Tom McBride

A Knife Fight In The Band Hall

Aug 17, 2018

When I was in high school I got busted three times: once for having a knife fight in the band hall, once for throwing spitballs at my deadliest enemy Jimmy Green, and once for laughing out loud at a classmate in plane geometry who couldn’t quite grasp a theorem. Each time my Deportment grade was dropped to a D. My parents were frantic and ashamed. The knife fight in the band hall was with rubber knives, but knife fights in the band hall were strictly forbidden even if they only involved butter knives

Remember First Grade? Me Neither.

Jul 13, 2018

When I was about five years old, a man named Grady French told me that I had once sleepwalked from my bedroom to downtown Mart, Texas. To be sure, this was only three blocks of soporific strolling, but it was still no mean feat.

I have no memory of ever having done this. And I’m not even sure that Mr. French told me I had. Maybe I just dreamt the whole thing.

Taking The Guilt Out Of Pleasure

Jun 8, 2018

We’ve all heard of guilty pleasures, such as Dove Bars, but even better are the guilty pleasure you can clear yourself of. These are pleasures where you’re guilty but figure out ways to prove yourself to be innocent.

Not long ago, rummaging in the basement for a sledgehammer, I ran across one of my old high school yearbooks. I hadn’t liked high school, and so I decided to peruse the yearbook -- in effect, giving high school a second chance.

Well, it was just as bad the second time. The most handsome boy and most beautiful girl didn’t seem all that handsome or beautiful to me — just average looking. The most popular boy and girl were never especially nice to me.

It's All In The Definition ...

Mar 23, 2018

I grew up in Texas. The most ambiguous word in my adopted home, the Upper Midwest, is “spring.”

In Texas we knew what spring meant. It was an event. It happened on a day in March. The birds sang. The bluebonnets bloomed. The grass unfurled its delicate verdant green. All coats were shorn. This happened on a single day. It was spring, and it never looked back. In just a few months, we knew, we would be able to save electricity by frying our eggs on the driveway cement.

When You Can't Get It Out Of Your Head ...

Feb 16, 2018

Years ago, a friend of mine was teaching college English when she noted that one student wrote every essay on birds.

She suggested he write about something else. He said he couldn’t. “What,” he asked, “are you going to do with an idea that won’t let you go?”

The French have a name for this condition. It’s called an idee fixe. I knew a man who loved to talk about Cokes so much that during every visit he would get 15 minutes to declaim about Cokes: cherry Cokes, diet Cokes, new and old Cokes; cokes versus Pepsi.

Some Reasons Not To Grow Up

Jan 12, 2018

There comes a time in every child’s life when he or she has to learn limits. This can be disillusioning, and I’m still getting over a couple of related childhood traumas.

Years ago, my mother had gotten some flowers as a gift, and she decided to give them to a sick friend. This was nice of my mother, but she wanted some extra credit, so she pretended to have bought them herself. When the sick friend told my mother how grateful she was, I blurted out, “Well, we had to get rid of them somehow.”

How Is A Voter Like A Sports Fan?

Dec 8, 2017

In a previous Perspective we considered the idea — a bad idea — that the American voter is a passive consumer. Now let’s think about another model: the American voter as sports fan.

Political scientists tell us that our voting habits are tribal to a fault.

If you’re a Republican who dislikes the idea of privatizing Social Security but your party’s candidate for President advocates the idea, you won’t switch parties. You’ll change your position on privatizing Social Security. You’ll think, “Well, maybe it’s a good idea after all.” 

Stop Treating Voters Like Consumers

Nov 3, 2017

In the world of marketing, there’s an old joke about a dog food manufacturer who decided to put the finest ingredients into his product only to find that its sales plummeted … because the dogs didn’t like it.

And that’s entirely on the manufacturer, who deserves to lose money.

Digesting The Importance Of Food

Sep 29, 2017

Some people -- especially members of my family -- tell me that my relationship with my cat is vexed.

In my view, my cat is devoted to me, but in the view of others she only likes me because I feed her all the time. In their opinion I am buying love, bribing my cat; and they say she loves food much more than she loves me.

