Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Poet. Published. Paid

I just got a little check in the mail from Runner Triathlete News. They published a poem of mine in their May magazine. So today's a big day, even though the check's not going to put either of the boys through college. I'm stoked that somebody thought it was good enough to put in their magazine and back it up with a little financial love, too.

I took a poetry class in my department about a year and a half ago. I didn't really like poetry that much because I always thought I had to understand it. But I knew this prof was a really good teacher so I took his class. Well, it opened up a whole new world for me. I have a few classmates who are published poets, too, and I mean books of poetry, not one or two poems. I asked one of them, Murat Rodríguez, what made him write a poem. He said when you have a personal experience that's so powerful you can't really explain it with a story, but you still want to memorialize it, you try to capture it poetically.

So one of the first things I thought about as a theme for poetry was endurance sports: triathlon, cycling, running. You're out there on the road or in the pool for hours and hours with little snippets of fear, motivation, pain, doubt, prayer, jubilation, you name it- sloshing around in your endorphin-soaked conscience. These are experiences that, it seems to me, just beg to be framed poetically. So that's what I try to do as a Poeta deportista (Sports poet).

Here's my published poem. I have several others in case Simon and Schuster call.

Sprint Triathlon Odyssey

It’s a triathlon yard sale enclosed by a plastic fence
Shoes yawn open – helmet perched on handlebars

I look back at the bike rack like Mom’s last glance at day-care
Responsible adults don’t do these things

My doubts and a full bladder bother me like the pink-eye
Nausea surfs a wave of Port-a-potty smell

Clutching my cap and goggles I steal a last good-luck kiss
Take baby steps with soft bare feet on asphalt

Countdown, airhorn, run and plunge into boiling elbow soup
Face to face another face sucking air

I’ll see your kick to the head and raise you a face shot
frantic arms settle to easy rhythm

The prehistoric language of splashing water subsides
I am born ashore on wobbly frog legs

A clumsy amphibian I struggle to tame the bike
as the lake’s birth fluid burns in my eyes

A hot wind whips past my ears black rubber hums on chip seal
My bare thighs were born to turn these pedals

Adrenaline, then dull pain invades the heart / lung motor
and sears the drive train of quads and hamstrings

I loosen shoes and dismount with more asphalt baby steps
I rack my bike over a wobbly pipe

The hamstrings are spoiled kids who would rather eat ice cream
I promise them a trip to Disneyworld

The taste of sweat is replaced by plastic flavored water
and my 5K stride and breathing smooth out

Some runner dude bounds past me A pox on all relay guys
Don’t tell people you did a triathlon

Math and Logic collude to figure a finish time
while the Flesh screams at me to stop running

Lead legs burn, lungs vacuumed out I’ve got nothing in the tank
Promised land of a balloon arch and noise

My name through a loudspeaker is like a Red Bull I.V.
and I fake a fast, effortless finish

(C) 2009 Mark McGraw

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Upside Bill Maher's Head

I watched the Chilean mine rescue on TV until the first miner came out. It was a tremendous “feel good story” that made for a compelling drama, but I think I was less surprised than most that the Chileans were able to pull it off so smoothly (I know they had help from specialists from a lot of countries including ours). I’m also not at all surprised that the 33 miners got through their ordeal and came out in such good mental and physical condition (see attached NYT link):

When we moved to Chile in 2000 for a two-year assignment, the lessons came fast and early. My first month there I went on a mission with my Chilean Marine unit to the south of the country where we reconnoitered an isthmus next to an icy lake and a huge glacier. We disembarked over the side of the ship into rubber boats WWII – style and started motoring to the rocky beach where we bivouacked. During the boat ride I saw some amazing things; including floating chunks of ice the size of Volkswagens, but another stunner was when a Chilean Marine busted out a bar of chocolate, unwrapped it in front of us, and started breaking off pieces and handing them out to everybody in the boat. The conscript got one, the Captain got one, the Sergeant got one, the Private got one, I got one, etc., until there was one piece left for the original owner of the chocolate bar. Now this was not some organizational chocolate bar. He had bought it with his money at the store back in Viña before we got on the ship. I saw that process repeated many times my first week in the field with bread, peanuts, coffee, etc. Nobody saw the stuff they brought as just their stuff. It was shared with everybody.

That was not what we typically did in the U.S. Marines (or maybe it’s just not what I did).

So I’m not surprised to see the Chileans did well on this, the world’s trickiest mine rescue, both above and below ground.

In my two years in Chile I saw some things that made me very glad and proud to be from the U.S., but I also saw some traits (like their social cohesion) that made me wish we were actually a little more like them. And that’s the great thing about getting a chance to live overseas, you can incorporate the things you like from another culture into your own actions and attitudes and reject the things you don’t like.

But you have to be open to the possibility that somebody else may do some things better. Or you at least have to be open to the possibility that a different way to do something is just as good as your way to do something.

That’s why this Bill Maher clip bothers me a little:

Here’s a guy who slaughters about 8 Spanish surnames in the process of celebrating his own cultural ignorance. He gleefully claims to not have heard of this year’s Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, (a writer from Perú who now lectures at a university in the U.S.) or any of the other Nobel winners from Spain or Latin America. It bothers me that somebody this willfully ignorant can be on TV without it being confined to the Jerry Springer show. It bothers me that a lifetime of achievement can become a punchline for a joke because Bill Maher seems to think the only things worth knowing about take place in English within the borders of the U.S.

Bill Maher should get out more, read more, and think more.

Or he should just shut his pie hole.

Friday, September 24, 2010

In the Abundance of Shortage

I’ve heard it said that, barring any support from family members or close friends, missing two paydays would put most people into a completely chaotic life situation. Some estimates put it as 7 meals that prevent civil, functioning people from turning into wild, murderous sub-humans.

Now things aren’t that bad for me, yet, thank God, but I’ve had cause to think about these things a little because the Office of Veterans Affairs has not paid me several thousand dollars of educational benefits that I have earned and for which I’m qualified under the G.I. bill. They did the same thing to me last year, so I’m not surprised. I can’t get them on the phone (they’re sorry that all lines are busy at this time), can’t leave a message, and my e-mails go unanswered. We’ll see how things go in October. Maybe the money will shake free in the new fiscal year.

