Sunday, January 19, 2014

Year of the Monkey

The Chinese invented many wonderful things, such as dynamite, fortune cookies and Chinese food. They also invented astrology. In fact, the Chinese Lunar New Year is the longest chronological record in history.

Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac in 2600 BC. It takes five minor cycles of 12 years each, or 60 years all together, to make one complete cycle.

The Chinese New Year always starts with the new moon on the first day of each year, somewhere between late January and the middle of February. Celebrations will last for 15 days, until the full moon arrives and the Lantern Festival takes place.

The Chinese calendar is based upon lunar and solar movements. Since the lunar cycle is about 29.5 days, an extra month is inserted seven times within every 19 years. This bit of mathematical magic avoids the need for an extra day every four years, with certain century exceptions. Thus, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year.

Each of the years within the 12-year minor cycle is named after an animal.

Presently, as I write this, it is January of 2014. I am putting together a book of random topics which I started in November of 2013 and will publish the book within the next few weeks.

Last year, 2013, was the Year of the Snake.

A snake is a loathsome creature that tries to blend in with the background and attacks without warning. After it has accomplished its task, it slithers back into hiding, mostly underground. 2013 turned out to be a bad year for snakes, particularly the Afghan cave-dwelling variety.

The present year, 2014, is the Year of the Horse.

According to Chinese astrology, children born this year will be hard working, independent, intelligent, friendly and a bit selfish. It sounds like another batch of lawyers, bankers and pickpockets are about to enter this world.

I was born during the Year of the Monkey.

According to the chart, I am certain to be very intelligent, well liked by everyone and highly successful in whatever field of endeavor I choose. Apparently, Chinese astrology isn’t an exact science.

In September of 2012, my high school class celebrated our 50th high school reunion. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since I was hanging out in the pool hall, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

Most of my classmates were also born in the Year of the Monkey. My three best friends at the time (names withheld to prevent litigation) were also trying to figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.

One of them spent so much time in the pool hall, they considered charging him rent. Some fifty years later, he owns dozens of apartment complexes, over a thousand units in all, and passes time counting his money.

The second one took mostly shop courses in high school and spent all of his time chasing girls. Today he is a retired high school English teacher, still married to his first wife and their son went to the Naval Academy. He is presently working on his second novel, having had his first one published in 2011.

The third friend went on to obtain a PhD in psychology and has recently retired from a successful practice where he dispensed advice to people who were actually more screwed up than he is.

Other members of the class of 1962 in my circle of fringe miscreants have also achieved remarkable success. In no particular order, there is a painting contractor, a union leader, a mechanical engineer for an aerospace company, a computer programming contractor, a small business owner, a city councilman, a college professor and so on. No doctors or lawyers, but just about everything else.

As far as I can tell, those of us who were born during the Year of the Monkey are indeed successful. As soon as I figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life, perhaps I’ll be successful too.

Most of my former classmates are also very intelligent and successful. Whether or not they’re all well liked is another matter.

Then again, the guys I used to hang out with didn’t consider life to be a popularity contest.

But two out of three isn’t bad -- after all, Chinese astrology isn’t an exact science.

Quote for the Day -- “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.”  Bob Dylan

Bret Burquest is the author of 10 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and where success is easily achieved with confidence and low expectations.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Having a Bad Day

A couple of decades ago, after spending much of my life moving from city to city and state to state, I finally settled into a peaceful rural existence in the Land of Ark -- a.k.a. the Natural State, a.k.a. the Land of Opportunity. The rest of the country refers to it as Arkansas, where all the beautiful people live and time stands still.

Now I bask in the glory of my placid existence, growing tomatoes, watching sunsets, frolicking with my dog, writing stuff and patiently waiting for my soul mate, whoever she may be, to show up and make my life complete.

There have been two earth-shattering birthdays in my life. One was when I turned 30 -- the other was when I turned 60.

