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Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan

Shaun

Halloween is a distant memory and the scary costumes are long gone , but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind. Our five-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile“Shaun the Sheep” to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spinoff from the popular Wallace and Gromit films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover, while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little stuffed lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box, so we put Shaun in the car trunk instead. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie, Poltergeist. I also remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus, that could have been a scene right out of Jurassic Park. Especially in his book, “It”, Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children even the older ones disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown make-up is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frighten of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles”. They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our three-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child our middle son, Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘six-inch-long flying cockroaches’, we’d all have to move out of the state.” In elementary school Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school.

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively towards others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt, or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypical images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”. Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence towards the mothering figure, as well as, the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother”. As for me I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Such feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, ” Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away”. All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted. It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realized that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

Origionally Published in the Souther Indiana News Journal

Toyland Tribulations

31 Oct

 

 

 

 

 

Like high fashion, the American toy industry is dominated by trends and exclusivity. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your kid the hot new toy that your neighbor can’t seem to find.

In fact, there was even a rather mediocre Christmas movie — 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” which implausibly pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Sinbad in a rather violent pursuit for the year’s most popular action figure.

Over the past 30 years, I personally have traveled far and wide in hot pursuit of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Gameboys, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Millennium Falcons and Zhu Zhu Hamsters.

Years ago, I remember submitting an application to Toys R’ Us for the privilege of buying a Cabbage Patch Doll. Like kidnappers, they called me a couple of days later and told me to be at the store at 10 a.m. sharp if I wanted to buy the doll. When I got there, they took a small group of us chosen ones to a darkened back room, where they had a pallet full of new Cabbage Patch dolls completely covered by a black sheet of canvas. When it was my turn, I grabbed a doll and was escorted to a cashier. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost, but things had progressed way too far to ask questions. I felt like I was buying a couple kilos of heroin.

Trends in toys constantly repeat themselves. With our three boys and now a grandson, it seems like we have gone through at least three generations of Star Wars, as well as several of Transformers, and now Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. And just when it seems like it’s over, the Lego version appears and it starts all over again.

We made the mistake of giving away our daughter’s extensive collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and paraphernalia to a family that had three girls. How did we know our daughter would end up having three girls of her own and never forgive us? We still have a couple generations of Star War toys stashed in plastic bins in our basement. I’m too lazy to dig through them for the grandkids. Besides, they belong to our sons and are my backup plan in case the government ever privatizes Social Security.

The United States Toy Industry Association reports that Americans purchase more than 3 billion toys annually. With the average cost of about $7 per toy, that quickly adds up to more than $21.2 billion in direct toy sales.

According to CNBC’s Christina Berk, however, there is trouble brewing in Toyland this holiday season. Toy sales have been declining over the past decade and the trend is accelerating, according to a Goldman Sachs report Monday. As a result, Goldman downgraded the toy industry’s rating from “neutral” to “cautious.”

According to financial analyst Michael Kelter, the “amount spent on traditional toys in the U.S. per capita is down 30 percent from $85 per person to $60 per person since 1998.”

Part of the reason may be the tremendous growth in digital games played on tablets and smartphones, which are edging out traditional board games and puzzles. When videogame consoles are included, the market share of digital games has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent in the past decade.

Declines are also expected this year in the sales of Hasbro’s flagship boy toys — Transformers and Nerf weapons. Mattel, which relies heavily on perennial girls’ favorites, such as Barbie, also has been hurt by flat sales in recent years, as well as a huge decline in the preschool toy market.

Perhaps it’s the overall economy that’s to blame, or maybe it is kid’s attraction to online games and activities. Advances in electronics have certainly made toys awfully flashy and sophisticated. Some people may think that modern toys have become too complicated and explicit to encourage creative play and they lean toward classic toys that require more imagination.

As a child, I owned a red plastic console that was advertised to track missiles and satellites in space. It had a tiny opaque screen that only showed vague shadows of small plastic cutouts of spacecraft as you turned a crank. I must have spent hours staring at that opaque screen in anticipation of my current job, at which I still spend hours staring at a screen. I would have given anything if that screen would have shown a little detail, color or miracles of miracles, actually said something.

Perhaps modern toys are not imaginative enough to stimulate much creative play. In this regard, I always think of Patricia Lee Gauch’s classic children’s book, “Christina Katerina and the Box,” in which, to her mother’s horror, a young girl comes up with a number of imaginative uses for a large appliance box on their front lawn. I was thinking about this recently as I watched our grandchildren play with sticks in our backyard, which consists primarily of sticks and tics.

