Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

You should have learned this in third grade

14 Aug

Notice: This is not a political post, but it is one about history.

As people filed into the funeral home for my father’s service, I was reminded again how good are the people I grew up with and was mentored by in my hometown. It does take a village, and I grew up in a good one. It provided a needed reminder for me in light of how rural people are often classified and regarded in today’s divided society. But there is a very small minority of you in that county whom I must address. Those who attended Dad’s funeral will not tell you this, but I am certain many of them are embarrassed by those of you who think it is acceptable to fly the godforsaken Confederate flag in your yard. Let me say what I believe they are thinking: You are imbeciles.

Here is a brief geography lesson that perhaps you napped through in third grade: You live in northern Missouri. In fact, you live so close to Iowa you can drive to the first town across the state line, buy a six-pack, and be back in front of your wide screen watching the Royals play the Rangers within 30 minutes. I’m not suggesting you would actually do this because even you know Iowa beer is overpriced. But that’s not the point.

And now here is a history lesson, which you also should have learned in grade school: If your people go back generations in northern Missouri, you have relatives who fought for the Union in the Civil War. You know, the Federals, the North, the Blues. The Winning Side. Therefore, don’t try that “Heritage” nonsense with anyone. We ain’t buying it.

Merrill-Col.-Group-Photo-11565

Merrill’s Horse Reunion, Bethany, Missouri. Image Courtesy Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

If you want something to be proud of, be proud of this: Many dirt farmers and store clerks, possibly including at least one of your ancestors, joined the 2nd Missouri Volunteers, aka Merrill’s Horse, aka the freaking cavalry during the Civil War. The honest-to-God, kick-ass cavalry. And I don’t use “kick-ass” frivolously. These guys were not guarding railroads. They were shooting those guys whose flag you’re flying. Merrill’s Horse was directly responsible for helping drive the rebels out of Missouri. In fact, they kicked their butts all the way back to the Deep South, where Merrill’s Horse continued to kick butt and take names. They were in significant battles along the way, which you can read more about here on Wikipedia, which is never wrong.

When the war was over, the men in Merrill’s Horse came back home and took up their plows and store aprons again. “Hero” gets used a lot these days when it shouldn’t be, and I hesitate to call these men heroes because I don’t know much about any of them. But I do believe they were pretty close to heroic. And if one of their neighbors had decided to fly the stars and bars after the war, well…I pity the fool.

If you want to fly a flag because of pride in your heritage, there is a pretty good one that flies over our nation’s capitol. But that other one? Lighter fluid sells pretty cheaply in Iowa.

 

Advertisements

In the wake of the mayhem

13 Oct

Let me get this out of the way first: This is not a post about gun control.

Okay, now we can move on.

As I write this, the Mass Shooting Tracker has logged 373 mass shootings in America this year. Check here to see the current number. The tracker defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more people, including the shooter, are shot. Simple as that. The FBI defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more random victims are killed, not counting the shooter. In either definition, families are left in a world of hurt. Yet, the volume of mass shootings has caused many of us to become inured to stories of them.

That’s what my new novel, Come up a Cloud, is about. “Come up a Cloud” is an old expression that means it looks like rain. It can portend menace, or it can indicate hope. In Come up a Cloud, I cloudcover_fbimagine how a mass shooting in a small town affects its residents. Because the killer shot himself, where will the families of the victims direct their hurt and anger?  Will they seek revenge against someone else? Or can they forgive?

And what about the parents of the killer? How can they properly mourn? How can they forgive themselves and their son?

Here’s the prologue:

The bald tires whined on the bucket-of-bolts truck as it rattled past Sandstrum’s Machine Shop on Route 4. Out of the corner of his eye, the farmer behind the wheel glimpsed a plump figure in camouflage pants loitering near the back corner of the corrugated tin building. The old man would have assumed it was one of the machinists taking a smoke break, except the person wore an odd headpiece. It looked like a Viking helmet, like the ones you saw at Minnesota football games. The other odd thing: The Viking held a rifle canted downward. The gun looked like one of those fancy Bushmasters, which copied M-16s like the one the farmer had carried in the jungle.

