Sunday, July 31, 2011

Grease Trap

There were many layers of student politics at MIT. I'm not referring to the radical activism that paraded through the door of the thursday offices with hot leads on one Institute outrage or another. I'm not referring to the Campus Crusade for Ayn Rand or the ever-present conspiracy theorists who adhered to Lyndon LaRouche. Student politics meant the Undergraduate Association and the various groups associated with it. It also meant the various and sundry different agencies that affected campus life and to which student representatives were nominated - an outgrowth of the '60s liberalism, in which the Institute attempted to cater to its restless student body through reforms that gave them a modicum of participation in the process of education.

But we were not children of the '60s. We were, instead, children of the '70s. By the time I got to MIT, the Vitenam War was over and Nixon had resigned from office, so all the big battles had already been fought. So we settled down to the usual pursuits of trying to get good grades and partying till we puked on the weekends. Thursday itself was less interested in campus radicalism and more interested in promoting the cultural and counter-cultural doings in its midst, which meant lots of pinball, Bruce Springsteen ("Born to Run" came out in my sophomore year) and Marvel Comics (oh, we still had plenty of that hippie material R. Crumb penned, but none of it could compare with Howard the Duck!). We had an Arts Section, a literary corner (RSV-P!), a wildly popular back page feature of famous quotes called The Last Word and a couple of feature columns of social commentary and non-specific rants authored by a couple of our managing editors. But the political activism of the Battering Ram (a Dean's Office takeover in the late '60s) was mostly gone, except as a reminiscence.

Student politics - at least the official kind - was an Undergraduate Association affair. In my senior year, I actually became a participant in UA politics when I decided to become a member of the Student Center Committee. I think my motivation was the chance to DJ the Strat's Rats mixers, but I found myself engaged in other activities such as helping select Midnight Movies and picking furniture for the Coffeehouse. In those days, you didn't just join the Student Center Committee, you had to be nominated and approved by the Committee for membership. The way you got your card punched was to be a volunteer and do all the gruntwork that comes with running Student Center events. In that regard, it was much like a committee of the Transportation Research Board - with a vast network of friends and a limited number of official members. If the Student Center Committee liked your spirit (and was reasonably assured that you were not one of those campus radicals from the Social Action Coordinating Committee), they'd approve your membership. I know, because I had to be nominated twice, and one of my friends went through three rounds of voting before he was admitted to membership.

People weren't very interested in the rest of the Institute committee structure. In fact, we had a name for all forms of student politicking, from UMOC (ugliest man on campus) to the various student committees; we called it "grease" (yes, "grease" was the word). "Grease" was anything that had to do with any form of involvement in things like the Technology Community Association, the Student Center Committee, the Lecture Series Committee and the administration of the Institute. A lot of it was the province of the fraternities (and Delta Upsilon was regarded as the frat most heavily involved in the committee structure). The only people who cared about the committees were the pre-law and pre-med students (and even the business school wannabes), for whom serving on a committee was a credential that you could put in your application for grad school. If grade-grubbing hadn't given you enough of an edge, serving on something like the Committee for Visual Arts might be just the thing to get the attention of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. At least that's what a number of Course 7's (biology majors) always claimed. One member of our class managed to parlay his chairmanship of the  Nominations Committee all the way to a seat on the Federal Communications Commission.
Incidentally, this cartoon is based on a rather incensed letter to the editors of the Tech that complained about the tendency of nerds to arrive at the class lectures early and take all the aisle seats. This behavior was mightily inconvenient for all of us slackers who would arrive just as the class began and would have to negotiate our way over the bodies of the extraordinarily diligent to get to an empty seat.

One would have thought the entire student body would be falling all over themselves to capture a plum position on one of the Institute committees, but the truth is that most of us had other things on our minds, and serving on a committee was a chore. Consequently, the Nominations Committee, or NomComm had a bit of a challenge finding well qualified students to serve.
I should mention that the "you're not a racist, are you" quip dates to the Harvey Grogo incident. As I mentioned in a previous posting, Grogo the gorilla is a long-standing mascot of Technique, the student yearbook. In 1977, he was pictured in the freshman yearbook as a member of the Class of 1981 from Kampala, Uganda. White students saw it as a poke at then-dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin. Black students saw it as more institutional racism, in which insentivities to black stereotypes were clearly on display in an official MIT publication. After much uproar, one student on the Technique staff was disciplined; coming so soon on the heels of the thursday "Consumer Guide to MIT Men", the Institute was on high alert to avoid more examples of political incorrectness.

