Friday, May 28, 2010

Deal Makers

In a class I had last semester, we talked about deal breakers- those points of a relationship where the girlfriend, spouse, significant other, friend, business partner, etc. does something that makes you think, "Whoa. This person is not what I thought he/she was. This relationship will never be the same." It could be something as small as wearing the wrong shoes or as big as what Dwight did to Angela's cat, Sprinkles, on The Office.

A deal maker would be the opposite: a moment when you know for sure that he/she's the one for you forever. In honor of our 22nd wedding anniversary, I want to take a minute to recount a deal maker with mi querida y bonita esposita Margarita (my red hot smokin' wife Margaret). This was a moment that I really knew God had hooked me up with a spectacular person to whom I was blessed to be married.

Now, all you people who imagine I'm fixin' to tell you about a day where we bounded across a sun kissed meadow into each other's arms and settled down on a blanket for a snack of Tomme de Savoie cheese and Pinot Grigio, prepare for a let-down. In fact, you just may want to go find a Youtube video to watch right now or go play Farmville on Facebook. You folks who have been around for a while will understand perfectly what I'm writing about.

Our deal maker occurred 19 years ago in Phoenix, Arizona. We were moving from Oceanside, California to San Antonio, Texas in a Ford Ranger pickup and a Mazda 323. After the first day's travel we spent the night in Phoenix and when we woke up I went out for a ride on my bike (which had been traveling in a rack on top of the Mazda). After riding, I took my little cateye bike computer off its mount on the handlebars so it wouldn't be stolen and stowed all my riding gear. After breakfast we got packed up and started to head out of Phoenix, making our way to I-10 to head east. In the car Margaret had the dog, Alex, and in the truck I had the no-longer tranquilized cat, Daisy, who was dealing with her hangover and travel anxiety by meowing loud enough to drown out Van Halen on the cassette player.

At some point a few minutes after pulling out, I was hit by the horrifying realization that I had left the little bike computer on top of the car. I frantically waved at her to pull over (no cell phones in those days, boys and girls) and when she did, I ran up to the car and checked my bike stuff to see if the computer was in there. It was not. I was hot.

In spite of the fact that I was a jerk to her about it, Margaret said, "Let's go back and circle around and see if we see it in the street." "Yeah, right," I said. I was sure the thing was smashed flatter than a Parisian runway model if we could even find it. But she insisted and off we went. We U-turned and went back and U-turned again and retraced our drive. Suddenly she jammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car into the 4-lane rush hour traffic and ran out in flip-flops between the cars and rescued the miraculously undamaged bike computer among the honks of impatient commuters. I was astounded by this woman who I did not deserve to have and it obviously made a big impact on me.

If you're in the relationship of and for a lifetime with someone, you've probably got similar stories to tell. The deal makers are done when the sewage backs up, when the water breaks (both the plumbing and hers), when the car breaks down and when the flu hits. Go make your own.

I'm going out to buy Tomme de Savoie cheese and Pinot Grigio.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Lake Charles Highway Boys

When I was in high school in Alexandria, LA I was part of a group called the Lake Charles Highway Boys. We were all the guys from my high school who lived out on the Lake Charles Highway close to the town of Woodworth. The group was comprised of exactly two of us, me and Chris Kinsey. Our podnah, John Horn, was an honorary member. He lived out on Bayou Rapides Road – not Lake Charles Highway, but he was a real cowboy and we liked him a lot. He'd dip snuff in school and in the absence of a spitcup he'd cuff his pants leg inside his boot top and just spit in there. Now there’s a man who’s committed to enjoying Copenhagen.

We were country when country wasn't cool. We did FFA and 4H and we naturally gravitated toward each other. After school, life took us in different directions and we pretty much lost contact. Chris is married and today he lives with his beautiful family in Tyler, TX.

Chris and I made contact again about a year ago on Facebook. His daddy, Doug, was a real man's man and I admired and respected him a lot. He worked for the city but he could do anything country and I still remember him hauling hay with us and wrapping up the ham steaks from the hogs we raised and took to the slaughterhouse. Doug Kinsey died on January 21, 2010.

Chris' boy, Douglas, is a high school baseball player at Tyler Lee High and they played A&M Consolidated High in the playoffs this past weekend in Huntsville, less than an hour away from my house. I loaded up my younger son and went out there to the game to see Chris and his wife, Ginger.

We found each other and sat in the bleachers. Chris had good reason to be very engaged in the baseball game. His son had scored the winning run in the first game of the series the night before. If they could pull this game out, they'd go to the next round of the playoffs. So we watched the ebb and flow of a tight game and caught up on 25 years of missed stories, pausing our conversations to comment on good plays.