Anyone who is born between July 23 and August 22 is a Leo. According to modern astrology, “Leos are vital, confident, proud and masterful. They love drama and luxury, and have wide creative interests. Blessed with many abilities, they are natural executives and tireless workers, generous and high-minded. Their manner will often be dramatic and full of warmth. They are tempted to show off and may at times appear self-centered.”

In other words, I’m full of many things, including myself. This is probably true. That’s why people think I’m self-centered. But just because I think I’m better than everyone else doesn’t necessarily mean I’m self-centered – it just means I’m full of it. And as a true Leo, I’m proud to be full of it. 

Anyway, I turned 60 a few years ago.

This is the age when you start the downhill skid of life into oblivion. You’re too old to show off and too young to collect Social Security. It’s a state of limbo between being able to remember the good times and being wise enough not to try to repeat them.

It’s also the age where you reflect on your life and try to figure out what went wrong.

In my case, nothing went wrong. It didn’t exactly go as planned but I wouldn’t change one minute of it. Even though my mind is slowly turning to mush, I can still remember most of it.

Turning 60 can also be a blessing. For example, you can talk out loud to yourself all day long and no one will bat an eye, especially if you have a dog or a cat lurking nearby. But you still can’t talk to your goldfish until you reach 80 otherwise your relatives will be plotting to put you in a home for old codgers and dingbats.

The changes I’ve witnessed in my lifetime have been incredible. I remember when my grandmother in Wisconsin had a wood stove for heat and cooking. Her refrigerator was called an icebox because a guy on a horse-drawn wagon would come by on occasion to put a fresh block of ice in the “box” sitting on the back porch.

My family didn’t even have a television set until I was in the fifth grade. And when you wanted to change channels, you actually had to walk across the room and turn a dial. Life was rough back then, particularly for channel-flippers.

When I was young, I rode my bike with no helmet, rode in cars with no seatbelts, climbed trees, and drank water out of a garden hose. I’m lucky to be alive.

I didn’t have a computer or a cell phone. In school, I was actually required to read and write, to do math without a calculator and to pass tests.

But thanks to modern technology and a zillion regulations dictated by the government to protect me from myself, the world is now a much better place. And even if it isn’t, it doesn’t really matter because the government will pass another zillion regulations tomorrow and everything will continue to progress (or regress, depending on your point-of-view).

Pardon my cynicism. I tend to get a bit grumpy in my ancient years. When I hit 90, it would be wise to steer clear of me for a few days. Being cranky at that age is a badge of honor. After 90 years on this planet, you have the right to growl once in awhile.  

Turning 60 is a lot like falling into a vat of raw sewage – it stinks, but you can always take a shower and start fresh the next day.

Life is full of surprises – some days are good and other days are downright rotten.

Ironically, one week after I turned 60, I had an extremely bad day.

I walked out to my mailbox at the end of the driveway. Just as I opened the box, one of the local teenage airheads came careening around the corner on his ATV with the throttle wide open and zero consideration for safety. He missed me by a couple of feet but that didn’t slow him down. As the 20-foot dust cloud settled over me I wondered what the penalty would be for strangling an airhead.

Later that day, I went into town to get some groceries. I parked in the last spot next to the alley. When I came back out of the store, there was a small gray car parked in the alley about three inches from the driver’s side of my van. Being slightly larger than three inches in width, I was unable to open the door and get in. I waited as long as I could for the driver to show up and explain to me why it was necessary to park so close to my van but I had to get to the bank before they closed, so I reluctantly went in through the passenger door, climbed over the console and into the driver’s seat.

I got to the bank at 10 minutes before closing. I drove to the third lane where the tube reaches my van’s window, put my check and deposit slip into the tube, and sent it on its way. Cashier #1 announced she’d be right with me and disappeared. Car #1 pulled up to the first bank window whereupon Cashier #2 stepped forward and proceeded to process the transaction. Then Car #2 pulled into the second window whereupon Cashier #1 returned and proceeded to process that transaction. Then Car #2 pulled away from the first window and Car #3 soon drove up to that window and was immediately serviced by Cashier #2. After all three cars that had arrived after I did had finally left the premises, Cashier #1 processed my transaction. I had included a note specifically asking that the cash returned to me be in the form of two $50 bills but when I received the envelope it contained five $20 bills. As I turned to correct the error, they were pulling down the curtains and closing the bank.

