The Dismal Science: A.K.A Economics .001, Part I

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All rights reserved.

Dear readers, I originally had intended to make this essay a single exposition. However, as I got into it the ideas, emotions and resultant words multiplied like the sorcerer’s apprentice’s mops, so I decided I had better break it into at least two, and possibly more, essays. I wanted to get the rocks out of my gut. As I write this preamble, I am nearly through with Part I. The composing procedure I have adopted is thus far slightly rambling; as you know, I have a tendency to write “off the top of my head”. But rest assured the substance is not fluff: I have been observing and pondering the economic scene in my homeland for many years now. O God, please help her!

I wrote in one of my newspaper columns decades ago that I have an aversion to economics, which has been dubbed “the dismal science”. But, like nearly everyone else on this globe, I cannot escape its various impacts on my life. I was thinking of excluding among the victims the Inuit in the Arctic and the forest dwellers in the Amazon jungle, but we have read recently of how climate change is melting away the tundra ice and thereby eliminating the surface on which some Inuit have their homes, and how some greedy gold, oil and farmland seekers are invading the Amazonians’ habitat; so, even those reclusive tribes are not excludable from the modern economic seine.

Over the past few years I have tried to organize in my mind the little I know (or think I know) about our capitalist economic system. I tried back in my early manhood to read a textbook designed for Economics 101 courses. I don’t think I got past the first chapter; any academic field that employs graphs and mathematical symbols is over my head. I just checked and saw that Wikisource has produced an apparently accessible English translation of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which I will probably at least scan while working on this blog post, but I don’t want such reading to interfere much with my lifetime’s impressions.

That connotation-rich appositive above, “the dismal science”, evokes in my mind two images: (1) the candle-lit laboratory of the mad scientist or wizard, and (2) an above-ground intellectual field so dense and counter-intuitive as to be depressively hindering to the mathematically challenged person (me). I really believe that both meanings are appropriate, even though most people would say that the second is the one intended.

The usual wizard of folklore favors “black magic” that is intended to harm others, and he often is secretive, hiding either in some secret cave or in a vacant castle, in its dungeon or in its tower. According to a PBS program I saw decades ago, Leonardo da Vinci, probably the historical human being who epitomizes such a scientist, reportedly built, in secret, a very large telescope in a tower. Of course, he did not build it to harm anyone; he built it to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about one of his many interests: the stars and planets. The Church, however, did not see it that way; they preferred to view the whole enterprise (when they found out about it) as diabolical. Curiosity has for centuries been a bugbear. (The fact that Leonardo was left-handed did not help either.) A much more homely wizard, the king of Id’s magician, quite often makes mistakes that temporarily harm or at least embarrass him. And the ancient Chinese sorcerers experimented with many plants in their search for the elixir that would spark an eternal — or at least an extended — lifespan; their experiments yielded some poisons, for which some paid with their lives, but they also contributed a good deal to modern pharmacology. So, I see all that as indicating there is no way to avoid the bad in any science, no matter how good the intention and the final result might be. (Examine all the side effects on your medicine labels.)

And now some few words on the second image. There are many out-spoken economists these days, some of whom regularly contribute op-ed articles or columns to our magazines and newspapers. Years ago, I used to enjoy watching John Kenneth Galbraith argue with William F. Buckley Jr. on the latter’s PBS show, “Firing Line”, although I did not completely follow what either said. The two economists I follow now, whenever I happen to notice their columns, are James Surowiecki in The New Yorker and Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Both are, I believe, liberals: Krugman acknowledged as much. Although I do not grasp the thought processes that lead them to their conclusions, I agree with both men most of the time (I cannot recall any instance when I balked at one of their conclusions, although there might have been such an occasion.) They are pretty good at speaking to my level of comprehension. Some of that stuff is bound to have sunken in.

Still, there are some economic facts which I have never understood and have been disinclined, until now, to research. The oldest such matter concerns the old, hot debate regarding the “gold or silver standard” of the 1890s. From my easy chair vantage point, I could not fathom what difference it made which standard was adopted; and, since it had been settled long before I was born, I did not really give a damn. Yet, a related question continued to nag at me: Why do we marry our currency to some pretty but basically lifeless metal anyway? A barter system what Marx called the “exchange value” of products and services, although complicated to institute, would be much more natural and true to life.

Now I would like to present my overall view of how economics rules our lives.

The world is divided into two classes of people: capitalists and workers. The former invest their money in some enterprise, either a start-up company or an existing company. Usually, the money is bet on an existing company that has already proven it can float; however, venture capital placed in an experimental or innovative effort is not unheard of; and, since the investors are “getting in on the ground floor”, when the cost of “shares” is lowest, has the best chance of “earning” a large “return” on their investments.

Just as with the wizard’s experiments, any number of hazards can cause problems for the capitalists: the company might be part of a Ponzi scheme, a CEO’s errors in judgment can diminish or even destroy the company, the company could be swallowed in a “hostile takeover”, faulty or inferior products might cause the company to lose out on desired governmental contracts or have to recall products, an extended employee strike could squeeze productivity and thus profits, and so on. Some capitalists these days, e.g. Donald Trump, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg, have gained small fortunes in a single day’s stock market activity and can afford to lose the same amount without missing a step. But for many other investors — the much smaller ones — a comparable loss can eliminate their life savings. Those are the people who define themselves as “the creators of jobs”.

