Thursday, December 24, 2015

In the meadow, we can build a mudman...

Christmas on the Amazon was challenging.  Part of the difficulty is the distance from family.  Some of it is the oppressive heat and humidity (hard to sing carols about sleigh bells when it is 96 degrees and 100% humidity).  Some of it was that there was no playing of carols in every store, car, and mall - mostly because there was no car.  Or mall.  Or shops. 

And some of it was the lack of trappings - no evergreens, no decorations, no fake snow, no smell of pumpkin spiced latte wafting from the cups of yoga moms...

A few of the problems we anticipated.  We knew there was no way to buy presents (7 hours from the nearest city makes it a daunting prospect to leave for a shopping jaunt) and that we would have to make do as best we could.  I once caught my mom buying something at the store a month before Christmas on one of our once-every-six-month trips into the city.

But what probably surprised us most was the fact that as kids, we simply didn’t know what we wanted.  With no TV or newspapers, and radio only once a day, the idea of the “must-have” toy simply did not exist. 

Another thing we did not expect was that making the Christmas tree thing happen would be so difficult.

The Amazon rainforest is a deciduous forest.  It is ever-green, but only because the trees all drop their leaves at different times during the year.  There are no conifers anywhere.  But we have to decorate a Christmas tree!  We didn’t buy a plastic one – it seemed wrong, somehow, and there was no other option. 

Plastic Christmas trees on the Amazon were a big deal.  The gaudier, the better, of course, but the price was prohibitive for most families.  Essentially, a fake tree cost more than 2 months’ salary, and only the really wealthy could afford to survive that long without literally putting the money where their mouths are.  A family that owned a fake Christmas tree would display it very prominently.  And not just at Christmas – this type of decoration should be displayed all of the time.

But we didn't have one, and were left with the dilemma of not having a tree, and not having ornaments, and having a hard time conjuring up a Christmas Spirit.  So we improvised.  The açaí tree (yes, that açaí) was a palm tree that had many uses.  The berries were harvested, then the skins of the berries pressed through several layers of mesh basketry to produce a drink that the Brasilians loved.  We thought it tasted remarkably like rotted sawdust in water.  Foul stuff, açaí– and it has inexplicably hit the American market.  People are crazy over it.  No accounting for taste…
The tree also has an area near the top that provides a variety of the “palmito” – palm hearts  - that we love.  I chopped down one tree, and ate the stringiest, toughest heart of palm I had ever tried.

That first Christmas we were in Brasil, we introduced a new use for the açaí – the açaí as Christmas tree.  Palm leaves branching out gracefully from the trunk, perfect place to hang ornaments… Ornaments!  Gotta make ornaments! 

Mom came up with a recipe for some dough ornaments, some that we could bake hard and shellac and hang on the tree.  So I went out to the edge of the jungle to find a small açaí (they grow to be about 30 feet tall) and came back with one that was perfect.  Mom was finishing up the ornaments – dough cut out to make trees, candy canes, sleighs, and Christmas balls.  They had been baked rock-hard and shellacked, and were glistening, just waiting to be put on the tree.  We hung them with care, and sang some carols. And felt homesick.

The next morning, when we woke up, the tree was completely brown and drooped.  The ornaments had melted in the 100% humidity and were lying in small shellac-encrusted piles on the floor.  The morning was spent cleaning up, scraping up the goo, and carrying out the residues of the previous day. 

And then we re-created the scene.  We baked the dough harder, longer, got a better açaí tree and put it in water again.  Sang some carols.  Went to bed. 
For a synopsis of the next day, re-read the previous paragraph.

After four days of not learning from our mistakes, we even immortalized the moment in song: 

Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us
Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us
            They were so green for one day
            But now they’re brown, and brown to stay
Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us

Not exactly tannenbaum, but it had to do.

So this Christmas, when the temperatures in New Orleans are expected to push against the 80-degree mark, I am finding myself thinking fondly back to a time when we made our own carols, made our own ornaments, and even cut down our own tree.... over and over again.   
And humming a few bars of another tune:
Fog horns blow, are ya listnin'?
In the rain, mud is glistnin'
a beautiful sight, we're havin' tonight
Sloshin' in a muddy wonderland
...In the meadow we can build a mudman
and pretend that he is Parson Brown
He'll say 'Are you married,' we'll say, 'No, Man...'
'But you can do the job while you're in town'
Later on, we'll get together
as we huddle under the umbrella
to face unafraid, the plans that we've made
Sloshin' in a muddy wonderland.

In the memory of that long ago Christmas, I wish you and yours a safe and joyful, if muddy, Christmas season, filled with the love of family and friends, and all of the joy of the season.. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Stairs and Snow

The year was 1974.  I was in kindergarten, and my teacher had her hands full with me.  I was reading books.  I was counting by 1s, 2s, 5s, 10, 20s, 25s, and was working on my 3s.  I was able to do simple math, and my vocabulary was out of sight. 
And then we’d get to coloring time.
Coloring and drawing were things that I HAD to do.  Mrs. Periwinkle made that clear.  But there was no way that they could get me to LIKE doing it. She did her best, but I was the most unenthusiastic artist she had run across.  I would do anything that would get me out of doing another art project.
I was reminded of this recently, when I went to get a gift for my wife.  So apparently, there has been a recent surfeit of adult coloring books on the market.  Mandalas, I think they call them, and they are made of beautiful, intricate designs with incredible potential for hours spent in frustration and self loathing. 
Lots of chances to make mistakes.  For people without Adult Hyperactivity Attention-to-Detail Deficit Something-or-another, I am told that these coloring books provide a wonderful tool for relaxing.
<Rolls eyes.>
My sister even sent me an article that talks about how important it is to re-visit some of the things that you did as a kid – things that made you happy, and that at some point, you realized that you weren’t good enough at them to do them for a job, so you left them behind.  Drawing and coloring were the two things that the article pointed to.  Do them for yourself, the article said.  Not for anyone else.  And reconnect to that joy.
I picked up one of those books for my wife.  And when I opened it up, I reconnected all right. Reconnected directly to the horror  - the abject terror - of having so many mistakes just waiting to be made.  Opportunities to do something I hate, and to be made to feel guilty for not loving it.
Yep. THAT reconnected me to kindergarten, all right.
My trick in 1974 was to draw snow.  You know, snow.
Here.  Let me demonstrate.
And just like that, I was done with my time 'drawing', and could get back to what I loved.  Reading. 
After a couple of weeks of that, the teacher called me out.  "Crorey, you can’t just draw snow, making it exactly the same as what you did yesterday."
I thought about it for a bit.  And came to my solution.  I changed from black snow to blue.  It was different, at least.
Weeks of this went on, with me outsmarting my teacher at every turn. Black became blue became red became yellow.  After the pink snow phase, she finally she sat me down, and said, "Crorey, dear, you HAVE to do something else."
“But I don’t LIKE drawing.  I don’t want to spend any more time doing it than I have to.”
So she taught me a new skill.  She showed me how to draw stairs (maybe it was Mom who showed me.  Not sure).  Five minutes later, I had made a quantum leap in my drawing skills.
A month later, however, I had exhausted all of the colors that I could draw stairs. 
My exasperated teacher finally gave up after one more shot at getting me to engage the natural artist in my soul.  Because the request came that I not limit myself to snow, or stairs, my teacher was faced with a month of this:

