November 12, 2008

The Day Gas Broke $2.00

woo hoo

In the first gas-price run-up, way back in the 1970s, you couldn't blame yourself for the cost of fueling a 10-mpg car, because that's all there was.

Still, when four-cylinder imports started showing up, no one liked them. They were small. They sounded tinny. They felt flimsy, like aluminum lawn chairs, bound to tip over at any moment. But the worst part was, they had no "pick-up."

Pick-up is what we called torque, or an engine's turning force. Even at low RPM, standard-issue V-8s could launch a 4,000-lb. sedan from 0-60 in 12 seconds. On the highway, when you floored the throttle, a 400-cubic-inch V-8 lagged just long enough to kick down a gear before mashing you into the seatback. Never mind that the fuel line gushed like a firehose at that point. The full-throated moan of a four-barrel carburetor's secondaries had you feeling as if you could outrun just about anything.

By contrast, when your 1974 Toyota Corolla pulled onto an entrance ramp, you could hear insects laughing as they bounced off the windshield. Full throttle in a Datsun B210 felt the same as half-throttle, just noisier. Four-cylinder engines left you helpless and impotent, like Jimmy Carter when the mullahs glared him down.You wished you could run up a sail, dump ballast, or get out and push—anything to prevent the Buick Electras and Dodge Monacos from swerving around you.

When your Toyota pulled onto an entrance ramp, you could hear insects laughing as they bounced off the windshield

Automakers knew this, but would take years to direct their energies toward extracting more oomph from smaller engines. Turbos held promise for a while, but their inevitable lag and additional moving parts proved irritating, temperamental, and costly.

Multi-valve set-ups, fuel injection, and electronic ignition would eventually restore lost horsepower. Still, horsepower is the piranha to torque's Great White Shark: effective, just not as awesome. A V-8 will always make more torque than a four-cylinder.

Only when oil prices fell back down (toward the 1986 low of $10/barrel) would the return of V-8 power put the drive back into driving, where you felt as if you had a thoroughbred in your hands instead of a pack mule.

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November 05, 2008

Grateful It's Over

This morning I took down the McCain-Palin sign and put out the flag.

long may she wave

I'm glad it's over.

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October 21, 2008

One Day at Rittenhouse, c. 1956

My house holds little artifacts that give me pause each time I discover one. Once we were stripping a bathroom down to the studs when we found a pocketknife that had rested on a cross-brace since 1956, when the walls went up.

Likely, some construction worker named Bert or Jake laid it down for a moment, then got distracted by lunch or his boss or a radio message from President Eisenhower, and before he remembered what he was doing, a sheet of drywall entombed his tool for 50 years.

It amuses me to picture him, later that day, going through his coveralls for that pocketknife, never imagining it would be found by the fourth or fifth owner of the house, long after the Communist Bloc had shattered and automatic transmissions had become "standard."

Just the other day I found this in the attic:

survived 50 summers in the attic

"Send this label with name and address" would be the 1956 equivalent of "Check out" (Which gets you nothing, not even a GoDaddy-is-sitting-on-this notice.)

I do wonder what it is about cedar shingles that would fill a 100-page handbook. Without the now-customary 40 pages of introductory lawsuit language ("WARNING: DO NOT drive nails with forehead.") I'm guessing someone had to run far afield ("A slice of meat loaf between toasted cedar shingles will have your man's lunch pail singing a tune!") just to flesh it out. However, if a paying customer's gone to the trouble of peeling a label off a pack of construction material, addressing an envelope, and mailing it across the country, 100 pages seems like a fair reward.

Note the pre-ZIP code: "Seattle 1, Wash." When I see things like that, I picture the warm glow of vacuum tubes.

cedar shingles are now recognized as a fire hazard. I was a teen in Houston when the garden-style Woodway Square apartment complex went up like flash paper, as strips of cedar roofing ignited and leapt from building to building.

When we moved into this place, my insurance agent quizzed me about my roof composition; only a layer of asphalt shingles over the wood saved me from getting dropped. Supposedly, once they've baked in the sun a while, an errant bottle rocket can light them off.

In '56, probably the biggest risk was calling them "red."

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October 12, 2008

The Storm is Breaking

At every gas station I passed today, the price appeared lower. As if they were bidding to fill my tank.

As you know, that's a complete reversal of the past year or so, when it seemed that drivers existed only to do the gas pumps' bidding.

After dropping the kids off at home, I made a special trip back to this station.

what goes up must come down

Ahh. Supply and demand works my way, for once.

After filling up, I stopped by the liquor store. This called for celebration.

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October 01, 2008

Simple Solutions to Your Problems, Part 1

When you're enjoying a concert except for the clown a couple rows ahead who won't sit down like everybody else, you have always had two options:

Ask an Usher for Help
Forget it. These guys aren't qualified to do anything, and they simply won't do anything for you that you couldn't do yourself, such as tap the guy on the shoulder and ask him to sit down. Although they are less likely to get slugged in the face by the guy if he's on dope. Which leads to the other option.

Ask Him to Sit Down
Worse than useless. He won't comply, and if you're lucky he'll barely acknowledge you. If you're unlucky, he'll release a torrent of expletives pertaining to you, your parents, and your friends, then resume dancing. This will draw everyone's attention and the onus will be on you to respond. If you a) deck him, you'll be thrown out because that's the only thing anyone witnessed. If you b) walk away, you'll feel humiliated. So don't even ask.

