Paul Ruffin's Blog

THROWING AWAY ALL THAT GOOD STUFF, PART III

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: THROWING AWAY ALL THAT GOOD STUFF, PART III

“What we need to do . . . .”

When she is the one saying them, these are frightening words to any man who loves his wife.

There I was, with over forty years’ accumulation of tools and materials, from a John Deere diesel tractor right on down to the tiniest of screws, the kind you use to repair glasses, and here was a woman about to serve as choreographer of a drama that I wanted neither to star in nor watch.

“Do you seriously need another hammer?” “There are already four wrenches like that in the toolbox.” “You wouldn’t use that many screws and nails in another lifetime.” “Why are you going to do with all this lead?” “Screen wire, cyclone fencing, hardware cloth . . . .” “What is left for you to wire? We don’t need all these rolls of wire. And all those electrical boxes and stuff . . . .” “How many power drills do you have? Do you need?” “Are you doing to be using all this reloading equipment?” “What about this duffel bag with softball bats and a glove in it?” “What are we going to do with this big cast-iron bell?” “What is this filthy thing?” (She was holding up a Swiss Army pack that I traveled across Europe with an eternity ago.)

I warrant you that I have not quoted her properly on some of those lines, and I further guarantee you that that is just a fraction of her lines in the play. She has the leading role. I am just the chorus, and I don’t even know the tune.

Gradually over the past month and a half we have been sorting through my working man’s life and determining what to keep, what to throw away, what to give away, and what to sell.

We had a seventeen-cubic-yard dumpster brought in, and it is level full. I have had to use the front-end loader with both bucket and forklift attachment to compact the contents. Still there are things that must be put in it, wedged in wherever there’s a little space.

We haven’t finished one of the outbuildings, and we haven’t touched the greenhouse.

Now both my shops are divided into shelves of stuff that I’ll be keeping and stuff that we will sell at some sort of yard/garage/porch/estate/junk sale in late spring. All my tools have been shifted about and rearranged in orderly fashion by a woman who has no idea how to use a star drill but has a fairly strong feeling that we don’t need two of them. (I hammered holes through stone and concrete for over thirty years with the battered things—they don’t come with the heads flattened out like that. The fact is that I will probably never use one again.)

We gave one of my axes and chainsaws and my “crackerbox” welder to Amber’s father, but I was allowed to keep my acetylene outfit and my MIG welder. I can keep one drill press but need to sell the other. Since I’ll probably never do metal milling and lathe work anymore, my Smithy will have to go, along with attachments galore and all kinds of wonderful brass material I intended to build things out of.

The table saw must go and the radial-arm saw, one of the parts washers, and all my cement-working and tile-laying tools. Two of my Makita drills must go, along with some Craftsman drills and my router with dozens of cutter heads.

We have probably sixty gallons of treated gasoline as backup generator fuel, now of questionable quality, and five-gallon buckets of old oil and transmission fluid to dispose of, with a case of Toyota brake fluid, and dozens and dozens of cans of spray paint, all of which must be taken to a hazardous waste facility for proper disposal.
My fishing equipment, most left over from my days fishing over in the Mississippi Sound, will go into the sale, as will almost everything else that I am likely never to use again.

I have felt a great sadness watching all the things that have been for so long a part of my life go into the dumpster or onto a shelf to be sold, and she knows how I feel about letting them go, but we both agree that I have hung on far too long to most of those things.

The fact is that I am not certain that I will ever walk unassisted again. Even if I do somehow recover to that point, I doubt that I will ever build another building, rewire another house, put on another roof, lay another sprinkler line, rebuild another tractor engine, or cut down and split for firewood another tree. I accept my limitations: I have plenty of compensations.

I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to have done for me most of the things I used to do, and I can always observe and advise, even when that observation and advice are not wanted: “Hey, boss, there’s this guy pushing a rollator around telling me how to fix his stove . . . .”

Oh, sure, in all probability I’ll weld again and reload ammo again, and I will continue to make electrical and plumbing repairs when I think that I can handle the work without doing more damage to my back, and I may even garden again. We have plenty of gym equipment to provide exercise.

Deep down I feel nothing but gratitude to my wife for guiding me through a long-overdue purging of the shop and outbuildings. She has been gracious and understanding, and I think that at times she has actually enjoyed going through the boxes of books and photo albums and old writing. In fact, she ran across the first column I ever wrote for the Item, and she’s found several initial handwritten versions of some of my old stories and poems.

We’ve had to throw away lots of things that we shared earlier in our marriage, but when we agreed that something had to go, it went into the dumpster or onto the sale shelf: first lawn chairs, first bedstead, first Christmas tree (artificial, but with enough grime on the needles that I’m certain a good part of it was alive, first kitchen table). Hey, memories are just as real as wood, plastic, and brass.

We hope to find a smaller place over near the lake and live a simpler life, free of much of the clutter from our old one, though with a sufficient number of tools and adequate DIY materials stashed away to make me still feel useful around the house.

I keep wondering, though, how my tractor is going to look parked in our new living room or den.


THROWING AWAY ALL THAT GOOD STUFF, PART II

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: THROWING AWAY ALL THAT GOOD STUFF, PART II

So there we were, finally in Huntsville, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our little Forest Gates apartment, surrounded by power tools and what little furniture we managed to bring along, minus a bed, with school scheduled to start in a couple of weeks. We did what couple do: we made do.

Well, lo and behold, a few days after we ended up in that particular nest, we got a call about a house an SHSU professor had just vacated, having taken a job elsewhere at the last second, and we were there before the realtor had put up a sign. A few days later, with the English Department moving crew grumbling, my wife and I were camped in an old two-story stone house on Avenue N1/2, just a few blocks from the university. The house itself was big, and there was a two-story carriage house behind it.

The house had been built in 1935, several years after the carriage house, and it had all the modern amenities you’d expect to find in a house of that period that no one had bothered to try to improve. The floors were covered with theater-aisle wool strips (maroon, green, and purple) sewn together to form carpets. Ugly is what. And so imbedded with grit that with a little effort we could have built a sand castle in the living room.

