybe higher, since I'm able to remember, think, and formulate actual descriptive sentences. Even the best of them offers nothing but an ongoing drone. Although it's possible that the ongoing drone is better than my present chatter. Or if not better, at least closer to the ideal nature.

Anyway, I could also drone. One of the best soprano voices in our treeload. I was so into it, I briefly wanted to end it all, forgo mating, I mean, stop the urges and keep my voice. Very vain, I know, and ultimately an unsustainable bit of vanity. There's no provision for such desires. Even for someone who could name every tree in the forest.

Like everything, fate is set out for us. Not strict determinism, mind you, but close. For example, I could choose which tree to fly to. Of which, in hindsight, I say ... big deal. I was still a locust through and through, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto. Among them being, to get lost in the drone. If "All life is the play of universal forces" (Aurobindo), who am I to complain? To complain is ridiculous, unless that too is just universal forces having fun.

As a locust -- fark! -- it's all good. My ectoshell was on me, what joy! My ectoshell is off me, what joy! It's all the same. To be a locust and also to be the All is all joy. Like a cherry on a huge sundae, I'd say. It's great to see, but the sundae's still good without it. To be right there, as I realize myself to be, in the heart of everything, in the thoughts of all power, near to the meat of the goody, adjacent to the inner nub, and a favorite of the center enchilada, it's a great thing. Like the apple of its eye.

Separation is complete. We repeat, separation is complete. The locust has left this locus. A bird swoops down and studies the spoils, before carrying it away for whatever value might remain. As for Mr. Locust, his consciousness drifts farther away. There's a kind of nebulous light just ahead, with deep contentment and joy.

Our locust's last earthly thought: Someday, bird, you'll get yours.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Everyday Anthropology -- People Watching

I'm doing a little everyday anthropology. I'm not in Togo or Borneo, just right here on my home turf. These are my people, even if they're people I don't actually know.

It's amazing how many total strangers there are, and thanks to certain factors of romance, new ones are made everyday. Of course there's others dying all the time. I can't do much about them.

They used to say about my dad that he was a people watcher. I suppose that's true. He'd be sitting on a bench at the shopping center and watching folks go by. I don't know what he ever got out of it, since we never spoke of this interest.

I guess I'm normally more of a people glancer. I see them and do all the usual quick mental sizing up, then they pass from view. About the last thing I ever want is to make people uncomfortable, like what you get with prolonged staring. I'm normally tip-toeing around women, let's say, like if I meet them in the parking lot, like just happened yesterday. They're on the lookout for creeps, so it's better to give them leeway.

OK, here I sit at one of the greatest mixmasters of humanity, the best one I know, the public library. And I'm glancing up occasionally to do this anthropological work. I don't see anyone suspicious, either engaged in criminal activity or having an affair.

I've actually never seen either one. The closest thing I saw to romance was a guy helping a young lady type something. Standing behind her, arms extended to the keyboard. Cozy.

Just people going about their business.

There's a big guy in an STP T-shirt. He has an overgrown butch haircut and gray beard. He's a prolific typist. He must have better ideas than I have. The thing that hits me about him is his STP shirt. I haven't seen much STP stuff since around 1975. But it was an enormous presence for a while. This guy might be in his late '50s.

A few minutes ago, there was a guy I've seen before. For some reason he's been wearing unusual gloves and a mask covering his mouth. Mid 20s. Of course I have no idea why he's bundled up like that, but I'm sure he has a good reason. Susceptible to breathing in something harmful, I'd guess. I hope it's not meant to protect us. If so, he needs better gloves.

A mother and some (3 or 4) small girls went by a little earlier. She might be a teacher, more likely the mom. Most of them had backpacks. The girl at the end of the line was the smallest and also had a backpack. Apparently nothing in it to weigh her down. This is the smallest kid I've ever seen with a backpack. That hit me as super cute.

STP guy had a phone call. I'm listening to earbud music and can still hear him 25 feet away. So the guy sitting next to him is getting an earful. The old curse and blessing of the cell phone! Can't escape, no matter where you go. Actually, I know a few places in the county where there's no signal. I should make maps and sell those to people looking for privacy.

