Friday, January 28, 2011

The Total Worth of a Phone Book

On a visit back home a few weeks ago, I was sitting at the breakfast table with my wife and my grandfather, enjoying a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, sweet rolls, bacon, cereal, bacon, orange juice, coffee, and bacon. We were discussing my old red truck, currently residing in an old cow lot at my grandfathers house. The poor old machine hasn't been in working order for a few years, and really needs to be sold off, for repair or for salvage. As we discussed the options, my grandpa suggested I call a few salvage yards and get prices on it. I agreed, and before I'd finished my fourth egg, he tossed an ancient tome on the table beside my plate. The book was thick, with inscriptions from lawyers and insurance agents on the front cover. It had a map of four or five counties on the cover, and when I broke the seal of the dusty manual, I parsed through veil-thin pages. Names, businesses, and the occasional image of a toothy-grinned doctor or chiropractor.

After a few annoyed moments of searching for the salvage yards, I gave up and opted for Google maps on my Blackberry Curve. Fifteen seconds later, I had four auto dealers at my disposal.

School Books

Every year at Monmouth College, the faithful folks at Yellow Pages would drop pallets of referential tree carcass in the mail room. There they would sit, lonely reminders of the ephemeral days of printed names and numbers. Last name, first name, number. A-Z of useless information, or knowledge more readily available at the tips of our fingers via the QWERTY keys.

Where trees go to die
My friends and I began noticing how slowly the phone books moved out of the postal center. As a sort of joke, we'd walk in to check the mail, and exclaim with excitement,

“Oh, look, phone books! I'll take two, one for me and one for my roommate. Don't you want one, Adam?”

We single-handedly decimated the pile of shunned books. In all reality, we were simply transferring the stack from the mail room to the dorm room, where they gathered dust in the corner behind the door. But we had the satisfaction of giving this leaning tower of pages a home. We'd reinvigorated a purpose into the outdated product. That would be the end of the eye sore in the mail room.

Then one day we stopped in to check for care packages and phone bills. As we rounded the corner, we were chagrined by a new stack of gleaming yellow covers. An overture of The Cat Came Back played in our brains as we stared at the useless stacks of fiber and ink.

The Gauntlet had been thrown down. And we accepted the challenge with eagerness.

You've Been Yellow-Paged

One might ask the obvious question:

What do you do with 400+ phone books?

But I would like to address the point from a different angle:

What don't you do with 400+ phone books?
One day, Brian and I were sitting in our room, doing nothing-in-particular. It was a lazy day, one that breeds mischief. Mid-afternoon we decided to see what our friend across the hall, Dustin, was up to. Dustin, when in his room, not only left the door unlocked, but generally wide open. We meandered across the linoleum, only to find the door ajar and our relaxed friend fast asleep in his bed. The room was unusually clean – Dustin had friends coming in that night, and had spiffed up for the occasion. Brian and I looked at each other, and immediately knew that we had an opportunity.

With the utmost stealth and care, we slowly moved every phone book in our possession into Dustin's room. We placed them on his desk. We stacked them on the TV. We tucked them into his drawers and slid them under his pillow. There were phone book mosaics on the floor, and piles in front of the door. The entire room was awash in yellow covers.

Upon completion of Operation Yellow Pages, we resumed our lackadaisical afternoon in our own quarters. A few hours later, the silence was rudely interrupted with bellows of rage. Our art project had been discovered. I'd like to quote Dustin's review of the piece, but it wouldn't make any sense, and the FCC frowns upon such colorful language. Books came flourishing through our doorway as Dustin pelted our room with phone listings. After the dust had settled, we crept into the hallway and cleaned up the aftermath.

The Defenestration of Phone Book

As most do, the school year soon approached the end. As we prepared for finals, summer break, and moving day, we realized that we had over five hundred phone books in our possession. We wracked our brains for possible extradition, but came up with few solutions that lacked the pizazz and style we we looking for. After months of practical jokes, jumbo Jenga, and building forts, we couldn't just throw the books in the trash!

That's when we devised Operation Book Drop.

The plan was simple at first. Duct tape the books into a single, giant package, carry the behemoth to the top of the Haldeman-Thiessen Science building, and throw it off. It would be an experiment in velocity, force, and structural stability of Yellow Pages phone books. But then we started working on the logistics.

Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center
Problem #1 – Five hundred phone books were heavy. Too heavy to move, in fact. Not only that, but they were also too big to fit through the rooftop hatch.

Solution – Tape the books into one hundred book bundles, creating a manageable stack to move. Once on the roof, duct tape does the rest.

Problem #2 – How do two guys move five bundles of phone books across campus without alerting attention from the keystone cop security force?

Solution – Assemble a team of trusted friends, and plan the route. First, we'd move the bundles into my 1993 Mazda truck. Nonchalantly, we'd drive the bundles to the science building parking lot, back it up to the rear entrance, were an allied chemistry Teaching Assistant would be waiting with keys and a cart. From there, we'd use the elevator to get to the top floor, the hatch to the roof, and then? Bombs away.

The plan was set. The elements were in place. It was perfect.


The drop was to occur at midnight. We spent all day preparing, going over the plans and the alibis. If caught, we had equations and calculations on hastily drawn notepads.

“What are talking about? This is a school sanctioned project! You mean you didn't get a memo from the dean? Here are our notes from class.”

