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What Does Your Desktop Say?

13 Mar

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           I’m always changing the desktop wallpaper on our computer at home. I just got rid of the Valentine Day’s hearts for February and replaced them with a couple of Irish Dancers for March and St. Patrick’s Day. The boy dancer looks a bit goofy, so I will probably change it again— I’m thinking a leprechaun or shamrock. Over the holidays I had a slide show of Thanksgiving and then Christmas pictures set up in the screen saver , which irritated my wife Diane. When the grandchildren come to visit, I usually put up something like images of SpongeBob Squarepants or Disney princesses.

On my work computer I have our company logo on the home screen. My daughter and her husband have a slide show of pictures of their children constantly playing on the computer in their kitchen. For a lot of people these screens have become our personal art galleries.  A few years ago a British study of the psychological meaning of computer desktops was commissioned by Microsoft. Psychologist Donna Dawson reviewed a sample of office workers’ desktops seeking factors which reflect personality traits. She said “….desktops are our personal space and as such provide a fairly accurate personality description of an individual.”

According to eMarketer, the average American spends over 5 hours a day looking at screens. BioniX a company that makes software that helps people customized their computers, quotes a customer who says, ““One of the things I love about getting a new phone or computer is not just the things I can do with it, but the fact that I can personalize it and make it my own. I like my technology to reflect who I am, what I’m into, my opinions and beliefs.” The website also says that such customization helps people “feel at home” with their device and implies that no one would ever “dream of using the factory settings” for their desktops.

BioniX also says that getting a new device is much like buying a new home. The first thing you want to do is to redecorate it and make it your own. Since we spend so much time with our screens they say, “the choice of the image that greets us every time we fire up our laptop is an important one”. Brian McGannon, a columnist from postgradproblems.com says, “Maybe you’re a minimalist who likes to keep it simple, or maybe you’re the flashy type who has a beautiful cityscape with lightning flashing in the background. Either way, that desktop background can provide a deep look into your personality.”

Many people consciously choose images that are a source of inspiration. These pictures may be spiritual or religious in nature. Personal beliefs may also be expressed through political and historical images or quotations. Calming images that evoke relaxation or pleasant reveries are often seen on work desktops used to reduce the ill effects of on-the-job stressors.  Desktop visuals may also serve as reminders for goals we want to achieved or resolutions we wish to keep. Additionally the number and organization of icons on your desktop also may have psychological significance.  Along with Dawson and McGannon, writers Jeff Wysaski from pleated-jeans.com and Sophie Daste from Sparklife have offered their take on the different kinds of desktops people use. These along with some interpretations stemming from the content analysis of common symbols are presented for several desktop themes below.

1. Windows/MAC Default: Use of factory loaded defaults is generally associated with older users who may not be very tech savvy regarding how to personalizes the device. They also imply a lack of artistic temperament, being overly simplistic and old fashioned. It may also point to depression and a lack of energy or perhaps contempt for modern technology. You also may just be “stuck using your dad’s old laptop.” On a MAC it suggests someone who is easily pleased, unimaginative, and perhaps uses the use computer sparingly and only bought a MAC because of its association with youth.
2. Plain Blue Wallpaper: This simple, but often used, wallpaper suggests that the user possesses the technical skills to personalized the computer. This ability, however, is overpowered by a defensive and guarded unwillingness to disclose very much. Overall it suggests someone who likes to keep their personal life private.
3. Cute Animals: In all likelihood this user is an animal lover, compassionate, optimistic, imaginative, charitable and very possibly a little girl. These images suggest some degree of distancing of the self from others. Cartoon animals represent one step further away from reality.
4. Sports Photos or Logos: This wallpaper is associated with personality characteristics such as team/city/college loyalty, adventurousness, hero worshipping, and possibly beer drinking. It also suggests aggressiveness, competitiveness, extroversion, and a high energy level. Unless of course unless it’s the Green Bay Packers, then it’s okay.
5. Nature: These images are often used by people value travel and tend to be dreamers. They are commonly associated with people who lack windows in their workspace and need a vacation.
6. TV/Movie Characters or Scenes: People who use these backgrounds tend to be homebodies and loyal Netflix users. They may be imaginative and have an active fantasy life. This type of screen may overlap with the Celebrity Crush desktop, which is generally harmless unless you are over 15 years of age, when stalking becomes a viable possibility.
7. Personal Photos: These users tend to be family-orientated, as they are often they are people with children.. They may also reflect travel or hobbies. Subcategories include photos of: (A) You and your significant other, which reveals romantic tendencies, but also exhibitionism, since it invites personal conversations; (B) you accepting an award . Such self-portraits strongly indicate narcissism — folks with big egos who revel in past triumphs. This category reminds me of a guy that Diane once worked for, who didn’t have any pictures of his family around his office, but instead had many pictures of himself; and (C) college days: these indicate a desire to return to the good old days where there was less pressure and responsibility. Unless you just got out of college last week, authorities agree that it might be time to move on.
8. Inspirational Quotes: These are used by people who are overly conventional, easily influenced, and generally happy with their lives, although they may feel pangs of ambition at times.
9. Cluttered Icons on Desktop : When a desktop has icons strewn across the screen it suggests the owner is disorganized and tends to easily lose focus. Research reveals such people are e likely to be male, liberal, have higher education, be career-oriented, and are math whizs.
10. Highly Organized Icons: People with very tidy desktops are likely to be younger, non-urban, tech savvy, and place personal life ahead of work. When the icons are arranged symmetrically its suggests obsessive-compulsive features. If can also indicate they value balance and that they have the ability to keep a cool head, even in thorny situations.
11. Several Rows of Desktop Icons: This type of a desktop arrangement reflects a strong need to feel in control and prepared for every contingency. At the same time it indicates underlying anxiety, insecurity, and internal disorganization.
12. Seasons of the Year: Seasonal images are most often used by elementary school teachers who are constantly decorating bulletin boards and, of course, talented writers.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Striking a Blow for Masculini-Tea!

19 Jan

teas Our 6-year-old grandson has three sisters and virtually lives in a world of princesses and pink. I have always admired how he is still so secure in his masculinity.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Diane made the kids some Funfetti cupcakes with pink icing and sprinkles to celebrate the youngest girl’s birthday. I wondered if our grandson would reject this rather girly treat. As Diane predicted, he happily accepted his pink cupcake. His only beef was that he didn’t get the one with the big piece of chocolate on top, intended for the birthday girl.
Personally, I have always tried to combat my own insecurities about masculinity by over compensating to some degree. I’ll drink beer when I really don’t want one and I’ll talk to other men about sporting events that I know absolutely nothing about.

Over my lifetime, I estimate that I have attended one ballet, one fashion show and about seven afternoon teas. In my own defense, I can claim that I have never attended a bridal shower or a Tupperware party regardless of promised refreshments.
This holiday season, Diane took our daughter, our two older granddaughters and our son to the Brown-Forman production of “The Nutcracker Ballet.” Fortunately, I was left with the two youngest children to watch Christmas cartoon specials and catch up on our SpongeBob Squarepants. I was a little disappointed, however, to not get to see the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, since I always thought the music was pretty catchy after all my years of playing Tetris. Overall, I have to agree with columnist Dave Barry who once said he would rather watch a dog catch a Frisbee than go to a ballet.

I did, however, once attend a ballet that was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby.” People always say that ballet dancers are really great athletes, so I used that belief to rationalize my attendance. It was exactly like attending a basketball game, except most of the players were girls, the uniforms were pastel and all the jumping and prancing about seemed to lack any essential purpose. As I remember, the final score was a shutout — Daisy 36, Gatsby nothing.