I need to include a woman. Hand on hip, looking up at the stack of books. Has a pleasant blue print skirt on, and a blue top. Loose and comfortable. Short, reddish hair. Didn't get a great look at her from the front, probably in her 40s. Browsing for a good read in the large print section, something to fit her curious nature ... and easy enough to see.

Hey, one of "my own" went by. A fellow old guy, but oldER. I'm always happy to see an older guy like him go by. Red, large plaid shirt, a flat hat, slight hunch, carrying what he's got in a plastic bag. Glasses, tennis shoes, a hand in his pants pocket, determined stride. Had to have been a good 15-18 years older than me. Gives me hope for a brighter future. Keep my health up and nose clean, and I could advance on a number of years yet.

Something about that guy worth noting is he's not slowing down. He went by at a moderate clip, then just now walked by the other direction. I like him. He knows what he's looking for and isn't wasting time on extraneous matters. It's guys like that I could really learn from. He leads the way ... but like with a prize fish, I capture and release. He's out of sight and .... 4, 3, 2, 1, officially out of mind.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Books of Pipe Smokers

Let me tell you about the books of pipe smokers: They stink!

That, of course, could be too harsh a judgment. Maybe they don't all stink. Because it depends on several factors: How often they're smoking pipes around the books, whether the books are on the shelf or table, and how much exposure the book gets to the air.

When I think of pipe smokers -- a habit I don't encourage, by the way -- I think of guys who just naturally have the patience to sit and linger over a book for hours. If you've ever smoked a pipe, you know what I mean. For smoke delivery, the pipe demands patience. They tend to go out often. That's why whenever you see a guy smoking a pipe, he's either lighting it or getting ready to.

I've had books over the years that I only suspected were owned by pipe smokers. They had just enough of the ambiance of smoke to at least whisper, "I've been around pipes." But then there was this one single book, just one book in particular, that I remember so clearly ... it was one of a pipe smoker's absolute favorite books. I bought it used.

The book was a collection of Jewish humor, jokes or folklore. And if you know humor books like this, or folklore books, you know they are something to linger over. Not like knock knock jokes or elephant jokes. By the way, I made up a knock knock joke the other day: "Knock knock, Who's there?, Enema, Emema who?, Eh-na-mauntain high enough, nothing to keep me, keep from you!" You wouldn't smoke a pipe over that joke. You might roll a cigarette in it, anything to get rid of it.

But this book of Jewish humor was a great one. I actually wish I had a copy of it. But I couldn't keep that copy. I say that even though I actually had it for years. But it was in a box and not exposed to my nostrils. I just couldn't stand to be around it when it was out.

But whenever I saw it -- from time to time I'd go through the boxes -- I'd smell it, and, yes, it was still an inferno. Then I'd forget it and start to imagine the guy with it. Pipe's blazing away, of course. He's reading in a comfortable home library, getting pipe stuff on his fingers, and turning the pages. He's delighted with the book and tapping the cover, "One heckuva book!" Maybe he even tapped his pipe on it. One beloved object to another. Then he'd think, "I'll leave that one out and look at it a little everyday." So there it remained, setting on the table, as pipe smoke swirled around it day after day and settled. And a couple weeks later, he'd do it all over again...

I don't know why he ever got rid of it, unless, probably, he died and the family couldn't stand to have it around. They knew how it was. For this guy, everything centered on his pipes. The little collection of them was in one of those pipe holders, like a small lazy susan. And this book, probably like a lot of his other possessions, had to go.

I said I kept it in a box. I really didn't want it affecting (or infecting) my other books. Now, though, it's gone, when I did some downsizing a few years ago. And this was actually one I would've kept ... had it not been for the overwhelming odor of that guy's greatest enjoyment, his pipe.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Defeating Self-Defeat, Then Defeating It Some More

I personally need to remember the lesson of the bull in the china shop. Whatever problems he may have, he left them at the barn. His memory of problems is negligible anyway. He's certainly not dwelling on them. And now, somehow, life and circumstances have brought him to a china shop. No time to sit and stew.

The door's open, he wanders in. Then everything goes crazy. The owner of the shop throws up his hands and shrieks, the bull is confused but still a strong presence, and in a moment, he's thrashing about, not remembering the door. He destroys a ton of china, he topples and shatters glass cases and fancy racks, and it's a complete disaster. Then one last bit of craziness finds him charging a wall and coming through the other side.