Air-conditioned? Yeah: three window units, two downstairs and one upstairs, and only two in working order. Heat? Yeah: two gas-fired floor furnaces downstairs, and one worked. The carriage house had one window unit and a couple of jets for gas heaters.

Some of the rooms had been sheetrocked, but most had not. The kitchen had planks on the wall and ceiling, with strips of cheesecloth hanging where wallpaper had been stripped away. The cabinets were ancient metal units that someone had generously brushed with brown enamel, using a brush with bristles better designed for a broom.

The main roof on the house was lifetime slate—thank you, Jesus—but composition shingles covered the lower roof in back, and the huge front porch was partially protected by a built-up roof consisting of layers of tarpaper coated with pea-gravel-impregnated tar. The roof on the carriage house likewise had composition shingles, which had been so weathered that I could see the tarpaper underlay in places: It leaked in over two dozen places during our first major thunderstorm.

The wiring in both the main house and carriage house were the old knob-and-tube arrangement, and the breaker boxes were spaghetti bowls of wires with a mixture of fuses and breakers. The plumbing? Oh, good old galvanized half-inch and three-quarter-inch pipes so coated inside with rust and mineral deposits that, had they been arteries, the patient they belonged to would long ago have been dead. The first section I cut open was so clogged that I couldn’t stick a sixteen-penny nail through the middle of it.

In short, after I had had a chance to assess what we had bought, I wondered what kind of fools we were to purchase what obviously was not a fixer-upper but a rebuilder. But I had a PhD and a job and a wife who seemed up to the task to tackling the beast we’d ended up with.

You remember all those tools I told you about in the last column? Well, I was glad to have them. And I wished that I had more. I mean, I knew to build a house and wire and plumb and roof one, but most of my experience was limited to building something new. Here I had to tear down before I could repair and build, and my inventory of tools was woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

I didn’t even have a truck to haul materials, only a VW van. But you make do with what you have. With the hatch open, I could easily haul sheetrock, lumber, stalks of PVC and copper, and half a ton of shingles or wood flooring.

Over the next three decades I completely reworked that old house and carriage house: sheetrocking, wallpapering (with help from my wife), roofing, plumbing, wiring. I built a double-wide, super-deep carport off the front of the carriage house to accommodate my ever-expanding inventory of tools and provide storage space of materials. I even did construction jobs for other people around town.

In time we bought a place in the country, where I ran a small “cattle operation,” meaning “tax break.” This meant more tools of a different kind, primarily agricultural. Then we bought houses on both sides and in front of us, and I set to renovating the two that we kept. More tools, more materials . . . .

Then I got into welding so that I could build a wrought-iron fence out front and bought a cracker-box welder and learned enough to make strong joints, whether they were pleasing to the eye or not. Then I got into metal working and bought a Smithy metal lathe/milling machine. Weighed half a ton.

Then I got into building sidewalks and laying stone around the pool, and that meant a cement mixer and every kind of hand tool in the world to spread and level and finish concrete. And on and on . . . .

Whenever I bought plumbing fittings or electrical supplies, I always bought double, knowing that if I needed a part once, I’d doubtless need it again. Every shelf and every file cabinet in my shop beneath the carriage house and in the carport filled to overflowing. There were times on the weekend when on more than one occasion someone would call and ask me if I might happen to have on hand a particular PVC or copper fitting or electrical part. I usually did.

When I finally drove away from that house in Huntsville, all real estate that we owned now sold, well more than half of my possessions was in the form of tools or building materials, which, thankfully, the outbuildings at the place in Willis could accommodate. Soon every outbuilding was simply brimming with all those tools and materials, which apparently I could not leave home or come home without.

Half of our carport became my shop until in a few years I could have my very own separate Mueller shop building, 24’ x 24’, with running water and a concrete foundation. Oh, yeah. I built an equipment shed of about the same dimensions to stash materials in and bought a big greenhouse kit from Mueller and built it to start plants early and store our gardening and orchard tools and chemicals and fertilizers.

OK, over the eight years that we’ve been here I’ve had to use a lot of those tools and materials, but not enough to make a discernible dent. And that leads us, finally, back to where this whole thing started.

(Next week: I yield to her authority.)


Throwing Away All That Good Stuff . . . .

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: THROWING AWAY ALL THAT GOOD STUFF . . . .

“What we need to do,” she suggested to me one day while we were stumbling around in one of the outbuildings looking for something, “is have a dumpster hauled in here and just throw away most of this stuff.”

No man wants to hear these words, of course, but what she said made sense: I brought down from Huntsville over thirty years’ accumulation of tools and electrical and plumbing supplies and just plain old junk and wedged it in wherever it would go in one of the three outbuildings we had at the time. Any one of my wives, former and present, will tell you that I rarely throw away anything that I figure might at some point in the future be pressed into service. There’ve simply been too many times that I’ve junked something, only to need that precise item a week later.

When I moved to Texas from Mississippi, I hauled over a table saw, drill press, wood lathe, and enough hand tools, electrical and otherwise, to pack the huge U-Haul van I rented. What furniture we had was wedged in the back third of the truck. Clothes and other household items rode in the cab with me or in the VW van with her. I don’t know that any members of SHSU English Department moving crew at the time are around to testify; if they were, they’d tell you all about lugging those power tools up to the second-story apartment we initially rented over in Forest Hills. They were still griping as they drank their post-move beers, and I’m sure they were wondering just what it was they had hired and brought to campus.

See, I spent a good part of my early adult life working all kinds of jobs unassociated with academics—mechanical work, carpentering, roofing, plumbing, electrical work, etc.—and I could rebuild a car engine or build a house from the foundation up. Even when I taught high school English in the Columbus area, I spent my summers on a carpentry crew, doing everything from framing to roofing.

One thing you learn early on when you work on jobs that require tools is that you do not borrow them from other people working on that job. You are expected to buy your own, the exception being large power tools like table saws and radial-arm saws and such, so a fair percentage of the money I earned on those jobs in the early years went into the purchase of tools. Framing hammers, finishing hammers, roofing hatchet/hammer combination, rulers of every kind, handsaw, keyhole saw, level, plumb bob . . . . You get the point: I had to have tools.