Next, I went to Wal-Mart, a half hour away. I entered in the south entrance but there were no hand baskets. I asked the greeter where the hand baskets were whereupon he used his walkie-talkie to communicate with the greeter at the other end of the store. Instead of having an employee bring some hand baskets to me, I had to trek all the way to the far end of the store to retrieve one even though I was not going to do any shopping at that end of the store. This was the second time in a row this had happened to me at Wal-Mart. As I left the store, I noticed there were still lots of hand baskets at the far end and none at the near end.

Later that night, I sat down to work on one of my newspaper columns when my hard disk crashed. I was already in a foul mood, which is often good for writing columns but bad for just about everything else in life. I was forced to order another computer the next day and went about 10 days without having access to the Internet, e-mail or word processing, giving me plenty of free time to wonder why the whole world had turned against me.

Note to parents of airheads with ATVs – If you are considering moving far away, I’ll help you pack.

Note to owner of gray car – Rude behavior can sometimes lead to unpleasant consequences.

Note to bank manager – You need to have a “customer courtesy” meeting.

Note to Wal-Mart manager – You need to have a “hand-basket distribution” meeting.

Later that evening, I was talking to one of my adult students at the local college where I taught computer courses about all the bad luck I had earlier on the same day whereupon she told me her brother died and her daughter had been in a terrible auto accident that same week.

Another lesson in life – no matter how bad things get, someone else always has it worse.

Quote for the Day -- "My only regret in life is that I'm not someone else." Woody Allen

Bret Burquest is the author of 9 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and patiently waits for his soul mate to show up.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2001 -- The Year of Surprises

In 2001, I started writing weekly columns for the local newspaper in Salem, Arkansas and I also started teaching computer courses at Ozarka College in Melbourne, Arkansas. The year turned out to be a year of surprises, especially in September as I was beginning my college teaching gig.

The following is a recap of my life in 2001 (from a column I wrote in December of 2001).

JANUARY: The Presidential election was so close it was still being debated during the inauguration. The Democrats had presented us with a man from Tennessee who had the charisma of a hickory tree and falsely claimed he had invented the Internet. The Republicans countered with the only man in Texas who had no personality and managed to get through life with a vocabulary of about 85 words. In the end, the voters did the best they could to make sure neither one of them won – they made it a tie. After much political wrangling and a close examination of dimpled chads, one of them won anyway.

FEBRUARY: My fourth novel was published. After years of writing and a ton of rejection letters, all four of my novels were now in print. For a long time, I wondered if it would ever happen. While they aren’t on any best-seller list (yet), I’m genuinely surprised I actually managed to pull it off.

MARCH: I began writing a weekly newspaper column for THE NEWS in Salem. Surprise #1 -- they actually published it. Surprise #2 – they continue to publish it. Surprise #3 – I never ran out of things to say.

APRIL: Doing my federal taxes cost me about 10 hours of lost time and gave me a massive headache. The surprise was that I managed to get through it without having to consult a tax accountant or a clinical psychologist.

MAY: It rained quite a bit and everything turned green, including several fuzzy items on the lower shelf of my refrigerator. The surprise came when one of the fuzzy green items in my refrigerator sprouted legs and began to move. I think it was either a cucumber or some guacamole dip. I shot it twice and threw it in the woods.

JUNE: The chiggers made their annual pilgrimage to my country estate. While this wasn’t a big surprise, they were a bit more organized this year. They posted a schedule of my daily activities and set up a buffet line near my back porch.

JULY: It was a dull, hot month. The surprise was that it turned out to be the only month without a surprise.

AUGUST: After more than 30 years as a computer programmer and consultant, I accepted a position as a college instructor. This may not be a surprise to the rest of the world, but it was a big surprise to me.