It is a little disconcerting to realize that I have gone to more afternoon teas than professional baseball, hockey and football games combined. I have occasionally wondered if there was something wrong with me, since I, unlike my grandson and his father, have no interest whatsoever in professional sports.

Love of sporting events has long been popularly considered a leading indicator of masculinity in America. In his dubious run for governor of Texas, macho singer Kinky Friedman once said at a press conference that he was not pro-choice, and he was not pro-life, but he was, pro-football.

Last weekend, Diane and I drove down to Vine Grove, Ky., to an afternoon tea at the Two Sister’s Tea Room. In November, the proprietors Paula Jaenichen and Amy Pickerell — who have relatives in the New Albany area — reopened what was formerly a local Victorian tearoom. With excellent hot fresh scones, it was a very accomplished afternoon tea. The Two Sisters should not be confused with The Sisters Tea Parlor & Boutique in Buckner, Ky., which Diane and I have also visited.

Most of the teas Diane and I have gone to have been full afternoon teas. According to the What’s Cooking America? website, many folks mistakenly refer to the full afternoon tea as “high tea,” because they think it sounds ritzier. In fact, “ high tea” (sometimes called a “meat tea”) is just the old British term for dinner. Working men and children would partake of “high tea,” so-called because it was served at a tall dining table, rather than in a sitting room or drawing room where low tables were used.

The first scholars to write about tea may have been men in third-century China, but one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, the Duchess of Bedford, is usually credited with establishing the afternoon tea tradition during the Victorian Era. The duchess reported having a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon (probably low blood sugar).

At the time, there was no such thing as lunch and unfortunately dinner wasn’t served until around 8 p.m. The peckish Duchess found that a pot of tea and some bread, butter and cakes, served in her private rooms, hit the spot perfectly. Soon she — and everyone else — was inviting guests over for an afternoon of “tea and a walking the field.”

Over time, three basic kinds of afternoon teas evolved. A Cream Tea consists of tea, scones, jam and clotted cream. The Light Tea has all the same items, but adds sweets (which are usually cakes, cookies, tiny tarts, or shortbread). The top-of-the-line is the full afternoon tea that has all of above, and also includes savories and a dessert. Often, these courses are served on three-tiered serving dishes.
In America salads, fruits, and soups are sometimes included. I have to say that I have enjoyed all the teas I’ve attended, but the usual menu is a bit too loaded with carbohydrates and sugar for me these days.

Until I started attending teas, my knowledge of scones was limited to what I had gleaned from Scrooge McDuck comic books. I have since learned that scones are rather crumbly biscuit-like affairs with a wide variety of possible ingredients. These are traditionally served with jam, lemon or lime curd, and Devonshire or clotted cream (which is a thick unsweetened whipped cream).
Diane says that her favorite place for afternoon tea is the Hopsewee Plantation near Myrtle Beach, S.C. The owners of this restored rice plantation added the River Oak Cottage Tea Room where you can get the Hopsewee Full Southern Tea, which in addition to scones and sweets, includes such fare as cucumber sandwiches, curried chicken on ginger snaps, blue cheese spinach quiche, salmon mousse and parmesan-peppercorn crackers with mozzarella, pesto and tomato.

Around Christmas time, the girls in the family, except for our 10-year old-granddaughter Becca, all attended an afternoon tea in Cincinnati. Poor Becca had a rehearsal for the church Christmas play to go to with her brother. She had to stay and eat lunch with us boys until it was time to go to church.

We watched Cincinnati Bengals football highlights and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoons until we got hungry and went out for pizza. We told Becca to just pretend that the provolone cheese-filled Rondos were scones and the Sprite was Jasmine-Apricot tea.
New York-based psychoanalyst and Psychology Today blogger Gurmeet S. Kanwal says that “‘masculinity” and ‘femininity’ exist in every individual,” so maybe liking high teas just reflects my feminine side.

Perhaps one day there will be afternoon teas designed especially for us men. Personally I doubt it, unless there is some way to add competition, danger and destruction to the event. Perhaps the tea could be held with participants wearing only gym shorts and involve running among the tables like an obstacle course, all the time juggling teapots of scalding hot tea. Now that would really be something!

Originally Published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

I’m Not Bad, I’m Only Designed That Way

4 Jan

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             When the federal healthcare exchange initially went on line  and was plagued by technical glitches, due to what Time Magazine called “lousy design”, I wasn’t surprised. In fact after surviving three major software installations on the job in as many years, I’m amazed when these things work at all.   In one program at work there’s a screen that contains a special button.   If you click it,  critical information, that should never be deleted, is irretrievably erased.  The button has no legitimate use and there is no warning.   Some staff call  it the “suicide button”.    It appears that its only reason to exist is to make trouble.  I’ve wondered if it’s a design error or a vestigial remnant that served some important purpose in a past life— like when it was the software for a Pac Man game.

            A few years ago we replaced our home stove. I always get the simplest model possible. I figure there is less to go wrong. Like our old stove, the new one has a drawer underneath the oven, where you can store pans, broilers, and cookie sheets. If, however, you pull the drawer out just a little too far, it falls off the plastic track and won’t close.  Additionally the inside edge is as sharp as a razor, so that you risk a major laceration every time you have to wrestle it back into position. Once, after cutting myself trying to fix it, I complained to the manufacturer. The company offered to send a repair man to “file down” the sharp edge. It sounded suspiciously like this wasn’t the first time they’d heard this complaint.

It is said that  up to 90%  of accidents are due to human error.  Toronto psychologist Marc Green, vsays, “In many cases, the real source of the error is the design rather than the human – someone created a product, facility or situation where safety depends on unrealistic or unattainable standards of behavior”.  According to Green, designers often rely upon us users to compensate for poor design. If the stove manufacturer expected me to make up for the poorly designed drawer, they should have provided leather gloves, or perhaps a tetanus shot, as standard accessories. According to Green, “We are surrounded by so much poor design that most people simply take it for granted and then blame themselves for stupidity when they make an error.”

Recently my wife Diane and I were in the checkout line at a grocery store when we heard the cashier apologize to the man in front of us, because his receipt came out wrong. It said that he gave her cash, when he had paid with a check. Rather than herself, this cashier blamed the     design of the cash register. The  cash payment key was right next to the one for checks, so it was very easy to push the wrong one.

Donald Norman, former chairman  of the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California is the author of The Design of Everyday Things.    Norman says,  “Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible clues to their operation.” He contends that “poor design predominates”,  resulting in   “objects that cannot be understood”,   “devices that lead to error”, and a “world  filled with frustration”.   Norman says there are a lot of people today who can’t figure out how to use their microwaves, cameras, or washing machines, and many (like me) who  “habitually turn on the wrong stove burner”.

Poorly designed objects are not only inconvenient they can also be expensive and even dangerous. Receiving a flawed grocery receipt, ruining a pie due to poorly designed oven controls, or getting off on the wrong floor because  the “G” on the elevator button  stood for “Garage” instead of “Ground floor”,  may be frustrating, but those are minor inconveniences  compared to, say, a poorly designed control for a jumbo jet’s landing gear.

Seth Porges, a New York based technology journalist,  has described  a number  of  recent  tech design flaws such as;  unresponsive phone touchscreens, dangerously sharp laptop cases, hyper-sensitive page  buttons on electronic readers,  and   slippery video game controllers that, when sweaty, are liable to decapitate  a family member or  crash  into your widescreen television.