So to keep from dipping into money we’ve saved up for other things, we’re looking for ways to be more frugal. Not an uncommon impulse for most people these days, I think. One thing Margaret and I started doing was packing a lunch at home in the morning and bringing it to school. It’s worked out great. I bring my student self down to her office, we go get the lunch out of the fridge and, when the weather’s nice, we walk about 100 yards to the park and have a picnic. We get to breathe some fresh air in real sunlight, spend a little time together, talk about how the day’s going, make plans, talk about what the boys are doing, all the while saving big bucks.

So what were we doing before? Nearly always eating separately, going out to eat somewhere or eating lunch at our desks, which is more expensive and a whole lot less satisfactory. We didn’t really think about the brownbag lunch together option until we were forced to by economic necessity.

This whole thread goes along with something one of my profs was telling me this week. He told me when he was a grad student he found himself in a situation where he was a single dad of two little kids with no car trying to live and support his family on the graduate student stipend he was getting from the university. The kids were too little to be alone by themselves so when he had to go to the grocery store he’d put the 6 month old in a little backpack child carrier and the older child in a seat mounted on the back of the bicycle and take them to the store on the bike. He could only buy as much groceries as he could put into a couple of bags that he could wrap around the handlebars and shakily pedal home. When he got to the part of the story where you would expect him to to say, “It was terrible” he smiled and said, “It was the best time of my life. I’d go back and do it again in a minute.”

I think that thirty years from now Margaret and I will vividly remember the brownbag lunches in Spence park. Nothing extravagant. Not even anything romantic. Usually last night’s leftovers. Just people who love each other living life together. Just that simple. Just that perfect.

I’d still like to get paid, though.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Utilitarian Approach to Education

If you pay attention to multiple sources of information, you can see patterns and trends that paint a picture of where an institution or organization is headed.

I just got another e-mail from the A&M campus bookstore trying to sell me t-shirts and posters so I can be ready for College Colors Day Sept 3rd and pimp out my dorm room (think my wife would mind a Shakira poster in the bedroom?). This is the same university bookstore that has run out of the books I ordered for my SPAN 302 class, leaving 1/4 of the students still without textbooks by the end of the first week of classes.

I also saw a newspaper article (props to my boy Zane for putting it on Facebook), the link to which I’ll attach here:

You can read it for yourself, but the moral of the story is that there is a plan afoot to measure faculty members by their financial effectiveness: how much money they generate from teaching and how much research funding they receive.

These three tidbits are indicators of what I think is a larger problem: Universities are more and more about producing revenue and less and less about learning. A few years ago, our campus bookstore was sold to a well-known commercial bookseller. Now, we know the bookseller is all about making money, so why shouldn’t they be more focused on selling clothing and dorm room doo-dads than textbooks for small classes? But shame on A&M for selling out to them and abdicating a basic university responsibility: making sure the students have access to a textbook.

An even bigger piece of the academic process is deciding what gets taught, and it seems to me that this proposal to apply a profit and loss approach to measuring faculty effectiveness could completely turn the university, as we know it, wrong side out. Profs will be forced to market their classes and absolutely maximize class size to show they’re getting a lot of bang for their buck. Why would I teach a class of 20 students when I can automate everything and pack 300 into a lecture hall and do the class that way? Liberal arts? languages? writing? philosophy? sociology? – out. The guys who can get grants to genetically modify a corn plant for more production or make a chicken fatter – in.

I don't think Socrates lectured with a big corporate logo on his toga. Oh, but that's right, he was sentenced to death and made to drink hemlock for being critical of prominent Athenians.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Good Old Days

I turned 47 this past week.

Typically this is the age where some men flip out, buy a corvette, try to trade their 46 year old wife in for two 23 year olds, etc. etc. But none of that for me. I’m 47 and I’m sure I look every dusty mile of it, but that’s OK. I don’t feel old.

One thing that has shifted my idea of old has been the cycling tribe I ride with. There are some dudes who ride with our group who have convinced me that, to a great degree, age is just a number. It’s just a matter of how you treat it.

A couple of summers ago, when I first started riding with these guys from the flagpole in front of the statue of Sully on the A&M campus out to Caldwell and back – about 55 miles, the distance seemed pretty daunting to me. So I’d load my bike in my truck, drive the 3 miles from the house to the campus, unload it, ride the 55 miles (where I’d get obliterated by the faster riders), then load my bike in the truck and drive it the 3 miles back home. After a couple of weeks of that, though, I discovered that a guy in our group (older than me) lived about 8 miles farther from campus than I did and he rode the whole thing. 12 miles to campus. 55 mile ride. 12 miles home. Always. And when I found that out, let me tell you, I held my manhood cheap, as Shakespeare would say.

There’s another cat in our group who is several years older than me who must be the toughest man alive – tougher than woodpecker lips. He typically rides 12,000 miles a year – which breaks down to about 250 miles a week. Think about how many miles you put on your car in a year. And these are not leisurely, marvel-at-the-bluebonnets miles, either. You can count on him to be up front in every paceline, in every breakaway, attacking at every opportunity until he wins or implodes. He’s always out there – 104 degrees or 30 degrees – and he never complains. Harder than Chinese arithmetic, this guy. Somebody like than either inspires you to train harder or makes you want to stay home and bake chocolate chip cookies and never see another bicycle.

This summer I joined the A&M cycling team – a club team that races around the state against other college club teams. And I really think I can ride well enough to help the team or I wouldn’t do it. But I confess the way I did it was a little underhanded. I sent an e-mail to the team president and told him I was a grad student and wanted to join the team. He answered my e-mail and gladly welcomed me and told me what I needed to do. When I went to the bike store where he works to give him my check for club dues he stuck his hand out and smiled. I told him who I was and watched as the wheels turned in his brain and he figured out that I was, in fact, the same guy who contacted him about being on the team, and not that guys’ father. The smile stayed on his face but the look in his eyes was one of, “this guy didn’t tell me he was older than Methuselah’s handbag.” But all those guys on the team have welcomed me and when the road racing season starts in the spring, I’ll compete for A&M in maroon and white gear, something I’ve wanted to so since 7th grade.

Gabriel García Márquez once posed the question, “Do we quit pursuing our dreams because we get old or do we get old when we stop pursuing our dreams?” I have the great blessing of being able to pursue my dreams, not only in cycling, but in several fields. So this birthday has not been an opportunity to pine for the “good old days” when I was younger.