I think Mrs. Periwinkle eventually got past that awful drinking problem that began that year.
Don't get me wrong.  I am all for reconnecting to the things that gave you joy when you were a kid.  I think we do far too much of the adult things, and far too little of the throw-the-cape-over-the-shoulders-and-play-superman-in-the-front-yard activities in our adult lives.  I think that belting out a song as you come into work in the morning is good for everyone's morale.  I think that splashing in the creek - even in your Sunday clothes - it probably a good thing.
And if coloring was your thing?  Go for it.
But you should know, that when you do, I'll be over here on the stairs.  In the snow. 


Friday, October 9, 2015


Weathered. Photo by Windi Sebren

A friend of mine posted this picture on social media this weekend.  One word caption accompanied the picture: Weathered.

It took my breath away, and at first, I had no idea why.  I just knew it was simply beautiful. Small traces of what was red paint remained from the long ago, blasted by storm and faded by sun; the wood grain was lifted and cracked from the effects of heating and cooling.  The overall impact was just striking.  It reminded me of worn icons in forgotten niches of Latin churches.  The careworn appearance is not a result of an absence of care.  Quite the opposite.

The more that I think about it, though, I realize that this image is an important thing for me to consider. 

My I-don't-really-have-a-bald-spot combover is not quite covering the places where my 'red paint' is being worn away.  Some days I feel like the chiseling and carving that I once felt defined me - body, face, mind - are irrevocably marred by the passage of time.  The heat, the rain, the storms have all taken their toll. The carving doesn't look as good, and might benefit from a paint job.  Right now, it looks like the owner just doesn't care. 

Quite the opposite.

But I also look at what the storms are washing away: crippling self doubt and insecurity.  They have eroded away some of my sharper edges, especially the need to demonstrate prowess - intellectual, physical, whatever. 

And what is emerging is beautiful, in a very different way than I expected. 

And when I look around at my friends - with the balding pates and the growing paunches and the reading glasses beginning to be perched on noses, I see the same beauty as I see in that weathered panel.  It is striking.  It is powerful. 

And a coat of paint - be it botox or lipo or toupee or spanx - just doesn't look as good as the raw beauty of the weathered surface. 

That weathering tells such better stories.  And speaks volumes to all of the love experienced in the life.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cremora is Flammable; or, LMJ of the week - pyrophoric

pyrophoric: capable of igniting spontaneously in air

"Your mother and I love you, and if you need help for pyromania, we WILL get it for you."

It was the first time I remember hearing the words 'I love you' come from my Dad, directed to me.  A touching moment.

Dad went on to say that he had seen me with the hairspray bombs, and with the hand-held lighter fluid fireballs and with the blowtorches, and the fireworks (....fortunately, he didn't know as much about some of the issues I dealt with in chemistry lab).

This week, I revisited a little bit of that ancient history as I saw an incredible video of a firebomb made of cremora, and I just giggled.  Because, yes, I knew that. 

In 1987, I was working at Dixie Lumber, and had access to a lot of Cremora (TM), and found out how to pour it onto a piece of paper, light a match, and the pour the cremora from the paper over the match.  Impressive fire display.

Action complete, I walked back inside the store, and one of my co-workers looked up and said,

"Um, Barney, you're on fire."

I looked down, and sure enough, the piece of paper had also caught fire.  I ran outside, and blew it out.  Relieved that the crisis was averted, I started back inside.

"Barney, you're on fire again."

Danged thing had gone out, and then relit on my way in the door.  I started at a dead run for the bathroom, so I could douse the flame with water.  But the act of running made the flame flare up.  Brain engaged about this point, and thought (mid sprint)  'If I invert the paper so that the flame is not consuming towards the paper, but away from the paper, it will be slower.

So instead of holding the paper away from me, I flipped my wrist so that the flame was between me and the paper.

And very nearly caught myself on fire in the process.

Five seconds later, the rapid-fire event was concluded, and I emerged sheepishly from the bathroom with the remaining scorched paper and wet ashes in my hand, and tried to ignore the howls of laughter from Steve, my co-worker.  I put up with those jibes for weeks.

I mentioned the cremora incident to my granddaddy a few weeks later (when it was safe to discuss it again), and he said that he had run into the same thing when he was working in the cotton mills.  One part of the process ends up with a lot of fibers floating in the air.  The rule was very clear: when the fibers are thick in the air, you avoid smoking, you avoid sparks, you avoid everything related to fire.  Because if any part of it ignited, the whole room would blow up.  It was, after all, pyrophoric.

Just like the Cremora.

Today, flames are different.  We live in a viral society.  Whether it is memes about Kim Davis, songs by a new performer, videos of kittens, or blog entries calling for the imposition of stiffer penalties on Medicare fraud (well, maybe not yet, anyway), there is a distinct desire for us to see our ideas shared with the world.  We flood our twitter feeds and our social media outlets with ideas, rants, political views, and pictures, hoping that the moment is right, and that the idea will catch fire.

We are hoping to be part of the pyroporphic situation: the perfect combination of explosive materials hanging in the ether, enough oxygen to let it blow.... and we just are waiting on that spark.

Because for one brief moment, we have to believe that we have been part of something much bigger than ourselves.  We were part of an explosion. 

It is understandable.  We are all looking for our tribe, and the bigger the explosion, the more we feel we are connected to the larger society.  We are wanting that moment when we connect with all of humankind, and that we and our whole tribe are one.  So we look for the biggest combustion, and we throw our hat into the ring.  I am against x.  I am for y.  X people are stupid.  Y people are the only cool ones.  And the one that we all agree on:

"I was cool before the hipster movement made not being cool, cool."

Often it is the little things that make the best fires.  That statement of vulnerability that connects you to people.  That act of kindness that is an expression of love.  A gesture that lets a hurting friend know that you care.  It is these sorts of things that really connect us. 

And then we have to go out into the world, and act that way out there.  Starting small fires wherever we go, blazing a trail with our joy.  With our love. Become pyrophoric.  The world needs that, so much more than another cute puppy video.