So, who assumes the jobs? Who actually gets the work done? That’s the workers. What I hate most about this separation into “capitalists” and “workers” is that it has been extended from the situation at the factory to that in social spaces: homes, restaurants, theaters and even churches. Of course, social class distinctions in the latter places have been moderated somewhat during the past century, but they still exist in hardly less apparent ways, what with the current movement toward “gentrification” of neighborhoods, the robotization of an increasing number of occupations, and the constant media attention on celebrities — the vast majority of whom are wealthy movie stars, athletes, foreign royalty, and entrepreneurial billionaires. Now we are debating the fairness of income inequity and slicing up social classes into one-percenters, (vanishing) middle class, and working class. Yet the working class and those even lower on the social ladder are reluctant to revolt against this pernicious system because they view the elites as models of what they might become, if only they can get that football or basketball “scholarship” or get an agent to notice them on “open mic nite” at the local bistro or if one of the lottery tickets they are buying today with half their paltry paycheck will just vault them over the rung where hangs that middle-class person. They don’t want to destroy those privileged positions because they want to attain them.


NEXT (I hope): A more detailed look at the two major classes.

Acorns, etc.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

 Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
 — Luke 2:19

The fairies’ berets

Well, it’s the first week of October, although you can’t tell it by the daytime temperatures around my town; it is already scoring 92 degrees today (10/01/15) at 3 p.m. I don’t recall it getting that warm in July and August, maybe last June, which for some reason I can’t fathom has the reputation of being our hottest month. I know the steering wheel in my truck told me on several June days that hell was nearby. But we have only ourselves to blame, what with our carbon emissions history since the Industrial Revolution started.

Still, we always expect October to be a kinder month, even a time when donning a windbreaker is ordinarily the normal thing to do. In spite of the boiling heat, though, there are a few signs by which Nature is letting us know that Fall is nigh, such as a slight hint that the leaves want to change color from green to yellow, scarlet and purple. In our case here, however, the most telltale sign, that I have noticed, is the drumming of the acorns on my back porch’s metal roof. I see those nuts on the grass and sidewalk when I leave each morning for the coffee shop: they seem unusually large this year. And why have their loud tumbles never drawn my attention in the past twelve years? Yes, they simply must be larger this time.

As a child, influenced by some illustrations in fairy tale books, I would wonder if there were any “little people” around wearing parts of acorns for their caps; I was entirely ignorant at the time that what I was looking at was called a “cupule”. That was way before the age of the Internet, and my curiosity was stifled by a sense of futility until today.  I also used to occasionally wonder why we don’t eat acorns as we do pecans, walnuts and other nut delicacies. I assumed that acorns must be different from other nuts by being poisonous, but somebody told me that, no, the acorn is just bitter to the taste.

I read in Wikipedia today, though, that the ancient Greeks ate them after pounding them into a grain and that the Native Americans and Koreans still do favor certain dishes prepared using acorns. The processes involved, however, look formidably complicated and time-consuming to me. For the rest of us, grains have superseded any comparable meal ingredient. One would have to be near starvation, I suppose, to gather acorns. Yet, some of our media sites are recommending that we consider munching on various insects for sustenance: a hardly subtle reference to the likelihood of famines if climate change develops to its greatest extent.

But we want to believe that Fall is imminent, even though there seem to be no “four seasons” any more, only Summer and Winter. Autumn, like Spring, is being squeezed down to a week. Why is Fall also called “Autumn”? I wonder.

Out of balance

A Methodist minister told me, when I was about sixteen, “Life is going to be hard on you, Bob, because you are mature beyond your years.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, and I have pondered his assessment often since then. I now do not believe he was saying that my IQ was above average or that my store of common-sense was abundant: both of those qualities would, I believe, be very useful coping skills, not stumbling blocks. No, I think his point must have been that I do not have much tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and the smaller details in life. I expect the world to be much more plain and decipherable than it is. The pastor’s remark was uttered not many days after I had opined, during a meeting of our church’s governing board (of which I was an ex officio  member), that I believed we needed to do away with Santa Claus. I won’t expound on the Santa Claus issue here any further than to explain that the persona of Santa I perceived was that of a caricature of God — an image that I thought confuses children and might eventually lead them spiritually astray.

No, the issue I wish to dilate on is what personality characteristic my comment reflected. My intolerance for ambiguity and small fictions became, I think, an obsession within me, an obsession that cannot be contained now, if it ever could, even though I am aware of the discomfort it causes for me. When (at age 20) I started reading philosophy, particularly Bertrand Russell’s discussion of Zeno’s paradoxes, I sententiously declared it my ambition to resolve all paradoxes; I wasn’t going to leave any room for an ounce of doubt.