The lesson, at least for me, is to learn to contextualize your problems, rise above them, and charge on on your merry way. Do your best to defeat self-defeat, then defeat it some more, just for good measure.

It's been one of those weeks. Just like the book of Job, only there's no one escaping and showing up at my door with the bad news. Everyone is consumed, there's no one left. But thanks to the miracle of phones, messages, Facebook, and other communications, I hear reports from the front. Involving this, that, and the other loved one. And involving me, suddenly given to lots of traveling, extra work, and vast financial outlays.

It's times like this that I'd love to go dormant, to hibernate somewhere, in a pest-free, climate-controlled cave. Let's picture it. Like the pictures of Jesus' tomb, utterly neat, a centralized rock slab with a firm mattress on it. Some baffling on the wall to keep down noise. Some of Kafka's doormen outside to keep visitors away. No TV. Maybe an iPod. A little family of mute fairies to freshen me up and the place, then vanish. Patchouli scent, not overpowering, just right. And if the outside world needs anything, it goes dormant, too, till I wake up and finally venture forth refreshed.

But since none of that happens -- mute fairies are a bastard to find -- the next best thing is to get a rock-solid attitude, and not let anything get you down for long. The real problem, simply put, isn't any one of the challenges, but self-defeat. Looking at life all wrong. And as said above, failing to contextualize.

Life is suffering. But there's ways to rise above it. Actually, just knowing that much is the insight, like Buddha. But I'm like most people, needing practical steps. A key step is to know that self-defeat causes more problems, adds to the burden. You're only making it worse. But the bull isn't worried that a couple of the herd are sick or dying. He's not mourning his old calves' problems. He's thrashing about in whatever weird joy that is.

Or, you can realize that if you were happy before, then at some level you're still happy now. The world had a trillion problems before -- what's a few more? Or, to really contextualize it, your little moment of life is just a flash anyway. It didn't bother you when asteroids were hitting everywhere and killing the dinosaurs. The World Wars didn't bother you. And it's not going to bother you, someday, when the world's being burnt to a crisp by a red giant sun. So you have a few dinky problems today! Who doesn't?

I feel that old bull strength coming back. Don't let your psychological head muscles flaccidify. (Spell check says that ain't a word.) Don't let your brain atrophy. Get up and get back at 'em! Self-defeat: Just another word for an interstate rest stop without facilities, mostly a worthless interruption in the overall trip.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Wonderful Vistas of Life

It's a real pleasure for me to sit and type this. It's been a busy day, getting cool by lying on the basement drain, the lowest, coolest part of the house. It's my go-to place when everything's closing in, various family crises that we all face, like the morning paper was late, or, worse, a favorite show's been preempted.

We all need somewhere to clear our head -- I'm convinced of it. Some people like the rich variety of vistas out in nature, which is good, I suppose. But there's a few downsides to everything like that. Most of the great vistas are pretty far away, and you have to drive there, with all the troubles of traffic that are everywhere. I went to the grocery store one day and was cut off three times. Which wasn't the worst of it, since I had several near collisions with other people's carts.

I'm not saying the basement drain is without nuisances. It's wet, dank, and kind of ugly. When they came up with basement drains, it's starting to look like beauty wasn't a priority. They're instantly rusted. Somehow dryer lint shows up. And different sorts of unknown floor scum accumulates. If you watch dust bunnies under your bed, these are the basement equivalent of that. Which is fascinating, since entire moons, planets, and planet systems formed basically the same way.

But to each his own. Which is not to say I don't like the great vistas of life. I do. I'm just not easily enthralled by anything. Like standing at the edge of a cliff. That's a vista. You can look way out there, the horizon's so far away, but crystal clear. You think of what's going on at the horizon. Then you realize, it's just a place that looks like here. And if I were there, I'd be looking up here at this cliff and wondering about it. All kinds of things, then, can happen at a cliff. The most obvious is someone running up behind you and pushing you off. Or someone running past and diving off. You climb down, and he's dead.

