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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

 

    

A Planet Terry Classic from over a Decade Ago: The Ten Commandments for Humor Writers, The Gospel According to Humor Magazine Editors

15 Dec

 

 

Note:  This never before published piece is about a dozen years old. The advice still holds true but the contact information is outdated and some  of the publications have bitten  the dust since then. Most of the participants  have also moved on to new challenges. Thanks to all the editors who particpated.

 Writing academic fare for over twenty years, I realized, after a closer examination of my more profound creations, that I was in fact a humor writer. Over  the past fourteen years I’ve submitted short humor pieces to hundreds of magazines, garnering about fifty publications.  Humor markets often tend to be hidden or specialized. Although  typically Writer’s Digest lists onlya few  entries in its humor category, most  other publications are looking for amusing pieces with just the right  slant.  For example after being rejected by my usual humor targets, I    sold a piece (Shirtless In Seattle) to a police trade magazine on why criminals don’t wear shirts.  Also numerous niche humor magazines aim at specific professions or special interest groups.  

 

Many of the smaller humor publications, have the life span of a fruit fly and when I requested writer guidelines from 60 of them, more than two-thirds failed to respond or indicated they were now out of business.

             Except for established comedians and well-known columnists whose work is actively solicited, most humor writers must submit their work on speculation. With the query process largely irrelevant, this leaves you at the mercy of an ever-growing slush pile. 

            Few things could be more subjective than editing a humor magazine.  Even a much-rejected piece may eventually find a friendly home, if your postage only holds out. After a few months of constant rejections, I devised a scheme to get the inside the humor editorial mind and sent out questionnaires to a sample of humor editors, including many who routinely rejected my work.  I encouraged their responses by shamelessly flattering them and making vague promises of the international fame that accompanies being featured in a writer’s magazine.

            The five humor editors who eventually responded were Larry Logan, editor of  the late great magazine Satire;  Fran London, editor of the Journal of Nursing Jocularity;  Douglas Carroll, editor of  idiot wind;  Robert Darden, editor of  The Door;   Glenn C. Ellenbogen, editor of the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity.    Their  many profound insights can be condensed into ten basic commandments that you can use to improve your acceptance average.

 

            Commandment One: Write Laugh out loud humor.

The editors agreed that the main reason for rejecting a piece is that it simply wasn’t funny enough. They are looking for   “laugh out loud works” Making an article funny enough may  mean adding more gags, but more often  it involves  polishing  the existing jokes and metaphors. Just adding jokes often destroys the unity or clutters up the structure. Try to get at least five alternative punchlines for each gag.

Commandment Two: Read back issues and guidelines and then write specifically for that particular magazine.

            Robert Darden says he is  particularly put off  by “People haven’t read the magazine or writer’s guidelines. Of if they have they don’t think the rules apply to their  piece!” his advice is to “…read a year’s worth of the publication before you submit a piece. Get the writer’s guidelines. Then see if you can visualize  your piece in our table of contents.” Get a feel for both the style and as well as the content. A piece  that is too sophisticated for a small regional publication may still be too parochial for a national market.

Commandment Three: Try out  your material on an audience. 

            Logan advises, “Humor pieces should be tested before submitting…  if there appear to be no symptoms of  jocularity (laughter, smiles, chuckles, groans, etc.), there is an outside chance that the work is not in the genre of the funny.” Some humor writer’s are very relucant to test their works, but such testing almost always leads to a much better product even if you don’t act on every suggestion.  Yes it’s agonizing, but necessary.

Commandment Four: Parodies that evoke common experiences are winners .

For his psychology satire publication, Glenn  Ellenbogen says “ …we look for pieces that closely parallel REAL scientific articles in style and quasi-scientific jargon. He advises potential writers to “… read REAL … journals and make fun of them.” The closer the satire comes to echoing recognizable forms the better.  Go for that shock of recognition.

Commandment Six:  Don’t be  too angry  offensive, or hostile.