(Although I've used the masculine-default pronoun here for convenience, it bears mentioning that the offender is just as likely to be female. In that case, absolutely never should you ask her to sit down. Few people are more reckless than a strung-out rockin' chick, and odds are she's with a eunuch who will see this as the perfect opportunity to slug you in the face AND get himself ejected from a concert he didn't want to attend, anyway.)

Today, Rittenhouse will enlighten you with a proven, third option:

Pop Him With a Concealed Rubber Band
Because you thoughtfully packed your left sock with a half-dozen sturdy rubber bands before leaving your house, all you have to do is covertly aim one of them at the offender's back and let loose. (If you're a good shot or if he's wearing leather, aim for the neck.) Then resume your pre-launch position. When the rubber band hits, the victim will grasp at the place of impact and spin around to behold a sea of annoyed-looking faces trying to look past him. Yours will be just one of many annoyed-looking faces.

aim carefully to prevent 'collateral damage'You may have to do this at least twice. Don't worry too much about others seeing you. Odds are, they'll wish they'd thought of it, and will watch admiringly as you take the jerk down, one snap at a time. What you want to avoid is their looking at you for your reaction, which will guide the dancer's eyes to you. So don't react. They'll take your lead, eager to be in on the plan.

On the chance your target's state of intoxication prevents him from feeling this, reach into your right sock, where you've stashed a few small binder clips. (These aren't easy to launch correctly, so you will have practiced beforehand.) If your target fails to sit down after several hits, odds are he's so stoned he can't feel anything. At that point you'll have little choice but to go find a police officer and identify the man as someone who, in the men's room, tried to sell you a dead policeman's badge.

Thanks, and enjoy the show!

(See also, Simple Solutions to Your Problems, Part II.)

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September 25, 2008

How the Campaign Looks from Texas

In the Sam's Club checkout line today, I rolled my cart up behind a woman with a flatbed full of picnic fixings. She looked capable of getting on by herself, but I offered to help anyway, and she accepted.

After I lugged a 75-lb. box of beef patties onto the belt, she announced, "You know you're helping Barack Obama?"

I proffered a polite smile and continued working. This was Sam's, not the Oxford Union.

"We're having a debate-watching party with the unions in Fort Worth," she added, in that uncertainly exuberant tone I've observed before. In cult members.

true story"I see." My flat response probably told her I wouldn't be begging for an invite.

Then the clerk announced her total: More than $500.

I wonder if the lady noticed my great, big, honkin' grin when I realized I'd just watched Barack Obama drop five hundred bucks in a state he will not win.

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September 12, 2008

The Shrimp Tent

A few years ago, Sanders announced we should fly out to Norfolk, Virginia, to witness the commissioning of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, a fitting tribute to the man who began the restoration of America's standing in foreign affairs. I said I'd be delighted, if ...

... if we had access to the shrimp tent.

You want to be in the shrimp tent. More precisely, you do not want to be outside the shrimp tent.

some years before sanders' invitation, Squeeky and I attended a new airplane unveiling near Seattle, at a Boeing Company assembly hangar. Thousands were expected, along with various industry and political bigwigs. As little wigs, we showed up at the appointed hour along with everyone else.

Inside, the hangar looked like an indoor amusement park minus the rides. Boeing had gone all-out with enormous projection screens, laser lighting, working technical models, and a very loud multimedia show at the far end, where the prototype stood bathed in sweeping spotlights and pop music. In further deference to the crowd, we noted, all the displays were written in eighth-grade English with plenty of illustrations.

still, my 2nd-favorite mugOnce we'd taken in all the sights and shouldered our way through the new-plane disco, we found ourselves herded toward an exit where each visitor got to choose a parting gift: a Boeing umbrella or Boeing coffee mug. I would be hard-pressed to decide, given the drizzle outside and my love for aeronautically sponsored hot beverages. But sternly smiling officials stood by to discourage double-dipping.

As Squeeky and I pondered this abrupt conclusion, I spotted someone familiar in the distance. Boeing's corporate PR director, whom I knew from way back, sat on the bottom step of a staircase leading up to a second-storey platform that spanned an inside wall of the hangar. Upon this platform, barely visible from below, stood a blue canopy lit from inside, under which a few people in banquet uniforms were moving about briskly.

We approached my acquaintance, who sat head-in-hands with co-workers attending her. Planning this shindig had taken all she had, and she looked as if she hadn't slept in days. I offered my sympathies, along with compliments on the wow factor of what we'd just seen.

"Thanks. You can go up if you want," she whispered, gesturing over her shoulder, even though we hadn't asked. Squeeky and I looked at each other, then shrugged and took the invitation, eager for anything to make our trip to Seattle a little more worthwhile.

at the top of the stairs we found, under the canopy, a half-dozen buffet tables loaded to the edges with Pacific salmon, Alaskan king crab, stuffed mushroom caps, scallops, bacon-wrapped asparagus with hollandaise, fine breads of all varieties, confections, and ... shrimp.

Spreads of shrimp. Piles of shrimp. Steamed shrimp. Fried shrimp. Shrimp scampi. Shrimp salad. Shrimp etoufee. Shrimp sauteed in butter sauce. Shrimp shrimp.


And prawns, too.