Dad could have said, "Go and set the world ablaze, knowing that your mother and I love you."  Different message.  Same truth.

Ite, inflammate omnia.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fraud as Manslaughter

NFL star Tyrann Devine Mathieu was in the news again this week.  You might remember Tyrann; he was an LSU star - affectionately known as 'the Honey Badger' for a video that combined a nature video with a highlight reel.  Eventually, Mathieu ended up getting thrown off of the team and expelled from the school for repeated drug incidents.

And for LSU to take that step with a much-touted, much beloved player, he had to really screw up.

This week, he was in the news, not as an Arizona Cardinal, or for anything he did.  But because his mom was offered a plea deal for her part in a $30M Medicare fraud scheme.   Take a second and scan the article. I'll wait.


I'll wait again while that sinks in.

Since taking an economics course in college, I have been fascinated by the concept of opportunity cost.  In this story, I think that recognizing the place that opportunity cost plays is critical in the sentencing of these people. 

Opportunity cost means that any time you make a decision, it is BOTH a decision to do something, AND a decision not to do something else. So, if I buy a package of M&Ms from a vending machine, then I just spent $1.25.  But the opportunity cost are those things that I gave up, in order to buy the package of M&Ms.  I gave up the chance to purchase a Twix bar.  I also gave up a chance to add that $1.25 to my retirement investments.  I gave up the chance to put more money into my niece's college fund.

That is one expensive treat.

Medicare's decisions are no different.  Assuming limited funds (a mere $505B for 2014), the decision on each medical claim is weighed against the decision against paying for another claim.  And the appeal's process is awful - involving 5 layers of oversight that involves two layers where 'NO' is inked on their rubberstamp.

So even with large sums to play with, there are numerous cases where Medicare passes on the opportunity to help some people in need.  Opportunity cost.

$30M is a lot of opportunity cost.  How many kidney transplants is that?  How many people treated for influenza?  How many immunizations, boosters, and treatments would that be?

How many people died?

What is the real cost of a $30M fraud?

The offenders are facing jail time.  Tyrann's mom is facing a year in prison for her part.  The lead offender, Crinel, faces a maximmum of 97 months in prison.  But if you look at the crime in terms of the opportunity cost, then I would recommend that we revisit those sentencing guidelines.

If the 30 mil could have saved a single life, then they are guilty of manslaughter.  If it costs $3M to save a life, then we are talking ten counts of manslaughter. The sentencing guidelines on multiple cases of manslaughter are considerably stiffer than government fraud.

I see possibilities here.  The economic impact sentencing guidelines could be broadened to include other offenses, as well.  Embezzle money from a school district?  Figure out the economic and social costs of having lesser education opportunity for each student.  Then multiply that by the number of students. 

I guarantee that people will think twice about diverting money from the kids after the first offender gets a $15M fine and 75 years in prison. 

Murder charges for Medicare fraud. 

Corruption in constructing roads?  Every pothole that flattens a tire or kicks an alignment out of kilter is now your responsibility.

Suddenly, the prosecution of white collar crime would have teeth - with penalties that fit the crime. 

Let's take another look at opportunity cost.  These kinds of fraud are not victimless crimes.  Shall we stop treating it as though it is?



Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Confirming my Bias

A friend posted a meme this week.  It turned out that the site was yet another satire site, with a web address that made you think otherwise.  And he had not checked the source.  Turns out that ISIS does not have a "Spirit of ISIS" award that they present to people who enforce religious laws in a democracy.

And they didn't award that honor to Kim Davis. It didn't happen.
ISIS Courage Award?  Look it up.

He was almost immediately called out on it.  And his response was, "I didn't realize it was a satire site.  But it doesn't change anything."

The photo confirmed his bias.  So it was good.


Another friend hates Monsanto with a holy passion.  Nary a meme crosses his computer blasting the company that he does not pass on.  He is a very smart guy, but his hatred of the company blinds him to basic evaluation techniques.  So anything that slams Monsanto is fair game.

Some good information has been given to me through reading the forwarded news articles.  Biased, sure, but good information.

And some of the information he provides is not good information.

I have written before about how I rely on my friends to provide me with insights into the broader world.  The things that you are passionate about gives me real information.  I love reading deeply, and trying to understand your perspective. I crave that kind of knowledge like heroin, and if it comes from a passionate stakeholder, all the better.

But the fact that I love reading deeply also means that I will be critical, if you give shallow data, or impressionistic, knee-jerk reactions. 

So here are my thoughts about re-posting (this obviously doesn't apply to jokes - those are fair game).
  1. Read the article.  It should go without saying, but I expect you to read the article before passing it along.  This year, there was an NPR article that the headline boasted: "Why Doesn't America  Read Anymore".  It was an April Fools joke, a joke that you only got if you actually clicked on the link.  It was shared widely, and commented upon endlessly, all by people who had not even opened the link.  DON'T BE THAT PERSON.  I will automatically discount everything you say if it is clear you didn't read the article you posted.  I even got a post a few days ago with a disclaimer: Please get the other side of the story or hell research a little about it before posting. Note: I was unable to watch the full video. Seriously?
  2. In the words of Dr. Merideth (Real Genius), "Always... no, no... never... forget to check your references." If you are sending along a meme or photo, fact check it.  Usually it is as simple as going to the Snopes page and typing in a word or two.  In other cases, you might have to look up the reference.  A friend posted a bit of anti-Republican rant-meme last week.  Those are usually pretty fun, and often clever.  In this case, it was posting the laws that Republicans voted against since the 1970s.  But I checked it out - the first one mentioned never made it to the floor.  I didn't bother checking any more of them, and discounted the point he was making. YOU LOSE CREDIBILITY WHEN YOUR FACTS ARE WRONG.
  3. Fight fair.  If someone calls you out, arguing from the opposite side, listen.  Condescension and ad hominem attacks only make your argument weak.  Someone who cares enough to comment might have something to say. 
  4. Be prepared to help your friends understand.  Have additional resources that you can provide if they ask.  (Believe me, most people won't ask, but the ones who do are potential allies.)
  5. Always be ready to send people to  Because it is inevitable - you are going to get the silly question that people could ask siri to answer, but couldn't be bothered.  So have 'let-me-google that-for-you' on your speed dial.  (OK, that is the exception to the no-condescension rule).
I don't expect everyone to be an expert on their passions.  But if you tell me that 30,000 babies starved to death last night, I'll really want to know some more details.  And if it untrue, I will be unlikely to believe the next thing you say.  Unfortunate, but true. My emotions can be manipulated, but if they are falsely manipulated, I will no longer listen to you.  I will judge you.