These side jobs continued right on through my doctoral work at Southern Mississippi, where I worked year-round with a handyman who would tackle any job from leveling a house to rebuilding a truck engine, and what I didn’t know about those jobs, I learned by doing. Herman was his name-o. And Herman expected me to have every tool I needed stashed somewhere in my VW Beetle. That meant more tools to buy, you see, because different jobs required different tools, and Herman never turned down any job, no matter how difficult or nasty, and he’d sooner loan you a kidney than a hammer.

I even started up my own side job: building spice racks and shadow boxes and what-nots. I used my hand tools for the most part, but the day I sawed into the arm of a chair provided in the little one-bedroom apartment I lived in (with my wife at the time), I decided that the time had come to invest in some heavier equipment. I mean, you can do just so much just so fast with hand tools.

Sooooo, I went down to Sears and bought a table saw, had it delivered, and set it up in the living room of that tiny apartment. Oh, that saw was big and noisy, and there were complaints, and I had to vacuum up the sawdust every couple of days, but I had my own little factory right there.

When I got my PhD, and I took a job with the English Department at Mississippi State, my tools went with me, right up into the attic of the old house we rented in Columbus. I set up shop there, bought more big tools, and started building special-order furniture for people: tables, cabinets, bookshelves, stuff like that. I even built an elaborate jewelry case for a store in the local mall.

My father-in-law (at the time) and I fished a lot in the Gulf, and I was forever hauling pieces of mahogany home, mostly beams kicked off ships that had used them for stacking purposes but didn’t want to have to lug back to their home ports. I’d rip them on my table saw and sand them down and build all kinds of things with them, including a huge gun cabinet for my father-in-law and a family-size table with benches for ourselves.

When I was hired by the University of South Carolina the next year, I concluded that I would just sell off my tools and get on with my academic life, but you know that thing about best-laid schemes of rats and guys going squirrelly . . . .

South Carolina was going through some economic house cleaning at the time, and their legislature put a freeze on hiring and yanked my contract, which apparently was legal for them to do. So there I was, with no job prospects and only my adjunct position at Mississippi State and my shop to sustain us. Needless to say, I was happy that I had not sold off my tools.

Yeah, I know that this is getting long in the tooth, but it ain’t a sonnet.

A friend of mine brought me an ad for the position at SHSU, and Jim Goodwin, Chair of English at the time, had me out for an interview.

However, I’d been burned by the South Carolina job, so I decided that just in case I got word when I got to Texas that the legislature had put a freeze on hiring, I’d take my shop with me. It’s that once burnt on the butt, twice shy about getting burnt on the butt thing, you know . . . .

You can see why I arrived in Huntsville with more tools than furniture. Next week I’ll explain to you how I ended up with even more. Eventually I’ll get back to where I started this thing. I promise you that I’m not really writing a book here. Maybe a couple of chapters . . . .


TIME FOR THE GREEN-BEAN CASSEROLE

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: TIME FOR THE GREEN-BEAN CASSEROLE

Actually, anytime is time for a green-bean casserole, even if it hasn’t earned a ranking in the major Southern food groups: you know, bacon, mayonnaise, watermelon, deviled eggs, etc. But during the holidays, the GBC is almost without fail going to be somewhere in the spread.

The SHSU English Department had its annual Thanksgiving luncheon last week, and among the list of needed dishes was the GBC, which I went ahead and signed up for, only to be advised by return email that someone had already agreed to make one. Frankly, I was a bit relieved, because I’m already charged with making two of them for Thanksgiving, along with a couple of dozen deviled eggs, and this boy takes pain with both dishes.

Look, anyone can throw together a GBC. All you have to do is buy a can of French’s Onion Rings, and the recipe on the back will lead you gently home. But it is a pale, distant citified cousin that you’ll be bringing to the table.
You gotta start with the green beans, and canned ones are probably better for this dish than frozen or fresh ones. They’re already cut up, for one thing, and they’ve been processed in their own juices. They’re cheap and easy to fool with. I buy Libby’s Organic Green Beans (14.5-ounce cans) by the case from Amazon and French’s Fried Onion Rings (6-counce containers) by the case from Walmart Online, so we always have those major ingredients on hand.
I also usually have ham shanks in the freezer too. Yeah, that got your attention, didn’t it? What do ham shanks have to do with GBC? Specifically, a hell of a lot.

These are not just shanks you buy at Kroger: those nasty, brown, shriveled cellophane-wrapped things that look more like a pig ankle or snout and have just enough edible meat on them to keep a small colony of ants happy for a couple of hours, if they would eat one at all.

Here’s a tip, Southerners: Go to Amazon and order some Burgers’ Smokehouse ham shanks, which come typically in six one-pound packages, already shrink-wrapped for freezing. Folks, these are three or four nice one-inch slices of hickory-smoked ham ends with puh-lenty of ham showing. There’s enough skin there for flavor, and the bone is still in.

The night before you fix your GBC, drain your beans and stash them in the refrigerator. Take the liquid from the cans and add it to a couple of quarts or water, more or less, and stir in a teaspoon of Better Than Boullion chicken-stock paste and kick the heat on. Then add your one-pound package of ham shanks and boil away for an hour or so, then simmer for another couple of hours. Kill the heat and leave the boiler on the stove, covered or not, until the next morning.
OK, cometh the morn. Bring your shanks up to boil again, then strain the liquid into another boiler. (Press and strain until almost all the liquid is out.) Now, add your drained green beans to that juice and bring them up to boil, then turn down the heat and simmer them for thirty minutes or so. (You don’t want to cook them to the point of mushiness.)
Meanwhile, go through that stuff in the strainer and pick out the little pieces of ham. Shred it as you go so that you don’t have any big chunks. You’ll be surprised at how much ham those shanks will yield. Set the ham aside for later.
OK, by now those green beans will have absorbed an astonishing degree of goodness from the liquid you’ve just cooked them in, so pour them into a colander and drain them well, allowing the enzymes down the sewer line to enjoy a bit of Thanksgiving too.