Human factors is the study of the design of devices that interact with people.   It incorporates knowledge and techniques from   psychology, engineering, and design, as well as many other disciplines.  Human factors researchers have identified a number of important general design principles. For example, one basic rule is that people soon quit reading labels after frequently using   implements, thus never depend on labels alone to guide behavior or prevent errors.

Another is the concept of “mode errors”. Many modern devices operate in multiple modes, such as remote controls and digital clocks. The same controls function differently depending upon the mode.   Modes save space and money,  but increase  the probability of errors,  because in addition  to deciphering the control, the user must maintain constant mode awareness.    Poor keyboarders, like me, experience mode errors when we eventually look up at what we are typing and discover, to our dismay, that we have been typing for some time in the  “caps lock” mode.

A related   concept is “creeping featureism”. Due to electronic advances, it’s easy for manufacturers to pile additional features onto their devices. Although this leads to an increase in   mode errors, it is tempting, because it’s cheap and people make buying decisions based on the features.

In an article in Quality and Safety in  Health Care,  J. R. Grout from  Georgia’s  Berry College discusses  reducing errors in medical settings through design, which he calls “mistake proofing”.   Errors in   medical settings are common and can have especially dire consequences.  Recent studies on medication administration error rates, for example, are rather sobering. In one study,  the medication administration error rate in one large hospital was almost 25%.   An analysis of over 90 studies yielded a  median medication error rate  of 19.6%.    Other research has shown that error rates are  even higher at night, on weekends,  after interruptions  and for intravenous administrations.

According to Grout “mistake proofing” should aim primarily at preventing errors that result in injury.   Grout   identified four approaches   to mistake proofing:  1. designing the process so that errors  simply cannot occur. This usually means automating or oversimplifying a task (idiot-proofing).   2.  Using a design with a built- in mechanism that allows mistakes to be immediately discovered and corrected. Grout describes the use of radio‐opaque sponges during surgery. Such sponges can be readily detected inside they patient, when they still can be easily retrieved.  3.  Designing the process so that if it fails, the outcome is not so detrimental. Automobile airbags are an example of this approach. The error (crash)  may  still occur, but the consequences are somewhat mitigated.  4. Designing a work environment that encourages error prevention.    Simplicity, cleanliness, and a lack of ambiguity characterize an environment that minimizes the chance for errors.   Grout says,  “… small design changes can have a profound impact on human errors. Thoughtfully changing the physical details of healthcare process design can be very effective in preventing errors or harm.”

Donald Norman concludes that, “Proper design can make a difference in our quality of life.”  He encourages designers, as well as the public, to join in the battle for usability. He urges boycotting unusable designs and complaining to manufacturers and retailers who carry shoddy products. Finally Norman says we can support proper design by purchasing well-designed products, even if they cost more.

So the next time I bring home some expensive gadget, I hope Diane realizes that I’m only doing my civic duty.

Originally published in Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

Domestic Archeology

12 Aug

Checkbook_Register_ImageNovelist William Gibson once wrote, “It’s impossible to move, to live, to
operate at any level without leaving traces …”

The most obvious of these  traces are photo albums and home movies. When arranged chronologically, we can actually see ourselves moving through time and space, sort of like those time-lapsed science movies back in school showing how plants grow. Looking at
old images of himself, talk show host Jay Leno seems proud of how he looked as a
young comic, and David Letterman jokes about his full head of curly hair.
Sometimes, however, this can be more like watching the picture of Dorian Gray
deteriorate before our eyes.

I remember we once watched a compilation of Barbara Walter’s past interviews on television, and the thing that stood out the most was how her hair styles changed over the years. As she commented herself,  it was mostly a retrospective of hairdos.

In a sense, such photos and films serve as the illustrations in the ongoing stories of people’s lives, showing where they have been, and perhaps where they are going. Family
therapists occasionally use such media to explore family relationships and
dynamics, following the lead of Canadian psychologist Judy Weiser, who pioneered
photography in psychotherapy back in 1970s.

There are also other personal  traces that we leave behind. In the 1970s, University of Arizona archaeologist William Rathje  described how our garbage can be used to gain insight into our behavior and relationships. He found that the things people tell interviewers are often inconsistent with the record their  trash leaves behind.

For example, people frequently claimed they eat lots  of fruits and vegetables, but their garbage tells a very different story. Rathje  says that garbage never lies. In his book, “Rubbish! The Archaeology of  Garbage,” he calls the tendency to under-report the amount of junk food consumed and over-report the amount of low-calorie foods eaten the “Lean Cuisine Syndrome.” Most people admit to drinking only about half the amount of alcohol  they actually consume, according to their garbage. In the “Good Provider
Syndrome,” heads of households overestimate the total amount of food their families consume.
I find myself constantly throwing away important  documents, necessitating digging through our garbage. We rarely drink coffee, but is seems like every time I have to rummage through the trash, to find the water bill, there is an abundance of coffee grinds. Also it appears that much of our diet consists of eggs and things covered in tomato sauce. Poking around in your trash gives you some insight into your diet, purchasing habits and family priorities.
“Middens” is the technical name that archeologists have given  to such informative trash heaps. Besides looking at the photographic record and plowing through the garbage, there are several other middens that are “ripe” for practicing what’s been called “domestic archaeology.”

Things like a loaded dishwasher or a pile of dirty laundry can serve as mini-middens. Sorting your dirty clothes can tell you all sorts of things about what you’ve been up to
over the past week.

How hard did you work? Did you go anywhere special? What was the weather like? Or in my case, what did I have for breakfast on Tuesday morning?  All of these questions and much more can be answered in the laundry room. You can even tell if it is cold or allergy season by the amount of shredded Kleenex that ends up strewn over the clothing.

As  technology has advanced, digital middens are now found in many places, such as
email archives, browser histories and computer recycle bins, as well as records
of text messages and cell phone calls. Recently, the state of Alaska released
more than 24,000 pages of emails sent and received by Sarah Palin during her
tenure as governor.

In this case, however, few revelations have been forthcoming, other than Palin’s complete and utter surprise at being asked to be the vice-presidential nominee and some surprising admiration expressed for a speech of President Barack Obama.

Among the most important of everyday  middens are people’s financial records. General George Washington’s hand-written expense account, published in 1970, can be instructive. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington refused to take a salary, settling instead for having his expenses covered. However, at the end of his service, he presented an astonished Congress with a detailed bill for what would be the equivalent of $2,665,096.03 today.

According to author Marvin Kitman, Washington’s  purchases included personal items such as fine carriages and the costs of entertaining important dignitaries, as well as military expenses such as reconnaissance and even his own army’s retreat.

Throughout the war, despite the blockade of English ships, Washington continued buying his favorite gourmet green tea. Just as it is possible to follow the events of the Revolution
through Washington’s expenditures, we can also experience a personal retrospective through our checkbook registers.

When my wife Diane and I  balance our checkbook, it’s like symbolically reliving the month. Each separate entry is a memory that shows where we put our priories. To paraphrase Matthew 6:21, “Where your debit card is used, there your heart will be
also.” Writer Kimberly Danger suggests reviewing your check register and
receipts for a month to see if anything stands out. She asks, “Is it an accurate
portrayal of what you value in life and where your priorities are?” Like our garbage, our checkbooks also never lie, they show precisely where our money  goes, rather than where we intend for it to go.