Because the good old days are now.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Man-cation – Reshaping the safe, soft American male

When I read about the Shackleton expedition (read “The Endurance”) or the about the Lewis and Clark expedition (I recommend “Undaunted Courage”) I wonder if we as men are anywhere as tough, as resilient, as capable as our forefathers.

And then I see a video like this: , and the question is answered.

OK, my hat’s off to these guys for taking a “Thug life” video and turning it into something that’s family friendly and funny. I’ll not be too tough on them - all they’re doing is setting to rap and recording what is all too true.

The real blame falls on us guys when we allow ourselves to devolve into weak corporate drones who move meekly from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office enchanted by the blackberry screen, the computer screen and the TV screen. As society constantly works to domesticate, sensitize, and emasculate us, we’re less and less capable of sounding Whitman’s barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world. We're being conditioned to look forward in the short term to the next televised football game and in the longer term to the next purchase of lawn care or home entertainment gear that we use under the supervision and permission of our wives.

Now, more than ever, in the right ways for the right reasons, we men need to turn back the tide of this deconstruction. The most important targets of this re-testosteronization after us must be our own sons.

When my boys reach 13 years old I take them on a trip. We go see and experience something different and do something difficult. When my older boy JD was 13 we went to Peru and hiked the Inca Trail to the ruins at Machu Picchu. It was cold and rainy much of the way and the trail crossed over a mountain pass at over 14,000 feet of elevation. Four years removed, we both view that trip as one of the greatest things we ever got to do.

A few weeks ago my younger son, Jackson, and I went to Colorado to hike part of the Colorado trail. The plan was to hike from Durango to Silverton (about 72 miles on the trail) and take the train back. We got rained on a lot, dealt with equipment failures, staggered up steep trails sucking in the thin air of 12,000 feet of elevation, and eventually had our hike cut short by repeated hailstorms. The learning experience value of hail starts to taper off sharply as the hailstones go from pea size to marble size. In addition to keeping us off the trail and getting us behind on our timeline, the hail and rain got Jackson hypothermic and we had to turn back to Durango. We did get in four good days of hiking, though, and were able to do some other side-trips like whitewater kayaking. I have no doubt that this will also be something we view as a great, great trip, even though we didn’t make it all the way to Silverton. Even Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

I’m convinced that we, as men, need the experience of carrying a third of our body weight in a pack up a mountain. It’s a perspective-changer to wonder if we have enough food, where we’ll find drinking water next, and what animal made that noise in the bushes off the trail.

Let’s do a self rescue of our manhood. Let's teach ourselves and our boys that it's good to do something hard and even fail, learn something that challenges what you think you already know, and serve and love someone who can’t serve you back and doesn’t appreciate it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Puerto Morelos - In Praise of the Road Less Traveled

A couple of weeks ago Margaret and I went on vacation at a beautiful resort about mid-way between two of the world’s best known vacation hot spots: Playa del Carmen and Cancun, Mexico. We had a great time and as I go through the pictures from the trip, some lessons-learned come to mind that I consider good advice for all future vacations. I know it’s a little presumptuous for me to assume you like what I like, but in the spirit of blogging, I’ll ask your indulgence and share them with you.

1. Flee from the hotel-arranged tours in the same way that the Apostle Paul tells us to flee from sin. In addition to being much more expensive, you’re going to spend a lot of time just waiting around for transportation. See, what they don’t tell you when you sign up is that the same bus that takes you to Chichen Itza, or wherever, also passes by about 20 other resorts and picks their people up, too. When you get there you’ll be herded around with all the other gringos, which you could stay in the U.S. and do for free. Instead of going to the standard tourist snorkel-centric theme park we went by ourselves about 10 miles up the highway to a neat little fishing village called Puerto Morelos. We did a tremendous snorkeling trip for a very affordable price (less than 1/4 of what the theme park would have charged us) and had a great time. Puerto Morelos is and has traditionally been a fishing village, not a tourist attraction, which makes it my kind of place. The water was beautiful, the food was excellent, and people were nice and not trying to hustle us everywhere we went.

2. Take public transportation where practical. We found out about a “Beach Express” bus that runs up and down the coast between Cancun and Playa del Carmen for a fraction of the cost of a taxi or the resort-arranged shuttle. The local folks use them. Let me tell you, the buses were new or nearly new, clean, people were well behaved and the drivers were helpful. You may think you’re more at risk as a tourist out there separated from the herd out in the countryside, but you’re not. See point number 3 below.

3. Minimize your time in the tourist “shopping” areas. We steered away from the shopping part of Cancun on this trip because we remembered how it was from a trip about 12 years ago. We did go down to Playa del Carmen and walk up and down Avenida Quinta for a while. Places like these are magnets for the pickpockets, the thieves, the hustlers and the drug dealers. I didn’t take any photos on Avenida Quinta because I’m pretty sure it would be impossible to take a picture without a t-shirt in the background featuring a marijuana leaf or a penis. Someone has convinced the vendors on that street that all the gringos came to Playa del Carmen directly from a Metallica concert, and this phenomenon is less flattering for us than it is for them. The worst and lowest life forms gravitate toward these little tourist gift shops which are instantly recognizable by the guy who looks like a recent parolee running his best spiel to try to get you to come in and buy something. I had a spirited discussion with one of these guys about who gets to call my wife “Honey”. In fairness, though, they’re only selling what we’ve demonstrated to them that we want to buy. Maybe we shouldn’t let just anybody get a passport because they know where the post office is.

4. Do some grocery store picnic dinners. One of the most fun, rewarding, instructive, and affordable things you can do on vacation outside the U.S. is to go to the grocery store where the locals shop (hint: not the Super Wal-Mart). Buy some fresh bread for dinner and some pan dulce for breakfast the following morning. Go to the deli and get some ham or turkey and some cheese you’ve never heard of and make sandwiches. Get the dinner beverage of your choice. Head home with your goodies and eat on the balcony of your room or out on the beach - somewhere nice where you can relax and watch people at your resort heading out to drop $50 a head on dinner. The pleasure you experience will be directly proportional to how frugal/cheap you are.