There were other committees of interest besides NomComm. The Finance Board, or FinBoard, handled the Undergraduate Association's money and parceled out stipends to each of the campus activities. Thursday was one of those activities, and if their politics didn't raise hackles with the FinBoard, the balance on their books was always a source of consternation. Thursday never made money, even in the best of times, and they would occasionally have to go begging to FinBoard for more. There was a Facilities Use Committee (FUC, according to one Bexley wag) that made spaces in various buildings available to student groups and others, and there was a Committee on Academic Performance (cue the "Dragnet" music). There were doubtless other committees, but my inability to recall any of them is a testament to their importance in my life back then. But don't be surprised to see a medical student with a membership on the Committee to Assess the Length of the Infinite Corridor on his resume; it means he's special.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bela and Vivian

I've been toying with the notion of creating a new cartoon, one that's nothing like Stickles. A hobby, if you will, since it's not something I could ever make money from. I've actually been putting some ideas down on paper, enough for about 20 strips at this point and sufficient to define the major characters. The idea of a dynamic between a dog and a cat is not new (in this instance, it is very close to home), but this tiny little mutt has Alpha-Dog ambitions and opinions that he appears to have acquired while pursuing an MBA somewhere, while the cat is a bit older and more genteel; she lives life at a slower pace and is not at all enamored of this new upstart in her midst.
Within the next couple of weeks, there will be a separate blog created for these two (and hopefully more cartoons to post in it), and the Blog of Stickles will get back to that fascinating trip down Memory Lane at MIT.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nadia's 'Toon

And now a word from our sponsor:
(Say "hello" to Bruce Rauscher and Felicity the Cat, appearing in "Visit to a Small Planet")
I am a cartoonist, but I started out a musician (a Baskir Musician at that). These days I have a spare-time career in the theater. In fact, a show I'm involved in, Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet", will be opening at the American Century Theater this Friday in Washington, DC (or rather, Arlington, Virginia). I have a small but crucial role. I don't play the lead, I'm not a supporting actor, I don't even have a bit part. I'm not the producer or the director or the sound man or the lighting designer or even the guy who builds the set. But if you need five bags of dry ice and two coolers, I'm your man! Mind you, it's better than my last gig. That one was a musical in which I played a bishop who gets beaten, choked with a cane, stomped on and set on fire at the end of the first act (It's also a musical that reliable sources tell me had its debut at the Alley Theater in Houston back in 1991; see if you can guess the name of the show).

Now on with tonight's post:

The 1976 Olympics were the only Olympic Games that occurred while I was at MIT. I was a sophomore in high school in 1972, and I was already off to my professional career by 1980, the year of the Miracle on Ice, when a team of US amateurs went up against the mighty Red Army and defeated the Russians on the field of ice hockey, thus proving once and for all that our system of government was better than theirs, so there! It was also the Year Without a Summer Olympics for the Americans. Back in those days, the Summer and Winter Olympics were scheduled for the same year; recently the Winter and Summer Olympics have been scheduled two years apart, and we are due for a Summer Olympiad in 2012 in London.

For many years, US sports fans tended to ignore the Winter Olympics, because the US team was not very good at things like curling and biathlon, while the Evil Red Menace was. MTV had not given us snowboarding yet (it wasn't even around), but we could be counted upon to occasionally produce a decent figure skater or two, and they captured our interest.

No, the action was always in the Summer Games, when we could be counted upon to bring home a huge haul of medals - Mark Spitz personally brought home seven Golds as a swimmer in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The Munich Olympics are indelibly linked with tragedy and terrorism, after members of the Israeli team were kidnapped and died violently at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. But there was one bright spot - 16-year old Olga Korbut, who won 3 Gold medals and a Silver with a stunning display of gymnastics that had most of us awestruck (and later led to a tour of the United States, a small victory for Henry Kissinger's Kremlin Strategy).

Korbut was the darling of the world of gymnastics - until someone came along who was not just better; she was perfect. In Montreal in 1976, the world got to see a 14-year-old nymph from Romania (Ceaucescu's Romania!) named Nadia Comaneci, and she made us forget all about Olga Korbut. Nadia Comaneci was the first gymnast in Olympic history to record a perfect 10.0 - and she did it six times. She won three Golds and a Bronze, and became the youngest Olympic champion the sport had ever known. And will ever know; because of the stresses placed on young gymnasts by taskmasters such as Bela Karolyi, the rules for the Olympics were revised to require that all athletes be 16 years old in order to compete. And that all female gymnasts stay away from helium balloons.