And I might poke fun at you behind your back.  Or maybe in a blog entry.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

LMJ word of the week - suzerainty

Continuing the Le Mot Juste word of the week essay.  Enjoy.

Suzerainty (/ˈsjuːzərənti/ or /ˈsjuːzərɛnti/) is a situation in which a powerful region or people controls the foreign affairs of a tributary vassal state while allowing the subservient nation internal autonomy.

From the moment we learn the word "I" we begin to say it: "I can do it myself."   We learn it early, and we have it taught to us, over and over. 

Autonomy.  It is a powerful word.  The right to control your own actions.  

In fifth grade, I had to do a bibliography for a project I was working on.  I just didn't understand it - the whole process of explaining where you got your information was foreign to me.  And probably, poorly explained.

I confessed to my mom that I was struggling with the assignment, and that I was going to stay after school and get some help.  She agreed to pick me up later that day, and I sat in the classroom and worked on my project. 

And not once did I open my mouth about the fact that I was having a hard time understanding what I was supposed to do.  Mrs. Marin never knew.

Mom, on the other hand, was flabbergasted.  The idea that I would stay after school to get help, and be to ashamed - for that was the word for what I felt - that I wouldn't even ask for help?  Inconceivable.

But it really isn't.  We all want to feel like we don't need the help of everybody to do what we are supposed to do. We want to have authority to do what we are supposed to do, with minimum of oversight.  Sure, I have to answer to someone.  And sometimes, I want to have powerful people dealing with external affairs.  But for the most part, the more that the boss can leave me to do my work, the happier I am. 

Today's word of the week is like that.  The idea of a suzerainty is an entity that has autonomy on internal affairs.  And has a powerful person in charge of it all.

Maybe part of the reason that the idea appeals to me is that I also see my relationship with my creator in the same light.  The day-to-day operations is left up to me.  Free will, and the like.  But I also fit into a larger plan, where the part I play is backed by a powerful creator.  And it is there that my will folds into Hers.

I am happy in her suzerainty. 


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Risky Business

I feel like I am trying to learn a new language based on a study of puns. 

Yes, that word is right, but it also means X.  And maybe Y.  And if you think about it this way, it also means Z.  Everything means something different from what you originally thought, and the opportunities for misunderstanding are legion.

It happened very suddenly.  A week ago - on Friday -  I missed a call.  My voicemail said, "Crorey, this is Sue.  I have an opening in the class you requested, but you need to respond immediately.  Give me a call and let's talk."

I was out roaming the streets with my cousin Jake (first time in New Orleans) and my uncle Richard (also his first visit) during Southern Decadence week.  Having a blast, but not paying particular attention to my phone messages.

During lunch, I called her back, and started a crazy ride where I am feeling equal parts exhiliration and terror.

The 'class' she referred to is a series of intense, graduate-level classes on risk analysis, risk management, and risk communication.  It is taught by one of the planning gurus in the field (Charlie Yoe literally wrote the book on planning for the Corps.  Twice.)  He has recently decided that the same approach needed to be taken towards risk.

So he started offering a graduate level seminar - a certification program - in risk.  It is run as an online class through Notre Dame Maryland University. And it is kicking my londonderry-aire.

ERM risk management framework.  Yeah, me, either.
The reading is voluminous, and involves approaches to the problem from so many different directions.  We are getting readings that talk about risk from the nuclear regulatory field, the private for-profit sector, from the food and drug administration, from EPA, from the United Kingdom and
New Zealand, and everywhere in between.

Everybody uses different terms.  Or if they use the same term, they use it to mean something else.  They structure their risk analysis differently, and they use different metrics to define it.

Risk has two elements: consequence (what happens) and probability (likelihood.)  For instance:
  • Asteroid crashing into the earth with a direct hit.  Consequence: catastrophic beyond all imagining.  Probability: not likely THIS year. 
  • Hitting a pothole with your car while driving in New Orleans.  Consequence: possible damage to frame.  Probable damage to alignment/shocks/tires.  Probability: almost certain, today.
The Corps is moving in the direction of making decisions under uncertainty, and as an agency we are ill-equipped for it.  When you deal with engineers, you know that precision and certainty are their comfort zones. Chaos? Uncertainty?  Risk?

Not so much.

So I am trying to figure out how to bring the risk-averse crew together with the risk-taking crowd.  And struggling to understand concepts that involve very messy vocabulary. 

Diving back into the studies now.  Have an assignment that I don't understand, based on readings that I can't figure out, and not enough time to write it all up.  It is exactly the kind of chaos that I thrive on.

Now, to figure out those puns....



Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What makes you give?

"When Sean V. sends me an email, I can ignore it.  When he comes to my desk, I pay attention."

Heads nodded around the room. They knew the guy, and had all done the same.

Thursday I met with some co-workers and colleagues about the CFC. The Combined Federal Campaign is the Fed's version of United Way.  It is a clearinghouse for money donated by federal employees to national and local charities.  Hundreds of charities to choose from, each with their own mission, overhead, and goals.

And every year, we go through the same thing.  Skits.  Poking fun at the bosses, who are asked to humiliate themselves - pie throwing, dunking booth, silly skits, whatever.  But the result has been a decline over time in participation rate. 

It used to be the case that employees donated to the church and to whatever the office charity was.  And the donations continued throughout the career, adjusting for increases in pay and promotions.  If you were in charge of getting donations, you could pretty much count on the combination of peer pressure (everyone is doing their part) and a little bit of amusement to get full compliance.

And then came Dateline.

Now, with 24-hour news channels, we have exposés about everything under the sun.  And there is little that we love more than seeing the CEO of a non-profit go down.  So hidden cameras and gotcha moments and microphones stuffed into the face of people who are gaming the system... all part and parcel of our modern lives.

Corporate Stinkeye
And so begins a distrust of charity.  The mistrust does not only extend to the one charity who was exposed, but to all.  The underlying assumption now is, everybody cheats.  Only one got caught.

So the youngest workers tend to have no faith in the system we are in charge of pushing.  They are demanding; they want to see real results for what they do. They are ready to volunteer than donate, and they give the stink-eye to large, corporate-style fundraising.  Like what we are doing.

Unfortunately, the resulting harm is often greater than the benefit.

I am no homebuilder.  My volunteer hours are better spent apprenticing for a job where I show some aptitude - say, cleaning latrines or shoveling horse manure.  (Maybe removing bees from columns - but that one comes up very rarely in charity work.) 

Monday, September 7, 2015

LMJ Word of the week - voussoir

Continuing my storytelling through looking for le mot juste....