We glanced around carefully to make sure this was the place we'd been directed to. The last thing we wanted was to pile high a plate only to have it confiscated mid-bite. We saw no one else but the catering staff, and from the commotion on the other side of the platform we judged that some number of people would be joining us up here, soon. So we picked our way around the tables but stayed in plain sight, looking as if we thought we belonged there.

Then we gobbled down seafood as if we'd just been rescued from a raft in the Pacific.

The view from the shrimp tent never looked better

Within a few minutes, a mini-mob of of airline chiefs, Boeing hosts, and reporters made its way up the stairs and edged toward our smorgasbord. Flashbulbs popped and microphones sought comment, but none of crowd paid attention to the food, so we kept on scarfing plateful after plateful.

Eventually one of the press hounds followed his nose over to the buffet, relieved himself of his camera, battery packs, etc., and started cramming his gullet along with us. By that time we felt turgid, so we grabbed some punch (turned out to be mimosa) and retired to a corner to watch the others gorge themselves. As the dignitaries ran out of words, more of the media peeled off to wolf chow. This had been a long morning for everyone.

Before we left, we looked out onto the hangar floor at the throng still meandering amid the lights and displays, bound for the umbrella-or-coffee-mug conundrum. The view from the shrimp tent never looked better.

so, when sanders couldn't promise shrimp-tent access in Norfolk, I demurred. Likely as not, we'd be standing in the steamy afternoon sun listening to speeches through loudspeakers while somewhere nearby, behind a velvet rope manned by cops and jarheads, there would be a climate-controlled environment just for those whose complexions must not suffer and who expected four-star accommodations no matter what. They would be in the shrimp tent.

You always want to be in the shrimp tent.

cast of millions

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September 07, 2008

Don't Be Embarrassed

If you'll just choose a ringtone that sounds like church music, then all you have to do is grab a hymnal and stand up. Everyone else will join in.

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September 06, 2008


After a week in the company of my own kind, I'd forgotten how the left "thinks."

remember, you're scared to vote for a black guy

"Scared to vote for a black guy."

What was the Democrats' excuse when they turned Jesse Jackson away twice?

The assertion that workaday white people ... won't vote for a black man reveals more about the race-based obsessions of the intellectual elites making these claims than the reality of this campaign.

— Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal, August 28

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August 29, 2008

Off to GOP in MSP

Likely there will be sparse postings from me until it's over. I'm attending as a worker bee, not a journalist.

In the meantime, enjoy some recollections from the 1984 convention.

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August 24, 2008

Mystery Lyrics Solved

Blinded by the light
Wrapped up like a deuce
Another runner in the night

During Prohibition, and for some time thereafter, moon runners (nighttime transporters of illegal brew) would tape up their headlights so only a slit remained. That made their cars less visible to law enforcement.

A "Deuce" is a '42 Ford. A common car of the times, and the runners wanted to drive something that didn't attract undue attention.

I know, Prohibition ended long before 1942. But moonshining didn't.

What this has to do with the song, I don't know. But at least the reference is clear to you, now.

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August 17, 2008

I Got Axed

My policy on free ball-game tickets is, I accept them on condition they are accompanied by a VIP parking pass. Cash parking is for hikers.

In the case of last Tuesday, the hikers walked right by me as I sat in my car on Ballpark Way along with thousands of other VIPs trying to squeeze into our special parking lot. After that, I still had to cover ½ mile on foot. So it was 30 minutes after first pitch when I got my first glimpse of stadium green.

Of course, what's happening on the field is of secondary, even tertiary, interest when you have a ticket to one of the suites. We've rebuilt all of DFW's stadiums over the past 15 years to accommodate people with little interest in sports. Even our minor-league park boasts a ring of luxury boxes, where you can eat, drink, and party with your friends in air-conditioned comfort … just like home.

Only at home, it's easier to park.

besides the game itself, what i really miss about watching sports live is the sidestream smoke. Just an occasional whiff of someone else's cigarette, a couple of rows away, along with the roasted peanuts—then I feel I'm at a ball game. That was true in my Little League days, and even at the Astrodome before the Nicotine Nazis laid claim to all public space.

In any event, I had to leave the Rangers game to be up and functioning early, so I thanked my hosts and headed for the stairs. On the way out, I passed the smoking area, where people stood against a wall like Skid Row. Not even folding chairs for the outcast smokers.actual size, but very close-up

Meanwhile, out on the sidewalk, some promo girls were passing out samples of Axe body spray.

Ponder that for a moment: You can't smoke inside because people complain about the smell. But there's no rule against vulgar fragrances.

axe is one of those products that's so widely ridiculed I almost can't believe it has actual consumers, like Spam. I thanked one of the girls for the little capsule she handed me, then thanked God it came sealed in plastic. At least I wouldn't have to choose between littering, or forgetting I'd left it in the car only to have August heat cook it off like ammunition in a burning military vehicle. Goodbye, resale value.

Curiosity overtook me the next afternoon, at home. I unwrapped the pustule and sniffed it: Chinese plastic. Then I pressed on the squirt-top, and Axe vapor boomed across the you're dying to know what the WARNINGS are, aren't you?kitchen, narrowly missing several bystanders.

I had no idea Axe was a personal-defense spray. Drives away people with taste.

Axe. Tag. Gag. Perhaps I was better off in my car for that two-mile, 45-minute crawl to the stadium. I might have otherwise been marching in a crowd of steamy, body-spray-shrouded guys and the girls who love them.

