I’m just talkin’ ’bout Shaft

23 Jan

In olden times, kids could purchase items called “45s” from magical places called “record stores.” On one visit, my brother Jeff bought an Osmonds single while I bought one by the Jackson 5. I still believe I had better taste. But we saw no need to spend all our lawn mowing earnings on records when we could record songs right off the radio. That didn’t last long. It may have had something to do with the quality of our $20 cassette recorder, the cheesy microphone, the poor speaker on the radio, or perhaps the quality in general of AM radio. So, we resorted to the king of all too-good-to-be true mail-order schemes: Columbia House Records. Columbia House offered ten albums or tapes (cassettes or eight-tracks) for the low, low price of two dollars. All you had to do in exchange was buy a certain number of albums of the month at regular price.

Imagine the delight of choosing ten highly-listenable rock and pop albums. Then imagine the disappointment we felt when we could not identify ten albums we wanted to listen to. A “good” album would be any that had least two songs we knew. It seemed as though eighty percent of the albums offered by Columbia House were by Ray Coniff, Ferrante & Teicher, Dean Martin, Jim Nabors and similar tuxedo wearers. Our mom could have found plenty to listen to, but not my brother and me.

breadThe first few tapes we chose were easy. By the time we reached numbers seven, eight, nine … we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. My brain has judiciously prevented me from remembering all ten tapes, but I just re-listened on Spotify to the ones I do remember. Let’s see how our selections held up, or failed to, more than 40 years later. Let’s also see what the “experts” at AllMusic have to say.

Best of Bread by Bread: I know: Soft Rock is the ultimate oxymoron, but I played this tape a lot when I was fourteen. I loved it, especially Mother Freedom, which was as RAWKing as Bread ever got. I didn’t re-listen to the album, however, because I’m a man now, and I have my pride. AllMusic doesn’t have much to say either. Moving on…

Honky Chateau by Elton John: This came out when Elton had yet to start dressing like a Vegas Christmas Tree (on his album covers anyway). MI0000434654You may know the singles Daniel and Rocket Man, but the album is filled with strong cuts. “Mellow,” the first track, is the classic Elton I loved as a kid. (I raised two steers named Elton and John.). AllMusic: “On paper, (Honky Chateau) reads like an eclectic mess, but it plays as the most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote.” Well done, young Ronnie and Jeff.

albumcovermcleanAmerican Pie by Don McLean: Just like everyone else in the world, we chose this album 99% because of the title anthem, and 1% because Vincent was a decent song, too. AllMusic: “… the album has an overall elegiac quality that makes it sound like a final statement. After all, if the music has died, what else is there to say?” You can say the album cover was pretty decent.

Looking Glass by Looking Glass: This seemed like a dumb buy at the time, but it surprised me how much I liked it 43 years later. Thanks to the hit Brandy remaining in heavy rotation on Oldies stations, the songwriter will never go broke, but there was potential for much more. If you replaced the early 70s piano with a fiddle, this album would fit well with 21st century Americana music. AllMusic: “Their great one-shot hit ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)‘ pegged the group as a smiley, sunshiny AM pop frivolity, and while they surely shone in this regard, Looking Glass started out as a hard-boogying rock & roll band, and elements of that can be heard on their 1972 debut. It’s not enough to make the LP an unearthed hard rock treasure thanks in large part to producer Bob Liftin, who helped turn singer/songwriter Elliot Lurie’s “Brandy” into a seamless, sunny confection and wound up defanging whatever rock & roll bite the group had in the process.” Ouch.

Sammy_Davis_Jr._NowNow by Sammy Davis Jr.: … It’s your serve, AllMusic: “The song ‘Candy Man’ starts the first side off. Yes, this was the biggest-selling record Sammy Davis, Jr. ever had, but thankfully full appreciation of the dismal nature of that fact does not require repeated listening to the song itself. There are tracks enough on this album that are painful to sit through, without enduring this one.”

When we chose this tape, I thought it included Isaac Hayes singing The Theme from Shaft. The tape cover had an inset photo of Sammy together with Isaac. But Hayes did not sing on Sammy’s album. I suspect his attorneys made sure of that. The song is not even called The Theme from Shaft. It’s called John Shaft, which should have been a clear signal to put down the tape and walk away before anyone got hurt. Sammy’s version is sort of the same song as the original, but with a good dose of Vegas Schlock.

Let’s compare: In Hayes’ version, he says or sings 73 words in a song that is well over four minutes. We don’t hear Hayes’ voice until three minutes in, and the last thirty seconds of the song are instrumental. Less is more.

Do you think Sammy Davis, Jr. could wait three minutes into a song to start singing?  Though his song is shorter than the Hayes version, he had a lot of space to fill, and he did it with lyrics that I suspect he ad-libbed at the end.

Hey man, can you dig him?
Always looking so cool.
Together for days in all that leather.
Takin’ care of business, too, baby.

He’s always on the case.
I mean he gets it all together. (grunt)
Yeah, he’s bad, bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad.
Bad bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad. (Repeat.)

Sound engineer: “Sammy, how about we do a second take?”

Sammy: “Nope, I’m good with that one.”

