Here are a few writing samples for your enjoyment. They run the gamut as far as subject matter, with business content, humor and even a rant. Please browse around, but remember that everything you see on this page and the others is copyrighted by Mike Vance 2019.
For as long as all remember
Mother served it each December.
Out it came with candied cherries,
pickled pears, and real old berries,
dark and scary on the sideboard.
Old folks smile and children hide for
soon will come the haunting question,
"Plenty left, so who'll ingest some?"
Heads they shake, their tummies pat
"I'm much too full." "I'll get too fat."
But each knew it wasn't weight.
This cake was bought in '68.
This cake was made when Dad was tiny,
when Grandpa's head was not so shiny.
Only once did someone try it,
actually add it to his diet.
That poor soul was cousin Davy
who not long after joined the Navy,
or so they said around these parts.
But just the same the family's hearts
beat with much lighter ticks and tocks
when the fruitcake went back in its box.
Teflon surface protection
It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Face it, life is filled with unpleasant tasks that we'd rather leave to someone else. So it's only natural that we have a little admiration for people who clean up after others and manage a positive attitude about it. How do they do that?
Like did you ever wonder how Goober Pyle managed to get so covered in grease down at the service station on the old Andy Griffith Show, yet he still whistled all day long? Or why Gilligan never complained about having to run around the island gathering dirty coconuts every day? Aside from a couple of wonderfully sunny attitudes, maybe those gentlemen knew something we didn't.
If your job includes wiping down the walls in a hospital ward or a school cafeteria, there's definitely a secret that will keep you smiling everyday. It's Teflon surface protection available in Koroseal and Vicrtex wallcoverings. While the chemists at DuPont who developed the stuff might tell you it's a fluoropolymer, all you need to know is that it's a unique film that is actually bonded to the wallcovering. That makes it incredibly durable and lets it protect the color and brightness of the wall for a really long time, almost eliminating the need to repaint or refurbish.
Best of all for the people who work around it, walls protected with Teflon are stain-resistant and super easy to clean. Now, that's more than we can say for Goober's coveralls.
A Non-Runner Comes to His Census (a 2010 Running Debate column for Inside Texas Running)
I filled out my census form in about 38 seconds. It took me longer to get the stamp off my tongue once I found out they’re self-adhesive. Okay, it didn’t require a stamp, but you get the drift.
To say that I was disappointed by the lack of curiosity that our government has about me would be a gross understatement. Ignoring all of that “right to privacy” advocacy by people who haven’t yet figured out that cat was out of his bag as soon as the telegraph was invented, it’s my opinion that most Americans want to matter. So when Uncle Sam only asks me three questions, I’m saying, “HEY!!! What’s wrong with me??” It’s kind of like being ignored by a passel of chunky, ugly women when you’re the only guy at a bar. You’re not necessarily looking to score, but it’d be nice to know they care.
A quick history lesson: The first six censuses only asked for the name of heads of household. If you were a wife or a kid, all you got was a tick mark in a given column same as the sheep and oxen. If you lived in a small enough dwelling, you probably also got the actual tick. By 1850, everyone’s name got listed, even though most of those farm folks likely still smelled like the sheep or the oxen. You get to the census of 1930, though, and they asked questions. The government wanted to know where you were born, where your parents were born, what you did for a living, when you got married and whether you could read or write. I understand the last one being dropped from the 2010 version. I mean, nobody wants to embarrass all those folks who watch Fox News. By the 1970s and 80s, one out of every ten households got the “long form”. That included questions about how many toilets you had and how often you had sex. Although, I’m still not certain the sex question was official since it was written onto my form by hand. And it looked suspiciously like my ex-wife’s handwriting, now that I think about it.
So I was some kind of bummed when I opened my form for this year. They didn’t give a rat’s butt about me in the least. Own or rent? They don’t care. Level of education? Nope. Not interested. Number of acres I farm? No sabe.
Clearly the government is not remotely doing their job in the area of surreptitiously gathering information on its citizens. I spent the entire Bush Administration paying good tax dollars for unconstitutional fact gathering, and to stop it now, well, I for one am cheesed. What kind of cheese? See, there’s a question the feds might want answered. Give me a set of boxes, and let me fill in American, Swiss, cheddar, gouda, Velveeta and Whiz.