Going to a beautiful lake, you're not immune to troubles. Loch Ness comes to mind. And rivers are full of disasters, which I know by watching the "River Monsters" show on Animal Planet. Of all the Animal Planet shows, I think "River Monsters" is the best one. I used to like to fish. But the best thing about it is now I'm appropriately wary of rivers. And  how about forests? Talk about a vista. I love to see forests from a distance. But then you get up close. There's bears, signs warning of leaving the trail and telling what to do if you find body parts, moose charging at you, and on and on. And vampire bats.

Meanwhile, right there at home, you've got the main line to coolness, the old shower drain in the basement. And all the privacy in the world. You can sit there in a silk kimono, which tends to cling in the dampness. Or you can just sit (or lie) au naturel ... as long as you can stand it, with your skin pressed against the coolness and hardness of that antique cement. (Some houses are more modern than mine.)

In my case, the old shower doesn't do a thing. It's rusty, too. Even if you could get it working, it'd probably run rust for the first three or four years. The bugs, the spiders, it might be too much, but it's nature. Ah, the spiders! They actually don't hurt anyone who doesn't mess with them. I can see their webs in the corner, and they seem to be minding their own business. It's all part of nature's balance.

Then I look over at the furnace -- this is a fantastic vista -- I can see the pilot light of the furnace, if I position myself ... just so. How peaceful, like a candle in the temple, a flickering, eternal flame. Good time for a little prayer. "Lord, please don't let that furnace blow up."

If you want the wonderful vistas of life, it looks like it's just as Dorothy discovered: There's no place like home, and the very best vista of all, right there nearby, in the coolness and privacy of your very own drain.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Many Breeds of Dogs

Dogs have an interesting story. Mostly they're a product of nature, of course, but man had a major role in what they became. There's a good documentary on Netflix that goes into the breeds developed by man, starting with the basic genetic possibilities of nature and our tinkering or honing to get particular results. It's more than I personally could ever do, for sure, meaning I have to tip my hat to the braniacs and mad scientists of our species.

But this blog isn't a matter of scholarship, knowledgeable science and intelligence. I could put up a pretty good front for three or four paragraphs, then it'd all devolve into mindless hash. And to be exposed as an obvious fraud isn't my plan for the day. Simply put, sure, these folks are smarter than me, but so what? I've had dogs, I know my way around.

So I can still look out with my own two eyes and see things and describe the breeds of dogs according to my experience.

The one breed I know best is the backyard breed. You look out and are shocked to see the neighbor dog out there with yours. Did I fail to block all the holes in the fence? How did he squirm his way under it this time? That's your backyard breed.

My dog Underbrush, I heard, was a backyard breed. But I'm picturing her dad as something like a dog hobo or adventurer. Passing through town on a train, checking out the air. Then, for maybe a few hours, wherever he laid his collar was his home. His favors performed, he got dressed again -- the collar -- and caught the next slow-moving train out. Which the townspeople went out to flag, so it'd be slow enough to pick him up.

Underbrush's dad also could've been one of the other breeds, one of the local street corner breeds. There's two different ones, the urban and the small town street corner breeds. As for the urban one, these are local dogs that never see the countryside or a train; there's too many fences and barriers to get to the trains. Like freeways in the way. These dogs are just roaming. They might live in a park, or be someone's dog from an apartment that got away. Then, there they are! On the street or in an alley.

The same thing happens with street corner breeds in small towns. But here you usually know who's got a dog and what they're up to. There's two factors why small towns have fewer street corner dogs: 1) Everything is less in number by the nature of the things, city vs. country; 2) Dogs can't get away quite as easily and live on the street. There's lots of places to run in the city. But in the town, it's so small, the local town cop rounds them up easily and gets them home.

There's a related breed of dog that I won't delve into with a long explanation: That's the Behind the Grandstand at the Races dog. You're like, "Good Lord, I paid $80 to see THIS going on behind me?!"

One of the more honorable breeds of dogs is between neighbors. This is like the arranged marriages between families in the old days. Like the alliances between kings of countries in the 1600s. They want to have peace, or they want to have a decent match for their dogs, usually registered breeds. In fact, that's what it more or less always is.

So we have Lady Fifi of Daisy Mountain and Lord Daleford of Lazy Acres. There's various reasons for these breeds, like her outlook as a happier dog, having fulfilled nature's thing. And Daleford's fulfillment, who, although he's been extremely pampered, at some level hasn't forgotten. They might never see each other again, like Romeo and Juliet, but at least they had that momentary joy and issue. The other big reason is the folks simply want to have more dogs, perhaps with some of them to share with relatives.