Watching them jogged my memory and I remembered one of my early favorite toys — the stake. Although I had a homemade swingset that my father had constructed from pipes, my favorite outdoor toy was a three-foot long, sharpened, solid-steel stake. I think it may have once been part of a of horseshoe game or perhaps belonged to a surveyor.

While a metal stake may seem like a dangerous and inappropriate plaything, the story gets worse. I remember two games we made up using the stake. The first was “Oilwell.” My friends and I hammered the stake into the ground and then attached a rope to it. We threw the rope over a tree branch and then pulled the stake out of the ground. Then we poured water into the hole left by the stake and lowered the stake again back into the hole drilling for oil until the oil (mud) finally came gushing out of the well. We added a bunch of toy trucks, cars and plastic soldiers to the scene to complete the tableau. So basically we played for hours in a large mud hole with a large sharp metal stake suspended over our heads.
Our second game wasn’t much better. Our house had once been a boarding house, so it was configured rather oddly. For example, we had two front doors. My bedroom had its own door to the outside and it lead to a porch with a railing. The steps had been removed so it was sort of like a little balcony.

I always imagined it was the deck of a ship and our backyard was the ocean. We used the porch as our pirate ship until one day Bobby suggested that we turn it into a whaler. Of course, to do this we needed a serviceable harpoon. We took the metal stake with a rope tied to it and fastened the other end of the rope to a column supporting the porch’s roof. We then took turns hurling the stake into the yard at old basketballs and pieces of newspaper (whales).

How we managed to avoid impaling some small child or skewering one of the neighborhood dogs or cats is still a mystery to me. We did managed to loosen the column supporting the porch roof and a few years later when it finally collapsed, my father removed the porch, filled in my door, and put in a window instead.

I will leave the precise interpretation of our “games” to the Freudians out there, but in retrospect perhaps children are better off with less “creative” toys after all. When I was 11, I misplaced the steel stake and started my career making toy soldiers out of molten lead, but that’s another story. And don’t get me started on my chemistry set, its alcohol lamp  and “The Great Bedroom Fire of 1961.”
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

 

    

Causal Comments

24 Sep

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When people offer  spontaneously, without thinking, their offhanded remarks   possess a special kind of power.  We frequently assume that extemporaneous comments are  truthful, or at least that they honestly reflect the way the speaker feels. Unintentionally overheard comments can be especially influential, since we assume they were frank expressions,  not tailored specifically for our ears, just ask Mitt Romney.

For example, our five-year old grandson prefers to wear button-up shirts  instead of the polo variety. We believe that’s because of a remark that some sweet nursery or Sunday School  teacher once made  that   resulted  in him referring to button-up shirts as “Mr. Handsome Shirts”.  After all, what male wouldn’t want to wear a “Mr. Handsome Shirt”.

Of course such statements are not always positive.  At a parent-teacher conference   my wife Diane once overheard her Kindergarten teacher tell her mother,  “Don’t bother ever giving Diane  dance lessons, because she has no rhythm at all.” This has stuck with her for all these years and made her feel inhibited and avoid dancing. Some people may say perhaps for the best.

In his book Uncommon Therapy famed hypnotherapist  Milton Erickson  describes how he once treated  a young woman who was convinced that her perfectly normal   feet were grossly oversized  and ugly. This belief kept her from ever going outside the house.  On pretense  Erickson made a  home visit ostensibly  to see the young woman’s “sick” mother.   He acted quite annoyed and grumpy and  “accidentally on purpose” stepped on the  young woman’s foot. As she recoiled in pain he said loudly, “If only you could grow those feet big enough for a man to see!”.  His crabby and spontaneous statement had more credibility with the young woman,  than all the reasoning in the world would have had,  and  ultimately  did the trick as,  she re-shuffled her thinking about her self-image.

Over the years Diane has prepared and given children’s sermons in various churches we’ve attended. She always says that the children’s sermon is an excellent way to communicate with the adults in the audience.  Since the message is not intended specifically for them, their defenses  are down.  Also their critical judgment is often suspended, as they are distracted and  charmed  by the youngsters’ response to the message.