Nadia Comaneci went on to win a couple more Golds at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which we boycotted to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (why did we ever go to all that trouble, when we could have simply enlisted a young eager fighter by the name of Osama bin Laden?) She largely disappeared behind the Iron Curtain after those 1980 Olympics, only to emerge rather suddenly in 1994, when we all found out she had defected, was living in Montreal (where she'd been for five years), and had become engaged to an American after having lived a life worthy of the Kardashians for the previous decade. Her coach, a Svengali named Bela Karolyi, had defected some years earlier in 1981 and was best known for having set up a boot camp for gymnasts just outside Houston. These days, he has moved a bit further north - to New Waverly, Texas, and many an aspiring gymnast has come there seeking the moves that will gain them entry onto the American gymnastics team. His camp can be found not far from Joe Tex's old place in the woods, and he will only pick you up from Bush Intercontinental Airport, so no flying Southwest, you peasant!
Nadia Comaneci will always be remembered for perfection - and for having had a montage of her routines broadcast by ABC Sports to the theme from "The Young and the Restless", which subsequently hit the Billboard charts under its new working title, "Nadia's Theme". I have often toyed with the thought of setting up my own radio station on Pandora, playing nothing but the absolutely worst music ever to have been written; "Nadia's Theme" will be there in rotation, in between "You're Having My Baby" and "The Pina Colada Song".

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bike to Work Days

I am (or was) a rider of bicycles. I did not own a bike in Cambridge, but I used to ride around town when I was growing up in Houston. When I lived in Palo Alto, I not only had a bike, but saddle bags and a couple of traffic tickets. The preferred mode of transportation on the Stanford campus, then as now, is the bicycle, and the break period between classes can see traffic jams worthy of Amsterdam.

I did not ride as much when I moved back to Texas (that would have been taking my life in my hands), but when I had settled into a house that I actually owned in DC, I would ride my bike to work during the Summer, all the way from Mount Vernon to National Airport. This was 1995. We didn't have bike racks, but we had showers, and I could always stash my bike in the stairwell (the Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs people we shared our building with were not likely to steal a bike, and the building was secure from outside access). I kept up the custom until 2001, when my office moved out to Dulles Airport, and the ride - over 33 miles - was a bit too forbidding, especially since it was not possible to get a bike onto the grounds of the airport without risking being flattened by a dump truck. National Airport was different; the bike path for the George Washington Parkway went right to the hangar and was similarly close to the complex of offices the Airports Authority Engineering staff used, up on what was known as the Hill (it is literally on top of a hill overlooking the terminal complex).

Riding a bike to work was, well, work. In Houston, though, I would go out on Saturday morning jaunts. One memorable winter, my father, the Renaissance Man, and a bike-to-work kinda guy in his own right, decided to take me on a trip. Not your lazy trip around the block, but a two-day long-distance trek, all the way from Houston proper down to Lake Jackson and Freeport, home of a massive petrochemical complex belonging to Dow Chemical, right on the Gulf of Mexico and about 40 miles away as the crow flies. We were not crows, though, so we had to take the roads, and that meant detours that tacked on extra miles. It also meant two-lane roads with gravel shoulders. pickup trucks and neighborhoods with barking dogs not constrained by leashes. At one point in the  ride, after we had gone about 18 miles and I was completely winded, my father took off down the road. So I gave chase. But I couldn't catch him. He disappeared over the top of a rise in the road, and I thought for sure I'd been abandoned out in the middle of nowhere. So I set off down the road, trying to find him, and as I topped the rise, there he was with a camera, snapping pictures of me coming up the road with my tongue dragging on the pavement. All that bike-riding back and forth to work had given him all kinds of energy.

But that was a diversion. The civil engineer in me had a curiosity to see what was being built in my neighborhood, since these were the boom times when the greater metropolitan area of Houston was adding close to 2,000 new residents a week - all of them chasing jobs in the oil industry. All those new jobs meant lots of new construction, and it seemed like a new skyscraper was getting built either downtown or uptown near the Galleria, which was a massive shopping mall, hotel, office and entertainment complex with a skating rink in the middle of it. The Galleria was near the intersection of two freeways, and before the oil industry collapsed in 1983 and took down the Houston real-estate market, the Galleria was abuzz with construction activity.