The real bad guy of dog breeds is the puppy-mill. Even the word "mill" makes me cringe. This is sad, and I can barely stand to describe what I'm imagining. Suffice to say, it's a downer. This makes the grandstand at the races dog more of a pleasure than a nuisance.

Another breed happens at the loving registered dog place. Where every dog is registered, and every dog is wanted, and every dog will someday go on to win a blue ribbon at Eukanuba. These dogs get their own barn, a dozen pillows to lay their head, squeeze toys till they're squeezed out, and dog treats in just the right amount. Their food is the scientific diet, and their hairbrushes are cleaned hourly, as no tangles are allowed. These are the dogs that have it better than me, and I have it pretty well.

I just took Underbrush out for her morning duty. Looking at her, I had to marvel. "You've been through so much, you and your forebears, to get here and be my dog. Wow! And here you are, even in your old age (nearly 14) and frail health, going through the daily grind, and remaining happy. Wherever you came from, and whichever train your dad climbed off of, you're a cool dog."

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I Love Farmers Singing

I guess it's time for confessions and unspoken passions. Unspoken, not out of embarrassment, but because no one ever asks -- which I understand; I'm don't ask others about their unspoken passions. We just let these things go till we've passed and the family's looking through our effects. "Could it be?" they'll ask, that he really had a passion for ... farmers singing?

Why not? I've always loved the image of the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care farmer, trusting his fortunes to the wind, sun, and rain, and keeping a song in his heart. He's going along on his tractor, either whistling a tune or belting out one of the old songs: "When the moon comes over the cowshed, I'll be waiting at the ki-ki-kitchen door," like that. (The modern corporate farmer, I wonder if they even know the old songs, but that's neither here nor there. They probably know enough of them to fake it...)

It's the old timers I have in mind, the ones who step out on their back porch, look out at the cow field as it starts to get light, and bellow with a musical lilt for Bossie to come. From there it might become a full-fledged song of love and camaraderie, not just for the cow but the whole great outdoors. "I'm gonna lay a furrow down today, down by the riverside!"

All this comes to mind, thanks to the commercial on TV with the singing farmers: "Bumpa-bumpa, bumpa-bumpa, We are Farmers!"

I've been out on the farm quite a number of times, especially earlier in my life. We used to go to lots of auction sales held at farms. While the adults were busy with the sale, we were scouting out the farm with the other kids. This included many happy hours swinging around the hay mow, and just generally having the run of the place. We never got in any trouble either. Although now, as an adult, I can imagine the farmer, if he were noticing, having a cow that these crazy kids might get hurt. But no one seemed to care, and we certainly didn't.

Or I'd be on the farms of kids from school, friends. We might be out in the chicken shed, jumping off it into the snow in the winter, talking about what they do about skunks that get in the corn crib, or listening to the gut wrenching squeals of pigs getting castrated. That's a sound that sticks with you. I can't quite write it out, of course, or spell it, or put it in print. But it's music ... of a sort. Just think of the most painful squeal you've ever hear, then run as far as you can so you never have to hear it again. Like some boy bands.

And I've even done some work on farms, like baling hay, where you're singing, "Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie..." Not the funnest work.

The farmers singing on TV -- who look like they're with an insurance company -- have great voices, but unfortunately, a very small, short song. They just get started with the bumpa-bumpas and it's over. But for those precious seconds, it's these cool, big bass voices, with a very strident beat. Strident without being overly martial or unpleasant in any way. I know what it is, they just have years of calling in cows, or singing at the top of their lungs on the tractor, or in an enclosed tractor seat. That's when the real singing is done.

If they can sing that great about an insurance company, which is probably paying them pretty well, then they can sing about nature, animals, the fields, and the great big blue sky, as well as the life-giving sun beaming down, twice as well. Or three times. You get them working on their corn or wheat, and singing at the same time, "Bumpa-bumpa, I'm a Farmer," or "We are Farmers," and you'll have a thing of beauty. With an extended version of the song. And a whole album of various remixes. "Bumpa-bumpa" with some subtle hip hop thumps and sound loops. An acid jazz version would be cool.