5. Try to eat where the locals eat. It will be nowhere near where the tourists eat and there won’t be any golden arches out front. The restaurants for the tourists are interspersed with the tourist shopping areas and they’ll have a desperate greeter out front who will say something clever like, “Your table is waiting, madam”. The tourist restaurants will be over-priced and will consist of what they think we like to eat. We found two good places to eat in Puerto Morelos - the first had really good ceviche, which is the ultimate hot weather beach restaurant dish. The second consisted of a tent over the sand where we sat on lawn furniture. We knew we were on the right track when the people in the restaurant looked at us like, “How’d they find this place?” We started asking questions about what kind of fish we could get when our waiter just said, “Here, I’ll show you” and went and got our fish right out of a Styrofoam cooler. They had been caught that afternoon. You don’t get that at Red Lobster.

I think much of the value of going on a trip outside the U.S. is to get a decent idea of what other cultures and countries are like. When you get an accurate view - not the Potemkin Village tourist view - of another country you have a chance to better understand your own. My favorite place to go on a trip is still Chile, though. They don’t do tourism. At all. For Chileans, “tourism” is what they do when they travel to south Florida or Cancun. Hey, maybe they’re the ones buying all the trashy stuff on Avenida Quinta. It can't be us, right?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Smell the beach bag

DISCLAIMER: Before you read this blog post, understand that this is not a rant. We had fabulous vacation this past week and we’re glad we went. Don’t read this and think, “What a whiner, man, this guy can’t enjoy anything.” My bro in Afghanistan, like a whole lot of other people, would give his eye teeth to get the vacation we just had. So I’m not complaining. At all. What follows is just one guy’s observation of a system and a circumstance that I think is fairly common.

My wife is a tremendous vacation partner. She’s up for about anything and can handle less than ideal conditions with ease. No shower? No problem, just jump in the pool or the river or whatever. Hair messed up? No problem. Just put a hat on and let’s go do something fun or see something interesting. Zip line, surfing, horseback riding, eating unidentifiable sketchy food at a local joint, no problem.

We decided this week, though, to really pamper ourselves at an exclusive resort. We were able to get away for a few days of vacation between some other commitments before school starts up again and we just wanted to relax at a really nice place on the beach.

She found a website where we, as retired military, could get a week at a real nice resort at a well-known Mexican vacation spot at an almost unbelievable price. It was a really good deal, so we got some plane tickets and made plans for the boys to stay with friends and grandparents.

Margaret checked out some travel blogs and commentaries about the place we were going and found out that it’s one of these time share places that give you the hard sell to commit to buy into what’s basically a share of the property. Now, for a variety of reasons, buying into a time share is not a good fit for us – maybe it is for you and that’s great – just not our deal. We agreed, after about 3 seconds of discussion, that for about ten thousand reasons, we were not buying into a time share.

As soon as we got to the resort and checked in – before our gear even got up to the room- the sales pitch started: just go to the breakfast, it’s free, it’s only 90 minutes, no commitment. “No thanks,” we said. Margaret had read on-line that the orientation actually takes 4 hours. I’d rather be taken hostage by the Hezbollah than do that. We had better things to do on vacation. But the first full day we were there it poured down rain and when we checked the weather at the concierge desk it looked like the next morning might be rainy, too.

About that time another “contact person” made a run at us. She looked nice, was proud of her English, and she promised us that the sales pitch would take only 90 minutes, breakfast included. She also told us we’d get big discounts off our hotel bill and a beach bag. She was really enthused about the new beach bags that contained some goodies like a t-shirt and a water bottle and a hat and insisted that we see one. She walked us to the swag closet and pulled one out. As soon as she opened the closet door we could smell the new polyethylene. “Here, they are new” she said, thrusting one under Margaret’s chin, “Smell, smell the beach bag,” she cooed, as if the odor of chemically treated rubbery plastic were Chanel #5. So we stifled our laughter and looked at each other and said to her, “OK, as long as you guarantee it’ll only be 90 minutes including the breakfast time, we’ll do it. But we’re doing it only for the discounts and we’re not signing up for or buying anything.” She said, “Oh yes,” and even wrote “1 and ½ hours including breakfast” on the top of the “invitation”. She asked us several questions and wrote them down on a form.

The next morning we rolled up at 8:15 un-breakfasted and decaffeinated and were soon whisked away in a golf cart to another part of the resort we hadn’t seen before. We were taken to a bank of computers where Erwin asked us a bunch of questions about what we do for a living and how we got a reservation at the resort. When I explained to him that there was a website I had access to as a retired military guy, he didn’t know how to classify it.

He soon handed me off to Ron, a big Brit who immediately struck me as a very likeable guy. We sat down and he started asking us questions in a very friendly way, almost like a nice, getting-to know-you conversation. None of the questions were accidental or unintentional, though. They all had the purpose of pinning down how they could sell us a resort suite in one of a handful of exclusive resorts in Mexico. This went on until about 8:45 and I stopped him and said, “Ron, I know this is how you make your living and I don’t want to mess that up or to be rude, but we’re not signing anything or buying anything today. We’re doing this only for the discounts and we’ve been guaranteed that this pitch will take no more than 90 minutes including the breakfast, which we’d like to have right about now.”

He looked at me like he had been smacked between the eyes with a two by four. “Well, Ok,” he said when he recovered, “That’s very direct.” He asked another salesman/manager to come over and check his work and fill in a few blanks on his worksheet. The guy he called over was young, skinny, and well dressed. His hair was slicked straight back like Al Pacino in Godfather II. He looked over our paperwork and, for the fifth time in a half hour, I was asked how I made the reservation for the week in the resort. This is an old interrogation technique. You ask the prisoner or the accused the same question several times through several different people to see if he lies or changes his story.

My man Ron told Al Pacino hair that we were only going to be on board for 90 minutes because we had an appointment afterwards. Without looking up from the paperwork, Al Pacino hair said, “Oh yeah? What appointment do you have next?” I said, “Our vacation” (that thing where you don’t work and you get to do what you want). Al Pacino hair sniffed and sent us to breakfast with Ron.