Fool-proof. Or at least security-proof. There were two teams. Three people were on the ground unit – two to keep the sidewalk below clear of unsuspecting pedestrians, and one to catch the experiment on film. Up above, there were four of us – one filming, three pushing the package to its untimely doom.

The post-experiment plan was equally simple and ingenious. After the drop, we'd scramble back into the interior of the science center and split up, taking cover in the nearest computer lab, inconspicuously working on final projects and minding our own business. When the dust had settled, we'd drive the Mazda onto the lawn, pickup the decimated books, and disappear into the night.

But when the sun had set, a steady drizzle took its place in the atmosphere. The precipitation proved problematic, as the books, once in the truck, became overwhelmingly heavy. The rain also meant that security remained in the shelter of their pope-mobile golf carts, changing the timing of the routes we'd been charting all week and throwing off our plans.

When we got to the science center, we were met with the cart. By that time, the books were drenched, and starting to separate in the small bundles. We got them inside, and began reinforcing as we ascended to the top level.

The hallway was dark as we crept from the elevator, towards the southeast stairwell that housed the hatch to the roof. The exit signs cast an eerie red ambiance across the white brick and tile floors. The only sound was the squeak of our shoes and the faint rattle of the cart under the weight of the payload.

Once in the stair, we sent one member up to the top. Then it was a brigade of books, hauling one up, then handing it off to the man at the top. We repeated the process until all the books and all the teammates were in position.

We crept to the far side of the building and began creating the massive brick of Yellow Pages. When we slid it to the edge of the building and peered over, we were shocked by the sight.

Five stories below us, in an arc at a safe distance, a dozen students milled about the lawn of the building. They were all peering up at the building, as if expecting to see something.

Someone had leaked the plan! This could compromise the entire mission! If the security heard the impact of the books, they'd have dozens of witnesses to question! They crew below would be immediately implicated, and the drop crew would likely be singled out by association. This was not good. Just then, the slow put-put of a golf cart sounded its presence in the distance. We all dropped to our stomachs and assessed the situation.

“Who told someone about the drop?” I demanded?

Slowly, we all admitted to leaking the information. To our girlfriends, our roommates, our lab partners. The word had gotten out. We checked our watches. Midnight. The drop was supposed to happen any minute. But we weren't ready! We could hear the second security cart approaching. We called the guys down below to check the mood at ground zero.

“There are a lot of people down here. Who leaked?” He asked uncertainly.

“There's no time to think about that! We're doing this thing, OK? Are you guys ready down there?”

“As ready as we'll ever be.”

“Ok. We're going to time the next round of security, then go. We'll call once we've figured it out.”

It took forty five minutes for the security teams to complete another round. It felt like an eternity in the wind and drizzle atop the science center. Finally, we were ready. We called the ground crew, got in place, and started rolling tape. On the count of three, we heaved the package of duct tape and paper over the edge. Then we watched.

The payload seemed to move in slow motion as it tumbled down the building. It hit the side once, ricocheted away from the brick and started splitting into two pieces. As it spun through the air, the revolving elements gained speed, until the slow motion free-fall caught up with the rest of reality.

As the phone books crashed back to the world, the sound of a shotgun pierced the wet silence. The books shredded as if an explosive had been contained within. A spray of printed paper scraps shot out fifteen feet in every direction, leaving the air with vestiges of ticker-tape, falling like snow in the spring air.

Immediately phase two began. We scrambled to the hatch of the building, and darted in different directions, as rats from a sinking ship. We slid into computer chairs and breathlessly logged onto computers, the thrill of our accomplishment still reeling in our brains. Now was the true test – Could we get away with it.

We waited. And waited. Any second, the belabored trot of the overweight security guards would be heard down the hall. A squeaky shoe, wheezy gasp, some indication that the red-faced enforcers were on the case.

But there was nothing.

Slowly, we reconvened at ground zero. The carnage was widespread. As we assessed the situation, we realized that security still had not even been by to witness the aftermath. So I drove my Mazda onto the lawn, we shoveled the tattered remains into the bed, and we drove into the night.

Just as we'd planned.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Confrontation Consternation

Confrontation – A face to face meeting. The clashing of forces or ideas.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Growing up, I watched my father haggle with car dealers. I watched my mother engage door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. I saw my grandfathers verbally combat arrogant landowners and indignant baler-buyers. And as I ventured out from behind the towering figures of my elder role models, I began to realize how important it was to stand strong against opposition. Whether that consternation is caused by a smarmy salesman, licentious landlord, or berating boss, I've found it eternally difficult to absorb the abuse, stand my ground and give a concise, firm response that protects and respects.

Baler Bullshit

There seems to be a vengeful pleasure found in some established professionals. As if some form of initiation into the adult cohorts, these seasons businessmen and women take pride in looking down their noses at perfectly competent, incredibly intelligent, young professionals. This phenomenon first happened to me in college, working on my grandfathers farm.

A commercial hay man, probably in his mid-forties, brought in his Model XL baler for repairs. The baler looked like crap. It was full of dents, had rust showing around the edges, and was in general disrepair. I took notes on the main concerns for the equipment, and was preparing the paperwork, when the man made some snide remark about my hair.

To provide some context, when I was working for my grandfather, I had stick-straight hair that fell to my shoulders. I generally kept it under a hat and behind my ears, out of sight and mind. This man decided that, rather than assuming that I was a competent employee, it'd be better to make assumptions about my masculinity, penchant for illicit drug use, and overall lack of usefulness, based on my hair.