Now we’re ready to assemble the GBC and pop it in the oven.

Have on hand a well-buttered rectangular (oblong, for you folks who didn’t do well in geometry) Pyrex dish large enough (two-quart, better too large than too small) to accommodate the ingredients and set about mixing them. In a large stainless-steel bowl, pour in a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup (10 ¾ ounce), 2/3 cup of heavy cream (forget that watery 2% or skimmed milk or even whole milk), the beans, a couple of good dashes of soy sauce, black pepper to suit your taste, and about two thirds of a container of the French’s onions. Finally add the shredded ham that you set aside and stir it in.

While you’re mixing all these ingredients, have your oven heating on Bake to 350 degrees, the proverbial temperature that ovens just automatically go to if you don’t make them do otherwise. (There’s probably a federal law involved there somewhere.)

When you’re through mixing and the oven has beeped that it’s to temp, slide the casserole onto a rack and let’r go for thirty minutes, by which time it will be bubbling and carrying on.

Slide it out and stir everything well, and then sprinkle the remainder of the onions evenly over the top and slide’r back in for another five to ten minutes. Just take care that the onions on top don’t char on you. You want them nice and brown but not burnt.

There you have it, folks: Ruffin’s Ham-by-Damn GBC. A little aside here: If you want to dice up some Nueske’s thick-sliced bacon and add a little kick to the ham, do it. The only thing better than a little pork is a little more pork.
Nope, this is not an effete low-cal, low-fat, low-taste dish for members of the family who live out in California, where such food has to be eaten hunkered down behind closed doors with the lights off. This is the kind of thing most genuine Southerners grew up eating. Or should have.


THE HAZARDS OF PUSHING A WOMAN TOO FAR

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: THE HAZARDS OF PUSHING A WOMAN TOO FAR

“OK,” I said, “throw the damned thing in the fire.”

What happened over the next few seconds seemed later like a scene from a domestic comedy, though at the time I was simply in shock. I looked over, and she was holding the board in one hand and wrestling with the fireplace screen with her other.

“Just grab that little black handle,” I told her, “the one on the right, and slide the screen open to the right. It might be a little hot, so be careful. Wouldn’t want you to burn yourself.”

And then, quick as a wink, the Scrabble board was behind the back log and blazing.

She did it. She threw the board into the fireplace. SHE BURNED OUR SCRABBLE GAME! Wordless, I motioned to the bag of wooden squares, the ones she’d dumped from the board and the ones we hadn’t used. She snatched them up and shook them out over the fire, where they caught immediately, but the smoke didn’t spell anything that made sense to me. She threw the plastic bag in a trash can, along with the box the game had come in. (She told me later that she wasn’t sure about the fumes that the plastic might generate. See how considerate she is?)

OK, I told her to. Big deal. I say lots of stupid stuff I don’t mean, usually when I’m mad or just in a bad mood or when I’ve gone one sip over the line.

But a little background here, lest you believe that my woman is a pyromaniac at worst, a little insensitive at best. In this case she was neither.

Women are different. I know that’s a pretty profound declaration, and most would regard it as unnecessary to say anyway, since any fool who ever grew up a boy comes to that conclusion pretty early on and never loses sight of the fact. I mean, really different, though, sometimes in downright spooky ways. Or maybe I am suffering another kind of gender confusion.

Whatever, when Amber came into my life for good, and we’ve been married a lot of years now, we had to learn to take the time, exercise patience, and practice adequate humility to accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses without feeling superior or inferior when one of us trumped the other. She would argue with God or Satan and give either a run for His/Her money, so I discovered very early in our relationship that I’d better make certain that whatever I said to her made sense. I mean, if I left a millimeter of an opening, she zero in on it. I don’t regard it as a fault: I regard it as Amber being Amber.

But let me get back to this Scrabble story. Maybe it’s a parable. I don’t know. But I learned a lot from it.

She had never played Scrabble much, and I had played quite a bit, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to assert my dominance in at least that one arena right away. The fact was that at that point no one had ever beaten me in Scrabble. And, yes, I had played people other than my kids.

OK, at first it was a breeze. I beat her several games in a row. But she took defeat gracefully, which had to be really hard for her, picked herself up out of the dust and brushed herself off and came at me again. And again. And again.

Then I noticed that the scores were getting tighter. “Just gotta concentrate a little more,” I told myself and went on playing with her.

Then, lo, one night she beat me. Not by much. But she beat me. “OK, that was a fluke,” I whispered to my bruised ego.

But then she was beating me one out of four times, then one out of three, then half the time. She developed an uncanny ability to use up every square every play, for which you get an extra fifty points. She’d study the letters a while with that analytical mind of hers whirring away, move them around this way and that in front of her, and then they’d be on the board, every bloody one of them, just about every time.

Before I realized what was happening, I was about to be shipped back to the minors. I couldn’t beat her! Oh, now and again I’d manage to edge her out, and one night I hammered her really hard and gloated for nearly twenty-four hours before she busted me back.

[Next week I’ll return to the story of how my wife burned our Scrabble game.]

I became more and more difficult to play with, because I just don’t lose well. I never have. I like to win! I play games by the rules, and I try hard, and I expect to win. If I discover that I can’t play a game well enough to win, I just quit playing it. Like tennis, which I never was any good at. Or golf, which I’ve never tried, because I know I don’t have the time to learn how to win at it. That’s why I won’t play the lottery. I tried it. I played by the rules: I bought the tickets, and I religiously checked the numbers. I did everything right, but I couldn’t win (well, maybe three bucks on a few occasions), so I quit.

In short, there are just too many games in life that you can excel at without making yourself miserable engaging in those that require more time than you are willing to put into them to do little more than get by with mediocre results.

BUT I WAS GOOD AT SCRABBLE. Nobody had ever beaten me, which meant that I COULD have been the world champ, and now she was trouncing me relentlessly. It’s her downright spooky ability to use up every letter almost every time, getting those fifty-point bonuses. I’d manage it pretty often, but she was doing it almost every time.