Such casual messages function similar to what are called indirect or embedded suggestions in hypnosis. An indirect suggestion is a type of instruction phrased as an offhand comment, used during hypnosis to encourage patients to follow a desired course of action without specifically telling them to do so. The power of   indirect and embedded suggestions lies in their ability to by-pass normal conscious resistance and influence people on an unconscious level.

An embedded suggestion is another special kind of a hypnotic suggestion that is usually buried in some sort of mind-numbing context,  like a boring conversation.  The suggestion is typically repeated, but since it doesn’t stand out dramatically,   it is usually not consciously perceived.

I once attempted to use a variant of these techniques with a young woman I was seeing for counseling. Outside my immediate family,  she was probably the most argumentative person I had ever met. Even when I was repeating back exactly what she just told me, she would disagree.  Most of all she was highly self-critical and  I was trying to help her  realize that she did possess some positive features.  One day I was talking to her and the secretary called me  out of my office,   to handle an  emergency.  When I returned the  chart containing my progress notes was in a slightly different position. It was hardly noticeable,  but I realized that she had must been reading my notes. For the next session, I carefully prepared a fake progress note to put in a dummy chart that looked just like the real thing.  This note contained all the positive messages that I wanted her to realize. If I had said these things to her, she would have just argued with me and rejected them.  When she came in for her session, my secretary made a prearrange call to my office,   and I excused myself, claiming that it was another emergency. After about 15 minutes I returned. The client seemed both pleased and frustrated. She obviously liked what she had read, but seemed bursting,  wanting to argue the points. She was not able to, however, because she was loathe to admit she had been surreptitiously reading my notes.

Back in  June,   Ann Von  Brock, a blogger  with United Way in Asheville, North Carolina wrote a   piece entitled,   “Can One Passing Comment To a Child Really Make a Difference?”  It was about the power of adult influences on a young people’s lives.  She describes how her 7th grade biology teacher once wrote “has potential”  as  remark  on her report card.  Although  Von Brock  admits  she was a an underachiever for much of her school career  she  says,  “… somehow I hung onto the comment of that one teacher and always believed that I was a smart kid.”   She concluded that  seemingly casual comments can be   “powerful”, “ motivating  and inspiring”,  but  just as easily   “crushing”     depending upon the people, the setting, the tone,  and the context.

I suppose there are two important lessons you  can draw from  the power of passing comments.  First, if some casual comment is hurtful or discouraging, then reengage your  critical thinking  and challenge it. If parts still seem true, then use it as a motivator for positive change.  Second use your own casual remarks constructively. You can never really know how much influence a word of encouragement or a positive comment can have in the long run. We  are constantly confronted with  opportunities that can change people’s lives with very little effort or cost to ourselves.

I respond to  casual remarks as much as anyone.  When I was   in high school,  the first day of varsity football practice,  the coach looked at me  and realized  my brother had played for him a few years earlier.  He said   to the people standing around, “Stawar’s brother was an All Conference Guard, but Terry here  isn’t good enough to carry his cleats”. I suppose that was meant to be inspirational but it ended up being more prophetic.  Was it important to me or did it affect me?  I would like to say no, but then I do remember it,  48 years later.

On the other hand many years ago I   attended a two-day training workshop. It was in a resort area and everyone dressed very casually. On the first day I wore a tan jacket. On the second day  I overheard   people at  nearby table talking about what people were wearing. One of them said, “You should have seen this tan jacket some guy was wearing yesterday. It was really cool.” I don’t think I had never heard a spontaneous positive comment about my apparel before. I believe I wore my “Mr. Handsome” tan jacket for at least the next decade.

Carrying a Secret can be a Heavy Load

24 Aug

With the recent news of finding bodies buried in backyards in our region , a lot of people are probably wondering what other secrets are out there, just waiting to be discovered.  Personally I’ve always been terrible at keeping secrets. In the past, even after   a friend    would solemnly swear me to secrecy, I’d usually blab to  the next person I’d see. I just couldn’t help it. Maybe this was because in my professional role as a therapist, I had to be especially careful about always maintaining confidentiality.   I’m a little better now, but not much. I hope I’m never captured by   enemies, I’d probably tell them more than they wanted to know, even before they asked. No need for water boarding with me.

People keep secrets for a lot of reasons, but mainly I think it is to avoid looking bad  in front of other people or to escape the consequences of our behavior.   Sometimes we keep secrets just  to avoid conflict with others, or to prevent our  enemies from using  information against us.