I brushed off the mans jeers, and cordially sent him on his way, pretending that his remarks didn't bother me.

That day still brings back feelings of rage. I wanted to sock the man in the jaw. I wanted to do what I'd seen my grandfather do many times before to this same farmer – I wanted to zing him with a one liner that would put him in his place and shut him up tighter than an oil drum. But instead, I balked. I clenched my jaw, and let him pummel me with insults that I'd done nothing to deserve.

At what age do you gain the ability to retort? At what level can you successfully return the bullshit and retain your dignity in these situations? A few years later, I had a memorable experience that spoke to this question.

Finding Problems and Fixing Problems

I worked at a Boy Scout camp for a month or two every summer. These are mostly happy memories of swimming, boating, building monstrous fires and playing pranks on others. But one memory stands out as not so positive.

I was a member of an honor society through the boy scouts and, after a few years of membership, had climbed the ranks and was one of the leaders of the organization. Along with that privilege came great responsibility. With that responsibility came a great potential to screw up, and one week, that is what I did.

We were at an event that was far removed from the main part of camp, at a ceremony for the new members. It was a fairly stressful day, with little sleep and a lot of work, and I had neglected to bring a crucial element for the ceremony. Upon realizing this, one of the adult volunteers pulled me aside, mid-ceremony, and began berating me about this slip up. This man was a well-liked member of the organization, fairly influential, and physically commanding to boot. He towered over me, his temples turning crimson with fury.

I listened to the man go on about my incompetency and inabilities for about a minute, all the while glancing back at the ceremony still in progress. Finally, I had to stop the abuse. I looked the red faced buffoon in the eyes and said,

“Listen, I realize that I screwed this up. I am going to go fix the problem, so that we can have a successful event. When we get back to camp, you can rip me a new asshole. Until then, don't talk to me.”

With that, I stormed off, bent on fixing the error and completing the ceremony. We did and, as I recall, I didn't hear anymore on the subject. In retrospect, I did exactly what I'd seen my father and grandfathers do before me. But not all of my attempts at confrontation have been so positive.

Once You Pop, You Can't Stop

Flash back to the man with the hay baler. We repaired the dilapidated machine, replace the abused parts, and gave it the best face-lift possible. The work was not egregious, but the man had definitely not followed the common sense recommendations for caring for a machine worth more than the truck he drove.

He came by the shop about a week after the initial confrontation. I steeled my nerves as I saw the portly, pompous man approach the shop. He strode into the office and declared,

“So, ya figger out what was wrong with that damned piece of machinery, hippie?”

Without blinking an eye, I glanced up from the manual I was consulting on the desk, adjusted my hat, and just as I'd heard my grandfather retort, I flung the following phrase from the corner of my mouth:

“You ever heard of operator error?”

The man turned seven shades of red under his tanned skin. At first I thought he would jump over the counter and wring my neck. Then I realized that he physically could not jump over the counter, so I was probably safe.

I thought that, as in the movies, my amazing one-liner would shut him up like a steel trap. Unfortunately, my insolence only embroiled his rage, and made his comments worse. After that one moment of shining glory, I closed back up, shut my mouth, and went back to deflecting his jeers with a closed mouth and a determined look.

Lesson learned? Confrontation is more than having the gall to take the petulant route. It's taking that course, then stick with it till the end.

Sales = Constant Confrontation

In my current job, I deal with confrontation every day. It seems that when a 25 year old walks in the door to talk to you about your marketing strategies, it is open season. People have a difficult time looking past my age and my job title to see that I am a person trying to not only further the newspaper I work for, but also help their business succeed.

I walked into a restaurant a few weeks ago, and was met by a business owner who was not only crass, but referred to me by the disdain laden moniker,


The man thought he was a big deal. He dressed snappy, sported designer glasses, and had obviously colored hair. He owned a swanky establishment and knew that, while I was on his turf, I was his mouse. I don't know why, but on that day, I wasn't in the mood to put my head down and wade through the guff. I listened to him talk about his business for a while, listened to his gripes about my paper, and gave him some poignant rebuttals to the scoffs and dismissals he threw my way. At the end of the meeting, he grinned and asked me a heavily baited question,

“So what's your favorite restaurant, salesman?”

I looked him square in his smug grin, and told him about Antonella's Trattoria, a little whole in the wall Italian joint in Davenport. I raved about the authenticity, the service, and the wine. I gave him the address and told him to check it out. It was priceless to watch his face go from smarm to startled in seconds. He actually believed that I would kiss his ass and say that I love his restaurant! As I walked to the door, I turned back to Mr. Bag-o-chips and said,

“You want a salesman response to that question? Ask me again after you advertise with us for awhile. I'll probably say the same thing.”

Just because I sell things, doesn't mean I have no integrity.

So maybe I am learning a little about handling confrontation. I still have times when I fold like a bad poker hand, but I also am getting better at playing it cool, choosing my words, and standing up for myself. I guess it comes with age. To quote a song that resonates with this issue nicely,

"Stand your ground, don't back down, it's the only way to win. And when life throws a punch, son, you've got to take it on the chin."

William Elliot Whitmore, Take it on the Chin

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Exorcism of Volvo

I believe in the possibility of demons.