Get a little personal. If the IRS can do it, so can the census bureau. The travel security dude had no trouble putting his hand down my pants at O’Hare, so ask away. Though technically the Chicago cops told me later that he didn’t even work there.
Have you or any family member slept with Tiger Woods, Jesse James or Eliot Spitzer? I can handle that question, but nobody was asking.
Here’s what it comes down to: How on Earth are they supposed to serve my needs as a citizen if they don’t know the first thing about me?!?!
Finally I decided to take matters into my own hands. If they’re not going to come right out and ask everything that I think they need to know about me, I’m sending it in anyway. I pulled out a nice clean sheet of paper and wrote a little essay about myself. The more I thought about it, the more I began to believe everyone should do that. Sure they just asked how many people in my household, but what I think they really meant was : “Tell us a little about yourself in your own words”. This could be my opportunity. It’d be like 308 million people on Match.com. Surely even I could get a date in a pool that broad. Maybe.
“I’m a single guy in Houston who likes sports, movies, beer, pool, golf, movies about sports, bicycling, dogs, movies about dogs, beer, movies about beer, good food, wine, blues music, jazz, beer and bikini contests. I currently have two bottles of good tequila in my freezer that have been there since the Clinton Administration. I have two dogs who live with me. One male, one female. Sometimes my daughter’s dog stays here, too. I also have lots of hair, but most of it’s not mine. But enough about me. What am I looking for in a government? Honesty, caring, a good sense of humor, somebody I wouldn’t mind going to foreign countries with, and somebody who’ll pick up the check every once in awhile. I don’t think I’m asking too much. You know, I fully expect to pay for most meals, but hey, I do send you money every two weeks. Next time we’re at Outback, what do you say I tell the waitress ‘This one’s on my Uncle Sam.’ Then we’ll go grab a couple of brewskies, and those are on me.”
Preserving Houston (A Houston Chronicle Op-Ed 2012)
"Houston has no history. We tear it all down."
You hear this sentiment all the time around our city. We've sure been hearing it these past few weeks as the Prudential Building, one of our most important modern commercial structures, meets its end through implosion. Before we accept that depressingly cavalier statement as absolute fact, however, maybe we should give the recent history of preservation in Houston a closer look.
Make no mistake, the Prudential Building in all its mid-century marble and granite glory, is a big loss to the city. Aside from the architecture, it represented a part of Houston's growing up, gaining commercial districts away from downtown, luring regional hubs of national businesses. As much as we might take those things in stride now, it was big news at the start of the 1950s. There was no immediate need for the building to be torn down, either. By all accounts the land will remain vacant for years. We've certainly seen that before with structures that were part of the very soul of the city - the Shamrock Hotel and the Loew's and Metropolitan Theatres. For long time Houstonians, driving by those places can summon a pang of bitterness to this day.
The fact is, though, that we don't always tear it down. The year 2011 was a pretty good one for local preservationists, and it should give hope that maybe Houston is growing up in another way sixty years after the Prudential Building opened. In August, our magnificent 1910 Harris County Courthouse re-opened. With no detail overlooked, contractors and artisans recreated what was the County's grandest space one hundred years before. They erased decades of bad remodeling decisions and gave us back the public jewel that was built in part so we could outshine new courthouses in Dallas and Ft. Worth. At the end of 2011, the City of Houston unveiled a newly polished gem in the Julia Ideson Library building on McKinney. That project was accomplished with a non-profit organization and a capital campaign that raised over $32 million and leaves us with a state-of-the-art history archive and one of the most impressive public spaces in town.
In other words, there were enough people who were willing to pony up in the name of preservation. Some of the donors might have had memories of time spent at that library as children, maybe browsing the kids books that are still there today in the perfectly restored Children's Room, but you can bet that every one of them saw value for our city in saving a building that has meant so much to the community as a whole.