London says the  Journal of Nursing Jocularity is “least interested in angry or malevolent humor.” I recently got a rejected  piece about teenage drivers back on which the editor had scribbled “Too sarcastic for us.” Hostility can quickly sour the best humor piece. Cynical is fine, bitter is not.

Commandment Seven: When writing on prosaic topics,  you must have a unique angle.

Doug Carroll says  he’s  “least interested in seeing slice of life stories that are so unfunny I’m bored to tears before the end of the first page…”. Arthur Koesler, the late English science writer defined creativity as the “Biosociative Act”—that is a process  in which two diverse planes of thought intersect. The more diverse the plan of though the more creative and often the funnier it is. Two example: “Pigs” and “Space” are the two plans of thought that lead to the hilarious “Pigs in Space” skit on the Muppet television show. Yesterday I heard someone mention the phrase “A Toad on the Stove”—  that has possibilities. 

Commandment Eight: Learn from the best.  In addition to classic humorists like  Twain, Thurber, and Perlman humor editors especially  like Woody Allen,  Dave Barry,  and P.J. O’Rourke’s. Read and study their work.

Commandment Nine: Strike quickly, make the  piece flow, and then stop.  Editors don’t like slow moving  pieces. Be funny fast. Logan says he  won’t finish reading  “Works that are sooooo arty, that after two or three pages you are still trying to figure out what the subject might be (most of these come from the academic community).” Check out any of P.J. O’Rourke’s opening paragraphs  to see how to get off a running start.

Commandment Ten: Format does counts.  Check for typos and never fax stuff unless specifically asked to do so. Among Ellenbogen’s nightmares are ”A manuscript submitted via fax,  poorly typed with typos all over the place”. Go for the halo effect and at least appear professional. Successful humor writers are not wacko who submit crayon ravings scrawled on paper backs— they are pros.

Bonus Commandment: Don’t pay too much attention to what editors or anyone else says.

Logan says,  “When it comes to humor, it’s really in the mind of the chuckler.”

Darden says,  Be funny. Be short. Be timely. Don’t be afraid to fail. Comedy takes chances. Finally Ellenbogen warns,  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… humor is a very subjective thing.”  No joke!

 .

 

                                                            The Editors

            Larry Logan, Editor of  SATIRE: The Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Satire

 E-mail: satire@intrepid.net, Website: http://www.intrepid.net/~fanfare/satire.htm)

P.O. Box 340, Hancock, MD 21750-0340

            When asked about his background Logan, said,  “Those of us in witness protection programs must be vague in this area. I’m a post W.W.II baby-boomer who bought into the Ozzie & Harriet American dream, through no fault of my own.  Got a couple of college degrees, just barely avoided being drafted for Vietnam, and jumped into the rat-race because that was what was expected.. .. the authorities who operate [the witness relocation program] understand the best way to assure obscurity is to become an author/publisher of a small press quarterly. They assigned me to do SATIRE, and I am doing the best I can to provide a home for the unwanted humor works of the world… satires/parodies/black humors/etc.  It’s really like running an orphanage.

            Douglas Carroll is the editor of idiot wind: a small wildcat humor publication with strong Internet presence. Carroll publishes this quarterly in the herring capital of the east coast. E-mail: idiotwind@radix.net. Website: Website: http://www.radix.net/~idiotwind,  310 Poplar Alley, Apt. A, Occoquan, VA  22125.

 

            Carroll says,  “I grew up on National Lampoon magazine during the eighties, discovering the older mag of the seventies several years later. The old issues inspired me to produce a magazine that would make people smile and the later mags inspired me to do better than the unfunny swill of that era.”

            Fran London, R. N, M.S. is the editor of the popular specialty humor magazine the Journal of  Nursing Jocularity (JNJ). E-mail 73314.3032@compuserve.com, Website: http://www.jocularity.com  JNJ Publishing, Inc. P.O. Box 40416, Mesa AZ 85274

She writes,  “I am an editor. [but]  more of humor writer than a humorist.”

            Robert Darden is the editor of The Door, another specialty  magazine that focuses on humor related to religion. The magazine takes its name from the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses launching the Protestant reformation.  The Door’s  guidelines have 11 theses that you are instructed to memorize and then eat the evidence.