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August 09, 2008

When the Bough Breaks

Part of me thinks that because any nitwit can start a tree-trimming business, then a non-nitwit such as me should be able to trim his own trees.

Having failed to learn from nearly flattening my back fence a few months ago, today I climbed onto the roof to see why a branch from the ginormous elm over our house was touching the shingles. Turns out a higher limb had given way, pressing the smaller one down. I brought saws and clippers with me, figuring on a quickie trim.

Did I mention I'd given blood that morning?

And that my wife was away for a couple of hours?

And the kids and dog were loose in the backyard?

yes, another college T-shirt

I did wait until Squeeky returned before wrestling loose the end of the bigger, broken branch, which any fool could see might come swinging down upon release.

And here's what happened.

Saved a hundred bucks with that.

And would've made more back from America's Funniest, if the roof had given way.

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August 06, 2008

Hard Times for Dungeon Masters

I drop in on the local surplus building materials store because the inventory varies from week to week and I never know what I'll find a deal on.

Today, I came upon these.

"the amontillado"

There were dozens of them on clearance. They're eight feet tall.

I guess the housing crisis claimed an entire subdivision planned for giants.

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July 30, 2008

Bennigan's, RIP

The demise of Bennigan's restaurants reminded me of a stunt my high-school classmate Charles pioneered to get us drink service before we were of age.

One Friday night Charles drove me and himself to the Bennigan's on the South Loop in Houston, which wouldn't admit minors after 9 p.m. (The state's drinking age was 19 then.) We entered, and the greeter led us to a table and handed out menus.

The instant her back was turned, Charles headed toward the men's room. He returned in less than a minute with two used highball glasses he'd plucked off an empty table along the way. He set them in front of us and winked at me.

Within a couple of minutes our waiter introduced himself. Charles ordered us a platter of potato skins and "a couple more Jack and Cokes," gesturing toward the glasses before us. The waiter glanced at them, nodded, and left.

After polishing off the appetizer and our first round of cocktails, we settled the tab and moved to the bar, glasses in hand. By then it was past 9:00, and the staff assumed we were of age.

We could sit at the bar and drink like grownups until closing time.

I suppose now we'd be considered felons.

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July 20, 2008

Honeymoon, Part III

three passengers, one engine

The half-hour plane ride out of Nanyuki provided the visual high point of our trip. Kerry Glen, our guide for the walking safari, had referred us to a bush pilot whose $400 service would be the most expensive flight, per mile, I have ever taken. The choice, however, was between that and a six-hour jeep ride over unmaintained roads. I resolved to spend the money on air, rather than chiropractic, services.

Jamie met us at the Nanyuki airport, and I immediately misidentified his accent as Australian. Apparently, Englishmen loosed in open territory for a generation start to sound alike. Jamie's air service catered to tour companies such as Kerry's, drawing clients from beyond the limits of commercial airlines and, for that matter, paved roads.

Getting shot out of the sky by a twitchy teenage conscript would've made such a bathetic coda to my short life

This being pre-9/11 African bush country, the Nanyuki airport's security measures involved lifting our bags to guess their weight, then gesturing for us to carry them out to our plane. We sat in the shade of a wing while Jamie figured his fuel load.

Here we met our first American since leaving the states. A doctor from Los Angeles, his dress and demeanor reminded me that African safaris are typically the province of the wealthy, and how blessed Squeeky and I were to have taken this trip when we did. Once Kenya's reputation healed and international travel became more expensive and complicated a few years later, a couple of cheapskates like us would be hard-pressed to enjoy something so adventurous and beautiful on our budget.

pictures couldn't capture itas we belted in, Jamie gave us headsets which, after liftoff, burbled with New Age music as we swept over a plain scattered with giraffes, elephants, and zebras nearly invisible in their camouflage. They stared up at us passing a few hundred feet over them, and we gaped back, almost weeping at the virgin beauty of the landscape opening under us. I have never seen so much wild territory at once.

Mount Kenya loomed in the steamy afternoon air. Another, much smaller peak passed under us at a clearance no FAA controller would have allowed; we could discern individual rocks. Pictures could not have captured the moment, so for most of the ride we stowed our cameras and just soaked it all in.

Jamie took a moment to alert a nearby military base of our passing, for which I felt gratitude, not least because getting shot out of the sky by a twitchy teenage conscript would've made such a bathetic coda to my short life.

At the end of our ride, we acquired a dusty airstrip, flew over it at treetop level, then looped around to land.

"Why'd you do that?"

"Drives the animals away."

U.S. Tourists Killed As Tour Plane Strikes Rhinoceros

 At least that news item wouldn't have been officially suppressed.

The animal grabbed my thumb and forefinger and sank its teeth into the frenum connecting them

Kerry greeted us at the runway's end, next to an off-road truck teeming with traditionally dressed natives. As they took our bags, we expressed our hope to Kerry that we could add two days to the agreed-on plan. She dismissed our apprehension. This was the African outback, not New York City, with its timetables and agendas. Adjustments would be made.

on this, our third full day in country, we'd put many long miles between ourselves and medical services, and I recalled that it wasn't fear of the unknown that came closest to preventing the trip from taking place at all. It was the known—specifically, the vaccines. At least we think that's what had caused Squeeky to break out in a rash which no stateside M.D. could identify.