We all know about the keystone, and how important it is.  The top stone in the arch, the piece that holds everything together, it is even (inexplicably) translated as "cornerstone" in some ancient texts.

The keystone is important - I agree.  The fascinating element of the arch is the piece that is under the most pressure to perform.  Pressure from both sides, equally distributed, the keystone brings to my mind the image of Samson pushing at the columns of the Philistine temples. 

Furthermore, our eyes naturally gravitate upwards (OK, maybe gravity is not the best word...), seeing the sweeping line of the opening, focusing on the symmetrical piece that pushes the two walls apart.  The beautiful keystone, perfectly cut, perfectly fitted, perfectly symmetrical.

And yet, the image is a little bit wrong.  An arch, after all, is more than just two vertical pieces and a horizontal piece.  The other side pieces lean in, pushing on the keystone.  What is happening is more like a reverse tug-of-war, with each piece multiplying the force of the one behind, adding pressure that will keep the keystone up.

The foundation blocks at the bottom of the arch - the springers - are important.   The keystone is of critical importance.

My rendition of an arch.  Voussoirs in yellow.
But the voussoir - each of the trapezoidal stones that form the transition between the two, those are the most often forgotten pieces in the arch.  These blocks make the dangerous move of leaning out of plumb, taking the chance of failure.  While the keystone is held on the sidelines until the critical moment, the voussoir take all of the risk.

And in the end, everyone marvels at the beauty of the whole arch, and look at that keystone!

My job - my career - is that of voussoir.  Yours is very likely the same.  We support the ones who get the glory.  We push, and take risks, and run a real chance of going SPLAT.  We step on the ledge, pushing the center of gravity over the edge, trusting that eventually the other side will support us; hoping that the other side is being built in the same way as we are.

And like the second level in a cheerleading pyramid, we take the risks without getting to fly.

Interestingly, the keystone is a specific voussoir.  Just one more wedge-shaped stone, carefully made to fit together with other equally carefully made stones. 

Yes. I am carefully made.

The corbeled vault is simply not as cool.
 Nothing but flat blocks everywhere.
And my function is important. 

My job, then, is important - to keep pushing out.  Keep stepping on the ledge.  Keep reaching for the other side. 

Today's definition: Voussoir - (n; pl. voussoirs - ) one of any wedge-shaped blocks used in forming an arch.  

The verb form (intransitive) is voussoired.... Or at least, it should be.

Let's go voussoir the hell out of life. Together.   Holding each other up.  Supporting each other.  Leaning in.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

LMJ Word of the week - haruspex

So we continue with this week's episode in the continuing saga of unusual words to be used for just the right occasion.  Le mot juste....

Haruspex (pl: haruspices) one of a class of minor priests who practiced divination, esp. from the entrails of anumals killed in sacrifice (>L haru = gut + spec = to look at)

It is the end of the fiscal year, and we are working up schedules for each of our projects. And the budgets. All of us project maangers are playing with the numbers, taking stock of how much money remains in odd places (I am pretty sure that they won't need any more survey money....), and re-baselining our projects.

Re-baselining is an odd term.  It means that we have a new chance to lock in a schedule for the year - and detail what we intend to accomplish for each of our projects.  After the schedules are locked in, we are responsible for getting those items accomplished.  It is a delicate dance.  If we push too fast, too hard, we risk missing a deadline.  If we pad the schedule with too much float, the labor money runs out before we get the work done.

We rely on tea leaves.  Well, coffee dregs.  Whatever.

The scheduling is as much art as it is science.  Some things, like grass growing, is outside of our control.  Weather delays are somewhat predictable - bad weather usually starts in late December, and extends through March.  Other delays are not predictable - if team members are pulled off of the project for an emergency effort.  And then there is the discovery of a black bear on our project area - resulting in delays as we figure out how to avoid endangered species.

Regardless, we are called to explain each delay.  So we rely on historical data, available funds, and a certain amount of haruscopy to determine what our schedule should be. 

I am re-naming my position.  And having cards made up.

Crorey Lawton
US Army Corps of Engineers

Anybody know where I can get a good, healthy sheep liver?  Heptascopy, here I come.

Many happy returns of the day to my lovely god-daughter, Allie Griffeth!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Watching Grass Grow

Grass won't grow on my levee.

We have checked all the boxes, followed all of the regs.  We have compacted the right parts, and we have seeded according to spec. The levee is tall and strong, and able to withstand winds, rising river, and storm surge.  It serves as both a river levee - keeping the Mississippi River from overflowing its banks, and as a hurricane storm surge levee.  A rogue barge will not be able to breach it, and it even has a foundation made of dirt mixed with concrete (it is a fascinating process called deep soil mixing, where they inject grout deep into the soil and then mix it with the soil to make an in-place concrete). 

The last step of levee construction is to create an armor on the surface.  Concrete is the ideal, but it is cost prohibitive.  Grass, however, is an acceptable solution - it will resist erosion and will mean that if water overtops the levee, it does not rip the levee apart. 

After a couple of years of building and flattening and working on the levee, we are ready to turn it over to the locals.  Except for the grass.

Shockingly, we have struggled to get grass to grow,  It seems as though we are creating a land feature with two functions.  The first is to act like iron.  The more it resembles concrete - strong, resistant, unbending - the better the levee is.  So we use clay that compacts well and we smush the clay flat (smush is the technical term, of course).  We do the deep soil mixing so that the stuff underneath is hard and solid, and resists intrusion.  After everything has been compacted as much as it can....

...we sow it with grass seed.

Yes, grass will grow in concrete.  Getting enough coverage, however, will take time.

We have had some unexpected hiccoughs - the nature conditions have been atrocious for growing seed.  At the beginning, we planted grass seed, fertilized, and stood back to watch the grass grow.   It rained torrential rainfall for months.  As soon as the rains stopped, we filled in the ruts, we re-seeded, re-fertilized, and stood back to watch grass grow.  And it stopped raining.  Altogether.  This summer has been abominably hot and dry, and the baking heat has turned the clay into iron. 

And even worse, the soil in some places has ended up being saltier than expected.  Salt, as you would guess, is not exactly the best thing for growing grass.  In fact, it is pretty toxic, and it is the rare blade of grass that can flourish.  And the higher the level of salt, the harder it is to flourish.

We are working to figure out how to deal with it.

Meanwhile, we are having an agency-wide problem with morale.  I have been in a number of meetings just in the past month where senior leaders are trying to figure out why people are dissatisfied with their work. And there is no question.  In the ten years since the target was placed on the back of my agency, the people in my building have worked tirelessly...

That's not true.   They are tired. 