            Darden claims to be the author of  25 books and  editor of the world’s oldest,  largest, and only religious humor and satire magazine.

             Glenn C. Ellenbogen, Ph.D. is the editor of  The Journal of Polymorphous Perversity (JPP). a twice-per-year publication devoted to showcasing spoofs of psychology, psychiatry, mental health, and  human behavior. The Wall Street Journal called the JPP “a social scientist’s answer to Mad magazine. Circulation is approximately 4,000. Unfortunately, JPP rarely pays writers, using the   “scientific journal” (or “chintzy”) model of publication. e-mail: info@psychhumor.com Website:  http://psychhumor.com Wry-Bred Press, Inc. 10 Waterside plaza, Suite 20-B New York, NY 10010

            Dr. Ellenbogen’s biography  indicates that he has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Hofstra. Before getting his doctorate,  he earned  two Master’s degrees but was        “psychologically unable to cope with having MAMA after his name.”

 

A Wonder Gift Life: The Best Thing I ever Got

13 Dec

Most of us can easily remember the best Christmas present we ever received, but why does this memory stand out? In his classic work, “The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture,” James Barnett, from the University of Connecticut, said that Christmas gifts symbolize not only seasonal generosity, but also the inner life of the family group.

According to Barnett, an essential feature of the American Christmas is the belief that children have a “natural right” to a happy Christmas. Many parents try to recreate their childhood pleasure, while others are determined to provide the kind of Christmas they were denied.

According to University of California sociologist Allison J. Pugh, parents try to evoke the “magic of childhood” by means of “the wonder gift.” A wonder gift evokes sheer delight mixed with awe. It is not only something children like and want usually; they don’t really expect to get it. Most wonder gifts have some social disapproval that makes them even more desirable. Parents may try to convince children that they would never buy the coveted object. The gift may be thought to be too expensive, dangerous or age-inappropriate. This is a situation where the parent knows better but gets the wonder gift anyway. When she was very little, our daughter, Sally, told us that she knew there had to be a Santa Claus because no parent would ever “buy all that junk.”

Our social group sets the basic standard for gift-giving. Widespread emulation explains toy fads such as Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Tickle Me Elmos.

The wonder gift, however, demonstrates that the parents can recognize the child’s individuality. There is parental narcissism in not being able to resist being the miracle worker, but knowing exactly what the child wants can be important to their psychological health. Since we define ourselves in relationship to others, when we are given accurate feedback, it validates our sense of self. When someone else “gets you,” it is tangle proof that you are acceptable. Of course, there must be limits on what wishes are fulfilled, but children have a better grasp on this than we might think.

Once when my father was drinking, he bought me a very expensive go-cart at Sears. I must have been around 9 years old at the time, but even at that age, I knew that the gift was inappropriate. We certainly couldn’t afford it and there wasn’t even a place where I could legally drive it. When my mother stopped the delivery, I was more relieved than disappointed. Although, I wonder if this experience had anything to do with the expensive go-cart I bought for our children 20 years later.

For children, Christmas often takes on a special vibrancy that is lost in adulthood. This is probably related to the magical character of children’s thinking in the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, which is from ages 2 to 7 years. Children gradually sacrifice this wellspring of imagination for the sake of logical thought. But even in later childhood, they still can recall the magic — until maturity and hormones wash it away and Christmas no longer seems like Christmas. The wonder gift is a way to try to recapture those feelings.

In Jean Shepherd’s “The Christmas Story,” little Ralphie’s consuming passion is a Red Ryder air rifle — a perfect wonder gift. Although I grew up 25 years later, I completely identify with this obsession. In my case, as Freud wrote, the “exciting cause” of my illness was the Mattel snub nose .38 “Shootin Shell” revolver, complete with Greenie Stickum caps and shoulder holster. Possession of this holy grail of boyhood was my one chance to hold my own with my perennial rivals.