The farmer rummaged his brain for any hunting season starting in early August. Squirrel season wouldn’t kick off for a few more weeks, not that a flimsy law stopped anyone who craved pan-fried rodent. He’d heard Bushmaster made a .22, which wasn’t much more than a peashooter dressed up like a serious piece of work. Anything more powerful would rip a squirrel to thunder. And wearing desert camo to hunt squirrels? That was even less necessary than an assault rifle, unless squirrels had gotten a lot smarter than they used to be.

The farmer decided the hunter was one of Sandstrum’s friends, a city fool who had come up to pretend-hunt. That didn’t explain the helmet, but lots of things city people did were hard to explain. He headed down the road to Snoots for a lunch of ham sandwich and PBR. He would give the camoed figure no more thought until he heard the sirens thirty minutes later.

The novel is not a basket of warm and fuzzies. Still, it is not without hope, and I hope you will find it worthwhile.

You can buy the book here.

Better yet, support your local independent book seller. Here’s mine.

Signature

 

 

 

The Case of the Sullied Samsonite

22 Jan

A snowflake was allegedly spotted 30 miles southeast of our city, so we’re on DEFCON 1 around here. Schools and a lot of business are closed. Since we humans no longer have to worry much about saber-toothed tigers or the Bubonic plague, I think we’re secretly excited about the dangers of puffy snow. But what do I know?

I stopped by the grocery store to get some yogurt for work this morning. I noticed the cheese section was wiped out. So was the toilet paper section. It would seem much of one would eliminate the need for much of the other, but again, what do I know?

Time to conjure warm memories.

ThermoSeveral years ago on a humid Saturday in late July: The air was so hot mosquitoes were spontaneously combusting in mid-flight. I did not want to go outside, but I had to. Those food scraps weren’t going to walk out to the compost pen by themselves. I’m a man, and that’s what men are for. No matter how hot it gets. No matter how much sweat may trickle down a man’s forehead into his eyes, he has to take the heat.

The compost pen is out by our garage near the back alley. It’s scary out there near the alley, because of things a man may see that he can’t un-see. Things like bugs and maybe a vicious squirrel or two. A man never knows.

I took the banana and apple peels out to the compost, the scalding ground burning the soles of my Nikes as I strode. When I arrived, I saw something against the back fence I did not expect to see and never want to see again. A man, no matter how tough he may be, never wants to see that. No, not that.

It was a grungy blue vinyl suitcase. Not a particularly large suitcase. Not very small either. Like something you’d take on a trip if you’re only going to stay over one night, but want to pack an extra change of clothes in case you go to the Spaghetti Factory for dinner and accidentally spill sauce on your chinos and you don’t want to wear your return-home pants two days in a row. Something about that size. But then, if you’re carrying around a suitcase that dirty, perhaps a little Prego on your khakis is not such a big issue.

I approached the mysterious blue suitcase with trepidation. I lifted it. It contained something a bit heavy. I don’t mean heavy in an emotional sense like a Nicholas Sparks novel about someone who falls in love the same day they learn they have a terminal illness, but heavy weight-wise. Its heft filled me with dread. I could imagine it contained a severed appendage, maybe a head, or stolen drugs. I could imagine nothing good. But a man, the kind of tough individual who takes table scraps to the compost pen on a 98-degree summer day, has to do what he has to do. I slowly unzipped the suitcase, my eyes all but closed as though that would make it easier to see what I was about to see. Oh, the humanity. I did not expect to see that.

The suitcase was packed solid with tubes of Colgate toothpaste. Not sample sizes. Not in boxes. Not half-used. Not Crest or Sensodyne. More suitcasemysterythan one hundred shiny tubes of Colgate.

I looked around and detected nothing but quiet. Even the squirrels had stopped chittering. I decided the smart option was to do nothing. I re-zipped the suitcase and left it where it was next to the back fence of our yard. I returned to the coolness of the house. I sat in the den as the 43rd rerun of a Lenny Briscoe Law & Order episode droned on the television. No more than fifteen minutes passed before I could no longer resist. Forget Lenny. I had my own mystery to solve. I had to go back out there, no matter the risk, no matter the danger, and open that suitcase one more time. Burning questions needed answers. What? Who? Why Colgate? Why not Oral-B?

I would not get my answers. The suitcase was gone.

Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled.