Could Now get worse? Yes, if you choose to put McArthur’s Park on it. I’m not saying I have strong feelings about that song. However, if I could, I would tie it up in a gunny sack and dump it in a pond.

A+Passion+Play-1024x1015Still, Jeff and I paid only a couple of dollars for a lot of music. We did not reach our Columbia House nadir until Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play came in the mail. We had failed to return the card that said we did not want that album of the month. I still cannot describe what this progressive rock opera is about, but it may involve a recently-deceased guy looking back on his life. Or it may be a light-hearted musical about a puppy. I could go either way with it. All I know is, the album cover with a dead ballerina was enough to make me long for Best of Bread. I don’t believe the Scottish flutist Ian Anderson had a 14-year-old rural Missouri boy in mind when he created the record. I listened to thirty seconds of it before using it as a door stop.

Still, it was worth another listen a few days ago. I didn’t love it, but it was pretty good. Still not sure what it’s about, though. The ball is in your court, AllMusic: “… a dazzling mix of old English folk and classical material, reshaped in electric rock terms. The band is at its peak form, sustaining the tension and anticipation of this album-length piece across 45 minutes, although the music runs out of inspiration about five minutes before it actually ends.”

I may listen to A Passion Play again sometime. Not all of it–I’m not that into it–but some of it. And I would also listen to Honky Chateau again. The others? I don’t know. But if my parents run out of things to do, they can dig through the basement and perhaps find those old cassette tapes. Nothing can add zest to a cold night in northern Missouri like Sammy Davis, Jr. talkin’ ’bout Shaft.

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Our dog: the gift that keeps on giving (on our bed)

26 Dec

The Smith family is precariously close to dispensing with all Christmas giving pretense and getting our own gifts. This year, we spent an inordinate amount of time sending photos to each other. We did this to make sure we gave exactly what the other person wanted.

Which shirt color do you like?

Take a closer picture. Is that sky blue or aqua?

Even then, the first words out of the giver’s mouth Christmas morning:

I kept the receipt, if you’re not happy with the shirt. The one you approved as your gift. The one I showed you before I wrapped it last night.

What happened to the days when we opened a pack of tighty whities? Sure we were disappointed. But we still said thank you to Aunt Mollie, as well as to the Bangladeshi ten-year-old who made them.

Enough with the charades. Next year, we Smiths will buy our own gifts, wrap them, put them under the tree. We’ll fake surprise when they open them.

71PMb6vD7xL._SL1500_Ooh! A supersized stick of Old Spice deodorant! How did I know exactly what I wanted?

That will save a lot of time and disappointment.

This year, I still tried for an element of surprise. Wife #1 had been talking about replacing the comforter on our bed. I don’t know why we needed to replace the current comforter. The bed is always covered with countless pillows that obscure it. I often wonder how much of my life has been spent taking off those useless pillows at night and returning them to the bed the next morning. Still, I am an attentive husband. Therefore, I suggested Daughter #1 give her mother a new comforter. (My wife and I don’t officially exchange presents, though I seem to get a lot of gifts from the dog.)

Instead of making it a surprise, however, D1 asked W1 all sorts of questions: Color preference? Design? Piping? Duvet? Shams? I thought we were just getting a bed cover.

During this questioning, W1 told D1 she would like to have a white comforter, but she worried that I would get it dirty.

What? I work indoors. I shower semi-regularly. The only time I sit on the comforter is when I put on my socks and shoes. I did not realize I was a walking dirt ball. But our dog? That’s another story.

You can read more about the mutt here, but my wife adores that dog. The feeling is mutual. The rest of us are only bit players in their love affair. Therefore, no surprise, the dog sleeps on the bed. Here’s the problem: The dog is not young. The dog is mildly incontinent. Once or twice a week, I will find tiny round balls of dried poop on the comforter. I assume these “gifts” come from the dog, because I don’t want to imagine the alternatives. So why isn’t W1 worried about the dog getting the comforter dirty?

I’m asking myself this question as D1 and I stand in the linen section of a department store two days before Christmas. Time is wasting.

“Get the white comforter,” I say.20141226_074851

Christmas day: W1 loves the comforter. D1 launders it, along with its myriad accessories. She puts them on our bed that evening. She is a good daughter.

W1 and the dog sleep in the bed. I am allowed to sleep there, too. (I am but a guest in my bedroom.)

This morning, I discover a tiny ball of poop on the comforter. The dog has christened the bed. I don’t tell my wife, because what good would it do? She would look at me suspiciously, as though I were making it up to get the dog in trouble. Meanwhile, the dog would look at me with mild contempt.

But I know the truth, and so does Santa. That is why the dog received a lump of coal in her stocking Christmas morning. The jolly old elf and I know who has been naughty. It’s a an eight-pound ball of black fur.
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I don’t give a flyin’ !#@% what your kid’s ACT score is.

13 Aug

School has started again in our fair city, which means my lazy lying wife will disappear for the next ten months. She still claims she is a teacher, but I am now convinced she is a rock musician who goes on tour from August until June. This would explain why I rarely see her. When I do, she is very tired. Throwing down twenty-minute versions of Stairway to Heaven can do that to a person.

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I shudder to think what sordid acts she performs with her legions of groupies. Don’t worry. I have taken measures to stop this irresponsible behavior.