A week or two prior to departure, and shortly after we took our yellow fever preventative—one of a half-dozen inoculations we endured to stave off diseases the West had conquered by mid-century—a palm-sized brownish splotch surfaced inside Squeeky's left elbow. It didn't itch and didn't spread. A dermatologist we consulted couldn't say what it was. Since it was shaped roughly like a pigeon in flight, we dubbed it "bird-itis" and kept a close eye on it. As our travel date approached, we finally shrugged it off, even though it hadn't faded. Something could kill us on the trip anyway, and it might as well be some bizarre immune disorder as a jaguar.

This came sharply to mind again when, immediately after we took our seats in Kerry's truck, a wild animal bit me.

Some time before our arrival, Kerry had discovered a baby mongoose in her camp. Small enough to stowaway in a pocket, backpack, or hat, the little rascal took every opportunity to investigate his surroundings, including me and Squeeky.

There wasn't much for us to do but sleep, despite a leopard prowling within a yard of us

Kerry introduced us as he ran across Squeeky's lap and into mine, stopping to peer up at me like some Disney character. I gently rubbed his fur, and he responded by playfully tackling my hand. Then I poked his nose, and he grabbed my thumb and forefinger and sank his teeth into the frenum connecting them.

As he scampered away, I stared in disbelief at the four little red holes in my flesh. No bleeding, but no way to know what sort of venom or exotic microbes were on their way to my central nervous system. I remembered our choice back at Nanyuki: a half-hour flight or a six-hour drive. I wondered if I would survive the latter should Jamie prove unavailable once a fever had incapacitated me.

All this worry evaporated when we saw the mud bog.

At the end of our 20-minute drive across roadless terrain, Kerry stopped the truck just short of some particularly dark grass, and when we climbed out I realized why: It was impassable for wheeled vehicles.

At her suggestion, we doffed our boots and socks and plodded into tar-black mud, sinking halfway to our knees. Each step made a long, wet, sucking sound. It wasn't difficult, just deep and, frankly, unexpected. Two hundred bucks a day, and we'd have to ford a swamp barefoot.

just past the muck, our first campsite had already been set up for us. We spotted the tents first, then noticed activity behind some bushes. Then a camel emerged. Then another, and another. By the time they all gathered, there were 15, loaded with various equipment including coolers full of foodstuffs. Eleven men in tribal garb ordered the beasts to kneel for unloading.

Squeeky's dream was to go to Africa

Here we camped the first night, in the shadow of the Karisia Hills. The name struck us so nicely we considered naming our first daughter Karisia.

Kerry directed the men, whom we learned were of the Samburu tribe, to start dinner, which they did over an outdoor fire. Tilapia would be the main course, accompanied by quiche.

I remember little else of that first evening other than feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the attention. I grew up in the South, in the '70s, and the idea of my every need being attended by black people left me a bit uncomfortable. Not only did they heat water after dinner and heft it atop a canvas stall for our evening shower; they also heated more at dawn for use in a washbasin, which they placed outside our sleeping quarters. For Kerry's usual, high-end clientele, this probably wasn't unexpected. For us, accustomed to doing most things for ourselves, a feeling of helplessness underrode our enjoyment.

eventually, we realized there were no duties for us except to show up as appointed for breakfast and then to walk, very fast, for long distances through the African bush. Also, to sleep, despite a leopard prowling within a yard of us.

not cute, and not friendlyKerry had explained that our tents were specially designed with sheer roof panels that let in the moonlight but repelled water. The walls were of a material that would let us see out—provided there was enough light outside to illuminate anything—but obscured the view in. Furthermore, the animals, she explained, see the canvas as being impenetrable, much as humans see brick walls, and won't bother with it. (A concept similar to that we saw on the approach to Treetops the previous day.)

Shortly after we settled into our sleeping bags, Squeeky heard the sound. "What is that?" she whispered.

The footsteps fell too swiftly for anything but a four-legged animal, and I recognized the growl as feline.

"I don't know," I replied, then groped quietly for the only weapon at my disposal—the mini-flashlight. I had neglected to ask Sanders what use it might be against a nonhuman predator.

Apparently, no one's made any decent maps of Kenya since the British left

The growling resumed intermittently, and the footfalls ran together in such a way that I couldn't be sure where the animal was. I considered shining the light through the tent wall, then stopped when I realized that if I lit up what I suspected was out there, Squeeky and I would probably scream.

The noise diminished and I checked the tent's zipper. At least we would hear the slashing before it silenced us.

We lulled ourselves to sleep whispering, "Canvas is brick. Canvas is brick. Canvas is brick...."

the leopard was thiiiiiiis big"jambo!" a samburu man bellowed as he filled our washbasin with steaming water.

Squeeky and I pawed our way out of the tent and squinted into the sunrise. A half-dozen more Samburus went about their work all around us, with Kerry in the midst, adjusting her hat.

"Did you see the leopard?" she asked, as if it were something as regular as a shooting star.

"That was a leopard?" Squeeky replied, as Kerry pointed to the footprints outside our tent.

Had I actually switched on the flashlight that night, we would likely have needed some rather embarrassing laundry service from the Samburus.