On the way out of the room we saw some of the other salesmen milling around getting their assignments and getting tuned up for the day. You can pick these sales guys out from a hundred yards away with a sty in each eye. They are well dressed and well groomed and possess the quick smile and the easy talk and the charm to gain confidence and make the sale. They each have an earpiece and a radio attached to their belt to they could quickly tag-team a “guest”. They are aggressive and armed with every conceivable technique of psychological leverage. They live in Cancun, but commute for 45 minutes early in the morning and hustle with hundreds of thousands of dollars in play each day. They’re acutely aware of the numbers they need to make to stay in good stead with the company and there’s no doubt in my mind that they are under enormous pressure, because pressure radiates off of them.

The breakfast was a buffet that was among the best I’d ever seen. Ron told us some of the fruit is imported to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico from Florida, which, given the current of falseness of the rest of the sales process, was entirely fitting. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told me that the Mexican chilaquiles were cooked by a sous chef from Bangladesh. When the dishes were cleared off Ron continued with the most compressed pitch he could give us. He showed us the made-up model rooms which could not have been nicer or less relevant to us.

We were then taken to a big room with at least forty small tables. We were seated in front of glasses of water with a view over the salesman’s shoulders through the huge windows that gave us a beautiful view of the ocean. Again, nothing accidental, even when it came to who sits where at the table. It was all choreographed to manipulate, impress, convince or intimidate.

Ron went through more of the sales pitch and promised that soon and very soon, we’d see a dollar figure that they were wanting us to sign for and that we could say yes or no at that point. He left and came back with Jimmy, who I almost immediately didn’t like very much.

Jimmy marched us through the logical sequence of questions until he hit me with what I could tell was his traditional money-maker. He asked me with grave seriousness, “How much did you pay for the room you’re staying in this week?” When I told him, he sat back and looked at Ron and Ron looked at him and they didn’t say anything. Jimmy knew he was dead in the water in terms of logic at this point, so he tried some other approaches that made no sense. As we came up on the 90 minute mark I said, “Jimmy, let’s get to the part where you tell me how much money you want me to give you.” He quickly sketched out a little floor plan of the room and wrote down something like $53,000. I’m not making this up. It could have been $5,300 or $530 and I wouldn’t have been interested.

I didn’t have any desire to tie all my vacations to that type of resort. I didn’t trust Jimmy and I sure didn’t trust a system that had not been truthful with me about anything up to that point. The whole resort was built on a system of lies:

-The advertised 25 minute hotel shuttle to Playa de Carmen that takes nearly an hour.

-The 90 minute sales orientation that turns out to be up to as long as they can make it until they convince you to say yes.

-The resort website that shows a different beach from the one at the resort.

-The claim that the exchange rate is 13 when it’s 11.5.

-The requirement to load up an expense account with the hotel of about $500 (the ATM’s on the property that don’t work) so you’re almost forced to spend nearly all your money at the hotel and not in town – remember the old commissary system for sharecroppers?.

-The requirement to make a decision right there on the spot before you can do any research.

All a sham of a mockery of a lie. So why would I believe that there was anything legit in this pitch?

When I told Jimmy “No” for the fifteenth time the fifteenth different way, all the salesman charm and the boyish, conspiratorial grin turned into disdain and snarling condescension. But at least, finally, Jimmy had had enough. He told me I was passing on a chance to make a whole lot of money and walked away. When we got up and walked to the door, most of the tables in the room were full of salesmen going through the same process with other guests.

Before we could get out the door, we were handed off to two more salesmen by the front door who claimed to not be associated with the sales team that had just given us the pitch. I was amazed when they sat us down at another little table and put more hard sell on us while we waited for a little slip to be approved that listed all our discounts and prizes. At this point, I decided not to get in any more discussions. I answered their questions in single syllables ('No' at the strategically important points) until they finally let us go at 10:45.

We walked out of the strange building and got our bearings to make the long walk back to our part of the resort. No golf cart this time. That was reserved for people who had signed up to give them $53,000, I guess. We did get our beach bag, though. You are invited to come smell it.

As we tried to orient ourselves to find our building I could see the top of the big, fake, stone Mayan wall that marks the entrance of the resort. But it occurred to me that although this one is a replica, there’s nothing fake about it. This one was also built by small brown men trapped in a feudal system. They work for a new Mayan empire where the slow and the incautious are still snared and gutted by the high priests of hustle who sacrifice the unfortunates to please the gods. Only now those gods live in Vegas, Miami, New York, and LA.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

This week I received a Teaching Excellence Award at A&M. The award was voted on by students and I came out with a very high rating. I was one of five grad students on the list that included forty-seven profs, assistant profs, etc. It’s real nice to be recognized as a good teacher and it’s also real, real nice to get the generous cash award that came with the recognition. Anytime something like this happens, though, it’s important to remember that you didn’t do it on your own.

I thank God for giving me the ability to be a good teacher and for putting me in a circumstance where I can positively influence young people. I thank the students who took their own time to go online and vote and take the thing seriously even though there was nothing in it for them. I thank my wife, Margaret, for being so cool with me going to grad school and being so supportive of what I do. I thank my parents, who were my first and most influential teachers. I believe my mom was the first person in her family to go to college. She graduated with honors in Education from Louisiana College. She never officially taught school anywhere (too busy raising kids and keeping the books for my dad’s animal clinic), but always taught us, instilled in us a love for reading, and emphasized the importance of education.

There’s nothing original in my teaching style. It’s a hybrid hodge-podge of great teachers I’ve had. There are some great teachers in our department – the Department of Hispanic Studies. I take ideas and techniques from some of them. I’ve been in church since I was old enough to take to the nursery and I’ve heard some particularly great preachers. To be an effective preacher, you better be a good teacher (no accident that, in the Bible, people often address Jesus as “Teacher”). Some of the very best teachers I’ve ever had were in the Marine Corps and the Army (I went through a bunch of Army schools as a Marine), and I don’t mean just officers. A lot of the instructors I had as a young lieutenant had learned their lessons in the most extreme human pathos of Vietnam. You can bet that they taught me with a sense of urgency. Like they were delivering fire to mankind. To this day, the best instructor I’ve ever seen in any context was the First Sergeant of the rifle company I served in, Jim Barnes. He’s closely followed by the Sergeant Major of 1st Recon Battalion, Bill Coffey. I regret to say that I have no idea where they are or what they’re doing now.