I'm a natural skeptic. I hear stories of ghosts, demons, and possession, and I raise an eyebrow. Ouija boards, in my opinion, are bogus. Horoscopes and fortune tellers are so vague and generic that they get it right most of the time.

But something inside me still believes that there is a possibility that the supernatural world is real. That there is validity to some of the paranormal things going on in this world.

A priest once told me that we have a Diocesan Exorcist. One priest is appointed as the exorcist for the entire Diocese, which is a large region, geographically. If another priest is faced with a possessed soul, they call the exorcist, who will come and pray over them, performing rites in an attempt to remove the demonic presence. This happens! The Linda Blair, split pea soup-spewing, spider-walking, head-spinning images of the 70's are still happening today.

It's kind of hard to believe. That being said, I do have a personal story of exorcism. The tale is true, although the demon is questionable.

Foreign Cars are the Devil

Growing up, I was a member of St. Boniface Catholic Church in Farmington, Iowa. It was a quaint church in a town of 750. A few times each week, we'd travel highway 2, through the stoic evergreens of Shimek forest, from Donnellson to Farmington. The town was tired and dilapidated. Once a vibrant river town that took advantage of the commerce that traveled the shallow waters of the Des Moines River, Farmington had begun to dry up when the railroads and highways began etching their way into the rolling hills of Southeast Iowa.

The church was a potpourri of families that lived in and around the dirty little town. Some older couples, tottering in on canes and replaced knees. A nice man named Gerhardt, who was missing one hand, everything from the forearm down. A few of my classmates' families, although none the really cared to associate with me. One woman distinctly stands out in my mind. No one knew how to take her. Her name was Christie.

Christie was around my moms age. Sandy brown hair laid plainly on her head. She was extremely tan, with wrinkly-leather skin pulled across her petite frame. Christie dressed plainly, with white canvas shoes and smudged khaki pants that were too short for her wiry legs. She often wore some type of button down shirt or sweater that seemed as thought someone thrown it out. Christie believed in demons.

The story goes that Christie moved to Iowa from Washington state, to attend the Maharishi School of Enlightenment in Fairfield, Iowa. Something happened while she was there, and she left the school to live in Farmington. Again, I do not know what the incident was, but the Christie I knew was both physically shaken and mentally distraught.

She walked with a timidity that reminded me of a nervous rabbit, arms pulled in tight and eyes nervously glancing back and forth. When she prayed in church, she folded her hands beside her head and laid her cheek against them. Her face was wrought with distress over silent pleas that no one else knew. Every time she spoke, it was with a whispered cadence that sounded as if she was trying to sing, but afraid of how it might sound. The result was a haunting voice that hung in the air like a fog, settling on your memory and turning to dust.

Christie was the point of much pity in our church and my mother made a point to make her welcomed at every opportunity. We had dinner with her, sat with her at church functions, and helped out with things she had trouble handling on her own. That's where this story picks up.

It was a brisk October day, not over 40o Fahrenheit, when my mother got a call. The voice on the other end was breathy and sing-song. When she hung up, my mom turned to me,

“Christie called. She said she needs her car cleaned. I guess she drove through something.” There was more to the story than this, but my mother wasn't divulging any other details.

“Isn't it a little cold for a car wash?” I asked. I was not looking forward to any part of this mandatory charity event.

“Just go out there and help her.” She commanded with a roll of her eyes. After some cajoling, I got the truth out of her.

“Her car is possessed.”


“I guess she drove through...something, and now her car is possessed.”

“WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ABOUT THAT!?! I don't know how to cleanse demons! I am not an exorcist! Come on, mom!”

My pleas for reason fell on deaf ears. Begrudgingly, I set out to deal with the demonic Volvo.

The Tools of the Trade -- Lime Away and Carpet Cleaner

When I got to Christie's house, she was waiting for me at the door. She led me to the dingy silver Volvo wagon and explained to me the process that I was to follow:

Step 1 - Pour Lime Away pipe cleaner onto floors, seats, and any other surface, until thoroughly soaked with green goop.

Step 2 – Vainly attempt to soak up the verdant, viscous liquid with old towels.

Step 3 – Pray to God that Christie is satisfied before my hands freeze off.

When I opened the driver door, I was greeted with the project already in progress. Christie had unloaded two bottles of Lime Away onto the floor of the car. It seemed that this had happened some time earlier in the day, as the liquid was a semi-frozen slush. As the mid afternoon sun started lowering itself behind the scraggly trees, I began the process of exorcising the demons.

The first step was to remove the icy liquid from the floor. I checked the back for an ice scraper. No such luck. I attempted to chisel the corrosive liquid from its hold on the carpeted floor with a pen, but got nowhere. Then I got smart. Requesting a bucket of the hottest water available, I proceeded to besiege the Lime Away with scalding water, thus successfully liquifying the frozen cleaner. Objective completed. As I looked down triumphantly at the floor boards of the vehicle, my mood quickly changed from triumphant to disparaged. While I had melted the frozen muck, the car was now even swampier and, with the sun going down, the potential for another frozen floor was imminent. So I began bailing out.

After the majority of the liquid was removed from the floor, I was able to soak up the remainder with some old towels that Christie had provided. About the time I was finished with that project, Christie came out with a Shop-Vac and a can of carpet cleaner.

Spray this on the seats. We need to get rid of it all.”