Smashed_guitar

On to more important issues: The start of school is also when my brain becomes clogged with the ACT scores* of half the student population in our fair city. If you are one of these students or one of their parents, please keep this information to yourself.

First, I don’t care.

Second, I still don’t care.

Third, my brain is already filled with useless data, such as the complete dialogue from the classic movie Night Shift. Each time someone shares an ACT score with me, which is none of my business, something else in my memory bank must be pushed out to make room for it.  I’m hanging on to Night Shift, which means something else must go.

Say, for example, you tell me your child’s ACT score is 27, which is none of my business, and how you’re going to hire a tutor because 27 ain’t gonna cut it with Duke. As much as I would  love to block this information, which is none of my business, from entering  my skull, I cannot. Therefore, something else must exit  my cranium, such as how to quickly convert Celsius to Fahrenheit (Celsius x 9 ÷ 5 + 32 = Fahrenheit).

What if, later, someone stops me on the street and asks, “Please, good sir. If the current temperature in Mumbai is 28 Celsius, what is it in Fahrenheit?”

Celsius x 9 ÷ 5… uh… “Sorry,” I say. “But this kid I barely know has an ACT score of 27. Not good enough for Duke.” Then I try to switch subjects by quoting Billy Blaze.

There is, however, a far better reason to keep ACT scores to yourself: It is not good form.

When I was a kid, my pappy told me:

  1. You don’t have to tell anyone how you voted.
  2. Don’t ask anyone how they voted.
  3. Don’t tell anyone how much you make for a living.
  4. Don’t ask anyone how much they make.
  5. Don’t ever call me “Pappy.”

Pappy, I mean, Dad had a good point, in part, because sharing such information will make someone feel either superior and inferior. It’s the same with test scores and grades in general. No matter what your kid’s test score is, someone somewhere is going to feel inadequate, stupid. Or someone is going to feel their kid is smarter than yours (unless yours receives a perfect score, in which case I bow down before you in all your genetic awesomeness).

Back in the halcyon days of my youth, the high school counselor told us seniors to drive up to the nearby university on a Saturday morning with a couple of #2 Ticonderogas and to take a test. We complied. That was the sum of our preparation. A few weeks later, I received my ACT scores in the mail. It was my understanding, following the ten seconds of attention I gave the letter, that colleges would consider my score before accepting or rejecting my application. I don’t remember what my ACT score was, but I hope it was at least in double digits.** I set aside the letter and forgot about it. Somehow, I survived without sharing this information with anyone. I assume my parents looked at my score at some point, but we never discussed it. I got into the school of my choice, got the degree I wanted, and entered the career I had been shooting for since high school. Yes, I know that was a different time. Even with all the emphasis on test prep and getting a good score, however, there is no reason to include the results on the family blog or Christmas newsletter.

Why do I need to know the ACT score of a friend’s son’s girlfriend? Why, oh why?

I remind my college sophomore daughter she never has to share her ACT score with anyone.*** I realize it’s asking a lot of a young person, because they share such data as easily as they share phone numbers. Still, I try. I tell my high school sophomore she never has to tell anyone any of her grades. This is no one’s business but hers and her parents. (Often, we would rather not know either.) It benefits no one to share such information. Stop it. Stop sharing it. Stop asking for it.

Don’t text it. Don’t tweet it. For love of God and all that is holy, don’t post it on Facebook. I don’t care. Neither should anyone else but you, your kid, and colleges that want to take as much of your money as they can.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to dig hole in the backyard for my lying wife’s new guitar.

 

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* The ACT is a college readiness assessment used by universities to separate the wheat from the chaff among college applicants. It is also one of the most effective means of making millions of young people feel inadequate and give them ulcers.

**For those of you who are blissfully ignorant, and how I wish I were one of you, a perfect ACT score is 36.

*** When my older daughter was a high school sophomore, I once shared a ACT practice test score with some acquaintances. I have never forgiven myself.

Thirty-seven years later

9 Jul

It didn’t hit you when you lost an old relative or a pet. It hit you when you lost someone your age. A good friend. Sixteen years old. Back when you still believed in Forever. When you finally understood that life was finite. Death transmuted from an amorphous concept into something so real it eviscerated your heart. When you realized Death could swoop in and boot you in the ass so hard you would never walk right again. When you realized Death took. It played no favorites and did not snatch only the elderly and twelve-year-old terriers. Death took the Young. Took Promise. Took the Future. Took without prejudice. Period, no comma. You woke up the next morning and learned he died, and you could not grasp the idea of it. Not at first. It took time to sink in, the fierceness of the loss, the unfairness of it. And you would never see him again. And when you came to realize it, you wept hard. You thought you were too old for that, so you hid away where no one could see you. And everyone left you alone because they didn’t know what to say. What could they say except I told you so? You wished you could go back in time just a handful of hours and how you could have changed all of it. How if you had been with him as usual, none of it would have happened. Because you had Luck, and it would have saved you both. Back then, you naively believed you possessed the power to avert Death, but you were a fool just like him.

You still feel guilty, because you weren’t there, and it was he who died, and you didn’t learn from it. Not right away. You made the same mistakes he made. Many times over. You got to Live. To Love. Because you had nothing but simple, cold luck. And you can’t let it go thirty-seven years later.