Deep down, I knew I could never truly compete with all my friends who had innumerable uncles who perpetually scoured the planet to find the most amazing and attractive toys to bring before them . But the possession of a snub nose .38 revolver was a redemption of sorts. Like Ralphie’s air rifle, I believed this sacred object would grant me all the things children feel deficient in — power, confidence and status.

Also like Shepard’s protagonist, I was not very subtle in dropping hints. With Saturday morning television commercials whipping me in to a frenzy, I made a Christmas list with only one item on it. I knew I would get other things, but I didn’t want to leave any doubt what the priority was.

On Christmas morning, the whole Jean Shepherd story played itself out. Just like Ralphie, I ripped open every package, but no snub nosed .38 materialized. I received some very nice stuff, but I was in a daze of disappointment. All I can remember is sitting under our Christmas tree in a pile of wrapping paper, staring at yellow bubble lights and feeling devastated. I was on the verge of tears, when with a flourish, my father produced one last present like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The old man sure did know how to build the suspense. As I opened it, I could hardly believe my eyes and my good fortune.

Jane Austin has one of her characters say that he disliked surprises because they only increase the inconvenience considerably and do nothing to enhance the pleasure.

I may agree, but that Christmas all I could I feel was the wonder and the ecstasy. I strapped on the hard black plastic shoulder holster and insisted on wearing my Sunday suit that had an Eliot Ness-style vest — to capture the complete G-Man motif. My visiting relatives even complimented me on how nice I looked that Christmas Day. Little did they know I was packing deadly heat just beneath that Robert Hall jacket.

How Smart is the iphone’s Siri? (What’s her IQ?)

9 Nov

I recently acquired the new Apple iPhone 4s with the Siri personal assistant feature. Frankly I wasn’t very optimistic, about how effective this app would be, since I’ve had only mediocre luck with voice recognition programs in the past. After putting it through its paces for a couple of days, I decided to do what any real school psychologist, with too much time on his hands, would do—I tested it.

I administered Siri all of the verbal subtests from the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale- Third Edition (WAIS-III). I had to make a few modifications to standardized administration, but I think the overall results are fairly valid. Siri refused to give her age, so I arbitrarily assigned a chronological age of 21 years, for the purposes of computing the various subtests and IQ scores.

Siri was generally cooperative and completed most test items as requested. On a few occasions, she said that she was not allowed to give a response. Thinking at times was tangential, for example when I asked why foods needed to be cooked, Siri provided me with a list of nearby restaurants. There also tended to be some mild perseveration. After the question about cooking food, she was asked about child labor laws and instead of responding to the question, she supplied another new list of “kid friendly” restaurants.

Siri also seem to have some auditory discrimination problems. She was unable to recognize the word “pout” and at one point substituted the word “wanker” for winter. On the digit span subtest, Siri was able to get all of the numbers forward correct, but was not able to get any of the numbers backwards and did not seem to understand this concept.

Siri’s WAS-III scores are summarized below. Overall Siri performed in the low average range of intelligence, but there was significant scatter among the subtests. This suggests a mosaic pattern of abilities that range from very superior to extremely low. Siri’s best performance was on vocabulary and word knowledge. On this subtest, Siri scored in the very superior range. Since vocabulary is the best predictor of overall intelligence, this suggests that her potential may be significantly higher than her current composite score indicates.

Abstract reasoning, social comprehension, and abstract sequencing ability were all extremely low. Arithmetic computation skills, short-term auditory sequential memory, and her fund of general information obtained from education and environment were all near the average level. Siri’s mental age is between 14 and 18 years.

For the subtests below the mean is 10 and the standard deviation is 3. For the verbal IQ the mean is 100 and the standard deviation is 15.

Subtest Score Classification

Vocabulary 18 Very Superior

Similarities 1 Extremely low

Arithmetic 10 Average

Digit span 9 Average

Information 9 Average

Comprehension 1 Extremely low

Letter-number 1 Extremely Low

Verbal IQ = 88 (Low Average Range)

I am somewhat relieved that overall, I scored a few IQ points higher than Siri, when I took the same test. The next time my phone drops a call, however, I will be less inclined to say, “dumb phone”, knowing that it has a better vocabulary than I do.