The website Planabidget.com asks the hypothetical question, if the world were destroyed and aliens came to earth and discovered your checkbook, “What would they
think?” Does your checkbook reveal your inner self and personality?  If those aliens ever get a gander at my check register, they will probably think I was being blackmailed by someone named Sallie Mae.

Crafty Devils

6 Aug

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When my wife Diane and   I moved to southern Indiana in 1999, I was immediately struck by the number of people involved in various arts and crafts. In  the first  houses we visited,  it seemed like there was  frequently an art studio in the basement or maybe even a full-size loom in the back bedroom.

According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation  32.7 million adults American adults participated  in needle crafts than in any other arts-related activity. Another 17.6 million engaged  in painting and drawing and 14.1 million created pottery or jewelry.   Some estimates are even higher.   According to Susan Brandt,  from the Hobby Industry Association,   80% of  American  households have at least one crafter which is  about 70 million participants in  total.  Brant says,  “Our research shows that about 14 percent of these crafters are selling what they make, which translates to around 12 million people.”

Back in Florida Diane had several  friends who were  into crafts and we would occasionally go to craft fairs.   I remember one church fair when we shamelessly spoiled our youngest son boy by getting him a number of toys  including a wooden  dinosaur covered with green glitter that got all over everything. Diane has  quite a bit of experience with arts and crafts from her work in schools with emotionally disturbed  children, Sunday school and vacation bible school teaching, and conducting  museum children’s activities.

I remember once helping in Diane’s Sunday School class for three-year-olds. They were doing a craft that called for  the use of glue and I was assigned to supervised a three year old girl named Jenna. Well Jenna wanted no part of me or my supervision and she constantly fought me tooth and nail over the control of the glue. The fact that I was 100 times bigger than her, did  not phase her in the least. Jenna was not easily impressed.

In recent years when we take vacation trips with our  grandchildren Diane usually has taken along some craft activities. Last year she made Gullah clothes pin dolls with the granddaughters, while I made a simple wood pirate ship with our grandson. I have found that even little boys can be  interested  in crafts,  if it involves skulls and cross bones. This year we’re putting together a small wooden sail boat, I hope it’s not too dull.

Once when Diane  was leading  Lewis and Clark related children’s activities  for  the Howard Steam Boat Museum’s  Chautauqua, I was assigned to fashion tomahawks, made out of small branches  and cardboard, with the boys. They were mildly interested in the task, but livened up considerably  when we decorated  them with bright red paint,  resembling blood. The parent did seem all that pleased with our handiwork.

Out of necessity people have been making and selling handicrafts throughout American history.  The  term “Arts and Crafts” was  coined in 1887,   by English artist and bookbinder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson.  At that  time it referred to  an international design movement that  lasted from 1860 well  into 1930s. This movement was largely a reaction against the industrialization of  the decorative arts at the time. It called for a return to  traditional forms and methods of craftsmanship and employed  medieval, romantic,  and classic  folk decorative styles

According to  crafts industry expert Barbara Brabecthe, however, “…the burgeoning handcrafts industry that we know today would not exist at all if someone hadn’t started the craft supply industry back in the 1940s.”   The craft supply industry started on the West Coast and swept across the country.  Brabecthe  says that  “ how-to instructional books”  and  the startup of       magazines especially  aimed at hobbyists and crafters in the 1960’s  encourage people to become involved in crafts. In  the mid-1970s  a Lou Harris poll revealed that two out of three Americans   participated in the arts and crafts, and even more wanted to get involved Large trade shows, craft fairs and  television shows pushed the movement even further  along.  Since then crafts have grown steadily,  fueled  by crazes such as Xavier Robert’s  Cabbage Patch Kids® in the 1980’s.

Michaels, North America’s largest arts and crafts specialty retailer  newest crafting trends for 2013 will be (1) Nostalgia/vintage items  using doilies, chalkboard paint, lace,  Mason jars and vintage book pages. (2) Eco-chic crafts employing  wood grain, natural fibers, rope, paper and cork. (3) Use of  Unexpected materials  such as wreaths made of photos, balloons, clothes pins, or fabric remnants. and (4) Personalization with initials and monograms showing up on all kinds of  everyday objects like cell phone cases and shoes.

Arts and  crafts  have also played a major role in American mental health. They were introduced into asylums  and mental hospitals in the early 19th-century  as    an early form of occupational therapy. Activities, such as basket weaving, were intended to   have a calming effect,  while keeping  patients busy and productive. Basket weaving and later the making of ceramic pieces continued  in mental health settings well  into the late 20th Century. In October  1970, Time Magazine published an   article entitled “Is Basket Weaving Harmful?”  The article described  how basket weaving was a  major part of the average  patient’s day.  Psychologists at the time argued  that  patients should not be forced or even encouraged to participate in such endless recreational therapy. Such activities were seen as been too akin  to childplay and ultimately  dehumanizing or at least infantilizing in  nature.

In a study of  hospitalized adults, arts and crafts were the most popular of sixteen activity groups offered, although  only one-third of the participants said that they found the arts and crafts  to be helpful. Despite only moderate  evidence  that arts and crafts are especially beneficial to   all psychiatric patients, this  may only reinforce that fact that treatment always  needs to be individualized.

When I began counseling children in the 1970’s.   almost all mental health centers had  large kilns and  materials to make ceramic pieces. Among  the first things I was given, when I started was a checker set and several plastic model kits. I was told that when I saw younger children, these would be good activities to keep them  calm and interested. I was also warned to keep them away from the glue. I don’t believe we ever made a model that didn’t have a gluey fingerprint on the windshield.  The plastic models, however,  did work our much better than the checkers, since the kids would usually get angry and turn   the board over,  when I wouldn’t  let them beat me.   I   still believe that such crafts  help   improve  motor control, sensory and perceptual stimulation,  as well as increasing rapport.. They also help children develop   patience and provide  cognitive challenges. Finally  used properly they  enhance self-esteem anda sense of efficacy.

Arts and craft  participation has also been found to be related to  scientific discovery and creativity  In 1958, UCLA psychologist Bernice Eiduson    began a 20 year long  study of scientists to try to determine what personality  factors differentiated the highly successful and productive  scientists (Nobel Prize winners and National Academy Members)  from their less successful  colleagues.   Robert Root-Bernstein from Michigan State University and   his colleagues took over the project in  the  1980’s. At first they were not   able to find any significant differences  In1988 they reanalyzed   their data and looked at the scientists’ participation in  arts and crafts, avocations, and recreational habit.    This time they found significant differences. The highly successful scientists were much more likely participate in various arts and crafts activities and believed that that these activities were relevant to their scientific work and could explain how their hobbies and pastimes contributed to their success.

Diane learned to sew and even made clothes for herself when she was in high school. I was never so talented. I did  spend a lot of  time out in my father garage taking things apart and  driving nails into pieces of wood. I did learn how to cast  lead soldiers out of molten lead and my brother Norman  tried his hand at crafts by trying to fashion a spear gun from a Popular Mechanics magazine blueprint. My father  confiscated the spear gun after it  misfired and made a two inch hole in the garage door, barely missing a couple of my brother’s hoodlum friends. Norman;s failure was short lived.  A few  years later he did succeed in making a large carbide cannon from another Popular Mechanics magazine set of plans.  .