 

A River Adventure in Two Parts

30 Jun

CCF06242014_00000

April 1979

River Outfitter Guy
The Current River (or maybe Jacks Fork)
Somewhere south of Jeff City

Dude,

Awesome weekend!

Hey man, I don’t know if I stayed at your camp, but I’m pretty sure I stayed someplace. I was the dude wearing the Springsteen shirt, and I had a can of Busch in each hand. Party! Oh, and sorry about all the dents in the canoe. I’ll bet you can find that lost oar down near the AR border. Good thing oars float.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I lost my high school senior class ring in that place with all the weeds and trees. You know the place I’m talking about. It was already dark, and the buds and I were trying to find firewood so we wouldn’t have to pay for any. So yeah, I’d like to get that ring back if you come across it. Cost me close to $50, and it’s the second one I’ve lost. Most important ring I’ll ever own, right? It’s got green glass in the center, and the outside of it is real gold. I can’t afford to buy another one because I’m saving up for a pair of Bass Weejuns. They’re $50 easy, but the preppy girls love them. So, anyway, if you find the ring, mail it back to me here at college, dude.

Your pal,

Ron Smith

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June 30, 2014

Riverview Ranch
Meramec River
Bourbon, Missouri

Dear Camp Proprietor,

Thank you for providing such a wonderful venue for this past weekend’s float trip and camping adventure. After my old college friends and I visit our respective chiropractors and physical therapists, I am confident we will look back fondly on our time with you. Mentioning our various pains is not intended as an indictment of the fine accommodations you provided for our campsite. It’s simply that we are used to sleeping on thick memory foam mattresses rather than the hard ground. I presume your part of Missouri recently experienced a rock storm, which left sharp stones strewn everywhere?  I don’t recall the terra firma being so… firma  in my younger days.

In addition to thanking you for the wonderful time, however, I write to request a favor. Perhaps you will come across my custom-fitted mandibular advancement device, which prevents snoring, and return it to me at your earliest convenience. My dear spouse makes me sleep on the couch when I don’t have it.

I don’t remember the last time I saw the mandibular device, but I can provide some clues. I recall distinctly having it on my person when my chum Mark Z. requested I freshen up his cup of chamomile tea. I also can picture clearly setting down the device between Skip’s hemorrhoid cushion and Mark K.’s hernia truss when we all went to the aid of  Bob, whose back had seized up as he was putting a log on the fire. I am confident I still had the anti-snoring device later in the evening, because I threatened to hurl it at Mark K. when he spilled warm milk all over my linen/cotton blend Ralph Lauren slacks. (I believe the spillage was intentional, as Mark K. had earlier questioned the appropriateness of Ralph Lauren pants at a river campsite when “everyone knows Nautica is de rigueur on the Meramec.”).

After that, my memory becomes a little fuzzy. We really let our hair down Saturday night (those of us who have it), staying up nearly until nine-thirty. But when the young ruffians in the campsite next to ours were still making noise after ten o’clock, we felt we had to take action. I suspect those rascals had been imbibing something stronger than Mountain Dew. Had they no consideration for others? We strode over to their campfire and gave them a sturdy tongue-lashing, the likes of which they will not soon forget. After that exciting interlude, which required us to rescue Skip from the clutches of two scalawags who were holding him upside down over their fire, it took me a few minutes to calm down. With all the excitement, which included extinguishing the fire in Skip’s hair, I don’t recall if I still had the anti-snoring device.

Should you come across a mandibular device, it will surely be mine. The two Marks, Skip and Bob have confirmed that they made it home safely with theirs.

Warmest Regards,

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My wife is a lazy liar

6 Jun

It’s the last day of school for my lazy, lying wife. She says teachers still have to go to work, but that can’t be right. Teachers only work when the kids are at school. I wish she would come clean and admit she is not really a teacher.  School starts around 9:00 and dismisses at 3:45.  She leaves the house before seven each morning, and it’s only a fifteen or twenty minute drive to the “school” where she “teaches.” She comes home around six or six-thirty in the evening. Sometimes later. What is she doing with all the extra time?

6:57 a.m. and the bag lady leaves the house. Looking for an OTB parlor that opens early.

6:57 a.m. and the bag lady leaves the house. Looking for an OTB parlor that opens early.

When she gets home, I make sure dinner awaits the slacker. It’s a wonder she doesn’t demand I spoon-feed her. After dinner, she works on “lesson plans” and “grades papers.”  The way she describes it, the school district’s grade report system is so convoluted and labyrinthine that it must have been designed by Ernő Rubik. I am not fooled. I believe these “papers” she is working on are actually Racing Forms. I also believe she is a terrible gambler, which explains why we are not rich.

About ten or eleven at night, she comes to bed and pretends to be exhausted. She acts as though teaching 24 kids, some with significant emotional problems, is more challenging than having a real job. Who does she think she’s kidding? If she really is a teacher, how hard can it be to mark second grade homework? Does she have to look up the correct answer to 4 x 5 each time she grades a math assignment?

Hmm. This looks suspiciously like the lazy liar at the race track.

Hmm. This looks suspiciously like the lazy liar at the race track.