Getting to the Galleria, though, was challenging. Houston is not exactly known for bike paths, and in the '70s, they were even rarer than they are today (the City has very thoughtfully paved some nice paths that follow the local bayous, which are slow-moving trash strewn mosquito breeding laboratories that course ever so slowly and languidly through town). Consequently, the only way to get to the Galleria from my neighborhood was to set off along the city's thoroughfares, which were four lane divided roads full of traffic. Adding to the fun were the pavements, which had heaved and buckled in the high termperatures that characterized Houston's summers. There were also open drains...
Summer in Houston also meant thunderstorms, so it was possible to go out in the morning, when there were only a few little cottony puffs of cloud in the sky, and be chased home by some angry purple storm clouds flashing the occasional lightning bolt just for good measure. I also made a short-lived habit of setting off on my bike jaunts wearing nothing but shorts and tennis shoes (no tee-shirt for macho-man Geoff!). That lasted as long as it took me to come home with a nice crimson sunburn on my back, for which I endured a few sleepless, itchy nights.

I found out about all kinds of road hazards, and not just uncovered manholes. The Stanford campus had these wonderful trees that dropped thorns that could puncture a tire in nothing flat. The Parkway bike path occasionally has trees fall over in rainstorms. I encountered one by accident; I survived, but my rim didn't, so it was a long walk to work that morning. When it rains, the roads get slick and your backside gets wet; you get used to racing stripes up the back of your shirt. And I have been stung by the occasional wasp that got wedged inside my pants-leg.

I don't bike much anymore. I meet plenty of cyclists on the W&OD bike path that winds from Sterling, Virginia, all the way to Rosslyn, but I'm usually on foot enjoying a brisk morning run (lazy amateurs jog, I run). I suppose I'll have to invest in a nice Cannondale and plot a trip across Europe, sometime when I'm an empty-nester and retired from the working world. I'd have to arrange meeting points along the route so my wife can catch up with me, but I'd get to see the countryside up close and personal. Most of my friends from my school days have that same dream, only it involves seeing the world through their Harleys (if the chain don't break).

Another Fifth of Fourth

One thing I forgot to mention about the Pops concerts on the Charles River Esplanade is the number of small craft that can be seen bobbing in the Charles River itself. This picture, shamelessly ripped off from the MIT Alumni Association's blog, shows a couchboat that was spotted sometime yesterday evening. MIT students can be inveterate sofa surfers.
Hope you had a Happy Fourth!

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Fifth of Fourth

It's the Fourth of July. If you're in DC, it's a time for fireworks on the Mall, which means traffic jams all over town as people try to find a good spot to watch. In Boston, the same ritual is played out on the south side of the Charles River, on the Esplanade where there is a bandshell, and that's the place where Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops set up for their annual Fourth of July shindig. It's a time for picnics, sparklers, mosquito repellent and all the things that make Summer a patriotic season. It's a time when half a million Bostonians gather - which, given the muck on which the Back Bay was founded, is helpful for surcharging the grounds.

In July, MIT students are back at home or otherwise away from the campus, but a few hardy souls (those with summer jobs or nothing better to do) hang around all summer. They're as patriotic as the next person, although the next person in Cambridge is likely to be a Young Spartacist and determined to smash the state. That doesn't mean they can't enjoy a nice fireworks display, especially when it is accompanied by all your favorite pop ditties rendered senseless by the Pops. John Philip Sousa, W.C. Handy, Burt Bacharach, Lee Greenwood (okay, maybe not him) - the Pops will play them all. Plus, they will render a stirring rendition of Tchaikowsky's "1812 Overture", complete with cannon.
I went to a performing arts high school - with some serious classical musicians. They were serious cut-ups. They had no respect for the Pops at all. They considered Fiedler and his Pops akin to Percy Faith and his orchestra - who could still be found in the Classical section of certain Texas record shops even into the 1980's. As every serious classical musician knew, Percy Faith made elevator music.
But Arthur Fiedler had one champion in our high school - Edward Trongone, who was a teacher of instrumental music and conductor of our orchestra, wind ensemble and stage band. Trongone was known to us as "Mr. T" and he looked like this...

"Watch that intonation, sucker!"

Er, this...
"I pity the foo' who interrupts my rehearsal!"