It was inevitable that we talk about his father's life and death. He told me he thinks about his daddy the last thing before he goes to sleep at night and the first thing when he gets up in the morning. Chris talked to me about his father's last 40 days of life, then his last two days, and his last hours. There was no doubt that Chris’ daddy was his hero, the absolute biggest influence on his life, and his passing had created a huge vacuum.

The game on the field became like background noise for us. The team from Tyler was scoring runs against a higher ranked Consol team, but Chris’ focus was on telling me about his father as he choked back tears. Tyler fans and parents cheered, shouted and rose to their feet to applaud, but Chris and I sat there talking, two 46-year-old guys worried about hairlines and waistlines, our heads about 8 inches apart.

I was struck by what we get conditioned to think is life or death but really isn't. I still remember the biggest lie my high school football coach told us in the fall of 1980: That at the 20 year class reunion we’d all still be talking about the score of the football game where we beat our arch-rivals. I’d guess that no more than 10% of us even remember who won.

We get hung up on the trivial at the expense of the eternal. We easily get fixated on games, grades, projects, and financial quarters while real life - and death - passes us by.

I’ll do better to treat the projects like the impostors that they are and instead focus on the people I love.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Whited Sepulchers

The Academic Building is kind of the spiritual epicenter of the A&M campus. The Century Tree, where many (thousands, I guess) of Aggies have proposed to their future spouses is out front to the left as you look at the building. The statue of Sul Ross is directly in front of the building. Silver Taps, where we commemorate and honor our dead every month, is also held out front.

Campus tours bring visitors into the rotunda to see the inside of this historic building. One place they will NOT bring tours is just down the hall on the first floor where the Hispanic Studies Grad student lab is in room 126. This is where we have access to computers and a printer and are able to print up our papers and projects. The idea is also that we also have a place here to relax between teaching our classes and attending the classes that are taught to us.

Since I’ve been in the department as a grad student for the past 2+ years the grad lab has looked like this (see the first two attached pictures). As you can see, the extent of the repair would go beyond some grad students pitching in a little money, buying paint, and sprucing up the wall. The tiles that are still on the wall are acoustic tiles that crumble to the touch.

I’ve been told that the department is in the process of requesting that this wall/window be finished, but that request has to make it through the building proctor up to the Division of Facilities.

As you might imagine, it’s a bummer to go in there and look at this half-finished area. We know where we stand as a department and as a group of students when we’re paying fees (more every semester) to maintain apparently everything else around campus except for the space we’re assigned. The environment does have an impact on how people perceive their place in an academic system and how they perform. But don’t take my word for it. These are the words written by Dr. Robert Gates, who was President of A&M before going to serve as Secretary of Defense under 2 presidential administrations:

Dear Members of the Texas A&M Family,

A university’s excellence is and always will be measured, first and foremost, by the quality of its programs, students and faculty. Its built environment – from buildings and other structures to the space that surrounds and contains them – must be their equal.

The quality of Texas A&M University’s facilities must reflect the quality of the people and programs they house.

Dr. Robert Gates (then-President of Texas A&M) in a cover-letter on the University’s Master Plan

So, we’re either people of really poor quality or our facilities have fallen behind.

I’ve heard that we’ve got a new head of the Physical Plant Department who’s going to put some energy in to fixing some things up around campus. I hope this space will fit into his immediate plans. Before Aug 25th would be nice.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Kim's graduation

Some of our very best friends in the world are Kim and Keith Williamson. They’re about our age and we’ve known each other for about 14 years. They have three very sharp and charming girls about the same ages as our boys. Now, I say friends and not acquaintances. These are the friends that come help you unpack when you move; the friends who you go on vacation with, the friends who will come visit you when you live in Chile and Miami.

Last night we celebrated Kim’s graduation from A&M. Kim started at A&M back in the ‘80s and life got in the way and she didn’t finish. She and Keith got married and they lived and worked in several different cities before moving back to College Station in the ‘90s. For Kim, finishing her degree while raising a family and running a household just seemed both unnecessary and unattainable.

A couple of years ago, though, she was working on campus and made the decision to go back to school and finish up her degree. She ground it out, a class or two each semester, some on-line classes, doing homework and assignments in the precious spare minutes here and there that a working mom of three has. And yesterday she crossed the finish line. Does she now vault herself into a higher paying job? Does she now get a bigger desk and more authority at work? Um, no.