As I say, I got harder to play with. But the night the Scrabble board lit up in Willis, we were having a good time, so I agreed to play, and I promised beforehand (as I always do) that I wouldn’t get too serious, wouldn’t get mad if she beat me, wouldn’t be grouchy for the next ten or twelve hours.

We set the game up on the floor before the fireplace and started playing. Things went fine for a while. I was having a little whiskey along and enjoying the early hands, mainly because I knew that with a few good hands I could catch up. I drew a couple of unbelievably bad hands and then found myself with seven consonants on my tray. Not a single vowel! There are a hundred letters in the game, and forty-two of them are vowels, and I did not have a single one. Oh, I could make a three-letter word playing off one of the vowels on the board, but you don’t run up the score very fast playing like that. Not a chance under the sun that I’d be getting a fifty-point bonus anytime soon, but she kept getting one just about every hand. No shortage of vowels for her. I needed a miracle, and I didn’t get it.

So I got tacky. Mainly I just got mad at whatever gods control the game of Scrabble, because they sure weren’t favoring me. They had dumped on me. I announced that I was through for the night and that I wasn’t playing Scrabble ever again, one of those sophisticated adult announcements that always make things right between a man and woman. So she said fine and picked the board up and slid the squares back into their little bag. That’s when I told her to throw it on the fire. And that’s when she did, along with the letters.

I went to bed mad, still not believing that she burned our game (even if I did tell her to). Sometime during the early morning hours I woke up and replayed the whole scene, and suddenly I found it hilarious, watching her fling that board and bag of letters into the fire. I began laughing, jiggling the whole bed. She woke up and asked me what was so funny, and I told her.

“You didn’t think it was funny at the time,” she said.

“It wasn’t then. It is now. The lesson I have learned is not to push a woman too far, or she might throw your things in it.”

If she got the pun, she didn’t let on. “Promise me you won’t burn my grandfather clock or guns or tractor or truck.”

“Behave yourself,” she said, “and I won’t. Unless you tell me to.”

(We were in Barnes and Noble a couple of months later, and I told her I wanted to buy another Scrabble set, one of those fancy ones with a rotating board with little dividers so that you can’t knock the letters out of position. [The one she burned was cheap.] She shook her head NO. For some reason she had lost her enthusiasm for Scrabble, just when I figured was about to get good at it again. Fersher.)


MR. PATE SPEAKS ON BULLS AND HOGS

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: MR. PATE SPEAKS ON BULLS AND HOGS

My long-time friend Bob Winship and I are sitting on Mr. Pate’s front porch in Segovia, about an hour-and-a-half west of San Antonio. watching the sun do its thing yet again, dropping down over the canyon wall to the west and letting the valley fill slowly with the soft purple of night. Soon it will be level full, brimming like a cup, time for us to head back to Winship’s Rock Pile Ranch and one of Shirley’s world-class casseroles.

Off beyond a thicket of mesquite I can see two young men trying to drive a bull toward the gate that will admit him to Mr. Pate’s cows running back in the brush–the borrowed bull has been brought in to service them. The bull gets to visit several times a year. Mr. Pate says he seems not to mind the short trot from a neighboring ranch across the road.

“You boys be careful now,” the old man yells out. “He gon’ get spooky when you try to run him thoo that gate.”

He turns to us. “Been here Lord only knows how many times–crosses the plywood they lay down on the cattle gap without no more trouble than a sheep, but when they get him to thatere main gate, he starts acting up. Ever time.”

“Maybe he’s just excited,” I say.

“Or too proud to round up the ladies,” Winship puts in. “Thinks they ought to come to him.”

The guys manage to shoo him through without incident and the bull heads off toward the line of hills to the south.

“Got two in heat right now,” Mr. Pate says, “several more due in the next couple of weeks, so the old boy’s over for a real party.”

Winship smiles. “And didn’t even bring flowers. That’s what lack of competition will do for you.”

“Ayup,” the old man says, “and ain’t gotta take’m out to eat neither. Ain’t got to ride’m around town in a fancy car. All he’s gotta do is show up.”

I can’t not get into it. “Probably didn’t even take a shower or brush his teeth.”

We sit there in silence a few minutes. Then I say, “Speaking of bulls and parties, they’re having a ball on Wall Street right now. The Dow was up over two hundred points today. Nasdaq’s headed up.”

Mr. Pate settles back in his chair. “They been partying a lot lately. Which is fine, long as I ain’t got any money on the table.”

“He’s not into stocks right now,” Winship points out. “Says only a fool would be in right now.”

“How’s that, Mr. Pate?”

He looks at me. “Because everything’s overpriced is why. It ain’t one compny in a hunderd right now that has a P/E ratio that looks even half reasonable. Got a national debt that stretches to the moon and back”

I look over at Winship. “Bob, he’s talking national debt and P/E ratios. This man’s a market scholar.”

“No, I ain’t a scholar of nothin’, but I know when something’s too high priced. I mean, a man that seen a house that was three times higher than the market says it ought to be or a car that had a sticker price three times book value would just laugh and walk on. But folks is chasing stocks like there ain’t a book value on’m and like there ain’t no tomar. The little guys are out there jus chunkin’ money into them mutual stock funds, and the managers have got to spend it on stocks, so everbody’s chasing the same flock of geese, and that means that the price keeps going up and up on’m, and the geese is still the same old geese, with the same old meat and feathers, just waddlin’ along gettin’ more expensive ever day.”

“So he’s out completely,” Winship says.

“You bet your sweet aspidistra I am.” The old man’s getting agitated now. “Them damned day traders start everthing early, get the prices goin’ up, the little man joins in a little later and runs the price even higher, then the day traders will sell later in the day or maybe the next day. Then the little man will get scared and sell and drop the price and the day traders will start the whole thing over again. Ain’t nobody complainin’ because the day traders are making a big killing off the little guy but the little guy is makin’ more than he would in money market funds. The guys settin’ on the sidelines get to thinkin’ that maybe they’re missin’ out on somethin’ good, so they finally start kickin’ in and drive the prices even higher.”

“So you’re not running with the bulls?”