Repetition has a bad rep. Mark Twain made fun of it: “Let’s say I was in Congress, and let’s say I was a liar. But I repeat myself.”

Old people like me repeat old stories and bore the young. Even repeatedly seeing a favorite episode of Seinfeld gets old after a while.

In truth, though, without repetition we’d never make it. Imagine what would happen if the grocery store aisles were switched around every day just to avoid boredom.

Would you rather have a surgeon who’s done your operation repeated times or one who’s doing it for the first time?

An App To Share 'Those' Tidbits

Jul 21, 2017

State guides to historic markers will tell you that “on this site a battle was won” and “on this site an invention was first tested.” These are all sites of public history.

But there is also personal history, which William Wordsworth celebrated as “those nameless, unremembered acts of love that form the best part of a good man’s life.” Nearly all of us have benefited from these acts of love: a word of wise encouragement that stuck with us, or a little life lesson we’ve never forgotten. 

Sometimes The System Doesn't Work

Jun 16, 2017

The great French anthropologist, Levi-Strauss, once said that the job of myths is to re-tell a story without the messy contradictions.

Take the myth of the Watergate scandal. If we re-cast it as myth, we would say that Richard Nixon was the big bad wolf; Little Red Riding Hood was the Constitution, and the rescuing woodman was The System. Richard Nixon was trying to devour the Constitution but the System (the media, Congress, and courts) stopped him, and so the System worked. We all felt great.

WWI Wasn't Such A Great War

May 12, 2017

The recent PBS documentary on America in World War I was a mind-changer, at least for me.

I had known about some of the troubles at home during this period — the race riots and the suppression of free speech — but, for me, they had been overcome by the heroic doughboys in France and Belgium, turning the tide of the conflict, and of the spirited George M. Cohen song “Over There,” which must be the most animating tune ever written.

Could This Be The New Affirmative Action?

Apr 14, 2017

It’s not clear whether or not this will ever happen, but let’s suppose it does.

Let’s assume that Congress passes, and the president signs, a mean-tested bill that makes public higher education free for all students whose parents make less than $125,000 a year.

Close Call Could've Changed History

Mar 17, 2017

I love counter-factuals. Lately I ran across a real doozy of a counter-factual.

In 1852 Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was elected president of the United States and was due to be sworn in on March 4, 1853. But before he was, he and his family were involved in a tragic train accident. The choo-choo jumped the rails and threw both President-Elect Pierce and his wife and small son off the train. Pierce and the soon-to-be First Lady were unharmed, but their son Bennie was killed. A train axle missed the Pierces but crushed Bennie.

The Power Of Oblivion

Feb 17, 2017

Recently I heard from an early middle-aged mother with a 12-year-old daughter, who asked her mom to sign a permission slip for a school field trip.

So her mother said, “OK, Julie. I guess I can put my John Hancock on this form,” whereupon Julie replied, “Please, Mother: enough of the dirty jokes, OK?”

Here we see the power of oblivion.

It Works Only If It Matters

Jan 27, 2017

Here in the United States we have lots of laws protecting freedom of press and speech – starting, of course, with the famed First Amendment.

That’s a good start, but it isn’t enough. The fact is, actual persons have to protect this freedom. If it’s abridged, the Constitution doesn’t automatically show up to stop the censorship.

That's A Whole 'Nother Word

Jan 19, 2017

If someone upsets you, you might say you are offended. If you’re charged with a crime, you will try to defend yourself in a court of law. If someone accuses you of putting your running shoes into the refrigerator, then likewise: You’ll defend yourself (unless, of course, you really did put your running shoes into the icebox).

But that’s in ordinary life. And while Coach Mike Ditka likes to compare football to life, there is a difference.

There's Snow ... And There's Snow

Dec 23, 2016

When I was a kid, I only saw snow three times in 21 years of life.

The first was when I was about five, and my mother made something she called “snow ice cream,” which just meant that she used the snow for the ice and almost certainly not for the cream. It was tasty, and I had the pleasant illusion that I was eating snow. This was in central Texas.