Houston got an updated preservation ordinance last year. It's not the toughest one in the nation, but it will stop the legal demolition of houses in the city's nineteen historic districts, every one of which voted to remain as such under the new rules. Aside from the obvious esthetics, the residents realized that the historic districts make good financial sense, too. The neighborhoods are more stable, you know what your block is going to look like ten or twenty years from now, and according to academic studies, the average property values are noticeably higher.
In between grandiose public buildings and bungalow-filled neighborhoods are dozens of projects that repurpose industrial buildings into lofts, eighty-year-old houses into law offices or old gas stations into bars and restaurants. These are projects done by people who realize that character matters. Strong buildings and seasoned materials add dimensions to a space that you just can't get with new construction. Exposed duct work and replica signage are a far cry from century old brick and patinaed cypress. Driving through Midtown the other day, I was thrilled to see activity at the Light Guard Armory on Austin Street. The Buffalo Soldiers Museum have been working to turn a 1925 military space into a lasting tribute to another group of soldiers.
People like to say that Houston is a young city. We're not Europe or Asia, that's for sure. We're not even Boston or New Orleans, but we did just turn 175 years old. Metaphorically, that's hardly a city that can be forgiven for sleeping on the couch and borrowing its dad's car. Houston is almost the same exact age as Chicago. We're only three years younger, yet Chicago is filled with enough historic architecture to make that alone a tourist attraction. It's certainly not that Chicago passed on building sparkling glass and steel monuments to modern American business. They have some of the best. It's that enough people there realized that building the new didn't have to mean destroying the old. They saw value in both. They recently gave landmark designation to their oldest known fast-food restaurant, a 1930 White Castle, and forty years ago, they turned an entire industrial planned community into a historic district containing hundreds of structures. In 2011, that district, the Pullman, was named one of the Ten Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association.
Chicago's golden age may have happened before ours, but Houston is still a treasure trove of what architectural historians call mid-century modern, those clean-lined post-WWII buildings like the Prudential. Much like the great diversity of restaurants that makes Houston one of the best food cities anywhere, the diversity of built environment and the many stories that go with those places makes us much more interesting. Check the list of America's most popular vacation and convention cities, and, aside from Las Vegas and Orlando, you'll find cities filled with history- San Antonio, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago. The places that people want to visit, where they want to meet, where they want to live are places with a sense of having been there a while. Places that are a little street wise. Places that have something to see. A city that is intent on destroying their past, that's a city without a story. That's a city in the witness protection program.
Our recent preservation history suggests that we might be growing up a little. Let's build on that success, and continue saving Houston's character.
A Rant About Fast Food
"It'll be about ten minutes. We're out of chicken right now."
What did she say? I must have misheard.
"It'll be a ten minute wait. We don't have any chicken right now."
Excuse me? This is KFC! Kentucky Freakin' Chicken! Did it not occur to you that a large portion of the people who come in here to eat will be asking for chicken? Like every damn one of them! You sell chicken, for God's sake. When you get down to the last two thighs besides your own cellulite infused ones, drop some more in the fryer, for crying out loud! This shouldn't be that confusing. They were even nice enough to put a big ass sign right outside the window, so if you ever inadvertently started making pizzas, you could be reminded that it's supposed to be chicken.
All right. Deep breath. I know that employees at fast food joints aren't supposed to be your basic rocket scientists. I mean, if they had a gnat sized brain or a passable complexion, they'd be working someplace else. Yet it is oftentimes mind boggling to behold the common sense vacuum one can find on the other side of that counter.
Oddly enough, the coolest response I ever saw from a drive thru jockey also happened to take place at KFC. College town. About 9pm. A friend and I pull up to the window for a quick snack. Unlike me, he's still trying to add passengers to the big friend bus, so he greets the young man with a hearty "How's it going?"
The kid looks back at him with what Robert Shaw described in Jaws as "dead eyes. Like a doll's eyes," and responds with all the enthusiasm of Steven Wright, "It's Friday night, and I'm working at KFC."
But that, gentle reader, is the lone exception, the sole proprietor of working grey matter in the fast food universe. Don't ever go into such an establishment expecting witty repartee or a lively badinage. This poor schmo realized the abject misery of his plight. The rest only seek to drag you into the mire with them.