Of course, most of my readers will be aware of how naïve was my goal. As the years multiplied, so did the paradoxes and dilemmas. Even Bertrand Russell, I read later, retreated into symbolic logic to discuss rather basic matters because he saw the plain old vernacular as being the cause of many philosophical rabbit trails¹. I did not have the mathematical ability to follow his lead, so I simply gave up and tried to close my eyes and ears to insoluble problems.

But the questions attacked me anyway, very surreptitiously via my observations of Nature and the people I encountered — nay, viewed, even if I did not meet them. Why is that young man, for instance, wearing a ring in his nostril and two rings in his lower lip? Why do two people not get to know each other better before they get hitched into a relationship that leads to an acrimonious and expensive divorce? Why does a group scream, beat loudly on drums and guitars, set off explosions and claim they are making music? Why does a season of the year have two names: Fall and Autumn? All such questions invade my mind unbidden, and I don’t think I have enough life span left to research such matters. (I know, by the way, that “fall” and “autumn” are not usually capitalized, but I prefer to capitalize them for two reasons: (1) Since “fall” has two meanings, the capital “F” prevents confusion; and (2) since the words are names for seasons of the year, I consider the capitalization better etiquette.)

Subtle biases in our vocabulary

The turbulence in my brain, however, is not all perturbing; sometimes amusement results from the roiling. I often find in it fodder for my teasing humor. One evening, for instance, when I was a guest in the home of former friends — a college professor and his wife — I mentioned, almost as an aside, that I thought it peculiar there are no terms for a hectoring man (except of course “hectoring man”), while there are several for a hectoring woman: harridan, shrew, termagant, virago, harpy, vixen, and nag. Whew! I half-expected the wife to jump out of her chair and attack me, but she disappointingly remained calm, recognizing, I suppose, that I was simply being impish, not sardonic.

And then, returning my spotlight to Nature, it occurred to me this morning, as I was driving to the coffee shop just before the sun rose above Hancock Hill, when the sky was just beginning to glimmer, that we have only two words for the sun’s rising: “sunrise” and “dawn” (basically the same stage), but three for its different stages of setting: “dusk”, “sunset”, and “twilight”. There is something poetically disconcerting about that imbalance.

Many other odd imbalances have occurred to me over the past half century, but I don’t recall any of them right now, which is a good thing, because enough is enough, for the time being. It is time to say good night, dear readers.

Happy pondering.

¹”Rabbit trails go here, there, and everywhere, and pretty much tend to lead nowhere. (Have you ever watched a dog sniff out a rabbit trail? It wanders in small then wider circles, around and around, feverishly looking for the rabbit – literally, a meal and, figuratively, the point of one’s argument.) No one knows what’s at the end of a rabbit trail (the point of one’s argument). Is there even an end to it? It’s a confusing maze of pointless leads. In short, a rabbit trail leads (us) nowhere. It serves only to confuse the prey/the reader. It keeps them preoccupied and confused.”  (“Cassiopea” at
²Of course I recognize that “curmudgeon” can be used to describe a man, as can the colloquial “grumpus”, but they are not gender-specific, being applicable to a habitually complaining woman as well.


Dangerous Moments

© 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  Well, I’m back, folks…sort of. I still have some health problems to attend to, which will not be completely out of the way until late November. However, the worst, I believe, hopefully, is over. And, to tell you the truth, avoiding my blog has been almost as painful for me as the emotional travail of my physical issues. And, too, the topic of the following essay has been goading me to hie myself to the computer.
I feel obliged to warn you that the essay is 2,542 words long, and some of my readers have short attention spans. So, you might want to read one of its segments today and another tomorrow, or whenever.
In any case, ENJOY!!!

Perhaps advanced age is the instigator of my recent mulling over the question: What is courage? Am I brave? Have I ever been up to risk-taking? Is there any difference between courage and bravery? How long in any particular dangerous situation can one maintain equanimity — five minutes, five hours, five days? What is the difference between courage and foolhardiness?

I realize the issue is much more complex than I have suggested above that it could be. There are all kinds of parameters surrounding, and elements that form, situations which outwardly appear similar but which can have small core elements that radically alter the warrant for action. Any individual might react aggressively in one situation and at another time passively brush off the offense in a near-like situation. I will leave it to the reader to recall or imagine such scenarios, for I do not want to wander that extensively in this essay. Here I wish merely to relate some personal anecdotes concerning dangerous moments in my own life and how I reacted to them.

Oh, I have thought about this matter quite often in the past; one cannot live through seventy-five years without encountering danger. And I have wondered at the apparent cowardice I have seen in myself in some instances and the exceeding boldness in other cases. It is still a conundrum for me.

The first episode in my life where I think some degree of bravery was required was when I was about thirteen years old, during a plane trip I and my friend Carlton D. took. It was in a private aircraft, not a commercial one, yet the plane was large enough to contain four seats. But let me back up a bit to explain the reason we were on that plane.

I had a paper route, and one of my customers was a man who was very outgoing — or conning — who asked me one evening, when I stopped at his house to collect his monthly subscription payment, if I would like to ride in his airplane. Always immediately trusting, I said, “Sure! Can I bring my friend Carlton along?” (He knew Carlton.)