Because she’s so lazy, my wife rarely does “school work” on Saturdays, but she always spends part of Sundays pretending to do it. I see through her little act. She doesn’t want to do any real work on Sundays, like taking walks and going on bike rides with her fantastic husband. What a loser. If she likes to play the ponies, she should admit it. I would still love her, more or less.

I work at a real job, and I don’t go to nearly as many “meetings” as my wife does. Many of her meetings, she says, are focused on discussing test results, new testing procedures, testing tests, test testing, tester testing, and test testing testers. Occasionally, she says, these meeting diverge into other topics such as testing evaluations. Some meetings allegedly occur during school hours when my wife should be “teaching.” These meetings are dreamed up by highly-paid, redundant administrators who have clandestine responsibilities no one can figure out. At the end of these meetings, it is determined that “teachers” at my wife’s school are not spending enough time teaching.

This is too illogical to be true. That’s why I know my wife is lying.

My lazy, lying wife can’t get enough of meetings. This is why she is lucky to be a “person of color.”  She is often called on to represent the “school staff” on “committees” that need some “diversity.” As a consequence, she stays late at “school” to discuss issues other than “school work” or tasks directly related to “teaching.” If a person has such an easy job, she should not complain about attending lengthy meetings to discuss the latest tester testing results.

Last night, my wife came home from school after 10:30 p.m. What? Is she teaching night school now?

She should be thankful she does not have a real job. In my job, which is real and has been known to require multiple hours of work on some days, I go into the supply room and load up any time I’m running short of pens and paper. If my company told me to buy my own supplies, I would laugh and tell them to piss off. This is the way it works at a real job. But my wife spends hundreds of dollars each school year buying “supplies.” How many backpacks and calculators does one woman need? She says they are for students who can’t afford them, but really? These students are like her customers. I don’t buy supplies for my customers. That would be silly.

What a liar my wife is.

This summer, the school district that allegedly employs my lying wife is renovating the school building where she claims to teach. The district has required all the “teachers” to pack up everything in their classrooms and store it for the summer. The school district is providing some storage, as long as the contents can survive a couple of months in a container as hot as a vinyl car seat  in Hell’s parking lot. But anything that could become damaged by the heat is the responsibility of the “teachers.” Seriously, what employer would ask its employees to provide their own storage when they renovate work space? I saw a transaction in our bank account for “Storage Facility.” I believe this is the name of a four-year-old gelding that finished out of the money in the seventh race last Thursday at Churchill Downs.

Here’s the final proof that that my lazy wife is a big liar: Despite all the so-called hassles she puts up with at her “school,” my wife talks about her students like they are her own children. A week from now, she will lament how much she misses “her kids” during the summer. Even the ones who “take things without permission,” and the ones who “stretch the truth” despite overwhelming evidence otherwise.

Okay, perhaps my wife is not a lazy liar. Perhaps she is just crazy.

 

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P.S. Happy Anniversary to the big liar, who will probably stay at “school” late tonight.

Dear college my daughter attends

15 May

Before I get to the crux of this letter, my daughter had a great first year of college. She acclimated well. You challenged her academically. She felt safe on campus. For all of that, her mother and I are grateful.

Now, about the letter you sent us—the one asking us to give to the Parents Fund, which, among other things, you say provides scholarships for other students. Look, I’m all for giving every kid an opportunity to go to a fine university like yours. But we’re a little tied up right now helping support our daughter’s education. Three years from now, we’ll have another daughter hitting college age, so it will be awhile before we’re in a position to contribute.

Don’t worry. I offer an immediate alternative. You don’t have to look far to find it.

Stop_Making

 

Voilà. Problem solved.

I’m not trying to pick on you, because nearly every college does the same thing. But hey, you sent us the letter, so…

College tuition has become like the MSRP for a new car. Everybody knows you’ll drop the price faster than a hipster caught holding an Air Supply album. The only question is how much. It makes no sense to expect your current customers to help support discounts for future customers.

n_Audi012Continuing the new-car analogy, let’s say I want to buy a 2015 Audi A6 (which I will… in 2021). It has an unholy sticker price of $56 thousand. I would be a fool to pay that.

“How much would you really take for it?”I ask the saleswoman.

She pretends to give it some serious thought.

“Fifity-five,” she says.

At this point, I can agree to the small “discount,” because I don’t enjoy haggling. Or I can continue the little dance.

“I won’t give a penny over fifty,” I say.

“The lowest we can go is fifty-two,” the saleswoman says.

With a grumble, I nod my acceptance.

Now let’s say the dealership calls me two weeks later and says, “Ron, we have a nice couple in here looking at the same car you bought, but they can’t afford sticker. If you would contribute a little money to the dealership, we can cut them a deal.”*

 

It sounds silly, but that’s what you’re doing when you request our help with scholarships.

Before you say that is not a fair comparison, I present you Exhibit A:

According to an article in the New York Times late last year, Converse College in South Carolina cut its tuition 43%, eliminating discounts, and did not lose revenue. A handful of other colleges are trying the same approach. I suspect you’ve already read the article, but let me quote a bit of it:

For decades, most private college pricing has reflected the Chivas Regal effect — the notion that whether in a Scotch or a school, a higher price indicates higher quality.