He gives me a stern, wise look. “No sir. Not no more than I’d go out and pay half a million dollars for a Ford pickup. Far’s I’m concerned, this market is like a piece of wire that has been stretched and bent and rebent–one of these days it’s gon’ break, sure’s we’re settin’ on this front porch. And I don’t intend to lose a dime when it does. The downside potential is much greater than the upside.”

“Sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, Winship.”

“He probably does.”

“I don’t know whether I do or not. But I’ll tell you this much: The bull you seen goin’ thoo that gate a minute ago knows where he’s goin, and he knows what’ll be waitin’ for him when he gets there. Them bulls on Wall Street are headed for the edge of a cliff, and they runnin’ blind.”

“How about commodities, Mr. Pate?”

He gives me his wise look again. “Not on your life. They even riskier than stocks. If I put money in anything, it’d be in pecans and catfish, but I don’t think they’re listed. If I wanted to lose money on soybeans and corn, I’d be growin’m.”

“Pork bellies?”

“Not a chanch. Cows neither. It’s OK to run a few on the place for the tax break, or keep a couple of hogs on hand to slaughter, but they people out there throwin’ big money at hogs and cows that ain’t ever been near a live one. Wouldn’t know it if they stepped in it, if you know what I mean.”

“So hog futures aren’t for you?”

He’s been working on a piece of venison jerky for the longest, gumming it–I saw him slide his teeth into his shirt pocket. He stops his jaws and leans forward in his chair.

“Son,” he says quietly. “What kind of future do you think yer average hog has?”

On the way back to the Rock Pile we are walking in total darkness. Bullbats are swooping around us, climbing, falling with that weird sound they make, then flaring and climbing again.

“You know, Winship, Monday I think I’ll take out what little bit I’ve got left in the market. The old man may be onto something.”

“Maybe, maybe not. But he’s right about two things.”

“What’s that?”

“The blissful immediate future of that bull back there.” He walks without speaking for almost a full minute. His boots are crunching in the loose caliche at the edge of the road.

“And the other?”

“The dismal long-range future of your average hog.”


Women and Their Weapons

by pauldruffin

ON WOMEN AND THEIR WEAPONS

[Having been married to three women, I have had ample opportunity to observe the many weapons they wield in their ever-pressing battle against time. This actually happened when I was married to my second wife. Amber, my third, conducts minimal but adequate maintenance.]

“I kinda like that new lotion,” I say to her as we prepare for bed. She’s in the dressing area rattling bottles and things. Women have a ritual they go through getting ready to dream, and
though I’ve watched it over and over, I still don’t understand it.

“What new lotion?”

“That apricot-smelling lotion, the new stuff. It’s unlike anything you’ve bought before.”

She’s poked her head through the doorway. She’s looking down at me. “What lotion?”

“Smell my arm.” I hold it up to her.

She leans and inhales. “That’s not lotion.”

“It’s in a lotion bottle, with the pump and all. Looks like lotion. Why is it not lotion?”

“Because it’s something else. It’s a smoothing serum that I use on my hair to keep it in place. It just happens to be in a bottle with a pump. You can get lots of things that way, probably even Go-Jo. Would you smear Go-Jo on your arms?”

“No, I would not. A smoothing serum? You wanta explain that?”

“Yes. It makes hair behave, and it helps hide the gray.”

“I haven’t seen any gray.”

“There you go,” she says.

“OK,” I say. I’m thinking, Wonder why they put it in a lotion bottle? But I don’t say anything.

When you bother to examine the area of the bathroom where a woman maintains herself, what you’ll find is a vast panorama of tools and fluids, powders and creams–a virtual body shop, as it were. There’ll be every size brush for applying the stuff that they put on, two or three sizes of scissors and tweezers, little sandpaper boards, indefinable implements designed to push back or pull out or lay over to the side or curl or straighten. It’s like they’ve assembled here all that is necessary to correct what they judge to be Nature’s mistakes or preserve the things She’s done right.

A man, though–ho, all he wants to do is keep his teeth and hair, make himself reasonably presentable to the public, and not smell beyond that point necessary to establish the fact that he is male. So he has his toothbrush, toothpaste and floss, his hair brush, shaving equipment, and a low-potency underarm deodorant. When time comes to bushhog his nostril hair, he just borrows scissors from his wife, a pair small enough to get up in there but strong enough for the job. When he gets ready to travel, he can throw all his toiletries into a quart-size ziplock, with room left over, while the wife fills up a make-up case not much smaller than the footlocker he had at the end of his bunk in the Army, and then she’ll have to kneel on it to close it, and he knows to stand back when they get where they’re going and she has to open it.

Some men may have a bit more in the bathroom, but not much. I’m bare-bones about such matters myself. Everything is strictly utilitarian. I don’t wear aftershave, so I don’t even have fancy bottles of green or blue or purple stuff with a name like Glandios or Multi-Musk or High Testosterone. Back in a far corner of the cabinet there are a few old bottles of colognes people have given me over the years–I’m too cheap to throw them away–but I’m not sure they smell the way they’re supposed to anymore. I don’t intend to find out.

The only exotic item I have in our bathroom is a device that looks like a rolling pin, except that instead of a long, smooth, solid roller between the handles this thing has a series of narrow rubber rollers with depressions cast in them. It’s a back massager, and it hangs on the wall in there, just as it did long years ago in a bathroom in Piran, Yugoslavia, before the guys who owned the flat gave it to me as a souvenir. It has hung there since we last painted the wall. The only time I used it on my wife, a couple of decades ago, she said it felt like a rolling pin and I asked just how she would know that–who’d rolled her with a rolling pin, you know, my curiosity up and all–and she said nobody, but that’s the way she figured one would feel, and that was the end of its brief American career. It simply gathers dust and provokes an occasional query.

But back to women and their battle with time. We must not fault these blessed creatures for summoning their grand array of weaponry against that dark, inimical force of time. They do what they can in the war we all must lose. I long ago gave up any notion of putting up much of a fight. And it shows.