“That’ll be fine. Only I must ask you to help me paint it first.”

How difficult can painting an airplane be? Surely not very,” I surmised.

The next Saturday, Carlton and I met the man at White Rock airport, a small airfield only about a mile from our homes: I don’t believe that airport exists any longer. Most of the work in “painting” the plane, we discovered, involved scrubbing and sanding it. That was work. I don’t remember how long it took us, but I believe it was more than one day. However, we were probably into summer vacation at the time, so, even though it might have taken more than a day, the job couldn’t have required more than three days. When we were done, though, both Carlton and I thought, This trip had better be fun! The man did the painting himself, presumably with a spray applicator.

While we were working on the plane, I asked the man what he did for a living, for I considered that anybody who owned his own aircraft must have a pretty good job.

“I’m an engineer,” he said. “I do the engineering work on machines such as soda pop dispensers,” he said. That didn’t tell me much about his financial condition, but it was fascinating to contemplate the supposed complexity of the job.

A week or so thereafter, the man called me and said he was flying the next weekend up to some town in the Panhandle. Did Carlton and I want to go? We certainly did, for by this time Carlton and I had concluded we had been hustled by a con artist.

On the flight north, I sat in the “co-pilot’s seat”, while Carlton sat behind us. We landed at some airport no bigger than White Rock. I can’t recall if the man rented a vehicle or if we were picked up by his relatives, for he had come to visit his family. Anyway, the man dropped us off at the county courthouse lawn and told us to meet him there in a few hours (don’t recall how many). Again Carlton and I felt cheated because we had assumed the fellow was going to take us to wherever he was going and treat us to lunch; he hadn’t instructed us to bring sack lunches.

We walked around the town square: a very dull place that didn’t even have a five-and-dime store. (Readers who were born after 1960 won’t recognize what fun-filled hang-outs five-and-dime stores were for kids before that year.) But most of the time we sat on a bench on the courthouse lawn and scraped tic-tac-toe games in the red soil.

Finally, the man returned and we once again loaded into the plane. There was nothing extraordinary about our return trip (the checkerboard scenery on the ground below had already lost its romance) until we got over downtown Dallas. That was when we heard the sputtering and the plane’s altitude diminished noticeably.

“What’s wrong?” I asked our pilot.

“We’re out of gas,” he answered after too long a pause.

Then he reached up to a spot just above the windshield and started turning a crank similar in appearance to the device with which we roll up and down car windows.

“This opens the other gas tank,” he explained.

I turned around to glance at Carlton. He looked pale. However, neither of us had screamed or cried. Perhaps we just had not had time to rise to that level of fear. But had we been brave? I don’t know. I believe now that if we had descended low enough to graze the Flying Red Horse atop the Humble Oil building, I would have screamed.

That experience was not as scary, though, as what happened when we got to the airport a short time later. As we approached the runway, the plane started to gain altitude. I looked at the pilot, who seemed unfittingly blasé. We went up and circled the little field again. I gazed out my side to see if there were any other aircraft in the vicinity: none. Then we were on the approach again; and I was touching my seat belt, ready to get away from this nutsy pilot and his death-trap of a plane. But he pulled the plane upward again.

After three passes, we landed safely. I never again had anything more to do with that man except to deliver his paper and collect his subscription money.

For the next episode that I remember vividly — and care to relate — we have to fast-forward several years to when I was 21. It was another dangerous flying experience.

I was standing at the reservation counter at the Okinawa airport, obtaining my boarding pass to return to the U.S. after completing my 18-monthlong tour of duty on the island, when I heard my name announced over the PA system; they were summoning me to another line. When I arrived at the spot specified, I was introduced to a woman and her two small boys: one about five and the other about three. They were military “dependents”, the family of some officer on the island, and I had been assigned to assist the mother in caring for the boys during the flight home. Of course, I silently lamented that I had not been spared this charge, but at the moment it did not seem to be such an onerous task as it later turned out to be.

The DC-3’s of that ancient era had only four seats to a row, two to a side. The mother and one of her sons sat in the row in front of me and her other son. The personalities of the boys were extraordinarily different from one another; how much of that difference was due to the gap in their ages, I do not know. One sat beside me for several hours of our journey, and then they switched seats. The older boy was jolly enough, perhaps too jolly, for he jabbered constantly. He also had a “Raggedy Ann” comic book which he asked me to read to him. I had no problem at the start; but as I read panel after panel of the comic book I became increasingly anxious because the story involved one character who spoke in reversed-meaning, i.e., he spoke the opposite of what he meant. It was absurd, and I have an absurdity phobia. Fortunately, though, the comic book episode was soon finished, and the youngster returned to his constant jabbering about anything that popped into his mind.

The real problem was with the younger of the two brothers. He was taciturn in the extreme; even though I tried for a short time to draw him out of his shell. I now believe that he was possibly one of those many people who have a fear of flying, so strong a fear that it paralyzes them. He did, however, say often enough that he needed to go to the restroom. I took him there, but he did not do anything. After our second futile trip to the restroom, I chided him. After the third, I pinched him on the forearm. I’ll let some child psychologist figure that one out.