“Schools wanted a high tuition on the assumption that families would say that if they’re charging that high tuition, they must be right up there with the Ivies,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “So schools would set a high tuition, then discount it. But when the schools in your peer group all have discounts, it becomes an untenable competition for students, with everyone having to increase their discounts.”

Colleges have become like car dealerships, each one trying to out-discount the other and not helping their bottom lines in the process. If there is any hang-up with the car analogy, it’s that you have to discount your product a lot more than a car dealership to remain competitive.

The problem is, the cost of college still remains too high after you discount it. Exhibit B: A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine, which reports how ridiculous the cost of college has become at the same time the value of a four-year degree is decreasing:

“Tuition costs at public and private colleges were, are and have been rising faster than just about anything in American society – health care, energy, even housing. Between 1950 and 1970, sending a kid to a public university cost about four percent of an American family’s annual income. Forty years later, in 2010, it accounted for 11 percent. Moody’s released statistics showing tuition and fees rising 300 percent versus the Consumer Price Index between 1990 and 2011.

Read the full article.

As I was drafting this letter, I came across an opinion piece on Al-Jazeera’s web site entitled College is a Promise the Economy Does Not Keep.**  Here’s a snippet:

College does not offer a better future, but a less worse one. College is not a cure for economic insecurity, but a symptom of the broader plague of credentialism.

 Read the full piece.

Again from the Rolling Stone article:

The average student now leaves school owing $27,000 – by entering an economy sluggishly jogging uphill at a fraction of the speed of climbing education costs.

Yikes. So, our kids are going into debt and for something that may not pay off for them. College loans are bad juju. When my daughter applied to eleventy-three colleges last year, she received some “aid” offers in the form of unsubsidized loans. If my daughter has to pay back more than she gets, particularly if she is still paying it back when she’s in her thirties and beyond, that’s not aid. That’s a cast-iron yoke around her future.

Any school that advises, encourages or otherwise eases the way for students to assume loan debt is doing a disservice to the student. Yet, thousands of students go deep in debt every year because they have been inculcated with the notion it’s unavoidable.***

Six bits of disclosure your college admissions counselors should share with prospective students:

  1. No correlation exists between the size of the tuition and the quality of the education or the ability to get a good job after graduation.
  2. College rankings are a joke, often based on loosey-goosey criteria that, again, have little if any connection to learning and job prospects.
  3. Choose a college for reasons other than rankings. For example, a particular academic program, the campus atmosphere, college town vs. city, region of the country, enrollment size, furriness of the mascot, etc.
  4. Choose a college that will challenge you, even if it’s ranked 256th among southwest northern regional universities with at least six letters in their name.
  5. Go to college for the right reasons. Unlike previous generations, a four-year degree doesn’t guarantee a long career or even a job.
  6. If you will assume huge loans to attend here, pick somewhere less expensive.

That is all. Have a good summer.

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*I would still be a fool to pay $52 thousand for a car, but I would also be a fool to pay $52 thousand for a year of college.

** “The New York Times? Rolling Stone? And now Al-Jazeera? What’s next? The Communist Manifesto?”

***I have a cheap state university education, yet I can still wield words like “inculcate.” Amazing.

 

Twenty or so reasons we should celebrate May Day

1 May

My mother and her friend, Wilma Jean, celebrated May Day. No, they did not march through Red Square in Moscow endorsing eighty hour-work weeks for little pay. They kept alive the ancient rite of Northern European pagans welcoming the coming of summer. And really, what smalltown Missouri girl in the forties didn’t love a good pagan ritual?

Here’s how May Day worked:

  1. Pick wildflowers.
  2. Make a paper basket.
  3. Place flowers in the basket.
  4. Throw in some candy if available.
  5. Place the May baskets on the porches of neighbors.
  6. Knock on the door.
  7. Run like hell.

Number seven was very important. According to tradition, you would have to exchange kisses with the person answering the door if they caught you. This would seem to limit the houses where you would leave baskets. For example, you might skip the house of the track star with exceedingly bad halitosis.

download (1)“This was before pesticides,” Mom said, meaning there was a greater inventory of wildflowers back in the day. “We would fill the baskets with Sweet Williams and Gentlemen’s Breeches.”

This brings to mind two questions. First, why isn’t there a bluegrass band named Gentlemen’s Breeches? Second, why don’t we all celebrate May Day?

Reasons we should:

  1. May Day is about giving.
  2. It’s like Halloween Opposite Day
  3. If you’re lucky, you’ll return home after delivering baskets to find one left for you.
  4. Still, giving is much more fun.
  5. It’s also a good way to get exercise.
  6. As long as you don’t pull a hammy running away.
  7. It’s a way to kick off warm weather that does not require a weed eater.
  8. May Day involves the entire family.
  9. That four-year-old ain’t gonna drive himself to every house.
  10. He’s not going to make the baskets either.
  11. And he’ll quickly get bored picking flowers.
  12. Still, think of the memories he’ll make.
  13. Delivering May Day baskets requires sneakiness.
  14. The anonymity of it means you don’t have to worry about matching the quality of the other person’s gift.
  15. It’s cheap.
  16. Everything can be made with materials on hand.
  17. We need another good holiday.
  18. Hallmark needs to fill the gap between Easter and Mother’s Day.
  19. Chances are extremely slim you would be shot by a homeowner.
  20. Chances are also low that you would be attacked by a pit bull.
  21. Chances of being shot by a pit bull with an assault rifle are just short of nil.
  22. A pit bull might appreciate a good May basket, if you throw in a Milkbone.
  23. Upwards of three percent of the population does not suffer from wildflower allergies.