ON THE CALIFORNIA MUDSLIDES

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: ON THE CALIFORNIA MUDSLIDES

Well, the wildfires seem to be on the wane in California, but when the fire stops, can mudslides be far behind? Seems they don’t get closure on one disaster before they’ve got another one. There are those who just figure God’s punishing those folks for being Californians, but I don’t buy that line: He wouldn’t be that gentle. Something there is, though, that doesn’t love people who build their homes out there on those slopes, that sends the annual mudslides. And I doubt that it is elves.

I have been pondering this calamity a lot lately, and one question that I find particularly troublesome is why do these people keep building homes where the mudslides are apt to occur? How many times do you have to witness this particular disaster before you realize that if you build on one of those slopes, the likelihood is that sooner or later the mud’s gonna get you? Is it defiance of nature, a misunderstanding of simple physics, garden-variety stupidity, or what? The construction companies who build the houses must know the potential danger, but they don’t care: They know that when the mud mows the houses down, somebody’s going to get to rebuild them. Building on the slopes is just good business for them. I feel deeply for these homeowners, but I want to yell at them, “Build your houses someplace else!” (But hope springs eternal on a slope.)

It’s the same thing I want to say to those people who continue to build in the thirty-day Trinity River flood plain and then seek federal relief when their houses get washed away: “Build someplace else! The river’s been doing that since forever got kick-started, and you figure it’s ever gonna quit? Rivers do what they do: When you overload them, they FLOOD.”

I grew up in a Mississippi flood plain, and I know about flood and mud. The question that troubles me is WHERE DOES ALL THAT MUD COME FROM? OK, granted, from the slopes, the hilltops, but how does it keep coming? Isn’t there just so much mud that can slide off a slope before you’re down to bare rock? Look, according to scientific calculations, it takes nature roughly a century to create one inch of topsoil, so over a year nature would produce only one-hundredth of an inch of soil in a given region, not enough to send a housewife scurrying to wipe it off a coffee table. What’s sweeping away, into, over, around, and through California houses looks like one or two to ten feet of goo, so we can assume that what we’re watching is not new mud. And it happens just about every year.

There can’t be an inexhaustible supply of mud on a hilltop. Maybe in a valley you’d have enough to bury California homes annually ad infinitum, but if it’s in a valley, it is in a bowl and not likely to spill over, and who’d be fool enough to build in such a bowl anyway? This cannot be true on a slope: Mud–like other things, we gratefully remind our neighbor at the foot of the street we live on–does not run uphill. Once it is washed off the slope, it is off the slope. “What goes up must come down” does not work the opposite way. What goes down is likely to stay there. (There are exceptions, thankyouJesus. I am speaking of the stock market, in case the lewd-minded are wondering.)

A parallel question is what happens to all that mud that slides down? Sure, some washes away in the streams, but you know Californians wouldn’t tolerate that for long, since it clouds their clear rivers and turns murky the sparkling Pacific.

Here’s an idea: They just scoop it up and haul it back up there on the slopes and dump it. Makes sense, if you really think about it. Californians are heavily into recycling, and there’s no reason to believe that they would make an exception for mud. Mud is a natural resource, and it would be socially irresponsible to stand idly by and watch it wash away.

Far more likely than the recycling explanation is this: That mud must be a natural habitat for small creatures like salamanders (mudpuppies, that is). If environmentally sensitive Californians thought that that movement of mud was displacing so much as one single-parent family of salamanders, don’t you know that they would be committed to taking the habitat back up the hill? (If I may borrow and alter slightly former Huntsville City Councilman Bill Knotts’s famous remark about an unkempt lot belonging to George Russell: One man’s mud is another man’s mudpuppy habitat.) Four thousand dumptruck trips up that road and the mudpuppies are back in business on top and the construction companies are throwing up new houses along the slopes. (See, it makes good economic sense too.)

However all this happens to our California brethren and sistren, whether it is God’s punishment for them or some sort of manmade perpetuation, let’s just hope that mudslides don’t catch on like their notions on education and become popular all across the country. Their educators have buried us for years under great rivers of what looks an awful lot like mud but has a decidedly different odour.


Was Emily Mad, or Merely Angry?

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: WAS EMILY MAD, OR MERELY ANGRY?

[This week I continue with another piece of literature scholarship.]

Over the years I have taught a number of undergraduate and graduate courses in which I spent some time on the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Now, ED strikes students different ways, Some view her as odd but pleasant, and most seem interested more in Emily the Person than Emily the Poet, this in spite of the fact that, as several students have pointed out, her poems are very short and many can be sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” Why this latter characteristic should loom large would be beyond me, but for my acceptance of the fact that most of my students have been from Protestant households and know and love the hymn beat the way they do the rhythm of their own hearts. I do too.

It is a fact that many of our poets practice eccentricity, since such behavior hints at genius, whether it is there or not, Usually it isn’t, Emily Dickinson did not practice: She was eccentric, A graduate student said to me one time, after we had finished analyzing a poem of hers titled “I felt a funeral, in my brain” (actually the first line of the poem–Dickinson provided no titles): “This is one of the strangest poets I’ve ever been exposed to, Was she simply nuts?” I do not recall my answer.

Interest in Emily Dickinson the woman and Emily Dickinson the poet has surged and waned over the past hundred years, but at no point since the 1920s has she or her poetry been in any danger of disappearing from the literature texts. Indeed, given the fact that she is universally embraced by almost every school of criticism, the prospects of her continued prominence as one of the few representative American poets of the 19th Century seem virtually assured. Like the Bible, her work can be interpreted almost any way that you wish to fit your particular agenda, whether you are Freudian, feminist, Marxist, or of a more conventional tribe.

One of the most controversial pieces published recently on Dickinson is psychiatrist John F. McDermott’s “Emily Dickinson Revisited: A Study of Periodicity in Her Work,” which appeared in May of 2001 in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

In this article McDermott concludes, after conducting a meticulous study of her letters and poetry, that Dickinson suffered from a broad range of mental problems, including agoraphobia (fear of open or public places), “seasonal depression,” and bipolar disorder. He bases these diagnoses on her patterns of creativity and social behavior at different times in her life.