I have a bad habit of excusing my lack of “scholarliness” as being a product of Louisiana public schools. I did have a few horrible teachers who were great examples of what not to do, but I also had some fabulous teachers – people who could easily go be college professors - who taught for pitiful pay under some adverse circumstances. Mrs. Ruth O’Quinn taught honors English and when you were in her class you knew you were in the presence of greatness. She sat up on a high stool behind a lectern. Never raised her voice. It was like she would cast a spell on us. She’d even get a little racy, too, teaching Shakespeare.

The best schoolteacher, ever, though was (still is), Mrs. Becky Tisdale. She was one of the first women to graduate from Texas A&M. She taught me American History and Journalism in junior high. She still teaches Honors French and I’m on Facebook with her. She was a dynamo. Being in her class was like being taught by 3 people. She was demanding and fun and fascinating and she’d challenge you and come up with all kinds of stuff to help you remember the material. She was the first teacher who taught me to be a critical thinker – to go beyond just what the book said.

I hope they’re all a little proud of me. They helped shape me.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Addendum to May 21st post

Here's an update on my May 21st post "Whited Sepulchers". This space is undergoing repairs and should be ready for grad student use by the time school starts.

How 'bout that?!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Food Dudes

Several years ago I worked in Peru on the Amazon River for about 6 months. About a month before the trip I went down there with my boss to do a pre-trip survey to map out the project. One night we went out to dinner in downtown Iquitos to a fish restaurant on the malecón, the big sidewalk overlooking the river. After we finished dinner and sat there watching people pass by, my boss, Col. Iron Mike Williams, fired up a cigarette, and pointed at a big group of people who looked to be an extended family. They were sitting and standing around one guy with a guitar and all were singing at full voice. Iron Mike exhaled a cloud of smoke and said, “Look at that. Those people know how to live. What do we do? Stuff down our dinner as fast as we can and go watch TV.” I know it’s not that way in all our families all the time, but I think it’s true for too many of us too much of the time.

I suspect that we treat food too much like an exercise in efficiency: the most calories at the least cost in the least time with the most convenience so we can get back to . . . Youtube? We think of the food as an interruption of life when, in a way, it is life.

So with that problem in mind I want to celebrate the phenomenon I’ve seen recently of people enjoying a really special dish or meal that makes such an impression on them that they take a picture of it and put it on facebook.

My boy, Spencer Jones, with whom I’ve run many, many miles, does this fairly often. I also noticed that my podnah, Zane Lybrand, one of the strongest cyclists in about a 10 county radius, does the same thing. We were talking about food the other night and he told me he’s figured out to make his own sushi. He explained the process a little bit and then said, “Here, I’ll show you” and whipped out his phone to open up his pictures. As he’s doing this I’m thinking, “This is going to look like little lumps of hammered monkey doo.” I was astounded to see perfect restaurant-ready sushi. These guys know how to live. I admit I don’t know how to cook enough things. My brother taught me how to make some biscuits so good they’re against the law in 14 states and I can also make ceviche that is pretty good, but that’s about it.

I think it’s worth emphasizing how important food satisfaction is to life satisfaction. Our bodies and emotional states do better when we take time out to share good, healthy food with people we love. Think about your galvanized, life-long, nearly supernatural attachment with the first person who ever fed you. Studies have shown the importance of families eating together. There are a lot of episodes in the bible of Jesus sitting down to big meals with his disciples (he enjoyed eating and drinking enough to prompt the Pharisees to call him a glutton and a drunk). So, in a sense, food is love. That’s why we don’t do especially well with pre-processed foods that we just shotgun down. In fact, I think we tend to overeat bad food in a fruitless search for real food satisfaction. You can get calories anywhere, but food satisfaction is a more elusive thing.

I knew a lady a few years ago who went on a 40-day fast where she didn’t eat any food in order to lose weight (and to call attention to herself, I think). Only drank juice, water, milk, etc. She said it was really tough and the worst thing was, get this: she didn’t lose an ounce. Not an ounce. The body is a very resilient system. You deprive it of food calories and it says, “OK, I’ll slow my metabolism way down and make you drink enough juice to make up the calorie difference.” But those calories didn’t give her food satisfaction.

So, now that I don’t have night classes for the rest of the summer, I’m going to cook dinner more for my family. And I’m going to try to put some effort into planning, choosing, and preparing the food, because I think it’ll pay off in family food satisfaction. And I promise pictures on Facebook.

The firewood you chop yourself warms you twice.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Politics of Grading

I have been two students.

As an undergrad at A&M, I kind of squeaked by, didn’t enjoy the academics, and graduated with around a 2.5 grade point ratio. Looking back on it, I can honestly say that I didn’t have the maturity to do real well, and I had extracurricular stuff going on that caused academics to take a secondary or tertiary role. And before you raise your eyebrows at the word “extracurricular,” I can tell you that the dual requirements of the Corps of Cadets and my Marine Corps scholarship program (no, they’re not the same thing) had me nearly maxed out. Oh, and I had a good time, too.

As a grad student, though, it’s been a very different deal: all A’s and one B. Why? I’m the same guy, but now there’s a different level of maturity, different level of “ownership” of the academic process, and different expectations.

I’ve just finished my third semester of teaching undergraduate Spanish (101, 102, and 201) and I can tell you there are some trends in student behavior that are worthy of comment. I very much enjoy teaching and I like to see the students do well. If I was to put a bell curve of all my grading together, I know it would be skewed strongly towards A’s and B’s. Higher grades than most teachers generally give, I would guess. I believe it reflects well on me as a teacher if the students earn good grades. But each class will have one or two kids that are having a tough time just dealing with life. They frequently miss class and don’t do the work and some of them even quit coming to class altogether. They don’t drop the class or withdraw, they just quit on their own. They make F’s. The great majority of the students come to class, do their best, learn, and earn pretty good grades that reflect the work they put in. Most of the kids I have in class are really impressive. A&M is not easy to get into and I can tell that the kids in school now are very sharp, capable young people.

There are some, though, who are perfecting the art of working the teacher to get (not earn) the grade they want. This process starts when a student tells me, “I really want to get an A in this class.” I hear that phrase enough to make me think it’s taught in a Doing Well in College course. They do it because it’s effective. We as human beings want to live up to the expectations of others, even if that other person is a student and we’re the teacher. But when I hear “I really want to get an A in this class” I ask myself, “Am I getting worked here?” Because I don’t like getting worked. Someone could call me on the phone offering to sell me something I really need at a really good price and if what I’m hearing sounds like a sales pitch I politely terminate the phone call.