I was once out in the garage trying to straighten a rusty crooked nail to use in  one of my projects (I think I was  hammering together a battleship). I hit the nail and  the head   broke off and struck me in the throat.  With blood all over my neck,  I scared my mother half to death. They rushed  me to the emergency room where I got  a tetanus shot.    The  x-ray showed the nail head lodged squarely in my throat,  fortunately just  north of my jugular vein. When my pediatrician, Dr. Berman arrived and looked at the X-ray,  he asked my mother, “Who shot Terry?” He wasn’t able to  remove the nail head, so to the best of my knowledge it is still with me.   For years  I’ve   been   waiting for a TSA  scanner  to go off at the airport, just  so I could tell them that it was probably the nail for my battleship.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune in Jeffersonville and New Albany, Indiana

Gonna’ Need an Ocean

2 Aug

Treatment-For-Poison-Ivy jpgI haven’t had a reaction to poison ivy since I was a kid,  but last week I came down with a terrible case  on my right arm.  Now it’s covered with  dark red splotches that make it look  like I’ve been attacked by marauding zombies.  The hydrocortisone I put on it does little to  stop the itching,  but it does make my arm nice and greasy.  Benadryl and other antihistamines only make  me really sleepy and  dopier than usual.

When my wife Diane and I work in the yard,  she always wears protective clothing. I, on the other hand, have   been tempting fate by refusing to wear gloves  or long sleeves.  I thought that maybe I was part of that  minority of people   who don’t react to urushiol, the  chemical in the sap of the plant,  that causes all the trouble. It was sheer  arrogance— like those doctors I once read about,  who made others wear protective gear around contagious patients, but didn’t wear any  themselves,  because they  thought they were just too smart to  get infected.

Diane is sensitive to poison ivy and even with all of her precautions, she’s still  had a few outbreaks every year. For a while were quarantining our cat, Klaus, inside the house, because he was suspected of   bringing poison ivy in on his fur. He is always rolling around in something.

I blame our air conditioner for my outbreak. We were outside cleaning up some branches and  we pulled up some English ivy  vines   that were creeping into  the condenser housing.  The next day the air conditioner  didn’t work. I think I  got exposed when I was taking off the  metal cover in order to see if there was anything obviously wrong that I could fix.

Getting the cover off entailed laying down  in the surrounding  vegetation. Although I did put down a tarp, it wasn’t large enough to  cover all of it. Of course, I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt at the time.  The repairman later told us that the wire that  the thermostat wire  was a very fine one, that looks just like a vine and   we must have pulled it loose. This time I’ve learned my lesson. The next time we work in the yard I’ve  promised to cover up.

I still find   poison ivy hard to identify. Evidently the plant is very versatile and  grows  in several forms,  including  a ground cover, a climbing vine, and a shrub. I think we have all of these types and it seems like there has been even more of it in  the past few years.  In 2007  U.S. Agriculture Department botanist Lewis Ziska,   and his colleagues published   a study,   in Weed Science  which  concluded  that,  due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, poison ivy plants are   getting larger, hardier, and   more toxic.   Ziska claims that over the last 50 years the growth rate has doubled.

Poison ivy has been irritating people for a long time. It  was given its current name  by Captain John Smith in 1609 in Jamestown.  Over the years people have developed a number of rhymes to help them  remember to avoid  this plant. These include jingles like:  “Leaflets three; let it be.”,  “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.” ,. “Side leaflets like mittens, will itch like the dickens.”, “Raggy rope, don’t be a dope!”, “One, two, three? Don’t touch me.”, “Berries white, run in fright”;  and “Red leaflets in the spring, is a dangerous thing.”.

According to  the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at least 350,000 Americans  suffer from  urushiol-induced contact dermatitis each year. The number is even higher when  poison sumac and poison oak are included.  Urushiol is really potent stuff. Only 1  billionth of a gram is  needed to cause a rash.

The  poison ivy rash  which is characterized by redness, itching,  swelling, and blisters, usually develops within  a few hours  up to  a week from exposure. The rash can last anywhere   from one to six  weeks, depending on  its severity. Most people   become sensitized with repeated exposures to urushiol.  Dawn Davis, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN  says, “The dermatitis gets worse each subsequent time.” She also says that a person’s  reactivity  tends to decline with age. Also people with compromised immune systems   may not react to  urushiol.  Age, previous exposures, immune system functioning, and heredity   all  play a role in how severe the reaction to poison ivy  will be.

Washing with soap and water or  alcohol within 15 to 30 minutes of exposure may help prevent a reaction.  Commercial poison ivy washes such as Zanfel, are  also available. Typical over the counter   treatments include,  Calamine lotion (zinc oxide  and ferric oxide),  hydrocortisone cream,  and  antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadyl).  Oatmeal baths and baking soda  may also help relive  the itching.  Scratching the rash is strongly discouraged   as this can lead  to secondary bacterial infections,  that usually have to be treated with antibiotics. Powerful steroids such as prednisone  may also be prescribed in severe cases.

Most people tough it out at home with over-the-counter remedies. Experts suggest, however,   that you  should see your doctor if : (1.) More than one-fourth of your skin is involved; (2.) You run a temperature over 100o F;  (3.)  There are any signs of infection; (4.) If it spreads to  the  eyes,   mouth, or  other sensitive areas; (5.) If the  itching is very severe and keeps you awake at night;  or (6) It does not show improvement within a few days.

Urushiol dermatitis  can also occur when you are  exposed to objects that have come in contact with poison ivy  like clothing, gardening  tools, camping equipment, and other objects.  Urushiol oil can  remain active for  years, so  even dead vines or last year’s jacket can still cause a reaction.    Logs covered with poison ivy vines can cause problems if  they are burned and the urushiol becomes airborne. If such smoke is inhaled a  rash can irritate the lining of the lungs, causing extreme pain and difficulty breathing.

Poison ivy is not considered to be contagious, in that it is not transmitted by   exposure to the blisters, rash, or fluid, which Diane still does not  believe. By the time   these symptoms appear the irritant oil has been absorbed  into the skin or washed away. Of course, the irritation can  be transmitted from person-to-person  in the earliest stage,  when   oil  is still  present on the skin.

Finally,  to protect yourself against   exposure,  the following steps are most often recommended  (1.) Routinely wash tools, work clothes, and gloves. (2.) Always wear long sleeves,  long pants, and gloves. (3.)  If  your  pet has been exposed, wash it thoroughly with pet shampoo while wearing rubber gloves, (4.) If you are extremely reactive consider using  IvyBlock,  an over-the-counter product that  provides a  barrier (like sun block) that prevents  the toxic oil from penetrating.  Use Roundup or other herbicide to eliminate poison ivy in high traffic areas. (7). Buy a  goat. They love to eat poison ivy, which has no detrimental effects on them.

All of this thinking about poison ivy has made me itchy,  even  in places where I don’t have a rash. I think I’ll take comedian Stephen Wright’s advice about what to do  if  you have poison ivy on the brain and think  about sandpaper.

Birthday Blathings

26 Jul

homerLast week, we kicked off the summer birthday season with a trip to an indoor water park in Cincinnati to celebrate our middle granddaughter’s 10th birthday.

Birthdays are taken pretty seriously in our family and the summer is cram-packed with them.

When our daughter was in kindergarten, she came home from school on her birthday still wearing her party hat. She insisted on keeping it on and wouldn’t take it off for the rest of the day. She sought the full measure from her birthday and wanted everyone else to know, without question, that she was “the birthday girl.”

My wife Diane has always thought that your birthday privileges should extend beyond your actual birthday, at least until the next family member’s special day. She also introduced the idea of a “fun day” in our family, in lieu of a formal birthday party, in which the birthday child gets to pick whatever they want to do that day.