What is unusual here is not that a psychiatrist has attempted to diagnose mental disorders in a writer long since dead–this has been done a number of times–but that McDermott rendered his analysis after applying the codes of what is referred to as the modern psychiatrist’s diagnostic bible, the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition [now available in a 5th Edition]), a complex publication listing both alphabetically and numerically all known mental disorders, complete with symptoms and diagnostic criteria. This is presumably the first time that a posthumous diagnosis of one of our writers has been made through the application of the codes of the DSM.

McDermott’s conclusions have, of course, been discounted by the feminists, who prefer to believe the focus should remain on Dickinson’s talent and perseverance and hard work. Why are the women always being picked on, when madness must surely have been at work in the creative production of many male artists? Why must men be portrayed as superior enough to rise above their mental problems to produce their art while the creative genius of women is the result of their madness? But take any random group of literary critics and have them sit in a room and discuss Emily Dickinson, and the only thing you’ll find them agreeing on is the fact that Emily Dickinson is dead, and even then a couple of them will insist on DNA evidence before concurring with that conclusion.

Doubtless this will not be the last of our writers to be psychoanalyzed through the application of the DSM codes, James Morris’s DSM-IV Made Easy lays everything out so clearly that the layman might well render his own diagnoses with a fair degree of accuracy. I recently ordered the book from Amazon and set about trying to analyze some eccentric poets I know. My conclusion is that most of them are not mad at all, only angry at and disappointed with themselves, and most are suffering from profound self-loathing, for good reason.


ON THE DEATH OF E. A. POE

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: ON THE DEATH OF E. A. POE

[We English professors are expected to publish articles about literature, so here’s one I wrote a few years ago.]

Back in 1996 the theory was advanced that Edgar Allen Poe died of rabies. All those notions of his perishing from alcoholism or drug overdose or some other sort of self-abuse have been superseded.

According to Dr. R. Michael Benitez, a cardiologist, Poe died in a Baltimore hospital from rabies four days after his admission. Since Dr. Benitez’s office is only a block from Poe’s alleged grave, within shouting distance, who would know better?

Benitez has not admitted, of course, that the guy in the grave has told him anything about this rabies angle. The good doctor is basing his diagnosis, as he should, on the symptoms associated with the case: the patient was comatose the first day of his admission to a Baltimore hospital, perspired heavily the next day and hallucinated and yelled at imaginary companions, experienced a slight recovery the following day, then lapsed into confusion and belligerence and eventually died on the fourth day. Further, the patient refused alcohol and had difficulty drinking water. Benitez and a Bankok-based physician, Dr. Henry Wilde, argue that these are classic symptoms of rabies. (Come to think of it, I’ve suffered those same symptoms after dealing with my two kids on a long weekend, except that the companion I yelled at was very real and yelled back and I didn’t turn down alcohol.)

Hey, if you really accept the idea that the patient under discussion was Poe, it is
easy enough to believe that he might have had rabies. He was awfully fond of black birds–ravens, vultures, condors, etc. (and recall that he is supposed to have died in Baltimore, home of the Orioles, a black bird who had some stray genes passed along from an ancestor’s chance encounter with a cardinal in St. Louis [I'm just speculating here])–so it’s quite conceivable that somewhere along the line he was attracted to a rabid bat on the sidewalk, picked it up, fondled it, got nipped, and developed the disease. Maybe. Maybe not. Coulda been a black cat that nailed him. And there is the report, though unsubstantiated, that this mysterious patient made some remark about “the hair of the dog that bit him,” which you can’t just automatically dismiss as figurative. What I’m saying is that if you can swallow the notion that it was Poe who died in that Baltimore hospital, the rabies bolus is not big enough to choke on.

It’s a big deal these days to make long-range diagnoses. If there’s any question at all about the nature of the death of the famous, wealthy, noble, or notorious, somebody’s going to come along now and again with a new theory, a fresh diagnosis. If there are no eye-witness accounts, documented evidence (you know, like a signed statement: “I seen the freight train run right over him–sounded just like a tornader–and lop his feet off onto one side of the tracks and his head off th’other”), then these people leave their deaths open to interpretation. Who knows what heroic dimensions the death of Elvis might swell to in a hundred years? While all along we believed he died ignominiously while straining at a very ordinary stool, fools that we are, our grandchildren will live to learn from some persistent physician that Elvis was a CIA operative killed by a Russian spy who substituted The King’s Metamucil with fine-ground Gummy Bears in orange juice, which is just as lethal to the gastro-intestinal tract as quick-set cement.

But I’m getting tangential here. Let’s get back to this Baltimore case, about which I have my own theory. You will note that listed among the patient’s symptoms is his refusal to take alcohol. That, folks, is the clincher for me. They had the wrong man. It is reported, remember, that “Poe” was wearing another man’s clothes when he was found. No, he wasn’t. The guy was wearing his own clothes. It just wasn’t Poe inside of them. Think about it: It is a fact that Edgar Allan Poe never refused alcohol in his life.

According to a friend of mine, an American literature specialist teaching at a Kansas university, Poe saw in all this confusion at the hospital an opportunity to duck out of public view and do what he had wanted to do all his life: run a sandwich shop. This scholar, who has supportive evidence from a Miami stockbrocker named Leonard Thurlo, is convinced that Poe swore off writing as a Satanic enterprise, married a fourteen-year-old former prostitute named Rowena Sawshank, and spent the rest of his days in an obscure section of Chicago selling an oblong sandwich that he invented. Though the submarine sandwich is reputed to have originated in New York, and a version of it may have, the first Poe Boy (later abbreviated to Po-Boy) was eaten on the streets of Chicago.

Edgar Allan Poe was run over by a train in Birmingham, Alabama, on August 15, 1889, while visiting one of his children–Jethro, his youngest son, married to Ambrosia Gertrude Bierce, but this genealogy is to cross purposes, so I’ll curtail it. He was buried in Owl Creek, Alabama, Rowena’s hometown. Go there sometime and see the slab for yourself in the city cemetery. It’s the one with RIP-EAP stamped at one end, and just below it is a trail of cat tracks where one walked across it before the cement had dried.

All this is true. My friend in Kansas has the papers.


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