Like with the levees, we are in an environment that is toxic.  We have become accustomed to the enormous pressure and responsibility, and we have been working like mad to serve the people (we are getting smushed). We fight to get the work done that we are charged to do, expected to do more and more with less and less.  People burn out, and leave, and their positions are not replaced. Budgets are tightening. Timelines are shortening.  Expectations are ever higher, and with less institutional knowledge than ever.

We have become the sun-baked clay of the levees.  And we are not growing grass.

In a 'morale' meeting that I attended yesterday, the senior leader asked for my opinion.  I answered with a metaphor.  And it works for any situation where people are struggling with morale.

You don't try to grow grass on concrete.  You don't make the conditions ideal for one scenario, and then expect a different element to blossom.   If you want grass to grow, you have to give it the right conditions.

1. The soil needs to be loose.  Hard packed soil resists growth.  Without the flexibility in the soil, the grass shoots fight to break through and establish.  Our rules need to help encourage flexibility, not create hard-and-fast rules that destroy any creativity and inhibit growth. Destroy creativity, kill the joy in creation of a product that I can be proud of.

2. Fertilizer is needed.  All of the manure jokes aside, the best way to grow organics is by providing them an environment rich in organics.  We need to be around a variety of people, and we take some strength from them, and provide our strength back to them.  One plant needs nitrogenated soil, another plant can provide the nitrogen fixing bacteria needed to let it thrive. Provide the resources your people need.  It is critical to watching the grass grow.

3. Birds love to eat the seeds, killing off the plant before it ever gets to grow. There are external forces that make life more difficult.  The media portray us as incompetent, and we begin to believe it ourselves.  Neighbors share unkind jokes about how many government workers it takes to fill the open water of the wetlands.  Congressman lambaste our efforts, and call for us to take pay cuts and denigrate us at every turn.  Birds everywhere, looking to demoralize us and demonize us.  A little bit of positive reinforcement energizes us.  Protecting us from the birds needs to be a priority.

4. Weeds choke us out. It is tough enough to work in a toxic environment, but when we are fighting not only external forces, but also internal policy, it makes our jobs impossible.  Many of our projects die from the crab bucket mentality - as soon as one crab looks like it is going to escape, the other crabs grab and drag him back in.  Morale improves when the impediments are removed - when we can do our jobs to the best of our ability without fighting for permission to do what we are supposed to do at every step.

A few years ago, a jewish rabbi pointed out that there were certain conditions where a plant would thrive.  Hard, stony ground?  Not so much - it might start out OK, but then the sun bakes the life out of it.  Bramble thicket?  The plant gets choked.  Open area?  The birds eat their fill.

But then, he said, when you have some plants that get planted in good, well-tilled, fertilized soil, they produce like crazy.  100-fold.  1000-fold.  The field becomes filled with productive plants.

The rabbi focused on the seeds that succeeded.  I think if we are to make more plants succeed, we need to make sure that we help the plants along.  Plough a little ground for those around you.  Fertilize those relationships (not by heaping crap on them.... but by giving them what they need). Protect your people against outside attackers, and cut down those who provide impediments from within. 

The grass will grow.  And we will all reap the benefits.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

LMJ Word-of-the-Week: Manqué

Manqué: (mäNGˈkā/) - having failed to accomplish up to one's potential. Unfulfilled.

My 10th grade English teacher explained to the class the expression 'le mot juste'.  LMJ is the perfect word for the occasion, whatever that occasion is.  Doesn't it happen to you?  The perfect word is right on the tip of the tongue, and you can't think of it?  And no other word will do?


One of my family's games when I was growing up was a dictionary game.  One person got the dictionary, and chose an abstruse word.  Everybody wrote their definition.  We then voted on the definitions.  Vote right, you got a point.  Vote wrong, and the author of the definition got two points.

Nobody ever picked a word that Dad didn't know.  Not once.

But once a week I will try to stump Dad. 

For one blog every week I will try to put up a stumper word. Something that I have run across, and find interesting or useful, but will only be appropriate in a very specific occasion. I will give you the LMJ of the Week.

This week, the word is manqué.

I am an academic manqué.  Becoming a professor of archaeology was the dream - it was the focus of my career, my education, my training, my research, and my reading.  I prepared.  I studied.  I did fieldwork, and hobnobbed with famous archaeologists.  I apprenticed myself to several of them over time, learning the mysteries of the arcane.  I presented papers at conferences, and wrote book reviews for journals.  I taught classes, and applied for grants. 

I even had a plan - I was going to find three young Maya researchers - a linguist, a cultural anthropologist, and a physical anthropologist - and we were going to promote ourselves as a complete department that a small college could get for cheap.  We were going to market ourselves as young, hungry researchers who would become world-class scholars in a few short years.  It was going to work. 

But at the end of my research, I could not write up the results to satisfy my committee.

Some of it was the topic.  But a lot of it was me.  I was working full time on an unrelated career.  I struggled with the statistics, and I had a hard time asking for help.  I did not like my topic, and the results were inconclusive in one approach after another.

Ultimately, I was let go.

I had such potential.  But I lacked the 'fire in the belly' that would put me over the hump.  I ended up an academic manqué.

Manqué. Your LMJ for the day. 


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Why do I Pun? (Or: How I learned to Love the Adam Bum)

I stopped for gas on the way to work today.  While I was there, the guy pumping gas across from me finished, got back in his car, and lit a cigarette.  The residual gas that splashed on his hands ignited.

He jumped out, swinging the hand in wide arcs, until I jumped over and grabbed him.  A cop who happened to be in the parking lot got there at the same time, and we put the fire out.

I went inside to explain to the very upset sales clerk what had happened, and when I came back out, the policeman was arresting him.  Possession of an illegal fire arm.

There is something special about an unexpected relationship between words.  I love it when my brain picks up on connections that involve a stretch.

MoZ Stolen image from here.
In the otherwise unremarkable movie Mask of Zorro, Catherine Zeta Jones is involved in a swordfight with the masked man.  The fencing is pretty good, and the footwork keeps bringing Zorro closer, until he is close enough.  He grabs her and kisses her.

"Will you surrender?"

"Never.  But I may scream."

I laughed so loudly that the other movie patrons shot me dirty looks. 

See, with the spanish accent, it came out "I may-a scream."  Or maybe "I may escrime."

"Escrime" is "fencing" in French (which is the lengua franca for fencing). 

The more convoluted the connection, the more I like it.  (That one, requiring connection between english spoken with a latin accent, then translating from the french, is probably the most convoluted I have noticed. And might have even been a-purpose.)

Granddaddy told me the apocryphal story about the journalist's interview of Winston Churchill, where he asked the man, "Sir, you are known widely for your wit and especially for your puns.  Can you give me an example of a pun?"

"Uh-pun what subject?"