Ignoring the fact that a vacuum would have made the floor job much easier, I tried to think of a response to her request. Finding none that would meet Christie's irregular logic, I sighed and proceeded to coat the seats with an expanding white foam that smelled of old rubber. After vacuuming the upholstery, I returned triumphantly to Christie's door.

All finished!” I proclaimed with vigor and chattering teeth.

Christie sidled up to the car with some trepidation. She peeked into the backseat, opened the hatchback, and seemed to be satisfied with the job I'd done. But then she sat in the drivers seat.

Immediately, she turned and looked me straight in the eye.

You need to do the dashboard.”

Christie, what do you mean? How do I do the dashboard?” I responded reluctantly. The methods used thus far were not utilizing electronics friendly cleaning agents, and this worried me.

She looked around a moment, then reached down for a bottle of Lime Away. Handing me the bottle, she pointed at the electronic panel of dormant meters and lights.

If I put this stuff on the dash, It could ruin the car. There are electronic controls up there that – ” She cut me off,

You need to do the dashboard. That's where they are. Please just do the dashboard.” She was adamant, but I realized the implication of this decision. I tried one more time,

Why don't I just put it on like this?” I squirted the liquid onto one of the towels and began rubbing it into the vinyl.

In a surprisingly quick motion, she snatched the bottle from my hands and pushed me aside. As she sporadically squirted the cleaner onto the control panel, she ordered,

Like this! You need to do it like this!” then she darted away and disappeared into the darkened doorway of the house. As I assessed the situation, I noticed her silhouette in the kitchen window, watching me as I stood in the frosty dusk. And so I began to dump the remainder of the bottle onto the dashboard.

The green liquid poured into the defrost vents. It seeped into cracks and ran over the edge, dripping onto the steering column. I did my best to mop up the goo, all the while my stomach sank lower and lower with the realization that I may be destroying a perfectly good vehicle. A perfectly good, potentially possessed vehicle, but none-the-less, a perfectly good vehicle.

I finished mopping up the mess I'd made, collected all the empty bottles, rags, buckets, and left them with the vacuum by the front door. Christie didn't come to the door when I knocked, so I closed up the soggy car and drove home, reflecting upon the task I'd just completed.

I don't know if the car was possessed. I don't know what Christie thought she'd caught in the engine of her Swiss-made hatchback. I do know that she had the entire dash replaced a few days later, due to an unknown failure in the electronic systems. But of some things, I can be certain.

Something had affected Christie. Whether it was in her car, in her house, or in her head, something had definitely upset her.

And that is real.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Drilling Down - What it Means to Be Renaissance Man

"If you want to know how big of a douche you are, Google yourself."

Luke Burbank, of Too beautiful to Live said something to this affect a few weeks ago on an episode of Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!. I didn't think to write it down, but you get the gist of the statement. Sometimes you don't realize how people see you until you do a little introspection or, internet-spection.

So, In what is potentially a self-serving curiousity, I've been looking up what the phrase Renaissance Man means to the rest of the world. I've got a very specific idea of the concept, but I'm not sure that this definition is shared by the masses out their on the interwebs. This is my attempt to distill the term for the good of all.


I was always taught that Wikipedia is an unacceptable source for academic research. That being said, I've found that it is an ideal starting point for basic information. You want to know the average population of Green Bay? How about the entire discography of Wilco? I would recommend you vet the information through other, more reliable sources, but the overarching disdain of Wikipedia among academics does seem to be a bit more hype than reality.

When I plugged Renaissance Man into the Wiki, I got a much shorter answer than I anticipated:
As much as I love Danny DeVito and Star Trek, neither of the latter entries were the answer to my query. The top link, however, was intriguing. So I probed further:

"A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much")[1] is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today's standards."

Entry for Polymath, Wikipedia

This definition also describes my understanding of Renaissance man - A person who knows a great deal about a variety of subjects. But I don't think this explanation fully embodies what I imagine a renaissance man to be. Isn't a renaissance man more than just a thinker? I believe there is more to the story here.

So on to the next modern-day reference point we go.

Stop Googling yourself - You'll Go Blind!

After wading through more Wikipedia entries, Danny DeVito references, and other semi-redundant links about 15th century Italians and Polymaths, I found a couple of perspectives that stood out.

The blog entitled The Rawness has a series called Becoming a Renaissance Man. This seven part series is the authors thoughts on virility and true manhood in the 21st century. As I parsed the message of the series, I noticed an aggressive voice, seemingly shouting

"Grow a pair, men of the world!"

The author speaks to the emasculation of our society, offering life changing tips such as,

I'll admit that this series comes across as terse, combative, and at times even misogynistic. Coupled with other series' on The Rawness, such as The Guide to Becoming the Perfect Woman, The Myth of The Middle-Class Alpha Male Series, this site comes across as down-right offensive at times. But it makes some very valid points. Some of the other tips for Renaissance status include,

Although he claims to be prescribing the elements of a renaissance man, none of these entries explicitly pinpoint what it is to be such a character. They seem to lift up chivalry and an antiquated type of masculinity that I appreciate, but do not fully buy into. the borderline sexism of The Rawness can be a dangerous thing, if read by the naive viewer.

But these entries do touch upon an idea that isn't explored in the polymath description. What appeals to me in The Rawness' perspective is the call to action. The need to be a decisive, forward thinking, self assured character. A renaissance man looks at the world differently. Going with the flow is not in the vocabulary of the such an entity.

The renaissance man is a doer.