In literature keeping a secret   usually leads to something bad.  New York City writer Maria Konnikova   points outs how keeping a terrible secret takes it’s deadly  toll on the health of the fictional  Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (father of Hester Prynne’s  illegitimate baby)   in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  She wonders if a terrible  secret could actually do that much damage  to someone.  She says,  “The Scarlet Letter gets one thing so incredibly right   that it almost…  makes up for everything it gets wrong: it’s not healthy to keep a secret.”

It seems, however, to depend on the nature of the  secret.  Gail Saltz, a psychiatry professor at Cornell Medical School,  says that  secrets can be either  “benign” or “malignant,” depending on the scenario.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner and  his colleagues found that secret thoughts tend to  be  very  accessible.  People can recall memories, which  they had been asked to keep secret, better than memories which  they had been instructed to tell the truth or lie  about.   Secrets come to mind much more often than almost any other kind of thoughts. They frequently preoccupy us, contrary to  our conscious wishes.  Wegner found that in his experiments people were   likely to give  unintentional hints about things they were supposed to keep secret.  Wegner  also found that personal secrets often  result in outward signs of distress, and  that secrecy can itself create further unwanted thoughts,  continuing  the cycle.

Knowing how difficult it can be to keep secrets, Wegner his  colleagues  give the following common sense suggestions: 1. Avoid  alcohol since it diminishes inhibitions.  2  Reduce stress, since it  decreases  conscious control. 3. Write the secret down (in a symbolic way this disclosures the secret  and relieves some of the   pressure, even though     no one actually reads the secret  and finally  4. Avoid situations where being asked to keep a secret is likely to occur.

When we speak about secrets we use a special vocabulary and we often say things like, “We carry (or hold)  a secret”   as if where an actual physical object. Our language also refers to   “being weighed down” or “carrying a heavy  burden ,”  and confession is said to “lighten our load”.  Researchers  have investigated how our bodies may literally interpret  such  metaphorical descriptions.   For example, the importance or seriousness of information is often associated with weight. A serious persons is said  to have “gravitas”, or an intellectual work may be  said to be quite “weighty”. Dutch  studies have shown that when subjects learn  that a certain book is  important, they begin to   perceived that book as physically weighing more.

Along similar lines,  Michael L. Slepian from Tufts University and his colleagues found that bodily  states, associated with physical burdens, may be simulated when  people have important personal secrets. In this study they looked at the behavior of people who harbored important personal secrets, such as infidelity or sexual orientation. In a series of studies,  they found that subjects, who were currently held an important personal secret, perceived hills to be steeper, distances  longer, and  physical tasks  requiring  more effort than they would otherwise. Participants were also significantly less  inclined  to help other people with physical tasks. It was as if their own energy reserves were depleted.  The more subjects thought about the secret,  the more the secret   influenced   their perceptions.

The researchers found that   concealments are   perceived at a somatic level as physical burdens,   they can result in actual physical overexertion and exhaustion. This exhausting effort required to maintain secrets over many years,  may also explain why criminals sometimes suddenly confess,  despite years of previous  silence.

Psychologist James Pennebaker, from the  University of Texas, found  that people who had a serious trauma before age 17 were much more likely to have health problems as adults. The majority of these people kept the trauma secret. Pennebaker had   subjects visited his lab each week to  write about their  traumatic experiences. Some subjects talked about the trauma, while others just wrote about it, showing their writing to  no one.   Divulging the secret to others or simply writing it on a piece of paper that is later burned,   were both highly  correlated with physical and mental  health improvements.  People who continued to conceal  their traumatic secrets showed more  hypertension, influenza,  and even cancer.  The subjects, who wrote about their secrets demonstrated, enhanced immunity and in some cases, T-cell counts in AIDS patients even increased.

In similar research studies, holocaust victims who finally disclosed secrets   demonstrated a marked improvement in their health status,   after the interviews.  The more they disclosed, the more their health improved.

How the disclosure of personal secrets creates such health benefits is rather complicated.    Pennebaker says that writing about a secret helps label and organize it, which in turn helps subjects better understand and master aspects of the secret that had been hidden. Disclosure can become a habit, leading to more openness in relationships. Revealing secrets can also reduce obsessive ruminations and their accompanying anxiety. Without   anxiety and self-absorption,  people become better listeners and have more opportunities for richer social relationships.

Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly and her colleagues   examined people’s health statuses and found that secretive people, tend to be sicker than other people. She found that  “self-concealers,”, were often   more depressed, anxious, and shy, and have discomfort.  She believes there may be a genetic link  between   secretiveness and   vulnerability to illness.

Kelly  also believes that  keeping  benign secrets can have  positive aspects,  providing personal boundaries or avoiding  unnecessary social conflicts.  Disclosing  a   malignant secret, may have a positive outcome, but that  depends on having a safe confidant.   If such a confidant is not available, Kelly takes a cue from Pennebaker and   suggests writing about the secrets, which  simulates the benefits of disclosing the secret  to others.

So, it you have some deep secret that is troubling you, spend some time  writing about  it  down,  or  find someone that you trust and take a chance. You may find that a large burden is  finally lifted.  Just don’t tell me anything,  if you know what’s good for you.

From a column that appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Museum Madness

2 Aug

 

 

Last week we received a call from our daughter, who seemed to be getting cabin fever from being confined indoors with her four young children, due to the heat and air-quality alerts. Noticing the desperation she heard in her voice,  my wife Diane, who  is still recovering from surgery, agreed that we would  go with her and the children on a three-day visit  of Indianapolis area  museums.  Our daughter lives near Cincinnati and after seeing all their  local attractions, in a outburst  of Hoosier hubris, we had bragged about the wonderful  Indianapolis museums.  Little did we know it would come back to bite us.

 

Our first foray was to the Indiana State Museum on Friday morning. Before it heated up the children and their mother went on a paddle boat ride on  the White River Canal.  Diane and I opted out and found a shady bench overlooking the canal. Next to us was an older  Japanese  gentleman, playing some instrument that resembled a gourd.   This  impromptu  concert was entertaining for the first 40 minutes or so,  but after that it required a couple  of Tylenol.

Inside the museum proper,  the kids weren’t all that  interested in the  “Birth of the Earth” or the “The Ancient Seas” .   These exhibits consisted  mostly of   of rocks, and fossils that  looked like rocks.   It’s probably for the best that they didn’t pay much attention to the overhead  models of a gigantic  primitive squid, an enormous pincher-wielding trilobite,  and  a fearsome prehistoric shark. These things could be the stuff of nightmares. The kids did spent a lot of time looking at the exhibits in the Naturalist’s Lab, where they  imitated animal sounds, something at which they excelled.

On another floor we learned all about famous people from Indiana (they weren’t impressed)    and  how the television evolved  from primordial radio sets.  It was depressing to see many of the things from my childhood on display in the pop culture section. From the  kids’ perspective record players and Easy Bake Ovens were in the same class as  tyrannosaurus  bones and ancient Egyptian mummies.

For lunch we  ate  at one of Diane’s favorite restaurants, the  Ayres Tea Room, which has been re-created  on the third  floor of the museum.  This team room   operated in a large department store in downtown Indianapolis from 1905 to 1990 and was famous for its “hobo lunches” for kids, which were wrapped in bandannas. Our preteen  granddaughter insisted that she have a pot of tea. like the adults and then complained constantly  about how bad it tasted. Although none of them were on their best behavior,  the children all got  small wrapped prizes  from a large treasure chest by the entrance to the restaurant.

I was   hoping the top floor exhibit  would be impressive enough to pull our  fat out of the fire and  justify our bragging. The Abraham Lincoln exhibit, however,  was gone and had been replaced by “Amazing Maize”. It may have been   stereotypical for Indiana, but to paraphrase David Barry,  it was the best corn-related exhibit I’ve ever seen.  The kids barely glanced at the stuff, but they fought over who got to sit behind the wheel of the big tractor.

 

Undaunted we set out the next morning for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest children’s museum.  Besides dinosaurs busting through the side of building, the first thing I noticed was the incredibly loud  noise level. I can believe that this is an international attraction, since I must have heard tantrums in at least six different languages

.  Our  five year-old grandson was duly  impressed by the gigantic Bumblebee Transformer  robot, displayed in the entrance hall,  as well as the Spiderman figure perched on the wall.  All them  enjoyed the Treasures of the Earth Exhibit,  where they got to  pretend to   scuba dive and search for pirate artifacts;  scan a mummy for clues to its identity, and help excavate ancient Chinese terra cotta warrior statues.  The Lego and Hot Wheels exhibits featured familiar toys, so they were especially popular, crowed, and noisy. My favorite activity was the “How I Became a Pirate” show, based on a children’s book.  It was a professionally produced musical in a nice comfortable,  cool, and snoozable theater.