Mom passed on the May Day tradition to her children. I loved it. When it was just my older brother and me, we lived in Iowa surrounded by Andersons, Hendersons, Sigmunds and other farmers with Scandinavian sounding names. Many of them would have been familiar with May Day. Some of them may have danced around a maypole or two in their younger days. Finding May baskets on their porches wasn’t so strange. The May baskets we made were actually paper cones made from wrapping paper. It took a lot of flowers to fill the cones, so we filled them with popcorn, mixing in a few dandelions and violets. That’s right, we gave away our weeds. We made up for that by adding butterscotch and peppermint candy. download

When I was five, we moved to a small town in northwest Missouri. May Day came around, and we delivered May baskets again. That’s what everyone did on May 1, right?

A year later we moved to another small town. (I think Dad shot a man in Reno, and we were trying to stay ahead of the Law.) May 1 arrived. We delivered May baskets. So what if no one had brought May baskets to our house? That wasn’t the point. We loved giving and sneaking.

Two years later, we moved again. Hooray! It’s May Day again! By this time, I was a few weeks away from my ninth birthday. Jeff, my brother, was about to turn ten. We were on the cusp of getting too old for May Day, but not quite. Our younger sister was four—old enough now to enjoy the wonder of May Day. We now lived close to our grandparents. We would deliver baskets to them and to our neighbors. My brother also left a basket on the doorstep of a girl he was sweet on. “La la la la la, life is grand. Everybody loves May Day!”

No, they didn’t. Maybe they would have, it they had known about it. But they didn’t.

What in God’s good name are those strange Smith kids doing? Leaving popcorn and weeds on people’s porches?  Wrapped up in old Christmas wrapping paper, no less. Their garbage can must be full. They haven’t got the sense of a garden slug. Boy, I knew they were odd ducks the day they moved here. This proves it. Bunch of loonies.

That year was the last year we celebrated May Day. But I miss it, and I want to bring it back.

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$427.88 is burning a hole in my pocket

10 Jan

Many years ago, after my Grandma Brown died, a little cash remained from her estate. Mom distributed it to us grandchildren. My wife and I used our share to buy a cheap entertainment center, because nothing memorializes a deceased grandparent like pressed-wood furniture from K-Mart. Every time one of the kids rammed a Big Wheel into a corner of it, I smiled and thought of Grandma.

This week, I received a chance for a do-over of sorts. I came across a few U.S. savings bonds, which I had stashed in a safe. The discovery was like a super-charged version of finding dimes and nickels beneath couch cushions.  The savings bonds were gifts from the same side of the family, the Browns. “The Aunts,” as my mom called them, were Grandpa Brown’s three younger sisters. None of them had children, and two of them, Geneve and Imo, never married. Much of their affection, instead, trickled down to their nieces and nephews, even great nephews like me.

MZgrad

Aunt Geneve on my right and Aunt Imo on my left, along with Uncle Gilbert, Aunt Eloise and their granddaughters Laurel and Allison.

The aunts attended every significant event in my young life that can be mentioned in polite company, from graduations to my only wedding so far. When I was a freshman in college, Aunt Geneve paid $75 for a savings bond in my name. As I thought of ways to hit three keggers in one night, my great aunt pondered my more distant future.

The savings bond would mature in thirty years, nearly ten years after Aunt Geneve’s death. I learned about the money only then. The $75 she paid would be equivalent to about $280 today. That was not pocket change when considering she had three generations of nieces and nephews. (When my daughter was born 19 years ago, Aunt Geneve bought one for her, too.)  Aunt Imo did the same. She bought a savings bond for me in 1985, which will mature in a couple of years; I did not know about that one either until her death. They did not need me to know about their gift while they were still alive. That was not important to them.

After many years, I still feel loved by the aunts, and I feel their pride, too, even though I haven’t always deserved it. You know when you do something you’re not proud of and someone comes to mind that would be disappointed in you? That’s never happened to me. If it did, however, I would picture the aunts.

When my girls were born, I wanted to name one of them Geneve. I chickened out for fear of hurting the feelings of the other aunts, who were still alive. (Maybe it’s not too late. Perhaps my fifteen-year-old isn’t completely sold on her name, yet.) Gifts and keepsakes from the aunts, such as ornaments, painted pottery, and a small linen dresser, decorate our house. Those items help keep the aunts fresh in my mind.

Every time The Sound of Music comes on television, I tell anyone in the room that Aunt Geneve and Aunt Imo took my brother and me to see the movie at a theater in St. Joe. I remember that I did not want to see some stupid old musical with that damn Julie Andrews. I kept that thought to myself, however, and, ten minutes into the movie, I loved it. And I loved Aunt Geneve and Aunt Imo even more for taking us. Two old women and two teenage boys at the movies.