Then there was nary a flake for about ten years, and suddenly one high-school winter we had another snow. We went outside and threw snowballs at one another for about ten minutes before the white ice turned to green grass.

The Facts About Freedom Of Speech

Nov 25, 2016

Here in the United States we have lots of laws protecting freedom of press and speech – starting, of course, with the famed First Amendment.

That’s a good start, but it isn’t enough. The fact is, actual persons have to protect this freedom. If it’s abridged, the Constitution doesn’t automatically show up to stop the censorship.

Another Place To Eschew Politics

Oct 28, 2016

Politics: It’s a method by which people organize to get their interests served. It’s about the acquisition of power.

Notice that I’ve said nothing about truth. Politicians and their followers aren’t much interested in truth. They are all about power. They need what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—which is a nice word for the sort of BS that politicians throw around in order to justify what their followers already believe.

An Old Reason For Neighbor Envy

Sep 30, 2016

Some of us are old enough to remember when TVs needed to have antennas. This was long before cable of course, and long before roof dishes.

If you couldn’t afford to put an antenna on your roof ,then you had to make do with a little antenna on the top of your television set. These were called “rabbit ears,” and they didn’t work very well.

So the more affluent among us installed antennas on our roofs. Some of them were taller than others. If you had a really tall antenna on your roof, then that was a sign of wealth.

My, How Time Flies ...

Sep 9, 2016

When I’m not doing Perspectives or other things, I’m working on a project known as The Mindset List. This annual List details what has always or never been true in the lifetimes of entering college students. As such, it goes back eighteen years.

We’ve gotten thousands and thousands of responses over the years, but one stands out from all the others: “This List makes me feel really old.”

It’s true. Take this year’s List. For these new college students John Elway has always been retired. Frank Sinatra has always been dead. Are we old or what?

What Makes This An iPerspective

Jul 29, 2016

Most people might think that the “i” in i-Phone refers to the Internet. And they’d be right. The i is a small case one, after all, and surely that refers to the internet. If it referred to you, then it would be a capital I, right?

At Least The Millennials Get It

Jul 1, 2016

One prominent educator, when asked about the issue of transsexuals in public bathrooms, said that the kids get it but the parents don’t. This is an old story.

When I was a kid, I was far less afraid of change than my parents were. They had lived longer and knew that bad things could happen. I was young and foolish. Even so, sometimes their worries were over the top.

What Makes The World Go 'Round?

Jun 17, 2016

Sometimes I try to figure out what really makes the world go round. I don’t think it’s love. To me, it’s winners and losers. I see them everywhere.

For example, a local pizza parlor has been going strong for thirty years — it’s definitely a winner. On the other hand, few people build houses with big front porches any longer, so big front porches are losers.

Human beings are winners because we homo sapiens have beaten out Neanderthals, who are consigned to the dust bin of history and are therefore big-time losers.

An Addict's View Of Pun-ishment

May 27, 2016

I’m addicted to puns.

I can hardly go an hour without saying something like, “A kitchen blown to bits in France is linoleum blown apart” or “He who collects old candy finds it in mint condition” or “Plumber with fantasies has pipe dreams.”

I like puns because they expose the trickiness of language: that “linoleum blown apart” sounds a lot like “Napoleon Bonaparte” or because “mint condition” can refer to peppermint or cars, and “pipes” can refer both to opium pipes and water pipes.

But Why Would He Kill His Dog?

May 6, 2016

By now the lurid tale of Hitler’s last hours is well known. Knowing that Germany had lost the war, and blaming everyone from Jews to the German Army, he bit a cyanide capsule while shooting himself at the same time. His long time mistress, Eva Braun, preceded him in self-inflicted death. And he also poisoned his beloved dog Blondi.

Will Virtual Dog Be A Real Problem?

Apr 15, 2016

Earlier in the year my partner Ron Nief and I put our annual Parents’ Advisory on the World Wide Web. These are 20 questions that new parents would have to answer over the next 20 years. One of them was, “Can I have a virtual dog for my next birthday?”

Well, a virtual dog sounds awfully sci-fi, and I can’t say for sure that they’ll be worthy presents in just 20 years. But I’m fairly sure they’re coming.