Be a Thinker and a Doer

In my mind, a renaissance man is not only a person that has amassed a great wealth of knowledge. They also use that knowledge to make a mark on society. They build things. They create things. A renaissance man is one who observes, collects, and then processes that knowledge to create something new. They are doers. They contribute to society. And that is what is missing from the polymath description.

Combining the two ideas is what I want to do. I thrive on collecting knowledge, and cannot help but apply that knowledge to everything I see. Adapt, transform, and reinvent. Isaac Newton once said,

"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

Merely knowing the giants is not enough. Taking the experiences of others and building upon them to contribute new ideas to the world is the true definition of a renaissance man.

And I'll keep training.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Natural Selection

I love going back home. I especially love taking my dog, a two year old Basset Hound, to my grandfathers farm. Although she is a hunting dog by breed, Ellie has long since left her tracking skills with her more aggressive forebears.

On a weekend in Lee county a few weeks ago, Ellie and I were staying at my grandparents. We got in late Friday night and, after a late night snack with my mothers parents, we retired to one of the now spare bedrooms. The room has lovingly been deemed “the boys room” as it once belonged to my uncles. With its wood-paneled walls, olive green carpet, and NFL curtains that may include the 70's expansion teams, this room remains virtually untouched from the days that my uncles slept in it.

One of the best things about going home? The blackness of the night. Once the switch is flicked, the room is pitched into inky darkness. I slept deeper than I'd slept in months that night. The next morning, I rose early and dressed. Ellie was already awake and stared at me with mild interest as I threw a pair of old shoes on and bundled against the impending November air. I attached Ellie's leash, and out the door we went.

When we are in a new place, Ellie will normally proceed with her nose to the ground, fervently exploring every scent that wisps by her whiskers. It's a tedious way to proceed, dashing forward four feet, then slamming to a halt as she smells the remnant odor of some ground squirrel or field mouse. I dropped the leash to prevent the jerking stops and starts of the little hound, and began to plug in my mp3 player. In our normal morning routine, I listen to NPR podcasts while Ellie does her business. Just as I was scrolling to find the next episode of All Things Considered, I looked up to find Ellie in a dead sprint across my grandfather's gravel lot.

The burst of energy sent her brown ears flapping in the breeze. Her leash skittered across the drive, trying desperately to catch up to the little dog's fiercely pounding paws. She ran across the drive way, past the old summer kitchen, the barn, the grain bins, the hog shed, and into the barren field at the bottom of this hill. At this point, I assumed she would pause and renew her exploration. Ellie is not what you'd consider a long distance runner. She's more of a long distance eater.

But the feisty little hound didn't slow when she reached the black topsoil of the field. She gave chase through the silage and crashed into the underbrush at the bottom of the hill. When I caught up to her I found her sniffing intensely through the prairie grass that grows along the creek that cuts the property down the middle.

I stood there panting as she sniffed and explored. As my heart rate returned to normal, I looked around. Over my left shoulder, the sun was sending shards of light through naked trees. The steam from my mouth was cold and wet as it dissipated into the cold, dry atmosphere. I crunched through the weeds, following my dog as she tracked some mythical creature in her mind.

As we trekked about the creek's floodplain, Ellie stopped short. Before I realized what she was doing, she began rubbing her ears, face, and neck in the brush. I was curious as to what she was doing, and caught up with her, only to find that she'd found a steaming pile of raccoon poop, and was circling the dung, rubbing her body on the surrounding ground. Every so often she'd stop and lift her nose to the sky, trying to pick up on the smell she was inundating herself with, but after a few moments, she'd go back to rubbing.

I soon realized that my dog, the domesticated diva of Davenport, was using deep bred instincts in an attempt to track this animal! Hounds are bred for their elastic faces and ears, as the folds in their skin trap the scent they are tracking, making them more likely to find their mark. Although Ellie had had no formal training, she new that this was what she was supposed to do!

My dog is a genius.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Labor of Love - A Work Study

It's long been instilled in me the idea that you've got to earn your lot in life. My parents, grandparents, and teachers have imbued this boot-strap pulling, make-your-own-luck mentality since I was in grade school.

In 6th grade I began a paper route. After a few years, I took on my sisters route as well, soon delivering the Ft. Madison Daily Democrat and Bonny Buyer to half of Donnellson. Although I was only receiving six cents for each paper delivered, My mother diligently guided almost all of that revenue into savings accounts, then high interest certificates so that, when it came time for college, I had enough money to pay for a large portion of college.

I think that this "no such thing as a free lunch" mentality is why I am so incensed by television programs such as The Real Housewives of Orange County. These people haven't had to work a day in their lives! I guess I shouldn't judge, but why does America care about these people? It honestly makes me want to vomit all over my 20" television set.

Aside from the idea that you have to work for your bread, I feel that working gives you an interesting insight into the world, if you're willing to open your eyes to the experience. Because of that, even the most mundane jobs can be fascinating experiences.

Would You Like Fries with That?

In high school, I shrugged the paper route for a slightly more refined career path -- McDonalds. Under the golden arches, I learned how to crack two eggs at the same time as I whipped up die-cut eggs for McMuffins and McHeartburn. I could prepare as many as sixteen paper thin pieces of beef product in approximately seven minutes. After the first day of working at Ronald's place, I never wanted to see another chicken McNugget again.