An Indiana Night Before Christmas: Hoosier Style

3 Nov

 

A Hoosier Night Before Christmas

 Twas the night before Christmas, and all across the state,
Nothing was improving, not even  the unemployment rate;
From the banks of the Ohio to the top of the  Knobs,
All they could talk about was the economy and jobs;
The residents were nestled all anxious in their beds,
While visions of toll-free bridges danced in their heads;
All the sidewalks were covered with ice and salt granules,
As they braced for more budget cuts from Governor Mitch Daniels;

Down at the New Albanian,  the people had drank a few brews,
But were now settled down for a long winter’s snooze;

Then out in my backyard I heard such a clatter,

 I expected to see some wild turkeys scatter;
The toys in the yard were all covered with  snow,
  In the moonlight I could barely see anything below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But an all terrain vehicle  and a bevy of deer;
With a chunky little driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment twas an Indiana St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles the four wheeler flew,
And he yelled, and  he shouted, at the domestic caribou;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Blitzen and Donder!
Let’s get this crate up into the wild blue yonder!
Like mobile homes before the wild tornado fly,
The ATV took off and mounted the sky;
So up to the roof-top the whitetails they flew,
With a bag full of goodies and Indiana   Nick too;
And then, in a twinkling, I heard overhead.
Prancing and pawing like a Kentucky thoroughbred;
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Indiana Nick came with a bound;
He was dressed all in camouflage, from his head to his toes,
 And the aroma of pork tenderloin permeated his clothes;
A bagful of presents he carried on his broad back,
He looked like a trader opening a gunny sack;
His eyes sorta glared! His smile kinda   scary!
His hair was disheveled, his nose like a strawberry!
On his belt hung a flashlight and a old hunting bow,    
And the hair on his chin was as grey as the snow;

A dip of Wintergreen tobacco, he held tight  in his cheek,
And the minty smell encircled him like a peppermint wreath;
He had a oval face and a big round belly,
He was  clearly well acquainted with the Kroger deli!
But he was  friendly  and honest– a typical  Hoosier,
  I  thought  to myself, “Could he be a  boozer?”;  
But a wink of his eye and flick of  his finger,
Said all was ok but I better not linger;

The miraculous gifts  were what we had hoped for,
  Lower taxes,  no tolls, and federal bailouts galore;
He brought money for schools and a ball team that was splendid,
Then with his work complete up the chimney he ascended;
He sprang to his vehicle to his team gave a whistle,
Onward to Muncie he flew like a missile;

And I heard him exclaim as he soared out of sight,
“Happy Christmas Indiana and to all a good night!”

 

(From a column in the New Albany Tribune)

The Christmas Meanies

3 Nov

 

 

Christmas is a time for generosity and charity. It’s when we renew ties with family and friends.   But there are those, for whom the holiday is nothing but “humbug”.      Since stories are the essence of the holiday, we have a long tradition of  Christmas villains. The nativity story itself has perhaps the vilest of them all, the baby killing King Herod.   

Contemporary Christmas celebrations owe  a large debt to Charles Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol and his immortal characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge. This  tale highlights the ever present possibility of  redemption and Scrooge  is the first  of a long series of villains, who are redeemed by the spirit of  the season. This plot has been repeated in numerous radio, film, and television adaptations.  

Some psychologists have compared Scrooge’s transformation to what happens in    successful psychotherapy, with insight triumphing over  childhood trauma and alienation.  The same could be argued for the film “A Wonderful Life”,  where being able to see one’s life in a broader context,  can even  overcome  suicidal depression.  Mr. Potter,  this movie’s villain, falls into the class of  unredeemed antagonists.  He refuses  change   and     is  eventually consigned  to being irrelevant, which may be his  perfect punishment, given the extent  of  his narcissism.