Then the plane entered an area of turbulence; the aircraft shook violently for many minutes. The signal box at the end of the cabin lit up with the words “Fasten seat belts please”. I fastened my seat belt and then leaned over to fasten that of my young charge. He started screaming. His high decibel racket annoyed me, but I could sympathize with him because I was a bit scared, too. “Look here, young’un, I understand your fear, but this belt is going to be hooked!” After I had completed my mission, I leaned back in my own seat and hoped for the best. That was, indeed, a lengthy period of rough jolting, and I wondered how we would handle dipping in the Pacific Ocean.

When we arrived in Honolulu for a brief layover, the woman and her boys disappeared. I don’t recall whether Hawaii was their final destination or they simply sought accommodations away from that mean airman. I did not care, for I was free.

My only remaining question about that experience is, was I brave during the turbulence or merely fatalistic?

Now for the third and penultimate “courage” episode — away from airplanes but still in the transportation mode.

My brother Vernon (the eldest of us three Litton boys) had located a 1953 Ford coupe for me to drive to college and to work in. This was in 1962, when I was 22, and my other brother, Elbert, and I were sharing an apartment on Henderson Street in Dallas, about half a dozen blocks south of Central Expressway. One winter’s evening after a snowfall and while the streets were glazed with ice, I left the SMU library and started my drive southward toward home. Just a block before I came to the bridge over Central, my steering wheel went crazy. I had to turn it a couple of times to make the car go right and a couple of times to make it go left. I had to make the choice then and there whether to stop my car and go to a nearby house to use a phone to call for a tow truck (all the local businesses were closed) or to try to make it home. There were no other vehicles on the service road where I was and none on the bridge. I can’t recall my reasoning, but I probably decided that I had learned enough already how to steer the car at least slightly and my apartment was not at any great distance, so to continue at a slow speed was the preferable option. How lovely of all those other people that they were not out driving that night! The hardest part was maneuvering my way up our narrow drive to the parking area out back. A mechanic told me the next day that one wheel’s “tie rod” had broken.

Now I ask you, dear reader, had I been brave or foolhardy? Or perhaps simply facing up to a necessity?

The final episode is similar to the above, in a way.

I was fifty-seven and working as a reporter for the Alpine Avalanche. One day, the publisher/editor sent me to photograph a new, second water tank that had been set up on the top of “A” Mountain on the south side of town. I wrote “’A’ Mountain”, but don’t take that too literally. It is not exactly what I would call a “mountain” — not like most of the mountains to the north and south of us, which do not themselves compare with those in the Rockies. No, “A” Mountain is, to me, just a really big hill with a one-vehicle road that winds up to its rather dull top.

So, I grabbed a camera and drove my 1972 Ford sedan up the narrow access road. Only about fifty yards from the top I came upon a stretch of sandy loam about six yards long, and my tires refused to force their way through it. After a few attempts at revving the engine, I got out and trekked up to the top where I found two men discussing the new tank.

“Hi,” I said, “I’ve gotten stuck in some sand a few yards down the road. Can you guys help me?”

“Nope,” one of them said, “Don’t think there’s anything we can do to help.” Strange!

But I took a couple of photo shots of the boring image of the water tank and walked back down to my car.

After gazing over the road’s edge to see how far I would roll should I do a poor job of it, I got in the vehicle, turned on the engine, switched into reverse gear, and revved my engine. Fortunately, the car was not nearly as reluctant to go backward as it had been to go forward, possibly because the sand was not as deep that way. All the while I kept my eyes trained on all three mirrors. During my drive uphill, I had noticed a slight indentation in the mountain’s wall about halfway, which I assumed one vehicle pulled into when another vehicle was approaching from the opposite direction. When I got to it, with a sigh of relief, I pulled in and managed to turn my car around. From that moment I assumed I was safe driving forward the remaining distance downhill.

All of that trouble and anxiety for a stupid photo of a stupid metal water tank! Had I been brave, foolhardy, or again merely facing up to necessity?

Oh, I have been in many other dangerous situations, even four car accidents, in two of which I was briefly knocked unconscious and my brow suffered cuts. However, all those other events happened so suddenly that, although I had to react — and did react to the best of my ability — there was not enough time to summon up recognizable courage.

No, I don’t believe one can live to age seventy-five without encountering dangerous moments.


Absence from the blog scene explained

Dear followers and other interested readers, this is just a note to let you know I am experiencing some serious medical issues. I will not be posting any new writings for a time–hopefully a short time.

Rest assured, anyway, that I have not been “done in” by the gun-pushers.

Hope to see you soon,

Jimmy’s First Day at School

The story's author when he was about the same age as Jimmy and just as much a believer that the six-gun won the West.

