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 malec√≥n, 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.