I always assumed that most birthdays take place during the summer. Some demographers believe that women, especially teachers, may plan this in order to coincide with summer vacations. From an evolutionary perspective, it also makes sense to give birth when weather conditions are milder.

Turns out that I’m slightly off, and most birthdays in America fall between July and early October. Depending on the data used, the months of August and September usually come out on top.

One study by Harvard economist Amitabh Chandra, identifies Sept. 16 as the most common birthday in America. ABC news and several other sources, however, cite AnyBirthday.com’s survey, which designates Oct. 5 as America’s most popular birthday. The website says that more than 960,000 people have this birthday, compared to the 750,000 on an average day. October 5 also has the distinction of falling precisely nine months (274 days) from New Year’s Eve.

Julie Andrews, Kate Winslet, the late Bernie Mac and Nicky Hilton all share Oct. 5 birthdays.

The least common American birthday falls on Leap Day, Feb. 29. When the number of Leap Day birthdays is multiplied by four, however, the result falls within the average range.

Christmas Day is the next least frequent birthday. While you often hear complaints by people maintaining that their birthdays were spoiled by being too close to Christmas, very few people are actually born on Christmas Day. Admittedly, getting birthday presents wrapped in holiday paper, “Merry Birthday” cards and the notorious “twofer” — one gift for both occasions, sounds like a raw deal.

While some women, consciously or unconsciously, may be able to delay the onset of labor, the low numbers of births on holidays may also be due to how hospitals and doctors arrange their schedules.

According to a study by the Yale School of Public Health, positive and negative associations with specific holidays may also influence birthrates. This study shows a significant decrease in regular and cesarean births on Halloween, compared to the number of births one week before and one week after the holiday. On Valentine’s Day, however, there is a small but noticeable increase in regular births and an even larger increase in cesareans.

The typical American birthday follows a fairly rigidly defined social script. Among the standard elements are: The birthday party or family celebration with ice cream and cake; singing the Happy Birthday song; blowing out the candles on the cake; making a birthday wish (but keeping it secret); getting a birthday spanking (one for each year, one to grow on, and a pinch to grow an inch); and receiving gifts and birthday cards. “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language. It comes from a children’s song written and composed by Louisville sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893.

In my childhood, birthday parties were homemade events and usually involve ice cream cups with wooden spoons and games like musical chairs and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. When our children were growing up, Showtime Pizza and Chucky E. Cheese were the popular places to celebrate birthdays. Chuck E. Cheese is an anthropomorphic rat, although in his latest incarnation he looks less ratty and more resembles a cartoon mouse.

Our middle son was terrified by the keyboard-playing gorilla featured at Showtime Pizza. We convinced him that that the gorilla was just a Muppet (or Mup, as he called them). As for me, I always thought that gorilla was way too realistic for comfort and I had made a mental note that if it ever stood up, I was out of there.

Birthdays also figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition. While Jesus’ nativity was marked by gifts from the Wise Men, it is unclear whether this was a belated birthday celebration or the presentation of tributes. Two birthday parties mentioned in the Bible start out celebratory, but end up rather grisly. In the Old Testament, the Pharaoh, in the time of Joseph, ordered a feast on his birthday, inviting his servants. This all sounds rather pleasant, but the climax of the celebration was the execution of the Pharaoh’s chief baker.

Birthday parties fared little better in the New Testament. King Herod invited all the Galilean upper crust to his birthday party which featured dancing girls. Tragically, it ended up with John the Baptist’s beheading. You can understand why some folks are still wary of birthdays.

Certain birthdays are also incorporated into legal and religious systems to mark an individual’s “coming of age.” Depending on the cultural, legal or religious practices involved, people often assumed particular rights and responsibilities on specified birthdays.

This includes such things as being able to be conscripted or to enlist in the military, to marry without parental consent, to vote, to assume certain elected or appointed offices, to legally consume alcohol and tobacco products, to gamble, to obtain a driver’s license, to become an official member of a congregation or to be tried as an adult.

As people get older, birthdays are not all ice cream and cake. According to one Swiss study, people are more likely to die on their birthdays than any other day of the year. Epidemiologist Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross from the University of Zurich found that men and women are 14 percent more likely to die on their birthday. This rises to 18 percent for people over 60. Besides deaths from natural causes, suicides are 35 percent higher on birthdays and fatal accidents rose by almost 29 percent.

Birthdays may add more stress and alcohol use and the “birthday blues” may be contributing factors. Some scientists believe there is a “death postponement” phenomena, in which people with failing health, hang on long enough to reach some milestone like a certain holiday or special occasion.

University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley and her colleagues reported on how young children perceive birthdays. They told a sample of youngsters about three 2-year olds who were about to celebrate their birthdays. The first child had a party on his birthday. The next child was prevented from having a party. The third child had two parties.

The youngsters were then asked how old each child would be. Woolley says, “a significant number of children between the ages of 3 and 5 believed that the birthday party itself actually causes aging.” This charming belief — that confuses correlation with causality — is typical of what psychologists called “preoperational thinking.”

Around the age of 7, most children move from preoperational thought to “concrete operations.” At that point, thinking becomes less magical and they understand that it’s not the party that causes aging.

The next family birthday happens to be mine — June 20. I just hope I don’t get a “three-fer” — that’s a single present that counts for my birthday, Father’s Day as well as the midsummer Solstice.

From a column originally appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

Senior Discounts: Thanks for Nothing

3 Apr

senior-discountsRecently I was paying for some books at a thrift shop and the clerk asked me if I was “of a certain age”. At first I had no idea what she was talking about, and then it dawned on me that she was asking me (rather obliquely) if I qualified for the “senior discount”. I try not to be sensitive about my age, but I don’t like when people try to rush me. My wife Diane had a similar experience recently when an intrusive insurance saleswoman improperly assumed that she would be interested in Medicare supplemental insurance. Whatever happened to tact?

A few years ago, a middle aged woman wrote in to the “Ask Amy” syndicated advice column, describing how upset she was, when a store clerk offered her a senior discount. Hundreds of Baby Boomers wrote in to columnist Amy Dickenson, offering their sympathy and support for the woman. Let’s face it, when you are offered a senior discount the first message is always, “I think you look old.” The second one isn’t much better, “You’re also probably on a fixed income, so let us help you pay for that purchase.” Now these may not be the intended messages, but they’re the ones that people hear.

According to Brad Tuttle, who covers business and personal finance for Time Magazine, almost 10,000 Baby Boomers are turning 65 each day. He says “…even though Baby Boomers love getting a deal as much as the next person, they hate the idea of getting a “senior discount”—which is tantamount to accepting the fact that they’re officially old.” For the most part boomers still think that the term “senior citizen” should refer to their parents, the so-called “Greatest Generation”. According to Jo Ann Ewing, a senior services coordinator from Connecticut, “Many individuals in their 70s and 80s are fine with ‘senior’ status and senior savings, while baby boomers mostly are not.”

Some businesses and restaurants have tried to accommodate Baby Boomers by using euphemisms like Boomer Bargains, to describe their senior discounts. The American Association of Retired Persons (rebranded simply as AARP) accepts anyone over 50 years of age, retired or not and they consistently use the term “member” rather than senior. They are also careful to refer to their specially negotiated discounts as “member benefits” rather than “senior discounts”.