The story’s author when he was about the same age as Jimmy and just as much a believer that the six-gun won the West. In this photo he is mimicking hero-rancher Clay Hardin, played by Errol Flynn, in the 1945 western “San Antonio”. People acquainted with that film will recognize the holster position as reflective of Hardin/Flynn’s.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  The gun-pushers in my town are preparing for their annual “Gun and Knife Show” this weekend. The event is similar to a flea market affair where attendees can haggle, swap and sell guns from pistols to rifles and shotguns, as well as various styles of hunting knives and daggers with artistically modelled handles.
     This, after all, is “the last frontier” where most of the coffee shop conversations are about cattle, horses, boots, thousand-dollar hats, and guns. This morning, in the coffee shop I most often frequent, the fellows at one table were so excited about the upcoming show that I expected one of them to start handing out cigars, such as new fathers do when their wives deliver.
     To help them celebrate, I thought I would write a short-story, which you can read below:

ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ

Mrs. Fopwrangler waited in the foyer of her ranch house for her son to enter from the kitchen, where he was just finishing his cereal.

“Come on now, Jimmy,” she called. “It’s almost time for the school bus, and I want to check out your new school clothes, and I have a surprise for you.”

Jimmy ran to his mother, whom he saw holding a new western belt with a holster latched onto it, and in the holster was a small caliber pistol. It was the gun his father had been teaching him to quick-draw and shoot. He had shot his little sister Elsie in the hand with it a couple of months ago; he hadn’t expected to miss the apple she was holding as his real target. But his parents were more than understanding.

“Don’t give it a second thought, Jimmy,” his father had said. “Doc Leech can fix her up as good as new in no time. Of course, if and when she gets married, she might have to wear her wedding ring on another finger, depending on how effectively Doc Leech reattached the one you hit.”

Today was Jimmy’s first day at school. All the kids were going to be toting their new pistols to school, which the Supreme Court had ruled they have a constitutional right to do. God help the rascal that tries to disarm them.

“But, now, don’t shoot any teachers or the principal, Jimmy,” Mrs. Fopwrangler admonished. “We’ll have to start paying them hazardous duty pay if you kids do that. And they’re already complaining they are underpaid.

“Only shoot armed intruders into the school…or bullies, Jimmy…after you’ve dared them to draw, of course. Gotta be fair, you know. Honestly, not many people are even aware what fair play is anymore! Now here’s your lunch. Get along, cowboy!”

Jimmy stood at the corner for about fifteen minutes. He started to get antsy. Why did he have to go to school, anyway? He figured that everything he needed to know, his pop and mom could teach him…in fact, already had taught him: how to shoot

Finally the bus arrived. The bus driver was some black guy whom Jimmy had never seen before. He was black and he had kept Jimmy waiting fifteen minutes. Jimmy was getting even more irritated; he pressed the palm of his right hand upon the butt of his pistol and gave the driver as steely a blue-eyed glare as any of his cowboy movie heroes had ever mustered.

But the bus driver only smiled and said, “Good morning, Jimmy. Hop in.”

That poured cold water on Jimmy’s heated temper. How did the fellow know Jimmy’s name? What else did he know about him?

After the kids were unloaded at the school, they were arranged in two columns, and little colored ribbons—half of them blue and half red—were pinned to their shirts and blouses. Jimmy got a red ribbon, which pleased him, since in all his six long years he had never liked the color blue. But then the teachers told them that the kids with blue ribbons would be in the “blue bird class” and be called “blue birds”, while those with red ribbons would be called “red birds”. This was to section them off into continuing groups during their first year, one teacher explained, until the teachers could learn their names, and the kids could learn each other’s names.

Jimmy was pleased to see that all the other kids—even the girls—were wearing their holsters, stuffed with pistols; and he was fascinated by the variety of holster designs and presumably calibers of pistols. This looks like it’s going to be a fun day here at school, Jimmy mused. Maybe we’ll have quick-draw competitions. Maybe even some target-shooting.

Well, it did not turn out that way at all. The kids had to sit in stiff-backed chairs with small desks in front of them. They had to memorize numbers and the alphabet. They had to sing songs about America the beautiful and some crazy girl named Clementine who led a bunch of ducks down to a river, tripped on a splinter, fell into the river and drowned. And her boyfriend couldn’t swim, so he didn’t try to save her. This place is loony! thought Jimmy, and he began to get hot under the collar again.

But there was this pretty little red-haired girl sitting across from Jimmy in the next row. He had never seen anything so pretty. Not even his horse. The sight of her sort of made the scene a little less nutsy.

When the bell rang for lunch period, a “blue bird” boy grabbed Jimmy’s lunch sack out of his hand, saying, “I’m bigger than you are, little red bird, and I’m hungrier, too, so I need this lunch more than you do. My dad’s a CEO and we’re one-percenters, so everything we want belongs to us. Got that?”

Jimmy’s eyebrows lowered. His jaw tightened. He was really, really angry. He backed up five paces and held out his right arm.

“Draw!” Jimmy demanded.

The blue bird backed up, too. Even his pistol was bigger. And it had a pearl-inlaid grip.

Both boys fired at the same time. And both missed their intended targets.

The blue bird’s bullet zipped past Jimmy’s ear and hit the vice-principal—who was on his way to prevent the duel—between the eyes.

Jimmy’s bullet also went past his adversary’s ear, ricocheted off a steel fire extinguisher, and hit the red-haired girl in the left side of her chest.