Much of the plant life we encountered seemed eager to pick a fight with whatever passed by

That day our guides set off on foot at a pace Squeeky and I could barely keep. At nearly six feet tall, Kerry seemed to cover a yard with each step. Likewise, the Samburus reminded me why so many Kenyans win marathons: They strode fast and tirelessly all day, and never appeared to break a sweat.

like a movie sceneOur camels literally bore the weight of our expedition, and because they lacked the agility of, say, mules, Kerry sent them on a less-challenging path toward the same destination. Occasionally we'd spot them on a distant hillside while we fought through brush-filled inclines.

Although we lagged at times, Kerry remarked on our stamina, especially when our pedometer registered 20 miles one day. I have difficulty believing we actually covered that distance, though it was possible, and impossible to certify because apparently no one's made any decent maps of Kenya since the British left. Kerry consulted a postwar-era map (wisely laminated at some point) to plot our course.

the yankee stops hereAt times I wondered what the British had found here that made them want to conquer the place. Before we arrived, Kenya had gotten an especially wet spring, and many of the bush paths along the Ewaso N'giro (river) had overgrown. Much of the plant life we encountered seemed eager to pick a fight with whatever passed by. Within minutes of leaving camp we encountered a vine called the Wait-A-Bit, which is exactly what the colonial explorers said when it brought them to a standstill. All you can do is stop and pluck away the widely spaced barbs, which takes a moment because they cling to fabric like tentacles. (The Samburus seemed to glide right past them.) No sooner had we picked ourselves free from one than we sauntered right into another. The Wait-A-Bits and other thorny, knee-level surprises meant my shorts would stay packed for days.

at our first break of the day, Kerry brewed tea for herself and proffered a sweet blackcurrant drink called Ribena for the ambivalent and less-sophisticated Americans. We watched her plan our next tack with Shilengi, leader of the Samburu team. Frequently, Shilengi would go off to conduct animated discussions with the other Samburus, presumably getting their input. Then he'd return to Kerry to hash out a plan, in Swahili.

one of Shilengi's lieutenants, he'd been given a pair of binoculars by a grateful guestFor our protection, Kerry packed an elephant gun. A double-barrelled monstrosity of a caliber I did not recognize, it looked to weigh about 40 pounds. Elephants, however, weren't her main concern. It's the water buffalo (pictured several photos up) which have a nasty habit of rising suddenly from their daytime nap to charge intruders. Capable as Kerry appeared, I had concerns as to whether she (or anyone) could bring the enormous rifle to bear before one of us got flattened. Later, Sanders advised me that the effective range of a handgun—which I've always considered superior in close quarters—would come into play only a split second before horns met flesh. So the rifle was, in the end, a better bet. Kerry warned us that, if a charge appeared imminent, we should drop to the ground to give her a clear shot.

Two hundred bucks a day, and we'd have to dodge bullets.

Actually, that's a helluva deal.

no, that's not a Hot Pocket

See also Honeymoon, Part I.

Posted by: Michael Rittenhouse at 07:57 PM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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July 12, 2008

A Bad Hair Life

nightmares are made of theseI learned to hate haircuts early. Dad administered them himself, in the kitchen, with me on a piano stool and him running the electric shears.

These sessions usually ended with me in tears and looking considerably worse than before. Dad grew up around livestock, and his grooming skills didn't translate well to humans. I looked so awful after one of his hackings that the next day, I resolved to tell my schoolmates that my father had filed a lawsuit against the barber. Several of them believed me.

This went on until my junior-high years. I came of age at a time when longish hair was fashionable for young males. But there was only so much we could grow before running afoul of parental and school restrictions. At the least, we wanted our ears covered and a minimum of forehead showing. I had to settle for sheltering the tops of my ears and a swoop just over my eyebrows. According to my school pictures, I'd have been better off giving in to the Depression-era sensibilities of my parents.

Eventually the hair war reached a stalemate when I persuaded Dad to let me visit a local haircuttery. Barber shops had never appealed to me; I figured I'd emerge looking much the same as I did from the kitchen. But in the '70s, various social, legislative, and regulatory changes led to the birth of the unisex hair salon.

One night, a young, cherry-lipped blonde named Kayla entered our store

The first one I chose had walls of mirrors, raw wood trim, and young female stylists moving to the beat of Fleetwood Mac. Step one was leading me to a back room where my hair would be washed before cutting. That experience alone—of a sweet-smelling 20-year-old woman slathering my head with shampoo and warm water—had me hankering to return.

This was eroticism, something I was just beginning to learn about. I already had an idea about sex and didn't think much of it, but the surrounding imagery—which was all you could see on TV, after all—captured my interest. This was the time of Woodway Square, stewardesses as marketing tools, and Russ Myers movies on cable at midnight. I saw eroticism as the province of pretty young women (all of whom were significantly older than I) and of men with moustaches. The unisex salon confirmed my impression. Not only had I found something better than the disastrous haircuts of home, I'd found a doorway into adulthood.

one downside of the salon treatment was, they'd always lose my part in the wash. My hair parts anywhere, and its placement each morning plays a major role in how my head looks. If the line migrates 1/4 inch to the left, I get a shelf of hair hanging over like the fur of a shedding dog. Too far to the right, and I get a full-length cowlick.

tempting, aren't they?Perhaps I needed a scalp tattoo of a dotted line with the caption part here. Or at least to find someone who would cut the hairs on either side of the part to the same length.

Which brings up another critical part of cutting fine-textured hair: overall length. Too short, and it sticks up as if buffed by a balloon. Too long, and it droops. The key is frequent cutting to the same middling length, an expense that usually proves futile when salon-staff turnover means I get a different stylist each time.