Yes, I know.  I have been told all my life.  The pun is the lowest form of humor.  It relies exclusively on quick response, quick connections, and overlap of meaning or sounds between two words.  It cannot be revisited.  It cannot - in correct usage - be prepared. 

It cannot, under any circumstances, be explained. 

And I cannot ever, ever EVER seem to be able to stop myself.

"Get it?  Did you get it?" 

I have very good friends who confessed to me that they often pretend not to follow my puns and verbal plays, for the simple joy it gives them to see me struggle to make people understand and follow.

Come to think of it, those people might not be close friends, after all.

I have always admired the hand grenade joke.  The one that is casually dropped in the lap of an unsuspecting victim, which then explodes ("HEY!") when you walk away. My uncle CE and my brother are masters at it.  My desire to please - and my desire to impress - far outweighs my ability to use the joke simply to amuse myself. I simply want to share in the cleverness, in the humor.   I need to share the laugh.

But in the end, I am OK with that.  Humor is meant to be shared.  And so when I explain a pun that I had no business making in the first place, recognize it for what it is. 

It is my gift to you.  My quirky, odd, strange gift.  It is my expression of love for you, from a guy who doesn't always follow the socially acceptable ways of expressing love. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Remembering a morning with Mac

This weekend brings the annual M.A.C. ride in Easley - a bicycle ride that was originally meant to as a tribute to my Dad. He immediately refocused the effort to send support and money to those who needed it.  Joshua Adams made an amazing video that included a speech he gave at the last one Dad attended. Give it a listen here, and if you feel inclined, donate here.  Money raised goes to providing shoes to kids. 
I am hearing my dad's voice in a lot of places.  And some of the vignettes that I am hearing are just magical.  This is from one of the visits he made to Louisiana a number of years ago.  One of the most spectacular days I have ever spent.
A beautiful predawn. The stars were bright - living in New Orleans, between the light pollution and the humidity, it is rare to see more than a single star or two in the night sky. But the cold front removed all the humitidity from the air, and we were far enough from any residence to see the glorious spray of stars stretching across the sky.

We got into the boat, and the cool of the night became cold as we started out. I relaxed my jaw to keep from chattering; the breeze cut right through the long-sleeved camo t-shirt and left me chilled. After five minutes in the mud boat, we dropped the first crew off at their pirogue, and then followed the twists and turns of the canal to our own. We swapped from a small boat into a smaller, shifted all the gear over, and started off. The first hints that dawn was on its way peaked over the horizon, and we could see shadowy vegetation on either side of the canal.

Roger turned towards us, and I was surprised to hear him talk in a normal voice - it seemed like talking loud in church, not exactly sacriligeous, but inappropriate.

"It gets a little shallow here, so I have to pole us over the low spot."

Sure enough, he pulled out the long aluminum pole and slicked the bottom of the boat over the plough mud. A few seconds later, the canal opened into a large open area with clumps of grass still obscured in shadow. Roger guided the boat towards the center of the clearing, straight towards the largest of the grass clumps.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Check Out the Fractals.

We were talking about some pipe dreams each of us has, and a friend of mine met my objection before I had even had a chance to voice it.  "If it takes too long, why not start now? How old will you be in five years if you DON'T follow that dream?"

I provided the obligatory clever retort.  But the sentiment has stuck with me.

How old will I be in five years if I don't do it?

I have mentioned my sister before regarding her learning to play the accordion.  All her life, Caroline has played the long game.  She looks into the distant futures, finds a future she wants, and starts on the intermediate tasks that will get her there.  This is not a new thing with her - I saw her figuring out costs and benefits when she was a baby contemplating taking her first steps.  And then again when she decided to swim.  And then again when she learned to read. 

A couple of months ago, when I was comparing musical notes with her, she told me her goal - she wants to be the 80-year-old lady who plays the accordion. If, as current popular theory states, it requires 10,000 Gladwellian practice hours to achieve mastery over a task, then she will plan on being an expert in 40 years. 

10,000 hours over the course of 40 years is only 250 hours a year.  An average of just over 40 minutes a day.

Very long game.  A friend of mine shared a quote with me this week:

When Pablo Casals (then aged 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, Casals replied, "'I'm beginning to notice some improvement...'

The game is long, but focusing on the game means that you are breaking the process up into bearable units.  Although 10,000 hours seems like an insurmountable summit, 40 minutes is doable.

More important than the bite-sized practice sessions, though, it helps keep expectations in check.  I get discouraged if my banjo playing doesn't improve.  If the lessons I learned yesterday don't stick.  If the song doesn't sound better than it did yesterday.  Or worse still, if it sounds worse.  If my fingers are stiff and don't limber up, if the timing just sounds wrong, if the tune I hear in my head cannot make it out onto the instrument.... I get frustrated and fed up.

Each discouragement means that it is harder to pick up the hated instrument and play for a half hour. (30 minutes a day means it is gonna take me a little longer than Caroline to get to the 10k plateau....)

But what happens when I am not working towards immediate gratification?  What a lift do I get when I know those damned scales are just part of a huge plan to get good?  Practicing those rolls are not an end to themselves, but part of a long-term project to increase strength and flexibility?

As part of my research in my previous life as an archaeologist, I looked at fractals, the self-replicating patterns that repeat at every scale.  It made sense to look at it to study stone tool debris; I can tell you that one small pile of debitage looks almost identical to another (just so you know, that is not enough to write a thesis on...).  But I am beginning to think that maybe my efforts to learn things happen in the same way.

Mandelbrot might have been a math genius, but I
bet he sucked at playing the banjo.

I work on my forward rolls on the banjo.  I see a little bit of improvement.  Not much, just a little bit.  I see this little part of the learning pattern, and I think I know where it is going. And if I look back, I can imagine where I was a week ago.

But at a larger scale, over the past year and a half, I can see the things that I have learned.  And they grow at about the same rate.  My practice and the improvement I have in my ability replicates itself over time.  I get better incrementally.  My breakthroughs are not as amazing as I remembered them to be.  My plateaus not so long. 

Last night I went back to my first banjo instruction book, and was delighted to find that some of the trickier parts of the book were not as tricky any more.  I was able to do even the unfamiliar tunes more quickly.  That I struggled less.

What happens in five years?  How far along will I be? 

Funny thing that I realized, though, is that it is not limited just to my music.  How does playing the long game change my ideas about exercise (instead of getting discouraged that I don't look like Charles Atlas after six months of push-ups)?  How would it change my attitude towards my career advancement?  My furthering of my education?  My work in the community? 

What happens if I take the long view? 