The Power of Children Exhibit lent  an unexpected  serious note to the Children’s Museum. It featured the   stories of trio of heroic  children: Anne Frank,  Ruby Bridges, and  Ryan White. It was difficult to explain the Nazis, bigotry,  and discrimination to preschoolers, so we didn’t spend a lot of time  there. It reminded me of   the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. in terms of style and the  solemn tone.

Since it was 91o  and the humidity was approaching 100%,   we decided  to spend our last day in Indianapolis  outdoors at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Due to the heat, the hot air balloon ride was  cancelled,  along with   the candle dipping (they kept  melting).

We first visited  a rather dusty Indian village, where the kids sat in a dugout canoe  and  crawled in and out of wigwams. The interpreter was a little concerned that kids were being too rough with the antique wood shaving tool, which Diane had told  them was a spanking machine.

The kids did a  basket weaving activity,  which turned out pretty well, but caused them to just  miss the guided tour of the Conner House.  Conner Prairie  is a stickler when it comes to punctuality.

We spent a lot of time in the 1836 Prairietown part of the park. This re-creation of a pioneer village had a lot of enactors, all of who stayed in character, whenever you spoke to them. I don’t how they tolerated the heavy clothing in the stifling heat. Children were given roles to act out. Many of them did chores of the era like sweeping floors and carrying around heavy buckets of water.

Our last stop was the 1863 Civil War village where we saw an army encampment and some of the damage done to the town of Dupont  by General Morgan’s Confederate raiders. A recruitment center for militia volunteers was  set up in one of the houses.    The children especially enjoyed   the River Crossing Play Area  that include civil war costumes, water play and a kid-sized model of the Alice Dean, the  Howard built steamship   Morgan used to cross the Ohio River and then burned.

Thankfully we rode a tram back to the  Visitors’ Center, with just enough time to  purchase some souvenirs. Our grandson had decided on a coonskin cap and canteen until he caught sight of  some older boys playing with a wooden rifle.   It seemed unwise to provide him with a club-like object he could use on his three sisters. Diane put her surgery at risk wrestling him down as we left the gift shop.

We were all exhausted and more than a little dehydrated when our daughter buckled the kids in her van. One child was saying she had to throw up and the boy was still crying,  as we left them. In the grand scheme of things; a pretty good trip.

Orginally appearing in the Southern Indiana News Journal.

 

 

Baseball Has Not Been Berry Good to Me

26 Jun

 

It’s  high summer and according to my calculations we are approximately 40% through this year’s professional baseball season.Perhaps its un-American, but I have never been much of a baseball fan. Sports psychologist Rick Grieve from Western Kentucky  University says that  the main factor  in becoming a   fan  is the socialization  experience. He believes that people become fans through exposure to a sport through family and friends.  Grieve also asserts that fathers play a key role,  as children   gravitate to the sports their fathers watch or play.   I  have always blamed my lack  of interest in sports on  my father,  to whom sports were always highly suspect. I don’t think he could ever comprehend the value of working up a sweat, without actually performing some practical work. Why bother swinging a bat, when you could just as easily swing a shovel and get something useful done.

Another factor may be that any mention of baseball triggers a lot of traumatic memories of my  dismal childhood baseball career. At school games, I was always one of the last kids picked for a team. It’s funny how other kids instinctually know who stinks at baseball.  In elementary school it seemed like the better you were able to read, the worse you were at baseball. I, myself, was an outstanding reader.

The summer I turned eight  I signed up for  Sav-More Market’s   new Little League team. I loved my new  leather baseball glove and my red and white uniform, but I was  constantly terrified of  getting  hit  by the ball.  I saw some  of my friends  hurt playing sports and it didn’t  take very many protruding bones, busted lips,  and  broken noses to make me  want  to reconsider the whole baseball thing. Whenever the ball was thrown or hit to me,  my first impulse  was always to get out of the way. Likewise when I batted, I jumped  about a foot back with every pitch, which didn’t make me much of batting threat.   The coach threaten to put my feet in  a bucket,  to make me stay in the batter’s box. 