Both boys were taken to the principal’s office, written up with ten detentions each, lectured to about gun-fight protocol, and sent back to their classes.

Meanwhile, all the other students spent the day marveling at what great trick shots those two boys had performed: one right between the vice-principal’s eyes and the other straight into the little red-haired girl’s heart.

Jimmy pondered the situation all day and into the evening. I never got my lunch sack back, he moaned. And I sure am gonna miss that pretty little red-haired girl.

In the darkness of his bedroom, Jimmy quietly sang to himself:
“O my darling, O my darling, O my darling, Clementine!
You are lost and gone forever!
Dreadful sorry, Clementine!”


Of Haircuts and Barbers

Barber cutting hair of mature man

Barber cutting hair of mature man
Source: Getty Images

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Do you have an ideal haircut (or hairdo) style? Have you been able to find a barber or hair-stylist who could create it to your specifications?

I have had such a dream “do” for many years now, ever since I gave up the flat-top of my high school years. Initially, it was patterned after Paul Newman and then after Cary Grant. After ensconcing myself dutifully in the barber’s chair, and after he had chokingly tied a sheet around my neck, I would gurgle, “Make me look like Cary Grant!” The barbers used to take me seriously, although they had no photo of Cary (or, earlier, Paul) to use as a model. A couple of decades ago, however, they began to chuckle. Now I don’t even mention movie stars anymore. Sad to say, my only unintentional reflections are the senators and representatives; it’s not my fault they want to copy me!

Once upon a time, while I was residing in Monahans—a town one-sixth again larger than my present “hometown”—I would drive sixty miles over to Odessa to shop, dine at a cafeteria, drink beer, and get my hair cut. (Odessa has about fourteen times the population of Monahans.) After one of those jaunts I liked my haircut so much that I had my girl-friend of the time photograph me under it; I intended to show that photo to future barbers as the model of what I wanted. I haven’t done so in a long while, but recent experience is pushing me in that direction. (That photo at the top of this page is not of me, by the way, but it is of a man apparently not very far removed from me age-wise…and he looks like a nice enough fellow. But why hasn’t he removed his glasses?)

My first barber in this town was an old-timer who came here in the 1950s, a colorful chap who could relate all the news he had heard in his shop that and the prior days. He was more reliable than the local news media. He retired about six years ago, sold his business to a couple of the women who worked for him, and moved to Central Texas to be near his children and grandchildren.

Then one of his female successors finally obtained her master’s degree in geology and left. Things went downhill: The other partner just did not have her heart in the business; one could never be sure when she would open up, go to lunch, how long she would be out to lunch, or when she would close. I believe she lost a lot of business; anyway she lost me.

My next barber was a woman whose shop was in a retrofitted house on the south side. Her primary appeal for me was that she, at that time, was charging only $10, while almost everybody else was charging at least $14, for cutting a man’s hair. Despite her comparatively low fee, however, she was living high on the hog. Of course, she had a husband who also worked somewhere; but they had a fairly nice middle-class home, and her shop was large enough and well-maintained. She also had a fairly new Cadillac sedan, which I spotted one day through one of her windows, parked beneath an attached carport.

I made the mistake of teasing her about the Cadillac. (I have a terrible habit of teasing waitresses, barmaids, and barberettes. Just terrible!) “You know what?” I said. “You’ve got it made. You cut hair off no telling how many skulls in an hour at ten dollars a whack, and so you can afford a new Cadillac. Say you cut six haircuts in one hour, each one taking up five to ten minutes, at forty hours a week that’s twenty-four hundred bucks a week…not counting the tips that others leave, not I.”

“It’s not enough. I’m going to raise it to fourteen dollars.”

“Oh, don’t do that! I’m a poor boy. The main reason I come here is because your rate fits my billfold.”

“Everybody else in town charges fourteen.”

“Maybe so, but they’re professionals. They’ve gone to barber college.”

She got huffy. “I’ve been doing this for forty years. That’s enough training. I’m a professional.”

Shortly after that conversation, she stopped answering the phone when I called to set an appointment. I started going to one of the fifteen-dollar fellows in town.

There really isn’t much competition in this little hamlet. You have to take what you can get for the price they ask. It’s the same with doctors and auto mechanics.

I try to make it a month between visits to the barber shop for two reasons: the high cost and the frustration.

I’m sure $15 is no significant drain on most of my readers’ pocketbooks, but for me it equals one and a half meals…sometimes two. Consequently, each time my haircut day comes up, I dress in my most worn-out garments to lend a little more evidentiary point to my poor man’s image.

As for the frustration, do you have the same problem that afflicts me: virtually blooming hair-growth about the ears, and strands practically going to seed on the crown? I try to describe to the barber what I want, but without much success. “Looky here,” I say, “Please cut close around the ears but leave enough for people to see there’s hair there…and I want to be able to part my hair…to comb it all over…but I don’t want to look like Bozo the Clown a week from now.”

But what does he do? He trims it close all the way to a 16th of an inch below where the part line is and then clips even more off the top. I bow my head and wish I could cry. Nonetheless, when I get home and comb my hair the next morning, initially brushing it downward toward my eyes, there are three or four center strands that dip down below my eyebrow. I look like a Marine just out of boot camp.