And what fractal in your life would YOU approach differently?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Barber of DeVille

When I was a boy, going to the barber shop was a monthly Saturday afternoon ritual.  Even then, I recognized that there was something special about a place that catered to men so exclusively.  And what is not to like?  The smell of leather strop and hair tonic, the precision of a razor trim, the snicking of hair providing a backbeat for the sound of casual conversation among men who have known each other for decades. 

As I grew to become a teenager in the 80s (when the mullet was the height of teenage fashion), my barber – the only one in town – managed to keep the back of my hair trimmed higher and tighter than I wanted.  (I suspect my dad of tipping heavily after the fact to ensure that my nape curls got neatly trimmed).   The barbershop held the same smells and sounds as my childhood, but with a different cast of characters.  The main difference, though, was that I drove myself. No matter where you go, the reassuring familiarity and timelessness of the barbershop that made it so comfortable.
Over the years, however, as terms like ‘metrosexual’ and ‘manscape’ entered into our jargon, men -  even southern men - began to eschew the hometown barber shop and began to go to unisex salons.  Not all… some held to tradition.  But old-time barbershops have increasingly disappeared over the years.  Some hold-outs, however, have managed to maintain the exact same venue, the same feel, even using the same elixir on the nape of the neck as they have done for the past fifty years. 
And is there anything that speaks more to small southern towns than the local barber shop?
It is only recently, and primarily in the metro areas, that there has been a resurgence of the ‘full service’ barbershop – the kind of place that promises hot towels, close shaves, and perhaps a drop or two of an adult beverage.  Although it was never part of the southern barber tradition, it has undeniable appeal – a male-only establishment where both testosterone and pampering mix in relatively inexpensive luxury.  These establishments  - I will call them Man-Cave Barbershops - represent something different in modern society, and use the venue of the barbershop as a mechanism for delivering something quite different. 
The Traditional Barber
Traditional establishments are harder to find these days. Any time I travel, I look for one, just to see if I can find a place with just the right feel of permanence.  I found one in San Antonio that I loved - the Gunter Barbershop. Downstairs in the Sheraton Hotel downtown, the barbershop had the small-town barber feel.  A shoeshine stall in the corner.  Day-old newspapers and year-old Field and Streams on the table. A barber with thinning hair, slicked back with a product that has been discontinued for fifteen years.
Inexpensive haircut, easy conversation.  Businessmen from downtown came in wearing five-hundred dollar shoes to get a great seven-dollar haircut. Discussion tended towards the conservative political vein, but was not offensively so. 
A barber's shop in Vicksburg, Mississippi gave me a similar situation (well, maybe not the shoeshine...).  A strip mall on the outskirts had me smiling before I ever walked through the door.

Predictably, the decor was more eight-point-buck-on-the-wall than its counterpart in San Antonio, but the homey feel was no less delightful.  Mr. Downey gave me a great haircut, talcum-powdered my neck and sent me off.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Bee Stompin'

In the apocryphal tale, three-year-old Crorey was walking along in Granddaddy's yard, toddling along down the mountain.  Quite suddenly, my giggle turned to scream.  Everybody turned to look except Granddaddy, who knew where I was.  He was already in motion.

For those of my cousins who never knew Granddaddy as anything but an old man, what happened next is improbable.  But I am assured that it is true.  He sprinted down the side of the mountain, hurtling logs and dodging saplings and running over anything in his path.  And swooped me out of the yellow jacket nest that I had fallen into.
What bee could possibly sting that face?

He picked me up and started picking the yellow jackets off one by one, ignoring the stings that he was getting while doing so.

I ended up with a few stings.  He ended up with more than a hundred.

Seems as though I have spent an awful lot of my life being stung. 

Abelia Hedge was the plant that surrounded my house.

Four-year-old Crorey in the back yard, fascinated with the buzzing insects that seemed as attracted as he was to the sweet-smelling flowers.  And I was doing some serious bee stompin'.  Once I had successfully stomped bees one day, I did it again the next.  Eventually, I got stung.

Tearfully, I asked why the bee had stung me.  Mom explained to my bewildered four-year-old self that bees do not like being stomped.  And that they protect themselves by stinging. 

And if I am going to go bee stomping, that shoes are a must.

Episode 1 from abroad: Fast forward to a 9-year-old, bored out of his mind, stuck in French Guyana for an unexpected week. Not remembering his lesson taught earlier in that decade, my 9-year old self is chucking rocks at a small (tennis-ball sized) paper nest that was surrounded by increasingly agitated black flies.

Sweet success!  The fifth rock hit the hornets' nest squarely, and I watched with glee as the 'flies' flew away from the now-exploded nest.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eulogy for a Restaurant

I mourn my restaurants when they are gone.

For my whole childhood, December 23 was a celebration day for me, because that was when Granddaddy took us to Charlie's Steak House, to celebrate Grandmama's (and my dad's) birthday.  Charlie's was a dark, hushed tones place that served excellent steaks.  Sure, it was probably less than ideal for a small kid, because Chicken McNuggets never quite made it onto their kids' menu. 

For that matter, there was no kids' menu.

The salad was fresh iceberg lettuce with one sad quarter of a fresh tomato.  You had your choice of four dressings: blue cheese, thousand island, french and ranch. They were lovingly dumped into a serving tray, to be ladled out into your small bowl of lettuce.

You didn't go to Charlie's for the salad.

There were crackers and butter to eat while you waited for the entree to come out. 

You didn't go to Charlie's for the crackers.

The sides for your entree were a nice baked potato, with sour cream and butter, or limp french fries.  Neither of which were a draw.  There was both chicken and fish on the menu.  I am pretty sure that they kept one of each, in case some silly non-local came in with a desire to eat something else.  I never saw it happen.

You went to Charlie's for steaks.  Huge, juicy, tender steaks. 

Urban legend has it that during WWII, Charlie got the concession to feed some of the troops before they left for the European theatre.  The army provided the meat, and Charlie would prepare and serve the steaks.  His stipulation was that the steaks needed to be the right kind of beef.

The delivery was made, and Charlie refused it.  When the officer came by to see what the problem was, Charlie opened up the compartment, and started walking through the delivery.  "That one is a cow that has calved four times. This one a hiefer. This one, a cow that calved twice.  My instructions indicated that I would only serve steer meat.  Take it away and send me what I asked for.  I will not serve meat that is below my standards."

Charlie was also a skinflint.  A match seller came in and started in on his schpiel about how Charlie could buy this amount of promotional matches for his restaurant, but for just X amount more, he could get...

Charlie said, give me the best deal you can.  The cheapest per-matchbox price available.  And I'll sign the contract. 

Forty years later, the contract expired.  And Charlie had bought matches all of those years - the same matches - for a fraction of the cost