I played outfield, although due to my frequent  left-right confusion, I couldn’t say which one.  I just ran out to  the empty one. I  liked playing deep in the outfield, since most of  the time I didn’t have to worry about balls being hit that far.  My attention would immediately wander from the action in the infield and I would spend most of my time fiddling with my hat, shoestrings,  or staring  at dandelions.  In the unlikely event that a fly ball was actually hit into the outfield, the aggressive dyslexic  in the adjacent field would usually run over, push me aside,  and catch  the ball.

One time all our team’s pitchers were either sick or injured and in desperation, the coaches gave me a  try-out as a  hurler. After a dozen or so wild throws, one of which hit an umpire, they banished me back to the outfield. I guess they finally decided that I was too dangerous to be allowed to pitch. We ended up forfeiting  the game.

As the season progressed,  our team started actually winning some games and I soon found myself sitting on the bench most of the time, which was just fine with me.  I rationalized it to myself  this way, “Cool uniform.  Cool baseball glove.   No pressure or yelling.  And  best of all, no fastballs upside the head”.  I think our team finished third,  but I hung up my  cleats after that one season and decided that the summer was better spent bumming around on my bicycle.

After retiring from the game at the age of eight,  I considered myself a veteran  ballplayer  and like everyone else in my neighborhood,  an expert when it came to the   St. Louis Cardinals. This is the closest I came to being a baseball  fan and it only lasted a few years. It  was all due to peer pressure, media hype, and the proximity of the Cardinals,  just across the Mississippi River from where I lived.   I was at Busch Memorial Stadium the day it opened in 1966 and was listening  when Cardinal pitching ace Bob Gibson  had 17 strikeouts during the first game  of the 1968 World Series. I also leaned to despise  our archrivals, the  Chicago Cubs. While I  pretended to  like baseball to fit in with my peers, the only game I actually attended was  miserable  and as exciting as watching paint dry.  Once I left the St. Louis area, my interest quickly waned.

Although I don’t  follow major league  baseball  as an adult,  I recently checked the standings and  was annoyed  to see the Cardinals trailing Cincinnati, in the central division. This is especially egregious  since my son-in-law, Jeff,  is such a rabid Cincinnati Reds fan. His family visited  from Michigan recently  and  he went to three  Reds games in a single weekend weekend. Jeff is also playing on a softball team at his work.  That father influence seems to be  at work,  because this summer our four year old grandson is playing on a baseball team for the first time.

My wife Diane says that I was negligent with our own three boys, because I never took the time to teach them how to properly catch, throw, or hit. In my defense, I didn’t have  very good  skills or the knowledge to be a  good coach.   I did, however, work with our youngest son some, when he expressed interest in  playing on a team. Although he seemed to have the hereditary Stawar fear of being hit by the ball, he did learn some of the basics and was adorable in his uniform. In order to be competitive in baseball, however,  I think you  have to grow up playing  the  game. Just being cute isn’t enough. I’m afraid I produced a bunch of dandelion  gazing outfielders, like myself.

As for major league baseball today,  all I can say is, “Congratulations to the Giants’ Matt Cain on his recent perfect game. I’m sure  those lousy Reds  are bound to fade in the stretch  and  at least those despicable Cubs are in the central division cellar, where they belong.”   

First published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.  

The Forbidden Marshmallows

14 Feb

                     

                           During the past holiday season my wife Diane prepared an advent calendar for our four grandchildren. This calendar is shaped like a house with 24 doors. Beginning in December the grandchildren open one door every day until Christmas. Each door opens a tiny compartment that contains a small gift for each grandchild. This whole process drove our four-year-old grandson crazy. He kept sneaking into the room where Diane was working and by his own admission, later opened several doors, when no one was looking. This charming yet frightening  preschool impulsiveness reflects the nearly universal human preference for immediate gratification.  

             The inability to delay gratification is seen clearly in how much more we spend than save. Historically American have been notoriously poor savers.   On the average we save only about  6% of our  annual incomes compared to 13% for the  Germans, 14% for the Swiss,  and  a whopping 30% for the Chinese.

Besides our need for instant gratification, some of the other  common reasons for our lack of savings are (1) our insistence  on  maintaining  our current standard of living, (2) our wish to keep with our peers,  (3)  our inability to manage  credit card debt,  and (4) our talent for avoiding the truth.  After years of keeping my head in the sand, Diane recently shamed me in to seeing a retirement planner. It was like getting a financial root canal. 