I have not always had a problem with barbers. Hate to say it about my little town here, where I have resided for the past thirteen years, but the problem must have something to do with the amenities. Any really adept barber—just like any other really adept professional—is going to go to, or stay in, a more civilized, cosmopolitan city, if he or she can successfully compete there. Those unable to do so will venture to the hamlets where they do not have to compete…at least not as fiercely.


Foggy-minded Folk

Confused Baby

Photo Credit: Bing Images

2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Last week I pontificated a little bit about fiction’s weak-minded strongmen. That clearly argued delineation of frail heroes, however, did not really cover the entire subject of brawn versus brain. For the brainiacs have their flaws, too.

First, a little full disclosure, as the TV commentators customarily announce.

My parents and some of my teachers early recognized that I had some intellectual gifts, particularly in the arts of writing and drawing. However, they also were perplexed by my weakness in arithmetic, which, because of my embarrassing exhibitions at the blackboard, I grew to hate. In the fifth grade one day, I sat in the arithmetic class and drew a picture instead of working on my assignment. The teacher, walking the aisles, noticed my crime and told me I should be calculating the numbers, not drawing people.

“This is an arithmetic class!” she admonished me sternly.

“I hate arithmetic!” I replied with all the vehemence I could muster.

The teacher ordered me to come to her classroom after the final bell rang that day. I, supposing her intention was to punish me with a detention or worse, mounted my bicycle and rode off to see a movie.

The frustrated teacher sought support from the principal, but I had recently won a city-wide lyrics-composing contest—to a degree highlighting the school—and he was disinclined to discipline me. That night the teacher called my mother and told her that she did not think I was a genius but that I was the most gifted child she had ever seen and yet I was having a severe problem with numbers. She urged Mother to enroll me in a private school where I could receive special attention toward my gifts while also being more directly guided in arithmetic, learning to incorporate the latter with the former as full learning. But Mother could not afford the tuition for a private school; plus, the nearest private school was more than ten miles away, and she could not take me to school and get to her job on time too.

So, I plodded through arithmetic and math courses for the next seven years. Well, you can count that as fifteen when you include college years. I still have a distaste for numbers, especially when some clerk and I are determining how much money I should give her or how much change I have coming.

Over these many years, I have pondered the imbalance among my abilities. Oddly enough, I had a fairly high proficiency rating in acquiring foreign languages, an ability which some psychologists have said involves the same part of the brain adept in math. The only conclusion I could draw was that back in the first and second grades—when we had arithmetic bees as well as spelling bees during class time—I stumbled enough during the former to develop a fear of and then a hatred toward numbers in general. Other than some undetectable missing math-related cells in my brain, that is the only explanation I can see for my disaffection for arithmetic. I am so handicapped in that area now that I almost entirely rely upon calculators in my phone and in my computer to keep my checkbook register accurate.

A more important and unusual aspect of intellectual imbalance that I wish to discuss here, though, is that of the brilliant person who is deficient in common-sense. I first heard about this phenomenon just weeks after graduating from high school. I was visiting a girl next door, a girl I had seen occasionally during the year of my residence there but had never spoken to her: I had had a girlfriend with whom I broke up just before this episode. I was not really trying to start anything with my new acquaintance; she just had invited me over to her house for supper with her and her mother. While we were in the living room after dining, the subject of a boy in her class (she was just starting her senior year) entered the conversation. The girl told her mother that the boy was brilliant but didn’t have any common-sense. My ears perked up because, although I knew she was not describing me, I identified with the boy, and my interest was piqued by the seeming paradox of a brilliant person not having “sense enough to come in out of the rain”. Please pardon the hyperbolic extravagance of that cliché, but it strikes the right note here, for we who are thus afflicted do often find ourselves confounded by the simplest puzzles or social etiquette.

A second such episode entered my life about forty years later, while I was visiting an old lady in Grandfalls, Texas. Her first daughter, in Dallas, had urged me to drive down there and talk to her about reviving the woman’s monthly newspaper. Deep in my heart I knew the project was senseless, at least from an economic standpoint, but I went anyway. When I explained to the old woman what her daughter had dreamed up, she stood astonished for a moment and then swore, “Goddamn it! That girl is brilliant but she hasn’t got any common-sense!” I drove back to Dallas, saddened a little but not surprised really.

Then just a week ago, I was sitting at a table in a local coffee shop with the owner and one of his employees in a contracting business he also operates. I will not name the man they were talking about, but the café-owner said, “That guy might be brilliant and well-educated, but he hasn’t got any common-sense!” That was my cue to mention the episodes I related above, and for several minutes we speculated as to how some people can solve big, technical problems but seem confounded by small, everyday issues.

I am not here discussing idiot savants. Nor are “absent-minded professors” the topic of this essay. No, this is about very smart people who have difficulty in reading the elements of a situation right in front of them, as well as the signals apparent in other people’s faces and movements, until well after the time for appropriate remark or action has passed. We might call them “foggy-minded folk”. And, sad to say, I am one of them.



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