I think the “I really want to get an A” student believes that making that statement puts the monkey on the teacher’s back, as if the teacher is forced to think, “If I don’t give this kid an A, he/she will be really upset with me.” The “I want an A” kid doesn’t realize that when he/she tells me that he/she wants an A, he/she immediately puts the monkey on his or her own back. Because when they miss class or show up unprepared, now I really notice it.

The “I want an A” kid reviews their point total with you near the end of the semester and then wants to argue that they should receive credit for doing the on-line homework on days they had an unexcused absence. They make it a point to argue that they should get a 19 instead of an 18 on a 20-point composition (out of a 600 pt course). They try to interrogate you to find out exactly what will be on the final so they can mentally dump everything else you taught them through the course of the semester. As soon as the finals are over they’ll e-mail you asking what grade they came out with. And when you e-mail them back and say, “You did really well this semester and your final exam grade had you at a B for the class. I know you were shooting for an A, but your grade just didn’t reach that level. I’d be glad to meet with you to go over your final and show you where you fell short,” you’ll get nothing back. No response whatsoever. And that just confirms that that it wasn’t about learning, it wasn’t about getting better, you were just getting worked.

And it’s great that they want to make a good grade, but let me tell you what would be more impressive to me as a teacher: to hear the kid say, “I really want to learn to speak, read, write and understand Spanish well.”

I had a kid this summer who spoke Spanish to me every time he talked to me –in class, after/before class, in e-mails, whenever. You think that didn’t impress me? You think I didn’t help that guy in every way that I could and give him every benefit of the doubt?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Comanche Cyclists

I’ve just finished a superb book about the Comanche. The title is Empire of the Summer Moon and it’s written by a guy who lives in Austin, S.C. Gwynne. A few years ago, after a hunting trip out to Menard, TX (part of the old Comanche territory) I read a book about the Comanche and found them fascinating. This new book is even better: a history book that reads like a novel. One of the main learning points of the book was about how the white settlers and soldiers completely misunderstood the tribal ethic of the Comanche. To the whites, the Comanche seemed to be entirely barbaric, cruel, primitive, and godless. In fact, they were a nomadic warrior society that lived by supremely practical guidelines. They lived completely off the buffalo, and they were singularly focused on crushing success in battle over their foes (Spaniards, Mexicans, French, Texans, and other Indians -except the Kiowas- were all treated the same).

They terrorized their foes. The Comanche was one of only 2 plains tribes who actually fought mounted. He could shoot 20 arrows in the time it took a soldier to load and fire a musket once and he could hit a doorknob sized target 3 out of 5 times from 50 yards. The bows were so strong that it was not uncommon for an arrow to go through one buffalo and into another. He was also armed with a 14-foot lance and a large buffalo-hide shield that was capable of repelling most calibers of bullets.

Many tribes across this continent were sedentary, grew crops and established elaborate religious and civil organizations to govern their activities. Not the Comanche. They did have chiefs but rarely did any single chief exercise any unilateral power. Groups of men who went out and fought and raided were, in fact, recruited by their leaders, not coerced or ordered. It could be that no person in North America ever experienced more freedom on a human level than the Comanche male.

As I read the book and increased my understanding of the tribal dynamic, I couldn’t help thinking about how a cycling club (I’m talking bicycling here - I don’t know nuttin’ about no motorcycles) operates very tribally.

Our cycling group (Brazos Valley Cyclists) have all kinds of nice folks, but the core of the hardcore is the people who routinely are on the bike 200 miles or more a week. Another component of the group is the Texas A&M cycling team. Guys have gone on to professional cycling from this team. I’m also on the team, but that’s the subject of a future post.

For the cyclist, the bike is obviously of extreme importance – without the cycle there’s no cyclist. Your bike gets checked out by the other riders from the moment you show up. Similarly, the Comanche were completely transformed by the horse. What was previously a middling tribe became the absolute dominant force among the Plains Indians from the late 1700’s to the 1870’s because they got every possible advantage out of the horse.

The Comanche lived in an unforgiving environment where they had to not only survive the climate and lack of water but lethal raids from other tribes, settlers, and soldiers. So to stay with the tribe you needed to be able to help the tribe: steal horses, take scalps, defeat opponents in battle, and kill buffalo. In the cycling group, you are valued by how strong you are and what you can do for the group that is, ultimately, competitive with other college and club cycling teams.

The cycling group, therefore, is not a social organization the way the church choir or the book-of-the-month club is, and this turns some people off. I’m very sure a lot of people have shown up for one group ride and have never come back. We tend to go places where we are welcomed and affirmed. And until you earn your way into the bike tribe you may find that it doesn’t seem to be generally very friendly.

In our group a while back, one well-meaning person insisted that each person introduce themselves to the rest of the group before the 55-mile Saturday group ride. The suggestion was met with barely concealed scorn and disgust. Why? Just think about it in a tribal sense: “Hi, everybody! My name’s Buffalo Hump! I like archery and having my feet rubbed!” No. That dog won't hunt.

Like the real Comanche, the best ways to increase one’s status in the tribe is by a demonstration of personal bravery and a willingness to help the tribe. You take a good pull at the front and keep the wind off the other riders when nobody really feels like it. You show up to ride in bad conditions. And if you’re not out there just about all the time, you’ll get your tail kicked by the ones who are. Very infrequent riders are regarded by the tribe with distrust: like the white anthropologist showing up to take notes for an academic paper.

The whole vibe reminds me of a sign I saw once in a Special Operations headquarters near Brindisi, Italy: If you want a friend in this business, get a dog.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Living Down to the Stereotype

Just when I thought we Aggies had outgrown the eternal Aggie joke, the one that depicts us as uncouth louts, I read today's Houston Chronicle article that gleefully recounts the e-mail and voicemail exchange between an A&M former student and our current athletic director.

I'll summarize.

One of the many thousands of former students who agonize over everything associated with the football team, a guy who had his heart set on A&M joining the Southeast Conference, was not content with venting his spleen on the many web pages set up as forums for that discussion. No, no. He sent an e-mail directly to the athletic director. The e-mail contained extremely unflattering comments containing both anal and, um, lingual-anal references. Now, keep in mind this is a graduate of Texas A&M, not an 8th grader.