Wells Fargo Bank’ s Annual 2011 Retirement Survey found  that  on the  average, Americans have only managed to  put away  only about  7%  of  their desired retirement savings.  The median retirement savings is only  $25,000 as opposed  to a goal of $350,000.  Experts estimate that less than 5% of Americans will achieve anything approximating financial security in their retirement and today almost two thirds of American workers put nothing aside for  the future.

In a recent Newsweek  article, science writers Sharon Begley  and Jean Chatzky say that our instant-access culture, in which we can have almost any product delivered to our door overnight is doing little to train the next generation in how to delay gratification.  Northeastern University economist William Dickens believes that our preference for current consumption over future consumption may even be hard-wired into our brains.

           In a  study from the  1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel  from   Stanford University   offered to give 4 year-olds subjects one  marshmallow now, but two marshmallows later,  if they would only wait for while to  get it. Some  of the children  ate the marshmallow  immediately, and the majority  lasted less than 3 minutes. Some children, however, were able to wait much longer to get their marshmallows.   Fourteen years later,  Mischel found that children  who could wait fifteen minutes for their marshmallows had  S.A.T. scores that were two hundred and ten points higher on the average,   than kids who could wait only thirty seconds. The delayers were less likely to be obese, addicted to drugs, or divorced. I also wonder what their  401k balances were.

             Thirty-five years after the  marshmallow experiment, researcher  B. J. Casey from  Cornell Medical College managed to tracked down  59 of the original subjects and  conducted brain imaging analyses,  finding  that in  subjects, able  to delay gratification, the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning  was much more active. Also active was an area of the brain  which   control impulses. Subjects less able to delay gratification had less activity in both of these regions, but more activity within the limbic system, an area associated with pleasure and fear.

Other  areas of the brain that are involved in the ability  to delay gratifications  are those that deal with estimating consequences, processing rewards, controlling memory, and activating motivation. Neuroscientists found that activity in   all of these areas were  correlated with people’s attitudes toward spending and  saving.  For spend-it-now folks, activity in these regions fell dramatically when future gratification was proposed. In people who could delay gratification,  activity was the same whether they were thinking of  current  or  future gratification.

The   prefrontal cortex, however, may be the key player.   When it is temporarily  “deactivated” by the use  of strong magnets, people becomes more impulsive, however, when it is artificially stimulated, people actually become more willing to save for the future.  

               In another follow-up study  researchers   also indentified   a  substantial number  of original subjects  who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds,  but ended up becoming responsible adults who were   able  to routinely delay gratification. Mischel is especially interested in learning more about these subjects, since, at sometime during their lives, they seem to have found the secret to learning self-control.

            Behavioral psychologist  B.F. Skinner believed that humans could be trained to delay gratification, by the use of contingent reinforcers. In his 1948 science fiction novel Waldon Two,  Skinner provided his unique vision of a futuristic society,  grounded in the tenets of radical behaviorism. In his world of Waldon Two young children spend the day with a “forbidden lollipop” hanging around their necks, in order  to teach them how to delay gratification. Only after a specified period of time elapsed, were the children allowed to eat  the lollipop, which had been dipped in powdered sugar, in order to detect licking transgressions.

More recently psychologist Warren Bickel of Virginia Tech  conducted  memory improvement training and  found  that as subject’s memory improved,  they  also developed more appreciation for the future and thus greater ability to postpone  gratification.

   Economist Antony Davies of Duquesne University believes one reason younger workers do not save, is that they simply cannot that they cannot imagine themselves as getting old. I can certainly identify with that.  In his classic book Future Shock  Alvin Toffler discussed how our age  effects our subjective perception  of time.  For example asking a three-year-old to wait an hour for a cookie, is roughly equivalent  to asking a thirty-year-old to wait ten hours for a cup of coffee. Thus asking a twenty-year-old to put aside money for retirement in forty-eight years is like asking him to give it to a complete stranger.  

Impulsive shopping, of course, applies to buying things for other people, as well as yourself. As “Black Friday” kicks off the holiday shopping season an estimated 212 million Americans will spend over 45 billion dollars today alone. This may be just the year to try to control some of those built-in shopping impulses. Crank up your prefrontal lobes, don’t buy that marshmallow shooter,  don’t eat the marshmallows, and leave that lollipop alone.

Based on a column that appeared  in the News Tribune of Southern Indiana.

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