I also remember the blue and green striped tie the aunts bought me at JC Penney’s in St. Joe. I had visited them one last time following college and before moving across three states to start my career. Aunt Imo and Aunt Geneve, true to their Midwestern upbringing, were economical with words during that last visit. But I felt their love then. I still do.

I don’t know what Aunt Geneve thought I would be doing 30 years after she bought that savings bond. I don’t know what she would want me to use the money for today. However, I believe she would say, “It is your money, Ronnie. Do what you think is best.” I was not a perfect kid. Perhaps the aunts thought thirty years would be enough time for me to mature a bit.

While my maturity is still in question, the savings bond from Aunt Geneve matured more than five years ago. (If the IRS is reading this, I’ll pay the back taxes right away.) I cashed it yesterday for $427.88. I have tried to think of something appropriate to do with the money. We have a few needs at home. For example the clothes dryer takes about an hour to dry a pair of nylon socks. More selfishly, I did not get the noise cancelling head phones Santa promised. And one of those GoPro cameras would really make my week.

I have an idea, though. Aunt Geneve was an educator and a devout Baptist. She loved kids, and she has countless former elementary school and Sunday school students all over the country who I’m sure remember and admire her. It’s time to pass it on. Four hundred dollars and change is not much, not even enough to buy a clothes dryer. But it can do a bit of good. Small children who never knew Aunt Geneve can still benefit from her generosity. I believe they will feel a special, comforting presence they won’t know by name. That would be fine with Aunt Geneve.

Here’s to all the aunts, uncle and other saints who loved and supported us despite our warts and foibles.

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Mandela, an airport, and progress

6 Dec

You can learn a thing or two about a country by visiting its busiest airport. For example, the Atlanta airport may say about America that our connections with each other are becoming more distant, and it has become harder to make them. But if we fail, we can always count on a nearby Sbarro.

In 1992, my uncle and I passed through the main airport in Johannesburg on our way to visit my brother in Botswana. Apartheid in South Africa was in its death throes;  the first universal vote was two years away. The country still seemed shut off from the rest of the world. Our flight on South African Airways landed at dawn, and our connecting flight to Gaborone, Botswana wouldn’t leave until mid-afternoon. We had the better part of a day to waste at the airport, which was then named for Jan Smuts, a British colonial who had served as South Africa’s prime minister in the thirties and forties. Smuts was a segregationist.

SAAI’ve been to airports in remote places like Honduras, Nicaragua, Mazatlan, Zambia and Orange County, but the Jan Smuts airport was the worst. A three-story concrete block building, it was the backwater of backwater airports. An oleo of travelers from the Southern Hemisphere’s diaspora occupied all the seats in the small departure lounge on the first floor. There were few signs explaining where we could go for a little more space to begin our eight-hour wait. No one seemed helpful. After a little searching, Uncle Royce and I found an empty lounge on the third floor furnished with ratty, overstuffed couches and chairs. It looked like a college dormitory lounge in the seventies. Except for a few vending machines, there were no cafes or other concessions except in the ground-level departure lounge. I was afraid to use the bathroom. People in that part of the world apparently did not relieve themselves the same way Americans did. At Jan Smuts, it involved standing over a metal grate. I still can’t get my mind around it. The only thing that worked well at the airport was the PA system, which repeatedly blared updates on departure times, first in Afrikaans and then in English. I can still hear that woman’s voice: South African Airways flight 232 to Bulawayo has been delayed…  Zimbabwe. Now there was a country on the move. Robert Mugabe and his revolutionaries had vanquished the Rhodesians more than a decade earlier, and Zimbabwe was going places. South Africa could learn a thing or two from Zimbabwe, I thought.

Two years later, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. During his presidency, his country made the relatively peaceful move from apartheid to universal democracy in which citizens of all colors had a say in their country’s future. More important, Mandela initiated a national reconciliation in which whites and blacks together would  move the country forward. Fifteen years after my first visit, my family and I returned to see my brother and his wife. We again had to go through the Johannesburg airport. It is now called O.R. Tambo International Airport, named after an anti-apartheid leader, and it feels like a real international airport. Escalators? It has them. A shopping mall with overpriced trinkets? You bet. Best of all, some of the cleanest, nicest bathrooms in the world. The best hand driers, too. www.gauteng.net-OR-Tambo-International_1-620x0

South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup. When my family was there three years earlier, the city seemed to buzz with anticipation. Everywhere around the airport, workers were putting up high-rise hotels. Everyone was busy. People seemed happy. At the airport. I repeat, people (excluding customs officials who must scowl) seemed genuinely happy at the airport. Nelson Mandela doesn’t deserve all the credit for that. As far as I know, he never worked as a skycap. But the difference in atmosphere in that one little area of South Africa had changed dramatically. A strong leader who “gets it,” one who understands that one group can’t progress if another group gets left behind, can have a great impact. Look at Zimbabwe now. Robert Mugabe has turned that country into a backwater, because he chose to put the few ahead of the many. Mostly, he has put himself ahead of everyone.

When someone asks me that clichéd question about what three people I would like to have dinner with, I would first choose the two pickiest eaters I know so there would be more food for me. Then I would pick Nelson Mandela. I would like to know how he became so much wiser than just about everyone else. We could use a lot more Mandelas.

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