Not to be outdone, the athletic director, a man with a great deal of experience, who should be much smarter than this, called the guy up and left a threatening voicemail message expressing the desire to introduce his wing-tips to the man's hindparts. The former student, thrilled that he had enticed the athletic director to respond angrily to his childish provocation, posted the voicemail message to the internet, where it has gotten a great deal of play.

I saw this same thing play out when I was the Marine Officer Instructor at A&M over ten years ago. When we made efforts to change some things in the Corps of Cadets to try to improve the environment and make better leaders, we got the same kind of reaction from Old Ags. I never attempted to answer the nasty e-mails I got. When the other Major on the staff with me, a guy who since went on to be wounded in combat in Iraq and today commands a Marine regiment, tried to explain what we were trying to do, he got a response that trashed him in the most personal way and then went on to slander his wife and family in the most crude fashion imaginable.

So here's how it works: some guy or gal in Waxahachie who graduated from A&M, armed with shreds of rumors and out-of-context information, lashes out at the people (many of whom are also Aggies) who are on the spot, on top of the issue, doing what they believe is best for A&M. He/she does so believing that having an Aggie ring and internet access entitles him/her to personally, crudely attack people from a safe distance and the anonymity of an e-mail address.

I'm firmly convinced that the greatest threat to A&M is neither the state legislature, nor the t-sips, nor Islamic fundamentalists. It's Aggies.

So the lesson learned (that I occasionally forget) is to never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig loves it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Fredericksburg Road Race with my bro

Sunday my brother, Ben, and I did a bike race out in the Texas Hill Country at Doss, TX near Fredericksburg. First, some explanation of technical bicycle terms: this was our first road race and it was sanctioned by USA Cycling. In USA Cycling the racers are divided into Pros and Category 1’s at the top of the food chain, Cat 2’s and 3’s below them, and Cat 4’s and 5’s at the bottom. When you first get a license and start racing, you’re a Cat 5 no matter what. After you do 10 races as a Cat 5 you’re automatically a Cat 4. To work your way from Cat 4’s into Cat 3’s you actually have to finish high in some Cat 4 races and accumulate enough points to move up. It’s like the difference between graduating from college and being released from a mental institution. To get out of the mental institution you have to demonstrate that you’ve improved.

Let me specify that this was not a “ride.” I’ve done those and they’re great. This was a race. For the serious dudes. The course featured two loops of a 22 mile course on farm roads with some cattle guards and water crossings. By some cattle guards I mean about 40. By water crossings I mean 1. There was also a twisty, steep downhill portion and many small hills. One big nasty hill was about 6 miles into the course. I had two goals that Norman Vincent Peale would be disappointed to see were stated negatively:

1. Don’t DNF. DNF is “Did Not Finish.”

2. Don’t DFL. DFL is “Dead Freakin’ Last (I believe).

Everything beyond that, for my first road race, would be gravy.

Race morning found us out at the start line warmed up and ready to go with our group of about 80 guys: Cat 4/5 over 35 years old. It was very warm and humid at 8 a.m., but the pastoral countryside is really beautiful this time of year. This is the Texas Hill Country people fall in love with and write songs about.

The gun went off for our group at 8:10 and we rode out in a dense pack. I’ve ridden plenty in a pace line, but was a little unnerved by having three or four guys on each side of me. A mile into the ride someone’s tire exploded with a loud bang and we maneuvered around him as he slowed down. Soon after that a guy to my left veered off the road and into the ditch. He was shrieking an expletive as the tall grass slowed him from 25 to 20 to 10 miles an hour. I didn’t see how he stopped. I felt like the guy in Jurassic Park who sees someone next to him get snatched up screaming in the jaws of a T-Rex. I just pedaled faster.

To stay with a big group is better for you because you work less – you can get in this mass of moving air and go much faster with less effort. That’s the point of the peloton. The first big hill, though, is where we all started to separate because the fastest guys wanted to shake off all the wheel-suckers. So 8 miles into the race I found myself separated from all groups and I fought like crazy to get caught up to a group of 6 guys. We worked together and took turns in the wind until about the 13 mile point, when, after a hard pull at the front up a hill, I couldn’t keep up with them. I tried, too. When you lose the group, you’re going to go significantly slower.

But I couldn’t stay with them. I was absolutely cooked. They rode off from me. I watched, forlorn, as they pulled away like a train carrying a dear relative. I was now by myself. Normally, the thing to do would be to catch on with another group behind you and work together, but after so much chaos I didn’t know if there WAS another group. I never really seriously thought of quitting. That’d be a DNF.

Completely obliterated and pouring sweat, I started on the second lap of the course, the final 22 miles. I started to re-climb the hills of the first lap and here’s where I learned a valuable lesson the hard way: if the course description contains the word, “hilly,” if the race is held in a place that is called “The Hill Country,” if you suspect that someone in the race may have “Hill” for a last name, make very sure your bike can shift into its lowest two gears. I foolishly did not and my bike, alas, could not. It wasn’t a factor on the first lap when I was fresh and with other riders but now, with my quads devastated, when I desperately needed to shift into my easiest gear (my 25 tooth) to creep up a hill, the chain would dance back and forth between my two lowest gears (25 and 23) and my freewheel would rattle like Uncle Jed Clampett’s truck transmission. I weaved up the hardest hills in my 19 tooth gear, which I highly recommend as therapy for optimism. Early into my climb I saw two guys riding back down the hill toward me. They weren’t lost. They were quitting.

I saw no other riders for the remainder of the race. The natural, magnificent beauty of the Texas Hill Country had become a post-apocalyptic landscape swept clean of human life and viewed through a film of mucus and blood.

I eventually rolled into the finish and saw my brother, who had finished probably 20 minutes ahead of me. I doubt if it speaks well of me, but I could scarcely contain my surprise and delight when I saw that a few guys from our group were coming in behind me, looking like the race had meticulously and thoroughly kicked every square millimeter of their behinds as it did mine. Not DFL.

It was a humbling and instructive experience that put a hurtin' on my like few things I've ever done. So why am I trolling the internet for training tips and another ride to do?