The people I worked with were interesting. My boss, Tom, bore a striking resemblance to Jessie Ventura, the pro wrestler-turned Minnesota governor. When he was irritated by the inefficiencies of his teenage employees and early 20's dropout managers, a purple vein would pop out of his turtle waxed head. If you dared to look hard enough, you could actually see the visions of rage flow through that vein, rippling torrents of blood traveling back and forth across his barren wasteland of scalp. Tom scared the tar out of me. I avoided contact with him at every turn.

The managers at my McDonald's were all very interesting characters as well. One man, probably in his early 20's, was an emaciated, skulking shell of a human, with sunken eye sockets that were always shrouded by twitching brows. To instill fear and demand respect, he'd often emerge from the break room removing his 5 o'clock shadow with a cheap disposable razor - no water, no shaving cream. The sickening scrape of metal against flesh haunts me to this day. He'd stare you down with his scornful blue retinas daring you to comment on his disgustingly terse behavior.

Another man in his mid 20's was Wally. Wally drove a white 1968 corvette stingray to work everyday. I always made an effort to park my junker next to this beautiful car, in an effort to attract some mechanical juju from this immaculately restored automobile.

Wally was much more of a fun loving manager. He had platinum blonde hair that fell stick straight down to his shoulders, was a bit more portly than the earlier described leader, and enjoyed conducting bizarre research in the workplace. One particularly slow night, I remember experimenting with a variety of viscous restaurant fluids, from ketchup to ice cream to orange juice. We'd fill a rubber glove to its brink, then launch it out the drive through window, measuring for distance, splash diameter, and decibel of explosion.

The results were inconclusive.

What did I learn from my year at McDonald's? Go to college.

They're Called Odd Jobs for a Reason

During my four years of undergraduate academia, my schedule prevented any traditional job off campus. Once I was ineligible for work study after my sophomore year, I was faced with a challenging predicament. How was I to pay for the extraneous expenses associated with college?

The solution, in my opinion, was both ingenious and entertaining. At the beginning of each semester, I'd send an email to the faculty server list. In this correspondence, I'd offer my services for any odd job needed. Childcare, lawn maintenance, Snow removal, basic construction, cooking, cleaning, Animal removal, plant sculpture, and more. If you have a project, let me know and I'll either take the job or find someone who can.

In my two years of odd job's at Monmouth College, I completed the following tasks:

Shoveled snow
Raked leaves
Observed professorial children
Medicated sheep
Trimmed shrubbery
Cut down trees
Supervised cats
Cleaned abandoned houses
Painted houses, both interior and exterior
Acted as a professional chauffeur, errand boy, and lackey

With each job, I'd negotiate the price, at either an hourly rate or a flat fee. Some were one time deals, some lasted for multiple semesters. Many of these jobs were small and uneventful, but a few are worth noting.

Old McMonmouth had a Farm

One of the business professors at Monmouth College is a past National president of the Future Farmers of America. He owned a modest farm outside of town, and solicited my help for a few jobs around the property. At first, it was simple tasks - trimming trees, cleaning up scrap metal, nothing outlandish. The caveat was the time. I would arrive at the professors house at 6am, to complete two hours of work before my 9am course. To the chagrin of my roommates, this meant that I would be awake and traversing the house around 5am, clad in work boots and a complete lack of empathy for their beauty rest. Maybe if they wanted me to be quieter, they'd go to bed before 3am. Just a thought.

One morning, I get to the house, and the professor is in the sheep lot. He calls me over and explains the days task.

"Here's the objective. You grab the ewe, put her in a tight headlock, and I'll administer the medicine. Hold her steady - this stuff isn't cheap."

I proceeded to wrangle disgruntled lamb chops for the next two hours of my life. When we'd finally finished the task, I looked at my watch. the sheep shanking had taken longer than we'd anticipated - it was 8:30am.

I hastily scraped the mud and sheep shit from my boots, jeans, hands, and any other spot it'd latched to, then jumped in my truck, flying towards Austin Hall. I made it to class on time, but was kindly asked, both by teacher and fellow student, to never show up to class smelling like that again. EVER.

There are several other jobs that warrant a tale, but I'll save those for other musings. The odd jobs that lined my pockets during college definitely taught me a few things about professionalism, career paths, and sheep. They were invaluable, not only for financial reasons, but also for life skills. For that, I'll always have fond memories of those jobs.

And they sure make for good stories.

(No children, cats, or sheep were harmed in the making of this blog. A few trees were, but at the bequest of academic officials. I claim no responsibility for their demise.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Father Hoenig - A Pastoral Tale

Have you ever met a person that, upon looking back, defies all logic? I'm not saying that the person makes illogical decisions, I am referring to the idea that their very being does not compute in your brain? This is the case with Father Hoenig.

I don't know Father Hoenig's first name. Though he was a priest, I've never attended a service he's officiated. I've come to learn of this priest through a professional relationship.

It was a sweltering hot afternoons in early August. It was late in the day, when the sun starts balking at the earth, sending shadows long but refusing to give up it's tenure of torturous heat. At the shop of Leroy Walljasper, we were all befuddled by some persnickety machine that had been commissioned for repair. As we stood back viewing the machine with a contemplative simmer, a little truck rattled into the drive.

Peculiar Pastor

The truck, if it had to be identified by one make or model, would be a Nissan, although the one remaining bumper, hood, and passenger side door would beg to differ. Most of the body used to reflect a navy blue hue, but it had oxidized to the point that a burnt orange crust overwhelmed any color on the trucks once gleaming hull.