Former organizational development consultant Roland Hansen has recently complied a comprehensive list of many well-known businesses that offer senior discounts on his blog (rolandsramblings.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/discounts-for-senior-citizens). Caroline Mayer, a consumer reporter who worked for The Washington Post, warns, however, that senior discounts are not always the best deal. She says that other promotions that are available to the general public, regardless of age, are often better deals. One investigative reporter found that the senior checking account at one bank actually was much more expensive than the regular checking account the bank offered. In addition Mayer says you may be able to save even more through bargain websites, like Groupon or Priceline than you can with a senior discount

In 1997 political scientist Ted Rueter wrote an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “Senior Citizen Discounts are Affirmative Action for the Wealthy”, in which he called for an end to senior discounts saying,They cost American business billions of dollars. They breed resentment among the young. They are part of the battle over generational equity. [and] They are probably unconstitutional.”

Just last year a USA Today op-ed piece written by a journalist named Don Campbell (a senior himself) again argued that senior discounts should be eliminated mainly because, older folks, on the average, are considerably wealthier than young adults, who end up subsidizing the discounts. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals the gradually increasing net worth of people over 65 and the simultaneous decreasing net worth in households headed by people under 35. Many senior discounts start at the age of 50 or 55, which is usually prior to retirement for most Americans and are often a worker’s peak earning years.

Young single parents are probably a more deserving demographic group for such discounts, but of course senior discounts are not based on altruism. Originally they were intended to encourage older people, with fixed incomes, to make purchases they might otherwise avoid. Today, however, they are clearly designed to attract an expanding market segment that has lots of disposable income, as well as lots of time to shop. Jim Gilmartin, the owner of Coming of Age, a marketing firm specializing in reaching older consumers, says that senior discounts “sort of exploded exponentially as older shoppers came to represent a fast-growing demographic.”

Campbell concluded his anti-discount tirade saying, “What I wonder about is why thirty- and forty somethings aren’t livid that senior citizens — the most pampered, patronized and pandered-to group in America — get to save money simply by maintaining a pulse.”

Personally it’s not so much getting older that bothers me as constantly having it pointed out in unexpected ways. Not that long ago Diane and I went to a restaurant where they featured live music at night. After a while I went up to the counter and ordered a pizza. The cheery waitress, who looked to be about twelve years old, took my money and said that she would bring it to our table when it was ready.

The room was very crowded, so I was surprised when 10 minutes later the girl arrived and delivered the pizza right to us, without any difficulty or hesitation. I was innocently eating a slice and enjoying the music when I absentmindedly looked at the back of my receipt. There written quite clearly were the unforgiving words “Old guy in blue shirt”. And I didn’t even get a discount.

I’ve read where people have successfully sued businesses where employees have written insulting comments or discriminatory descriptions on receipts to be able to remember the customer. I’m afraid my only grounds for going to court would be that my shirt was actually more of a teal than blue. Frankly I’m just happy she didn’t write down “Fat, bald, and stupid old guy in a blue shirt”.

In a recent study, several age-related terms were evaluated by a sample of adults who were all 65 years or older. Results showed that the labels third age and elderly evoked quite negative associations, while several other names (including “seniors”) were generally seen as favorable, despite many Baby Boomers’ objections. I’m pretty sure that the label “Old guy in a blue shirt” was not among those tested, but I’m confident that it would not have fared very well.

Some folks don’t seem to have much of a problem with their age. Glenn from our Sunday School class, tells us that on his part-time job, he has to deal with lots of out-of-towners. He says these clients frequently ask him for recommendations about where to go “to have a good time”. While they seem to expect some sort of risqué suggestion, he says he always tells them, “I’m sixty-five, I go to Bob Evans for fun.”

Based on a column originally appearing in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

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With Chair-ity Towards All

3 Apr

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The other day my wife Diane said that her back was hurting, but she felt better when she sat in the car.  That’s probably because the driver’s seat is the best, and most expensive, chair we own. It certainly is the only chair we have that can be adjusted  eight different ways.

One of the few things I remember seeing in Washington D.C. was the exhibit featuring Archie Bunker’s favorite chair, from the   1970’s  television series, All in the Family. In 1978, Norman Lear, the show’s creator,   donated Archie and Edith’s chairs to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, when he thought the series was being cancelled. To his surprise it was renewed for another season and he paid thousands of dollars to make exact replicas of the  chairs that originally cost only about $8.00 each. The notion of a family member being territorial about a shabby,  but treasured,  chair, is something familiar, that surfaced again on Fraizer.

I  personally can understand Archie’s reverence for his favorite chair.  When Diane and I  started dating in the 1970’s,  we were both  just out of school,  poor,  and worked for  not-for-profits My apartment was sparsely furnished with second-hand furniture from my parent’s attic and Diane had also accumulated whatever furniture she could.  I remember complaining  to her  that whenever I visited,  she didn’t have a decent chair to sit in.  It’s hard to look very cool sitting in a bean bag chair.  I kept falling over.

Besides comfort, chairs are also symbolic of social status. Having a “chair at the table” has come to mean that you belong to a group and have co-equal status. A few years ago when we asked our daughter what birthday present our youngest granddaughter, Rosie,  would like for  her second birthday, our daughter said that Rosie really wanted her own chair. Rosie couldn’t wait to escape from her accursed “high chair” , a symbol of babyhood, and take her rightful place at the table with her siblings, as a peer,  rather than a second class citizen.

Of course,  where you’re seated  and the nature of your chair also says something about your status.  People seated at the head of the table  generally have the most  power. It is said that Merlin created King Arthur’s Round Table to avoid quarrels among the knights as to who had the highest status, although they still probably squabbled over who got to sit closest to the King.

Chairs took on a political dimension last  year   at the Republican National Convention,  when  Clint Eastwood delivered his monologue to an empty chair, intended to represent President Obama. Obama’s reelection team countered by tweeting out a photo of the president sitting in his Cabinet Room chair, and saying “this seat’s taken.”   These theatrics may not have made much difference in the election , but addressing an empty chair is a time-honored technique  in Gestalt psychotherapy (another 70’s phenomena). It was used to help patients resolve “unfinished business” with  others,  or even among different  aspects of themselves.

Writing in the on-line Magazine Jacobin,     design student Colin McSwiggen says that sometime  in the Stone Age between 6,000 and  12,000 years ago,  people of high-status  began sitting on  raised platforms containing  some sort of  backrest. He says,  “This was an effective way to signify  elevated status among people who otherwise sat on the ground.”  Throughout history the elevation,  size, composition, and expense of a seating device has conferred status.   Even today many companies have strict policies on who can order different kinds of office chairs.  Some only allow high backed  “executive chairs” for employees  above a certain rank in the hierarchy. On Star Trek, it’s obvious that the captain has the only decent chair  and view of the wide-screen TV.

Having a designated seat is also related to status, like having a personal  parking place.  Arthur’s Round Table had one special seat with a chair that was marked “Siege Perilous”, which means “the dangerous or perilous seat”.  Only the singular knight who was destined to find the Holy Grail could sit there safely. If was fatal for anyone to try.

I was once helping out at an outdoor festival and brought my own comfortable wooden folding chair to sit in because I didn’t care for the small metal chairs provided. Every time I got up to do something and came back, the same guy was sitting in my chair. I sure could have used some of that  Siege Perilous stuff.

According to  environmental psychologist Sally Augustine,  when people sit in a recliner  and  stretch out they generally  feel more powerful, confident, and have a higher tolerance for risk taking. They also get less angry when provoked by others.  Sitting in a confined or restricted posture, however has the opposite effect. Maybe this is the source for the sit-com folk wisdom that suggests it is best to confront mom or dad with bad news at the end of the day when they are relaxing in their recliner,   preferably with a potent cocktail in hand.