I have my theories about the suitcase and its owner, but what is your theory? If you think someone walking through the alley could have grabbed it, that’s possible. But it would have been hard to see over or through the back fence because of all the bushes. I gotta trim those.

 

Signature

NOW: Never before seen iconic photographs

23 Oct

Dear Smithsonian American Art Museum,

You guys are doing a great job there, storing old stuff adults can drag their kids to see. But many young ones don’t care. Imagine the carbon dioxide generated from all the dramatic sighs. If you combine the CO2 buildup contributed by your young visitors with that of the bloviators on Capitol Hill, you could argue Washington D.C. is ground-zero for climate change.

However, it is not only the under-21 set that finds your product a tad dull. I have identified the culprit: your failure to keep pace with the latest photographic trends. These trends provide a certain change in perspective.

Allow me to help. I have captured iconic scenes since before cameras were invented. Though I am not as famous as Ansel Adams or Diane Arbus, I have a certain contemporary sensibility that is lacking in their work. And in your exhibits.

My time has come.

When Dorothea Lange took the famous “Migrant Mother” photograph nearly 80 years ago in California, I was there. After Dottie snapped her pic, I jumped in to take a much better one. My photograph depicts the human effects of migration during the Depression, but includes a soupçon of egocentricity. Asking price: One selfie stick with aircraft-grade aluminum pole and built-in wired shutter.

DepressionSelfie

 

Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 Iwo Jima flag raising pic won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography. But do we know for certain Joe was actually there? Of course not, because he did not include himself in the photo. Major oversight coupled with outdated 20th century thinking. My photo is better, because it documents for posterity my bravery. Asking price: One authentic battle-used World War II helmet I’ll claim to have worn when I single-handedly captured an enemy platoon.

Iwoselfie

 

Because you’re in the picture business, I’m sure you’re envious regarding the purported Billy the Kid tintype that recently came to light. It’s the one experts say is worth five million dollars and is only the second known image of the infamous bandit. However, there is a third photo. I was playing croquet with a few of my pals down in New Mexico when Billy and his gang showed up and asked to join us. I said why not, but I wanted to snap a pic first. Or, as we said in those days, “take a tinny.” Billy didn’t see the harm in it and suggested I be in the frame, too, because otherwise what good would the photo be. Technically, this image does not include Billy, because the sun was quite harsh that day and I wore my big hat. I inadvertently obscured my new chum. Therefore, I offer this photo exclusively to the Smithsonian for half the value of the other one: Just 2.5 million dollars. Also, enough mirrors to cover every wall in my house. By the way, Billy couldn’t hit a croquet peg to save his life.

Billyselfie

 

 

If your interests run older and more colorful, no problem. As I mentioned, I have been at this game a long time. I was strolling through the streets of Milan in the late 1400s, stopping occasionally to paint selfies of myself in front of old buildings, when I came across a guy named Leo painting a restaurant scene on the wall of a cafeteria. I was not impressed, because the scene reminded me of most parties I attended in college. (12 guys to every female.) More important, Leo’s mural lacked an essence of self-absorption that is critical in any modern masterpiece. I re-painted his scene to make it more marketable. I learned later I failed to paint the guy who was picking up the tab for the meal, but that’s secondary to making sure  I was in the picture. Asking price: Photoshop lessons plus an even larger hat to contain my enormous head.

supperselfie2

 

 

Get with the times, Smithsonian. No photo can be any good if the taker is not also in the frame.

Signature

An open letter to my seamstress

10 Jul

Dear Chumkee,

We don’t know each other, but we have a lot in common. I just bought a new shirt at Stein Mart. Because you sew a ton of shirts every day, there’s a chance you made mine. Small world, huh?

All my apparel originates from exotic locales. When I visited a small South American city earlier this year, I had to buy a shirt because I had run out of clean clothes. There’s a saying in parts of America that women glow rather than sweat. Though I am not a woman, I was lit up like a nuclear power plant in full meltdown. I believed it easier and nearly as cheap to buy another shirt rather than launder the one I wore. Though I mistakenly asked in Spanish for a “ladies blouse,” I left the store with a man’s peach-striped short sleeve shirt fabricated from space-age material. The best part was the label, which indicated my new shirt was “Hecho en Colombia.” I bought local.