No one else on TV sings so much about their own occupation. Not in quite the same way. You can really hear the unique pride that farmers have, and to me it's very very cool.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Many Awards I've Received

When I started my blog -- Grandma Slump -- a little over five years ago, it was the furthest thing from my mind that I would go on both to present and receive so many awards. But my efforts, if I may be permitted to step out of the bounds of modesty for just a second, turned out to be good. Hence, the commendations.

Of course I'm not sitting or resting on my laurels, as comforting as they are to body and soul, and which would in other circumstances lead to sitting and resting. Because, I don't know ... I guess I'm shooting for more! I guess I'll keep going to the well 'til the well runs dry! I hate to jump ship before I get where I'm going. That wouldn't make any sense.

But for today -- today only -- I thought I'd just take it easy ... lounge here in my trophy room ... and maybe let you take it in, some of the various citations for blogging I've gotten. In presenting myself with these awards over the years,  naturally I've been humbled. But along with humility goes a certain satisfaction, falling just short of hurtful pride, knowing that you all have been touched in some little way.

I have the ribbons you see above, two outright blues for first place in a couple of divisions. I have all the paperwork somewhere, telling which blog posts these ribbons were for. But to go get it is too much work on this restful day. It's sufficient to show that I did get two blue ribbons. Then -- and I don't know what happened, something bad -- I got a red for second and a green for third. I hate second and third. If I had a whole box of second- and third-place ribbons, I'd use them to patch clothes. It's only first that I like. So you can see, I traded in those two ribbons -- losing one ribbon in the process -- and got a third blue.

Quite a number of my posts have been granted the normally-rare designation of "Already Classic." These are given almost instantly, for a particular excellence that doesn't need age to recognize. In fact, it wouldn't make any sense to wait, because then they'd be merely "Classic," whereas "Already Classic" denotes jumping the gun, as it were.

I've been getting these awards steadily over the years. So many, in fact, that I think it might need to be snazzed up a bit, since, while I appreciate the honor, I'm getting a little tired looking at it. Maybe it's something to do with the arrow. It seems to be at distinct variance with the gold seal and lavish red title of the award.

People always say I'm one of the friendliest bloggers they've ever met. I appreciate that so much, although I would question the phrase "one of the." The trophies don't lie. I don't just have one Friendship trophy. I have six. I'm pretty sure that's a record.

I just like winning them, I guess, so I'm as friendly as I can be. Someone praises me, I smile. Someone criticizes me, I keep smiling, even if it's tougher. I just figure, I'm friendly enough to stand there and take it. There's no payoff for erupting, especially if I've already been friendly. That would only take away the investment I'd already made in being friendly. I can always kick a box around the yard when I get home.

You see the face of James Taylor, who sang one of my favorite songs, "You Got a Friend." I tried to play that on guitar a few times. It has some unusual chords, making it tougher to do, but with a little work, it can be done.

The Strongman trophies, I received those for denying myself a few times along the way, doing anything I had to do to get the blog out regularly. Like anyone, I need a certain amount of sleep each day. But I also have a very severe responsibility gene. If something needs to be done, some goal needs to be met, I stay up and stay late to get it done.

There have been times I've even denied myself meals and going out with friends. They've acted like they didn't understand, but at some level I believe they did. After all, their going out was so important to them. And I didn't see them denying themselves that pleasure. The best way to summarize: I've gotten several Strongmans and they haven't.

A Fist Pump certificate is given for any little thing. It accompanies smaller encouragement awards, like a mug with a bag of M & Ms in them, smaller denomination gift cards, and little laminated wallet cards with encouraging sayings. I've got some of them set out here. Five "Attaboy" mugs, with the M & Ms now gone. Three "I Can Do It" certificates. Six "10 shopping spree" gift cards, also now used. And three laminated "You're Super, I Appreciate You More Than Words Can Say" wallet cards.

One other trophy I've been proud of is this fish one. It was 2010, and a combination of factors all came together. It was like catching lightning in a bottle. It was for my series on industrialism -- 200 hard-hitting -- both indicting and commending -- posts on industrialism.

No one else would touch the topic, let alone do with it what I was doing, which was, as I said, 200 consecutive -- not hit and miss, but consecutive -- posts on industrialism.