According to the health  quiz in Parade Magazine, that Diane  gave me last Sunday, these days chairs are actually considered to be even more dangerous to your health than cigarettes.  Research by The American Cancer Society  shows  that sitting is a significant risk factor predicting how long you’ll live. One recent  study found  sitting more than six hours a day increased female mortality  by 37% and male mortality by 17%.  Prolonged sitting also exacerbates back pain, which  afflicts 80% of adults, as well as  neck pain,  balance,  and flexibility.

Writing in the on-line Magazine,  Jacobin McSwiggen says, “No designer has ever made a good chair, because it is impossible. Some are better than others, but all are bad.” He says they are not only a health hazards that we are addict to,   but they  are also  “inextricably tied…  to our culture of status-obsessed individualism”.   .

 McSwiggen says that uncomfortable chairs can create pressure that leads to soreness, poor posture, restricted circulation, impeded respiration, and intestinal dysfunction. Even comfortable chairs encourage long durations of static positions,  which  in turn stress   the spine, weaken  muscles, and cause circulatory problems.

The science of ergonomics unfortunately has  shown little consensus regarding the best chair design, although  some progress has been made  with  Scandinavian innovations such as  ball chairs, kneeling chairs, and chairs that encourage sitting in different positions.  Even most of these, however,  are not compatible with current workspace designs  or acceptable in business settings due to appearance.

Some experts suggest  abandoning the chair altogether.  In the 1980’s   Jerome Congleton, from Texas A&M,  created  a standing desk and among  the newer products being marketed  are  standing work stations.    There is a famous photograph of President John F. Kennedy looking out of the south window of the oval office.  He was standing over a table reading newspapers. Due to his wartime back injury, President Kennedy couldn’t  sit in a chair  for more than a short time  without   walking  around.   He would often work and read standing up,  leaning over his desk. This may be the new work  model for many people– working while standing and/or  taking frequent breaks for walks.

               I’ve thought about trying one of the exercise ball chairs at work.  I hear, however,   that they are supposed to get sticky in warm weather.  I’m also afraid of accidently falling off and dribbling down the stairs.   

Based on a column that orginally appeared in the Southern Indiana News-tribune

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Lunchbucket Blues

3 Apr

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For the past several years I have been taking my lunch to work a couple of days a week.  It’s surprising how fast food smells can travel in our building.  When the hallway has the ambiance of  a movie theater,  everyone know that  someone  has been making buttered  microwave popcorn. Last month the whole building reeked of chili and shortly thereafter,  somebody  must have bought  fish sandwiches for all their coworkers,  as  going downstairs was like stepping aboard  a trawler.

I must confess, however,  that I am not entirely blameless.  The leftover Polish sausage and sauerkraut  I had last week created quite a stench and still sort of hangs in the air.    In an article entitled Brown-Bag Lunch Etiquette, Food Network blogger Victoria Phillips suggests that if you have an especially smelly lunch,  you should eat in the lunchroom or preferably outside at a picnic table. She also advises you not to eat your messy Ruben sandwich at your desk, where it can drip 1000 Island dressing all over your keyboard or phone.  She also cautions against leaving  uneaten lunch in the office refrigerator and throwing pungent food into the wastepaper basket under your desk.  She must have worked in our office.

            Today’s sluggish economy has motivated many people to look for savings wherever they can find them. According to a study published by the marking Firm NPD Group, Eating Patterns in America,   over 8.5 million Americans routinely take their lunch to work. A number of people have found that they can save anywhere up to  $2,500 a year,  simply  by eating lunch at work. One writer did the math  and figured  out  that a 22 year-old typical New Yorker  could have an additional $650,000    in his or her  retirement account by age 62,   just by taking their own lunch everyday.

According to Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst at NPD, a marketing firm,  “There are a number of factors adversely affecting the midday meal business at restaurants, and brown-bagging is one of them.”  About half of the people who frequent restaurants for lunch say that they now do it less often due to the expense. Besides the cost savings (about an 80% average reduction in expense), taking your lunch to work,  can give  you more variety, healthier choices, and  save you time. Also don’t forget to add in the savings for gasoline each week.

According to the NPD Group’s  2009 eating survey, people  spend more time eating and drinking at lunch than any other meal. At the same time lunch is the most frequently skipped meal (13% of the time compared to 10% for breakfast, and only 4% for supper).

Men are responsible for the most lunch meals prepared at home and about 40 % of  these meals  include a sandwich, although this trend has been dropping in recent years.  Classics like bologna, ham, and peanut butter and  jelly  are still the most popular  sandwiches in brown bag lunches.  Turkey also is growing in popularity,  but seems to fluxuate  a bit with its price. For women, fruit is now more popular than sandwiches for their lunches made at home.

For almost  40 years my father took a black metal lunchbox and Thermos to work each day. He left so early for work that I never actually saw what he took to eat at work. Both of his parents where from Eastern Europe and he grew up during the depression, so he was used to eating things like blood sausage, headcheese,  and pigs feet.   I always assumed that his lunch box contained something  equally unspeakable. My father was an electrician for a steel mill and each night when he came from work his lunchbox was empty,  except for a metal can containing a single roll of electrical tape. He used the metal cans to storage things like screws and nails,  but I was never sure what he did with all that tape. I think he considered it  a tip from the company for his good work.

Except for field trips and a brief period when I owned a Roy Roger’s lunch box, I always ate in the school cafeteria.  My lunch box eventually fell apart despite my father’s valiant attempt to repair its  handle with electrical tape. When I reached  high school, I took my lunch money and bought a Hires Root Beer and Butterfinger candy bar from the vending machine most days for lunch. To add  a little color and variety to  my diet I would occasionally  eat a Snickers Bar  and a Nehi Orange soda for its vitamin C content.

My wife Diane told me that end of the year school picnics her lunch consisted of a bologna sandwich, chips,  maybe a banana,  and for dessert,  the iconic  Hostess Cupcake.  Ironically that is about the same menu that was served in most   county jails for most of 1960 and  70s.

It was pretty much the same thing I would always take on school field trips.   The threatened demise of the Cupcake and Twinkie, since the  Hostess Bakery went bankrupt,  would  leave a huge gap in the traditional brownbag lunch,  if some other bakery doesn’t  save the brand.

For some reason my mother started making me ham salad sandwiches for my lunch for the annual school picnic.  (It was actually bologna salad, since it was never made with real  ham). This picnic was always  held at an amusement park  and  was the highlight of   the whole school year.  All of those positive associations with field trips and school picnics probably accounts for my garlic bologna addiction today.

When I was in college I stayed at a dorm that had a food plan. If you were going away for the day or had classes too far away to return for lunch, the dorm cafeteria prepared box lunches that you could take with you. My friends and I always took them and stashed them in our dorm room  refrigerator, if we didn’t plan to eat them that day. They were classic bologna sandwich  and banana lunches, but they often had excellent home-baked cookies included. On warm days the mayonnaise would sort of curdle and the banana would brown a little, but the cookies were always good and  perhaps even better with melted chocolate chips.

Brown bagging  at work is also a good way to avoid eating at a restaurant alone, which many people  dislike.

I remember reading somewhere that the average office desk has more germs on it than the average public toilet seat.  Be that as it may, there is still something kind of fun about my desk.    

Base on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

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