I still went, just for the shampoo treatment.

once i got a motorcycle license at age 15, my territory grew. Driving past a strip-mall one day I noticed a sign for "Hairlines by Jodi," and something about that name intrigued me. I resolved to get my next haircut there.

Jodi kept a cold keg in the back and routinely offered a beer to each customer. Since I'd driven myself there, I guess she figured I was 18, or close enough. (I've written elsewhere about the casual, pre-MADD attitude toward the drinking age. In this case, Jodi probably regarded this as "just a beer," and because she didn't charge for the 16-oz. cup, that kept her below the liquor commission's radar.) I just knew she made me feel like a grown-up, and I came back every six weeks no matter what. Her haircuts passed my basic tests, anyway.

Kayla felt obliged to accompany me out in the summertime heat

At some point Jodi got hired to style hair on the set of Urban Cowboy, and her practice changed forever. She sold her shop and opened another behind her house, papering its walls with signed mugshots from John Travolta, Johnny Lee, and considerably lesser-known actor-types. Show business became her sole topic of conversation; I think she thought she'd hit the big time, and that her clients should be impressed. Simultaneously, the beer stopped flowing, and I didn't ask why. Things had changed with Jodi, and I began looking for a better experience.

that year i worked evenings at an auto-parts store. One night, a young, cherry-lipped blonde named Kayla entered our store, having lost the key to her gas cap. With her fuel gauge approaching e, Kayla's options were running out. This being a slow night, my boss suggested I go through all the locking gas caps in our inventory for a key that might fit. I lugged two armloads out to the parking lot, stacked them on Kayla's trunk, and opened them one-by-one, testing each key in her orphaned cap—a kind of blue-collar Cinderella mission, if you will.

Because we weren't charging extra for this service, Kayla felt obliged to accompany me out in the summertime heat. She stood close by and upwind. She smelled of body wash, fresh laundry, and 23-year-old femininity with just a hint of perspiration. (You may wonder why I still remember all this detail. If so, you do not understand teenage boys.) I began to hope the right key would be in the very last box I opened. It nearly was.

After we made the match and sold her the new cap, she gave me her business card, offering a free haircut in gratitude for my labor. I showed up at her chrome-and-glass downtown lobby storefront the next afternoon.

I will never forget her playfully bumping buttocks to the music

This place took my salon experience up a notch. Not only was it staffed by outgoing young women in the snug-fitting fashions of the day; Kayla's workspace had a glass wall by which all the office building's visitors entered and exited. I would be the focus of attention, personal and passing.

In the back room, Kayla worked the suds into my hair in time with music piped in through one of the clearest hi-fi systems I've ever heard. In the chair, she boosted me higher than I expected, which meant raising her arms over my head to work, accentuating her tiny waist in the mirror before me. Once she discovered I was still in high school, her forwardness diminished a bit. I don't recall whether she did a good job on my hair, but I will never forget her playfully bumping buttocks to the music with the young woman working the chair next to mine.

Again, you must know teenage boys to understand why I returned to that salon even after I'd left town for college.

after kayla moved out of state, I found Miranda in the Austin yellow pages, running a shop out of her garage. To this day, no one has taken more time getting my hair right than Miranda. She spent nearly an hour mowing my scalp side-to-side and back-and-forth in the precision lift-and-cut style, ensuring there were no rough edges anywhere. No matter where I parted it, my hair laid smoothly every time.

She quit the business six months later.

because i wasn't in the fraternity system, I discovered late that for clean-cut males at the University of Texas—which is to say, the overwhelming majority in the Reagan '80s—there was only one place to get a haircut: the Wooten Barber Shop. All the school's frat boys looked alike, owing to their allegiance to the three old men staffing the Wooten. I remember one was named Vern and he sported a jet-black pompadour. The other two looked as if they were born in 1949 at age 50 and hadn't changed since.

Vern and his associates worked with traditional implements, including a 110-volt trimmer to buzz your neck, and they would even get out hot towels and a straight razor if you wanted your face shaved the old-fashioned way.

like butter, you felt afterwardI grew to like those guys, though their repartee lagged. To make conversation, I once brought along a copy of a magazine with a World War II propaganda poster on the cover. My barber laughed in recognition, and we talked about how hairstyles had come full circle since the 1950s. I joked that business must have been hard back when the hippie look was in. Suddenly the old man turned red.

"It wasn't just their looks," he barked. "It was what them people stood for!"

I froze, and silently thanked God he wasn't holding the straight razor.

Once they'd sheared you, the Wooten barbers would strap an oscillating massager onto one hand and grasp your shoulders. The vibrations migrated through your neck and head, and the burdens of gravity and final exams and whatever else had weighed you down all morning simply evaporated. (If the salon girls had done this, I'd have married one of them.) About 30 seconds later, they'd shake out your shawl and stand by for cash payment. You emerged onto Guadalupe Street looking like every other male for miles around and feeling pretty good about everything.

As for the haircut itself, the Wooten had three styles: short, shorter, and Alabama State Trooper. By that time, however, I figured if I couldn't get my hair cut my way, I'd be okay with looking like everybody else, at least until graduation.

"Well, I'm glad I don't have to drug-test my employees"

my first job landed me in arlington, virginia, a short drive from Lt. Col. Oliver North's barber. Those of us who came of age in the '80s remember the "Ollie cut" craze, when we all watched Col. North put Congress in its place on national television. With my Austin-based "Woo 'do" expiring, I sought renewal at the hands of the man who'd groomed Col. North for his showdown.