SEPTEMBER: A bunch of crazed terrorists surprised the whole world when they attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon without warning or regard for human life. Apparently, these malicious jerks had this overwhelming desire that every man on the planet wear a towel on their head and keep their women indoors at all times. They were led by a man named Osama who has five wives and a brain the size of a walnut. Of course I’m just guessing, but I assume anyone with five wives must have a brain the size of a walnut.

OCTOBER: A disgruntled, trigger-happy neighbor shot and killed my dog. It was a stunning surprise since I had never been forewarned that my dog was causing a problem. The second surprise came when the shooter denied knowing it was my dog even though he had dumped the carcass over onto my side of the fence.

NOVEMBER: My father fell off a ladder and landed on his head. He chose to do this on a day my mother was out of town and we were under a tornado watch. I drove him down to an emergency room in Batesville, during one of the most violent thunderstorms in recent memory, where 21 staples were inserted into the back of his head. While this accident was not so unusual, the surprise was that he is now more coherent than before.

DECEMBER: The stock market recovered to previous levels that had existed prior to the September terrorist attack. My ex-wife paid $600 for a cat with a terminal illness. A band of thugs in Afghanistan were hiding in caves like a pack of cornered rats. I’ve been approached to do a computer programming contract for a firm in Memphis. Miami and Nebraska are headed for the Rose Bowl. My new dog threw up in my shoe. Surprises come in all forms, including chunky liquids.

At least I survived another year. At my age, this is always a surprise.

On September 11 of 2001, a group of terrorists leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and destroyed a portion of the Pentagon Building in Washington, DC. Whatever their motivation might have been, it was strong enough for them to give up their lives in the process.

Thousands of innocent people perished simply because crazed madmen wanted to make a point. It’s difficult to put into words but suffice it to say that this heinous act of inhumanity has reminded the entire world once again that evil still exists in the dark corners of humanity.

It’s a mistake, however, to call it an act of cowardice.

It takes great courage, and an enormous amount of disregard for human life, to give up your life for a cause you deeply believe in. Plus, it’s obvious that a great deal of planning and coordination went into it. That’s what makes fanatics like this so dangerous.

The other thing that makes them so dangerous is that they are clearly deranged.

These narrow-minded bigots believe they are the good guys and are willing to kill anyone who disagrees with them to prove it. Apparently, they want everyone on this planet to be just like them or dead.

Destroying buildings and killing innocent people is not a very good way to sway public opinion to your cause, therefore it must be assumed that these imbeciles wish to destroy us.

Basically, war has been declared on the United States by a bunch of zealous scumbags who don’t even have enough courage to crawl out from under a rock and announce their intentions.

All of our military might is useless against a small pocket of unknown terrorists who strike without warning and are willing to die for their cause.

This entire operation could have been planned and carried out by less than 20 people. In all probability, less than 100 people were involved.

America is a work in progress -- we are far from perfect, having numerous internal struggles taking place continuously. But in a time of crisis, we as a nation pull together, determined not to allow the senseless acts of others to affect our way of life.

This country was founded on a set of noble ideals and is a beacon of freedom in a world littered with countries controlled by tyrants.

We believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We believe in government of the people, by the people and for the people.

We will not allow the insanity of others to alter our course.

The character of America can be seen in those who lined up, for as long as six hours in some places, to give blood and in the rescue workers on the scene who worked frantically to help the injured victims. A nation of caring souls will never be brought to its knees by acts of cruelty.

If the terrorists thought they would upset us, they probably succeeded.

If they thought we would suffer, it will be short-lived.

If they thought they would divide this nation, they were sadly mistaken.

If they thought we would bow to their demands, they were living in a fantasy world.

If they thought they would get away with it, I suspect every last one of them will soon be turned into vapor and the ground they’re standing on will become an instant parking lot.

If they thought some good would come out of it, it definitely will because they’ll be occupying a bench in a far corner of Hell, next to the boiler, scratching their wooden heads, wondering what they did to deserve such a fate.

Hell will be a little more crowded but the world will be a better place.

Quote for the Day -- "There can never be surprises in logic." Ludwig Wittgenstein


Bret Burquest is the author of 9 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and sometimes even surprises himself.