Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Death of my Childhood Icon

   When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the Thriller music video. So was my Aunt Francis. "I just looove Michael," she'd say, in her very drawn-out southern accent. I would watch her VHS copy over and over again at her house. I could not understand how Michael Jackson got his eyes to look yellow when he was changing into the werewolf. I had never seen anything like that before!
At the local skating rink, they sold Michael Jackson hologram stickers and other memorabilia behind a glass-enclosed case. I got a sticker for myself and one for my Aunt Francis.

   No one else in our family cared about Michael like we did. In fact, I proudly announced that I wanted to marry Michael Jackson someday, and one of my other aunts quickly scolded me and assured me that I would be disowned from the family if I ever married a black man.
   A black man? Michael Jackson wasn't a black man to me, even in the days before his horrific plastic surgeries and skin bleaching. He was an artist. He was the ultimate artist, with his incredible voice, his sequined military uniforms, his one glove, and the way he danced. How many hours did the neighborhood kids and I try to moonwalk like Michael? How many times did we listen to the Thriller cassette tape in our family's Suburban? Every time we drove past a graveyard, my siblings and I would squeal for our mother to play that creepy sounding song.

   I clearly remember my grandfather's spirited reaction to Michael and Lisa Marie Presley's marriage. "You know Elvis is rolling over in his grave!" he chuckled heartily, his big eyes sparkling. At the time, I wasn't sure what he meant. I thought Michael Jackson was great! Why wouldn't Elvis think the same thing?

   I was sitting at Hastings today with some of my friends when we saw people gathering around the coffee shop TV. The news was unclear at first, but Michael's condition sounded very serious, regardless of which news source was reporting.
And then everyone began reporting that he was gone. Michael Jackson, with his unmatched vocal skills, with his glittering military-inspired clothing, with his strange and exotic collection of animals, with his awesome dance moves and cutting-edge music videos....thank you. I will forever be a fan.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Demise of the Ph.D.

   "Are you going to get a Ph.D?"
I get this question a lot, since I teach at a college with only a Master's. Just a Master's. A friendly non-academic man mocked me once when I made light of my degree. I think less than 10% of people in the U.S. have an advanced degree, but, when you work at a university, it's not that spectacular.
I felt even less spectacular when one of my co-workers threw his Ph.D in my face recently. No one had ever done that to me before, and it was quite offensive. I realize that I must've offended him first, and that was his counter-strike. I don't know for sure, because it wasn't my intention to offend him.
   But there I was, standing in his office, describing this great new book I had found for a class we both teach. We rose quickly to a spirited debate, and he suddenly said "the people with Ph.D.'s will make this decision."
   I wasn't sure how to respond to that. Maybe there's really not a good way to respond to something as debasing as that, without digging out my inner redneck and calling him some words I learned from my Dad. No, I'm better than that. Really. But my respect for the guy dissolved like a styrofoam cup in acetone.

   The problem with insulting people by throwing your degree in their face is that you demean yourself in the process. I know another Ph.D guy in the building, a younger, fresher face with a witty sense of humor. He casually mentioned in conversation one day that he questions anyone who tosses their degree out for any sort of justification. "I know what it takes to get a Ph.D," he said, shaking his head. "And I'm not impressed."
I had actually never heard a Ph.D. say that before. And the guy teaches physics, so you can't accuse him of having a pansy Ph.D. or anything.

   Earlier this year, I attended the funeral for a famous rocket scientist. He was considered one of the world's pioneering experts on rocket propulsion, and his wife shared an interesting story during his eulogy. They had tried to get an honorary Ph.D. for him, but had not been successful. This must've bothered him, or why else would his wife have mentioned it to everyone? At the time I was thinking to myself, "Who cares?" The guy was in his nineties, he was retired, he was famous, he was well-loved and very highly respected. What in the world could having an honorary Ph.D. add to that?
   Ironically, I was attending that service with a man who has not one, but two honorary Ph.D.s. My mentor, my friend, my hero, the infamous Dr. Dr. Richard B. Hoover was sitting next to me as I was pondering all of this. I will have to ask him what his honorary Ph.D.s mean to him. It will be interesting to hear, partly because he wasn't the one who told me when he earned them. It was his wife, Miss Miriam, who sent me e-mails (during different years) when he received his honors.

   Will I ever get a Ph.D? I don't know, but first I'll have to actually want one.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Arkansas Chocolate Tarantula

   Look closely. I believe this is what a terrified tarantula looks like. He (she?) is cowering in a coffee can in my kitchen. We just traveled for an hour in my car from Coal Hill, which means the poor thing was subjected to my driving habits and my taste in music for that long.
   I know enough about spiders to know that it has eight eyes. And here, it is using four of its legs to cover up all of those eyes. It doesn't want to see what is happening!
   I had always heard about the Arkansas Chocolate Tarantula, although I had never seen one in the wild. I was at a barbeque at a friend's house today, and the volunteer grillman came over with this thing in his hands. He said he found it crawling on the sidewalk, so he scooped it up to show the kids. I asked him if he had ever been bitten by one. He said they don't usually bite you unless you squeeze them. But he's never squeezed one, so he wasn't sure if that was true.
   I may take this little guy out the woods and let it go tomorrow. But I just wanted to let you know - Arkansas really does have tarantulas!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Kindred Spirits

   How can you meet people throughout your life, fall in love with some of them, and become enemies with others?
   I am lucky that I have good friends. I have wonderful friends, who spend time with me and support me, who listen to me and guide me. I have friends who are the absolute epitome of what human beings are supposed to be. I admire them, I love them, I am thankful for them. I worry about them, and I get sad when they are hurt or ill. They are living things, biological in nature. Subject to the same growth, metabolic needs and age restraints as other living things. We all must face our mortality at some point, and yet it doesn't make me sad to envision our enemies facing their mortality. I wonder why I feel this way - this "lack of remorse" for my enemies' mortality. Is there some evolutionary explanation for this? Why shouldn't I be sad that another human being will eventually crumble to dust?
   I went to the Hobby Shop on Front Street today. I didn't need a model airplane or boat, but I really went in there to visit the three eccentric old men who run the place. The eldest of the three greeted me in the aisle and asked if he could help me. I told him that I had been in earlier and bought a lot of stuff, so I had just come in to say hi. He said proddingly, with his eyes big, "Let's think about the future, not the past!"
   Once when I had been in the Hobby shop, two of the men were watching YouTube videos of an airplane approaching a landing strip that was near a public beach. People on the beach were knocked over by the back wash from the plane. The men were laughing and telling stories, and I could tell one of them used to be a commercial pilot. He said the pilot of that aircraft probably had no idea what had happened to those people because "you can't see what goes on behind you." He had such a dry sense of humor, he reminded me of my late friend and flight instructor Don Langford. What was it about these men that seemed so familiar? They were smart, they were very experienced pilots, and they had the same style of cracking jokes. No nonsense. No bullshit! I liked the man instantly. He was definitely a kindred spirit to my late friend. I was sad that they would not be able to meet each other.
I visited with my friends tonight at our usual Friday night gathering. We all have a lot in common. Tonight I wondered about all the people we've never met, who have come and gone, who maybe lived in a different state or a different country or even a different time, who would have fit in nicely with our motley crew of concerned, thoughtful citizens. Books and journals may be the only way you can get to know someone who lived before your time. I felt a need to scour through as much literature as possible, to try and connect with people who would hold special meaning to me, if only I could've met them in real time.