High on my list of the world's most vexing questions is this: Do fast food employees get your order wrong on purpose or are they really that clueless? Let's examine both sides of what might very well be a two headed coin.
The basic goodness in my human nature would immediately point me toward a verdict of clueless stupidity. Not to mention a level of disinterest like Strom Thurmond at a black gay pride parade. And I mean Strom now. Yes, you might even sense a strong desire to be someplace else.
I mention faith in my fellow humans since it's better to screw up because you're a drooling moron than because you're a vengeful little creep, right? Of course, I'm right.
And there is a case to be made that most of these folks fall into the drooler camp. I just hope they make a habit of wiping their chins before they hunker over the burrito fixins.
See, I am not an elitist. I firmly believe that the job a welder does is just as important as the job a doctor does. Without the welder, the whole damn operating table collapses. Likewise if it weren't for fast food workers, we'd all be eating healthy salads and grilled fish, which would in turn prove to be a financial drain on both the aforementioned doctor and welder.
I also believe, however, that most people eventually sink/rise/settle into a natural level for their abilities. That's why I say that some burger slingers might be over-reaching. Moving a meat patty from conveyor to bun can be pretty darn complex apparently.
We've all been standing fifth in line at the counter, mindfully creeping closer to an AARP membership, while the fry machine beeps interminably, the kid in the back seriously contemplates his spatula and the counter employee with eyes narrowed in intense concentration tries repeatedly to stuff about five straws too many into the dispenser. Droolers.
It's tough to stay patient through the fog sometimes. Yes, I said LARGE Diet Coke. The display screen above their tiny little pea head says LARGE Diet Coke. I don't care if the meal comes with a medium. I didn't order a meal. And yet, when I casually point out that the drink you just tried to hand me not only isn't what I ordered, but it wouldn't quench the thirst of a water-logged gnat, it somehow becomes my fault. What's that about?
Which begs the other possibility. And explains why no American in his or her right mind can ever knowingly piss off a fast food worker without having the word loogie flash through their brain. I don't consider myself paranoid. Just ask the people following me. But when I get home on those rare hurried occasions that I forgot to check the bag at the window, and am forced to say, "Liver! When the hell did they come out with a McLiver?" I have to at least explore the idea that they did it on purpose. I mean, does that sound like an accident to you?
Let's look at the psychology. When is someone most likely to jack with someone else? When they're not happy. And who's less happy than the slackers at the Burger Barn as they wallow in bitterness over the fact that their parents think they should achieve more than creating the perfect ass indentation on the den settee? A rare few would be my guess.
So they compensate, as if they could say that word in three tries, by piling another straw onto the camel's back of your day. Think about it. Every time they see another car pull up to the window, be it a shiny convertible Jag or a bondo-coated AMC Javelin, they're forced to mutter to themselves, "I wish I had a car like that."
And it's not just the material things, there's got to be a buttload of envy shimmering up from under those cardboard hats. When you smell like yeast and pepperoni 24/7 no matter how hard you scrub in the shower, 95% of other people's lives look better than yours does.
And let me add another factor to this lobotomized stew. A whole bunch of the customers who come into these joints are droolers, too. You heard me right. Never let it be said that I am not a Solomon like being. The fault lies on both sides of the hand-smudged, diaper-printed stainless steel counter.
I don't think I need to tell you that these consumer doofi are to be found only one place, either – in front of you. They're the ones staring at the Taco Bell menu like it's their first time out of the house. It's the same crap, lady: beef, beans, onions, lettuce, and cheese. Just different names. And don't try to act like you've never been here, your 600 pound ass suggests otherwise. But they're content to stare and contemplate such life mysteries as…what... whether the Mexican Pizza is really influenced by Italian Renaissance cuisine?
"I'd like a Burrito Supreme but with no sour cream, no tomatoes, no lettuce, and extra beef, but make that ground beef not shredded beef, and put the cheese on the bottom and top. Then on my next Burrito Supreme, I'd like..."