The vehicle paused for a moment, unsure as to whether it would lurch forward from it's clutch or give up life indefinitely. Instead, it coughed to a dilapidated halt under an old hickory tree across the lot. Then, slowly and unsteadily, Father Hoenig tottered into view from behind the rusted out machine.

An immaculate version of Father Hoenig's jalopy
He was wearing black dress shoes that had long shirked the title “dress”. They were missing their laces, allowing the tongues to flap wildly as his legs jerked unnaturally out in front of his body. Inside the shoes were fathers naked feet, untethered by socks in the summer heat. He wore navy blue slacks, one leg caught around his knee in the style that LL Cool J made famous in the 80's and 90's. Hoenig's black shirt was unbuttoned but half tucked into his slacks, one shirt tail flapping in the breeze, the other bunched and stretching the cloth across his thin hunched frame. The white priestly collar was sticking out of the neck of his shirt, bouncing with fervor as his shoulders lurched ever closer to the shop.

Father Hoenig's hair was ghostly white, almost as if a wispy milkweed plant had landed on the back of his head and had clung there, ever so meekly, being tousled by the winds of that summer afternoon. One of the man's eyes drooped uselessly to the side, as if it'd jump free of its housing, if the skin surrounding the orb would only relinquish its grasp. I'd later learn that this useless eye was struck blind from complications of diabetes. At the time, however, it was simply one more element of absurdity in a whole collection of flesh and bizarre.

“I've got a mower. working.” the monsignor said meekly as he approached the group of us who'd been observing his pilgrimage across the gravel. His voice was small and shaky, as if he was still working on shaping them as the passed his lips. They reached us with an upturn, making every word a milquetoast inquisition. As my grandfather questioned the elderly man, the story began to appear, but only in small sections. With a long drag from his cigarette, grandpa said through a puff of smoke,

“Yeah father, we can probably get that running 'gain for ya. Bring it by tomorrow and we'll get to workin' on it.”

“God bless you. Thank you. Thank much. God bless you son, for helping me with my...mower.” Father tottered back across the rocky lot, clambered into his pickup, and sputtered into the distance, leaving naught but a plume of white gravel dust in his wake.

“I hope he realizes that I'm still gonna charge him for the thing. Blessings don't keep the lights on, ya know?”

Mowing the Unmowable

The next day, one of the fellas that helps Father Hoenig around the farm brought by the mower. He dropped it off and, tipping his hat, wished us luck.

As we dug into the machine, we found an incredible mess inside. From the looks of it, the mower had been run against something so hard that it not only stopped the blades from spinning, it actually took the alloy shaft that runs the length of the machine, and turned it into a corkscrew. This made our job immensely more difficult. After a few hours of driving the blades off the shaft with a sledge hammer, we retreated to the office to regroup against the twisted adversary. Grandpa lit a cigarette, grabbed a coke from the pop machine, and grabbed the phone.

“Yeah, this' Leroy. What the hell'd he do to this thing? Well, it's twisted up tighter'n a tax collector.”

Grandpa listened for a few minutes, then let out a chuckle. Shaking his head, he imparted the account.

Father Hoenig had a lot of land that, in recent years, he'd either forgotten about, or chosen not to plant for some reason or another. Whatever the reason, he'd remembered these fields on that particular summer and, upon inspection, decided that they needed to be cleared. The easiest way to do that was to hook on to the hay mower and cut through the ragweed and canadian thistles. It should only take a couple hours with this new mower. He was cleaning up the land pretty well, until he ran up against something, stopping the machine dead in its tracks. Rather than investigate this issue, he backed up the tractor, lifted the mower, and came back to the house. When his farmhands went out to inspect, they found what had stopped the machine so abruptly. It was an old moldboard plow.

A possible equivalent of Father Hoenig's adversary
It's not small. It's not unnoticeable. Even with shoulder high weeds and brush, most people would see a plow from the tractor. Most people with two good eyes. Unfortunately, I don't think father had one good eye.

The plow had done substantial damage to the mower, and the project was not fun. A week later, we'd finally gotten everything back in working order for father. He came back to pick up the cutter, and graciously paid grandpa, with a check as well as a blessing.

Curious, I asked grandpa why he called him 'Father'. Was he really a priest? I'd never heard of a priest who was also a farmer, but then again, I'd never met a character like Father Hoenig.

“Yeah he's a retired priest, lives out by Montrose. Used to be the pastor at St. Joe's out there, till they forced'm to retire. Still says a mass or two every now'n again. I guess it's a site.” Grandpa went on to recount the foibles he'd heard. Stories of Father Hoenig asking the altar servers what part of the mass came next, or speaking so quietly and unintelligibly that no one was sure whether they should sit, stand, sing, or kneel. It wasn't uncommon for Father to be late for mass, or forget to show up at all. For that reason, he hasn't been saying many masses any more, which is fine by him, as it gives him more time to farm.

I haven't heard much about Father Hoenig in recent years. I don't know if he's still farming, still driving, or still alive. While I may have depicted him as weak or unstable, I assure you that he was one of the most venerable individuals I met working at Walljasper Construction. He refused to give up, even when it meant pitting himself against 19th century farm machinery.

To this day, I'm not sure I understand Father Hoenig. He was truly an anomalous entity. But maybe that was what is so intriguing.