For that labor, I received the prestigious Gorton Fisherman Award for Writing Excellence for 2010.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Hez Heck: "Someday Doad'll Be a Dad"

Today, we get a rare glimpse into the life of rustic funnyman, Hez Heck, much deeper than we've been allowed before. Taking us well beyond the quips and jokes he's so famous for. The man is more like a philosopher, at least that's what he is in the way he thinks. But he always keeps us laughing with his suspenders-snapping routine. And yet, sometimes even funnymen cry; sometimes even philosophers are stymied, both in their understanding of life overall and in the common, everyday things that all of us know.

But we're going to keep this on the up and up, with no crying. Because that's not what we're here for. We seek only the joy of laughter. But we know -- we have to know -- there are those times when a good old fashioned cry does a body some good. You're convulsing, basically, your body involuntarily taking over, with a big old knot in your throat at times, and there's a kind of pain in your chest, like something's trying to bust out, claw its way out. It shakes you up something fierce. You think, "Am I dying?" When, no, the answer is, you're just bummed out.

Hez Heck thinks about the future ... at times, with all that means. The big, vast, immense, looming future. But he's not always thinking only about himself, because he gets by, he's done all right. Instead, Hez thinks of the future coming for his nephew Doad, whom he's partly half-raising, since he was half-raised already when Hez took him in, and "partly" because Doad'll never be----- ... Doad is Doad. The boy's ... something ... of a glum specimen, in certain ways. That loose board in the chicken shed's hit him a time or two too many. And yet he is growing up before Hez's eyes. Soon Doad'll be a man, soon Doad'll be a dad, and soon Doad'll be everything else Doad'll be ... like it or not.

When Doad's a man, he's going have to face the same kinds of challenges Hez has faced. Like being the one to put a new screen in the door when the kids rip it open. It'll be Doad that'll have to kiss his son's or daughter's mosquito bites away. It'll be Doad that'll have to chase 'em over the hills, bringing them home. And it'll be Doad that'll have to keep the old truck going. The thing's been in the family for generations. They treat trucks here like Cubans treat cars, lots of maintenance for decades of reliability. They pass them down. And if there's a generation when there's no sons, the trucks stay in the barn, and they wait till they get one.

Hez thinks, "Someday, by cracky, it'll be Doad that'll be wearin' one of these beards, and shirts, and suspenders." In every respect, Doad'll be a man. So -- and this is embarrassing -- Hez thinks maybe it really is the right time to tell Doad about the birds and the bees. That's Ma's idea, and Hez said he'd get around to it. After all, it's mostly natural, and the parts that are confusing, if you just feel around, finally you get it.

Hez pulls Doad aside, and launches right into the main attack. "Doad, someday you'll be a man." Doad answers, "Yeah." They pause. "Someday you'll be a dad." "Yeah." Hez lets that sink in. "And that old truck'll be yours." "Yeah." Hez waits to see how that registers. "And you'll be the man in charge." "Yeah."

The older uncle wonders about Doad's understanding. Doad seemed to take it all in without flinching in the slightest. "You understand everything I said, Doad?" "Yeah." But Hez is wondering, so he runs a little test. "You think you need to hear it all again?" "Yeah." "Is all this going out one ear and in the other?" turning around the phrase as only a funnyman like Hez can do. "Yeah," says Doad, blithely.

"OK, son," Hez says, "Go play." Doad answers, "Yeah." Hez sees it's an interesting case. Doad's glazed over. Hez leads him to the door and points outside. Then helps him out the door and down the stairs. Hez withdraws and watches Doad finally catch a whiff of country air. His head seems to be clearing. Then, in an instant, Doad is gone like a shot up the hills and down the other holler. Hez thinks, "He'll just have to get it the natural way, whatever he hears behind the barn, and the rest, feelin' his way. It's never hurt no one yet."

Ma comes in, thinking she heard voices, and that their time together was very short, especially if they'd been talking about what she figured they ought to be talking about, looking back on it being her idea about the birds and bees. Where is that boy? "You been talkin' to Doad." Hez says, "Yeah." "Think he's got it?" she wonders. "Yeah." "Is he gone?" "Yeah." "Are you all right?" "Yeah."

Ma wonders, "Can't you just spit it out and tell me more 'n that? What's that boy up to, anyway?" Hez's answer, "No good."