Jesus H Christ! If you're that picky, don't eat here. The only reason the twenty seven people in line behind you are here is because it's fast. And guess what? You've just taken the shine off that monkey, too.
But don't piss her off inside, oh no, or she'll be the one ahead of you in the drive thru line next week when you're starving but late for an appointment. You recognize her. Talking on the cell in her mini van while each member of the Cub Scout troop is asking individually what comes with the Happy Meal.
Then there was, no lie, the desiccated little shrew who thought the rack of baby backs at the BBQ joint was too pricey. After glaring at the big menu for what seemed like, I don't know, the Fifties, she asked, "What do the ribs look like?"
"They look just like yours except they're not about to be broken, you chain-smoking gnome! I'm hungry back here!!"
Now I must confess that I get a tad cranky when I haven't had anything to eat. So perhaps I'm taking some of this too personally. But deep down, I don't think so. Nonetheless, if you're the sourdough burger assembly chief at Jack in the Box, and you're feeling kind of phlegmy, I'm writing under a pseudonym.
Like he'd know that word, either.
We Need a Theme (a blog post for What Gives)
Everyone who has ever tried to dream up a non-profit fundraising idea has faced the same question: What is going to bring people out and separate them from their cash? It sounds brutal to phrase it that way, but that is the cold hard fact. We all need funding to keep doing the good work in which we believe so passionately.
The way to engage most people is to offer them an idea that sounds fun. Give them good music, something cool to do or a chance to dress up and act silly, and you have a better chance to get them to your event. Then once there, you need clever ideas to get them to feel the joy of the phrase “tax deductible”.
I’m not talking about the ubiquitous silent auction items. Anyone who can unfold a plastic cafeteria table can figure that much out. What can make the difference in attendance and success is a name and games that make women say, “Oh, how cute,” and make men say, “Sure, honey, that doesn’t sound so bad.” In other words, you need a theme.
Some hugely successful ideas are also hugely simple. The Houston Rockets do an annual fundraiser for their charities called “Tuxes and Tennies”. Now, what makes it a sold out event every year is not that fashion purists are agog at the scandalous concept of shoes that don’t match the suit. They just have a boatload of folks willing to fork over a fair amount to rub elbows with professional basketball players, or maybe rub elbows to thighs. Plus there is the curiosity factor in finding out how much material goes into a seven foot six dude’s cumberbund.
Originality is nice, but not a necessity. One theme that you’ll find being used all across the great U.S. of A. is the “Denim and Diamonds” party. It’s brilliant, if you think about it. It’s a clever name. Alliteration is always catchy. More importantly, it gives the well-to-do an excuse to show off their fancy jewelry, or better yet, a reason for that doctor to buy a new necklace or for that attorney to splurge for a gaudy pinky ring.
If you have a devoted following for your charity, some of them will show up for a “Paint Drying Shindig”, but I wouldn’t count on them bringing friends. It’s better to do a “Beach Blanket Bash” than to simply hold a “Fall Fundraiser”. At one of them, people know ahead of time to wear Hawaiian shirts and Jimmy Buffett shark fins. You know what kind of band you need to book. Figuring out the decorations is a snap, and the food also has a theme you can follow. It makes for easier planning and advertising and a much more cohesive event. I won’t make that mistake again.
In browsing around while writing this piece, I stumbled across a British site which has my new favorite (or favourite) fundraiser idea of all time: Ferret Races. (link http://www.better-fundraising-ideas.com/unique-fundraisers-ferret.html )Now we all know the Brits love to gamble, but the idea here is give weasels a pithy name, run them through a maze of drain pipe and get tipsy party goers to wager on the outcome, with the house pocketing a cut. Aside from the fact that it sounds possibly illegal, it seems like smashing fun. Or you could just opt to risk the wrath of PETA and go straight for the fighting roosters.
The bottom line is that a good theme makes for a better event. And something that sounds like a good time is much easier for you to promote and for your members and volunteers to hype to their friends. You’re trying to get new faces out to your fundraiser, so give them a nice reason to come donate. One good place to start might be with a fiver on Ferreteriat.
(c) Mike Vance 2019