I heard one time that if you educate a man, you educate a man. But if you educate a woman, you educate a family. That’s a little old-fashioned and it assumes kind of a sexist paradigm, but just think about how powerful a woman’s education is. The idea of a woman being educated is so powerful that in Afghanistan girls’ schools are one of the primary targets for the Taliban. See, educated women don’t let themselves be abused and subjugated. They know too much.

So the biggest pay-off for Kim’s achievement may be still in development. Kim showed her three daughters (for whom college is just around the corner) that it’s more than OK to invest time and effort in one’s education, that you should finish what you started, and that there’s a lot of dignity in setting out on a rocky, uphill path that results in a noble goal, even one with no apparent immediate financial reward.

Most of the time, we Americans are not very good at celebrating and commemorating special events. We’re too busy, too practical. But we need to celebrate this. Send Kim a congratulatory e-mail at

Friday, May 14, 2010

bike commuting

I try to commute to and from school on my bike as much as I can (the photo is my bike set up for camping - the bike's name is Cardenio). The idea of my son driving the truck a mile and a quarter to the high school and me riding my bike four miles to campus may seem a little backwards, but there’s a whole lot of high school cool at stake and it’s actually faster for me to go from home to the door of the classroom on the bike than to drive, park, and walk.

On top of the commute, the bike gives me mobility on the ever-growing A&M campus. I’ve tried different configurations, but the best way to haul books and gear is in a pannier hooked to a rack on the back. It’s a big heavy mountain bike, so I’m slower than the people on road bikes but the fat tires come in handy negotiating the centralamerica-esque streets on campus that are twenty years past needing to be re-paved.

Bike commuting makes you have to put a little thought into what you’re going to wear and you have to accept (especially this time of year) that you’re going to sweat some. The sweating problem is worse in the mornings when the humidity his high. Last summer I rode home from class one day when it was 107 degrees and I didn’t sweat. I did feel like I was being blasted by a hair drier, though.

I believe more people would ride to campus if bikes could be more secure. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but bikes get stolen by the hundreds on campus during the course of a semester. Apparently, people just pull up next to a bike rack, cut locks, and haul bikes away. The time of day doesn’t matter. The answer from the campus police is, “If somebody really wants your bike, they’re going to get it.” Forgive the pun, but this is a huge cop-out. When bike racks are installed in the middle of campus and people lock their bikes there during the school day for an hour and a half, they should have a pretty high expectation of security. Would they say the same thing if your car was stolen on campus? Your $500 bike doesn’t matter to us even if it’s your primary means of transpo. Now, it goes without saying that the decision makers on campus don’t ride bikes to school. In fact, they park in multi-level garages with video surveillance. Hmm.

Rant aside, I’ll still ride.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Inaugural post

Despite my reservations about hooking myself up to yet another electronic gimmick, I've opened this blog to track my observations about campus life.

I'm a 46 year old grad student in a PhD program at the same school where I got my B.S. degree over 25 years ago. After my graduation in '85 I was a Marine Corps Officer for 20 years. I came back here to College Station, TX to work at a state agency, never thinking I'd go back to graduate school (I got an M.A. in Human Resources along the way in my Marine Corps time). After switching jobs to one where I worked from home, I thought I'd take a class on campus on something that interested me. It's a long story, but that morphed into full-time grad student and graduate assistant teaching Spanish.

I call this blog campus gypsy because I really don't have a permanent place on campus. I've been assigned a one-person cubicle in a building where I neither teach nor attend classes. The department's idea is that I am to share this one-seat cubicle with a guy who has used it by himself for over a year. Yeah. Now, you don't share a one-seat cubicle any more than you share a porta-potty. You take turns. And I'd rather not encroach on a guy's established space. So I have office hours for my students on the patio outside the library. It's nice out there most of the time, I don't mind it and the students know how to find it. The grad student lab where we're supposed to be able to work is . . . I'll just say . . . not real nice, so I don't spend much time in there.

So I roam like a gypsy with my netbook and my I-pod and I'm more than OK with that. I've had jobs with real nice offices and one thing I've learned is that if someone provides you an office they expect you to be in there. All the time. And that ain't me anymore.

It's a little strange to be on campus again - the same place where I ran around from age 17-22. Most of my roamings are around the Academic building and the oldest parts of campus - basically the same buildings I slept through classes as an undergrad. I can't pass a building or patch of grass on campus without thinking about something stupid or collegiately heroic I did there in my youth.

Being on a college campus is like standing next to a raging whitewater river of youth. You hear the roar of the water and you feel its force and you marvel at the rapids crashing against the boulders and banks. You can even feel a little spray from the river. But you can't jump in. Not even a toe. Your time in there has passed. But you feel optimistic and full of new life just for having been at the river. And that's what I like best about coming back to school.