The guy smelled like Indian food and couldn't stop giggling. He'd plastered the store with Col. North's pictures and posters, making the most of his 15 minutes in the spotlight. His comb chipped painfully at my scalp, and his scissors left me looking like … well, Oliver North. I never returned.

Later, I had a strange encounter with a Wilmington, Del., stylist who finished his work with thinning shears. My fine-textured hair emerged looking damp and lifeless.

by the time i returned to dallas in 1990, I'd resigned myself to a bad hair life. Frankly, I wearied of the search for a good cut and just resolved to spend the least amount I could on something acceptable.

"You got your hair cut," followed by the chilling question, "Who does it?"

My final falling-out with retail hair styling came that year. In my despair, I'd followed a young manager from one Supercuts to another mainly for her meticulousness, which didn't always produce the desired end, but at least she tried to get it right. Her patter also enlightened me on the quirks of the haircutting business.

One day she was snipping away when I mentioned I had applied to work at a company that required a pre-employment drug test. She responded, "Well, I'm glad I don't have to do that with my employees, or I'd have to fire half of them."

That told me I was essentially financing people's drug habits in exchange for a service which, if I only had enough nerve and mirrors, I could do myself.

a month later, i papered my bathroom with newsprint and took shears and a comb into hand. I had no problem lifting the dampened locks into position and snipping, just as I'd watched others do for so many years. The tricky part was the back, where I needed a third hand to hold up a second mirror. That, and I lacked the dexterity to switch quickly from comb to lock to scissors.

My first effort ended with a passable haircut, but before I was done I also felt like crying. It hurt to hold my arms up that long, but I couldn't stop once I'd started. I wound up with a messy pile of wet hair and newspapers, and a resolve to try something different.

Then I saw Flowbee.

haircut in a boxNot the infomercial. If I'd seen that first, I'd probably have dismissed the whole concept purely for the stink of UHF television accompanying it. Instead, I read about the company in The Wall Street Journal, and the device looked brilliant in both concept and execution: A concentrated airstream lifts a couple of square inches of hair at a time, straight into motorized blades which cut as precisely as any stylists' shears. You could operate it with one hand. What could go wrong?

Nothing, as it turned out. I bought one at a discount store and took it to my parents' garage, where they had a shop vacuum of sufficient strength. (Flowbee needs more horsepower than a household vacuum to pull hair straight enough to cut.) Mom couldn't hide her amusement; Dad was nonplussed. And, although I left the garage door open while I worked, the neighbors failed to notice ... fortunately.

that points to flowbee's only major obstacle: public acceptance. Flowbee challenges so many conventions that most people find it easier to mock than accept. Cutting one's own hair has always seemed a backwoods thing. The device itself looks like something sent to gather Martian soil samples. And the infomercial pretty much consigned Flowbee to our cultural margins along with scalp paint and ab rockers, an easy target of stand-up comedy.

Yet, for me, Flowbee's positives outweigh all that.

  • It does most of the work, including clean-up.
  • My cuts look neater than anyone's since Miranda.
  • I haven't paid for a haircut in 16 years.
  • Flowbee is maintenance-free; mine still runs like new.
  • The time savings alone validate the purchase price.

Here's how it goes:

Compared to the hour-plus required to drive to the barber shop or stylist's, wait for a chair, and sit through the process, I can't come up with a reason not to use this thing.

But I still don't talk much about Flowbee. I try to use it so frequently that no one I know comments, "You got your hair cut," followed by the chilling question, "Who does it?" There are times when I like to be the center of attention. Defending Flowbee is not one of those.

In this triumph of lifelong persistence, all that I haven't managed to do is restore eroticism to my haircuts. Perhaps I should install a shampooing sink in the garage, and teach Squeeky how to use the Flowbee. I've always said she bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Stevie Nicks.

Posted by: Michael Rittenhouse at 09:10 PM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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July 11, 2008

Perfect Imperfection

Just a note to let you know I'm working on a major entry and haven't been able to post anything readable. Here's something that wouldn't fit into the project:

When I listen to a studio album from the mid-70s, such as Fleetwood Mac's, I'm gratified to know that the drums I'm hearing are actually being struck by a man in a room with a microphone.

Yes, I know music has been recorded in layers—as opposed to straight-through, with all the musicians in the same room at the same time—for decades.

But unlike the '80s-and-up stuff, there wasn't just a couple of bars laid down, then repeated by a producer. The ear-mind picks up on that repetition, and it sounds cheap.

Instead, I can see Mick Fleetwood—the Robert Teller of the band, silently keeping all those nuclear secrets—slapping his drumsticks about .005 seconds off the metronome, just enough to keep me listening.

I feel as if I'm part of the recording session. Instead of a consumer of a product.

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June 27, 2008

Keep America Beautiful. Please.

kinda resembles a mushroom

If my time were my own and I didn't have to work for a living, I'd probably drive around all day photographing fat people on motorcycles.

Eventually, they might stop doing that.

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Missed Again 4

by that much

As municipal employees' performance goes, this one wasn't so bad. Maybe off by 14 degrees. They've done worse.

Still a persuasive case against the public sector, IMO.

Posted by: Michael Rittenhouse at 08:36 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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