?

An inexpensive shirt with peach stripes.

LaDoradaBoughtShirt

Great place to buy a cheap shirt when you’re sweating buckets.

However, I cannot always afford to buy my clothing on location. That is why you’re so important to me. Because of children like you, I don’t have to visit the countries where my  apparel is produced. My clothes are shipped directly to the United States. Their final destination before purchase is just minutes from my house. They await me arrayed in colorful displays at Old Navy and TJ Maxx. My clothes are tailored to my exacting standards by masters of their trade, just like you, in far-off lands such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and a little country called “China.”

Although the cost of everything from housing to food has risen, it is paramount I pay no more for my clothes than I did thirty years ago. When I was in college and could barely afford to pay my monthly rent, I still wanted to look good. I did not realize it took more than nice clothes to accomplish this, but naiveté ain’t always a bad thing. I spent a high percentage of what we Americans call disposable income on clothes. My favorite buy was a pale yellow, 100% cotton pinpoint oxford with a button-down collar. I paid $30 for this versatile garment at the Mister Guy clothing store near campus. That’s where all the preppies shopped. A preppy is someone who dresses like he has a corncob stuck up his backside. I dressed this way in college.

Thirty dollars is a lot of money, am I right? I mean, that’s about half what you make in a month. So, just imagine what it was like way, way back in 1980 for a guy who made $4 an hour spinning Waylon Jennings records at a country bar. Not since I wore a lavender sweater shirt in seventh grade to drive the ladies wild did I so cherish an article of clothing. I looked forward to each laundry day so I could again wear that perfectly fitting beauty.

But the idyllic days of my relationship with that magnificent example of American textile craftsmanship were short-lived. A college roommate, whom I am too classy to identify here, shot off a bottle rocket which landed in my laundry basket. When the gunpowder cloud cleared, I discovered my beloved button-down had been assassinated with extreme prejudice. It had burn holes everywhere. The period for mourning my precious shirt was made worse when my roommate, who never amounted to anything, replaced it with a cheap polyester knockoff. He paid a few dollars for it at a discount department store that is, for good reason, no longer in business. I believe the replacement shirt was designed for a pregnant woman. Its sleeves were too short, and it came with enough belly room to hide a Toyota subcompact. I tried to give away the shirt to Goodwill, but they rejected it because they could not forensically identify the material’s composition.

I know you’re busy sewing belt loops on a pair of skinny jeans, so I’ll get to the point of this letter. I’m writing to thank you. Today, my $30 yellow shirt would cost three times as much if clothing costs followed inflation. But I don’t have to pay $90 for nice shirts in 2015. I mean, if I did, you would probably be paid a lot more, right? That’s crazy talk. Instead, I can still buy a decent shirt for $30 or $40, just like I did 35 years ago. It means so much to me that highly trained artisans like you, some as old as ten or eleven, spend long hours each day making sure I have cheap clothing to wear. To you and all the other seamstresses and seamsters out there, I tip my cap. (A cap you may have sewn, by the way.)

If it were not for you, I would not be able to pay less than the price of a tank of gas for a Polo knit. So, I now honor you for your hard work. And I hereby acknowledge and celebrate all my tailors by location, if not by name, with this quick rundown of shirt labels in my closet:

  • Bangladesh (6 shirts)
  • Sri Lanka (5)
  • China (5)
  • Mauritius (3)
  • Vietnam
  • Philippines
  • Nicaragua
  • Egypt
  • Indonesia
  • Thailand

I appreciate you, Chumkee. When you take your five-minute lunch break at your sewing machine to eat a little chaat, you may wonder who is wearing the shirts you’re paid $68 a month to make. Now you know. You make me look good. And best of all, I still have plenty of money to buy an iced Swiss mocha with skim milk once a week without worrying I will go broke. You are my hero. Now get back to seaming so I can feed my cheap clothing addicition. I would like something in pale yellow.

Signature

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.
10881960_10203273446263236_8878902859012907253_n

 

 

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.

guit_cropped

 

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.

 

Signature

 

 

 

 

* 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

________________________________________

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,

Signature

 

 

 

 

20140628_143806

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.

Signature

 

 

 

 

*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.