Trongone was short, animated Bostonian who looked a bit like a penguin when he was conducting the orchestra. He had a thick accent ("Hahns! What am I heah foh!?") that I only figured out when I got to Boston and heard others of its type. But Mr. T knew a lot about the music business and had a lot of stories to tell about being a musician and a conductor. He could talk about greats like Stan Kenton and Mitch Miller (who we even got to meet personally), and he aspired to send his students on to careers as storied as theirs. But first they were going to have to work on their intonation and get rid of those scrapey horn sounds. He told us about the bad old days, when the musicians had to form a union and fight to get royalties on their recordings. He also told us about the Pops. Mr. T was a big fan of Arthur Fiedler, even if we weren't.
Arthur Fiedler died in 1979, a year after I graduated from MIT, but the Pops play on. Fiedler's immediate successor was John Williams, which meant a lot of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" themes were added to the program. These days, Keith Lockhart holds the baton, as he has since 1995. If you hurry, you can still make it over to the Esplanade from the 'Tute before the festivities begin.
But what is it we celebrate on this day? A lot of the holiday is given over to fireworks, patriotic music and above all military displays. Advertisers seem to find this holiday (and Memorial Day) as a good time to recognize the troops, whom they can't seem to recognize at any other time of the year. Our patriotic merchandisers find this holiday a good time to honor America by putting everything on sale (in a similar vein, they honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with big bargains on new cars). But it seems only appropriate to honor the founding documents on which this country was based, supposedly. Politicians come, politicians go, the economy goes up, the economy goes down, but one thing remains constant - the idea behind the United States, which was embodied in a Declaration of Independence some 235 years ago today, and in a Constitution that is still the law of the land over two centuries later. Even in the worst of times, they remain as the documents that bind us together. After all, we've had bad times before, but the country did not fold.
The cartoon above was drawn in 1982, when unemployment skyrocketed to 10.8% by Christmas. A year earlier, the Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies and Royals had won their respective divisions during a strike-shortened season, but the summer of 1982 was very cruel to them, and none of them made the playoffs.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Heat Is On

It's been a brutal summer in Houston already. While the calendar says summer officially arrived on June 21, it appears that Summer started in Houston on April 1. Most summers, the temperature stays below 100 degrees, even in early August. This year, the mercury went to 104 on June 5, tying as the hottest June day ever recorded (and someone on Wikipedia claims 105 was reached in one location). And it's been worse in other parts of Texas; Austin was over 100 degrees in May, and Laredo has been having weather reminiscent of Laughlin, Nevada.

What's happening is that Texas has been having a drought - one the weather service describes as extraordinary. The rains that normally cool Houston off in the afternoons haven't been coming this Summer, which allows the temperature to soar into the upper 90's. To see this effect, the average Houstonian only has to remember last June, when the temperatures were low because almost ten inches of rain fell in the month (granted, Houston can get that much from an afternoon monsoon, but then the freeways don't move). Then the winds shifted and there was very little rain in August, so the temperature went up over 100.

While Houston was cool and rainy, last Summer in Washington, DC, was dry and hot. DC can have hot weather; one afternoon in 1997, it went up to 104 before a line of afternoon thunderstorms brought the temperature down. But 2010 was unusually hot - it was over 90 degrees almost every afternoon and 100 degrees on perhaps a half dozen occasions. What's happening? There are those who say the climate is being changed by global warming brought on by carbon dioxide emissions being spewed by power plants, cars, factories and other sources. Then there are those skeptical types who claim the pattern of sunspots has cycled through and we're now in a warm period with higher amounts of solar irradiation of the planet occurring, in line with natural processes. Whatever's going on in the US was last seen in the Dust Bowl Days, which portends big trouble for farmers and people trying to avoid wildfires. There will be no fireworks in Texas this Fourth of July; it's just too hot. And the drought goes on.

The Summer of 1978 was a hot one in Houston, too. I was in between college and grad school, which meant I was moving from Boston to California, but I spent the interim in my parents' Texas home. I had taken to riding my bike around town because there was a building  boom of seismic proportions underway, and I liked to observe the construction work (these days it's possible to do the same thing from a distance by visiting sites like or Swamplot). The tallest concrete structure west of the Mississippi was being constructed downtown for one of the large local banks (Texas had large local banks until they all collapsed during the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980's - you thought TARP was a new phenomenon?) and there were other skyscrapers of various sizes going up in other neighborhoods. At each bank office, there was usually an electronic sign that advertised the time and the temperature. The problem was that none of the thermometers agreed.
As I said, 1978 was a hot Summer in Houston. It went to 100 several times that summer, and one day the temperature topped out at 102 at the airport (being a few miles north of town and farther from the Gulf of Mexico, Bush Intercontinental, the bigger of the two airports, usually got a couple of degrees hotter than Downtown). Two years later, the infamous Summer of 1980 brought a temperature of 108 one August afternoon, and that record stuck as the hottest day ever observed at the city's major airport - until September 4, 2000, when the mercury went to 109. That September day, the mercury also went over 110 degrees in Dallas, and is best remembered as the day the Philadelphia Eagles blitzed the Dallas Cowboys on their home turf, because they took to drinking pickle brine on the sidelines.