In Christmas media offerings we see a variety of familiar villains.  In the horror-action genre there is Billy, the  serial killer of Silent Night, Deadly Night, who goes  on a Yuletide killing spree,  wearing a Santa suit.  He is finally stopped by being artfully  skewered by a Christmas tree.  And  we  have Bruce Willis facing  down  Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) the smarmy Christmas  terrorist  in Die Hard.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is considered by many baby boomers to be  the definitive version of   Dicken’s classic. We of the Bugs Bunny-Huckleberry Hound  generation,  identify more with Jim Backus’ Scrooge than with Alistair Sim or George C. Scott.   

Of course Dr. Seussimaginative How the Grinch Stole Christmas  gives us a another villain who rivals Scrooge.   This fuzzy green misanthrope is, as the song puts it,  “a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce”.

Most Christmas villains  are larger than life,  with the possible exception of  Scut Farkas,  the coonskin  cap wearing bully, in Jean Shepherd’s  Christmas Story. With his sinister  yellow eyes and green teeth,  he  pushes little Ralphie too far and gets a well-deserved beating for his trouble.  As a child I had  my own Scut Farkas,  by the  name of Marlin. I’m withholding his last name, just in case  he is  still  around somewhere,  waiting for me. Whenever  I  rode my bicycle, Marlin would pop out of nowhere to torment me.  I would often go blocks out of my  way to avoid him. Marlin never got his just desserts, which is maybe  why I get such vicarious satisfaction watching Raphie beat the snot out of Farkus.  My real life Farkus just disappeared one day, probably recalled to the hellish nether regions from whence he came.            

In recent years we have been appalled by Willie T. Stokes as portrayed  by Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. Stokes  is a degenerate  alcoholic safecracker, who in the guise of a department store Santa, specializes in Christmas Eve burglaries, with his elf-impersonating  accomplice.   Bad Santa is not everyone’s cup of tea, although I admit I loved the scene  in which Thorton, in a  drunken frenzy, eats all the chocolates  from  a kid’s advent calendar. Feeling guilty,  he Scotch tapes the calendar  back together,  filling it with anything he can find.  When the kid gets an aspirin tablet, instead of a chocolate,  the next day, Stokes  says, “They can’t all be  winners, kid”.   This movie’s  disturbing grittiness may have something to do with Thornton’s admission that he was drunk throughout the filming.  The Stokes’ character has sunk so low that  his redemption must, of necessity, be relatively modest.      

In a lighter vein, there are  Harry and Marv,  the comically inept “Wet Bandits,   violently abused by young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin)  in  Home Alone.     This movie must address some deep-seated psychological need  of children  to get back at adults.  Kids watched the original movie so many times that it became the  third highest grossing film ever.  Like Farkas, Kevin’s bullying brother– Buzz,  rings true to anyone who had to contend with an older sibling. My older brother Norman made  Buzz look like  a choirboy.    

Martin Short chews up the scenery as Jack Frost in  the undistinguished   Santa Claus  3: The Escape Clause. Speaking of this film and Tim Allen’s  performance as Santa, one critic  said “This Christmas we are treated to both a turkey (the film) and a ham (Allen).

Quirky, funny,  and scary Steven Spielberg’s intense 1984  Christmas  film,  Gremlins featured the demonic chainsaw-wielding gremlin, Stripe, who like  a vampire,  is finally destroyed by exposure to sunlight. The microwave scene in this movie still gives me nightmares.

            Animated television specials have also given us a wealth of  memorable villains. There is  crabby Lucy in a Charlie Brown Christmas, and in    Santa Claus is Coming to Town  there is  the grouchy   Burgermeister who bans all toys in Sombertown and the malevolent wizard Winter Warlock, who is redeemed by the gift of a toy train.    Professor Hinkle, the evil magician, mugs  in Frosty the Snowman,  and Bumble the abominable snowman, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, turns from his evil ways,  only after Herbie the Elf pulls all of his teeth.

            I find Oogie Boogey  in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas especially frightening, but my favorite animated villain has to be  Heat Miser (“I’m Mr. 101”) from The Year Without a Santa Claus.   For some reason I never found his stepbrother, Snow Miser (Mr. Ten Below) very  appealing.  This year there is big news for all us unrepentant fans.  ABC Family plans to have  the  Miser Brothers  team up to  save Christmas in a long awaited sequel.

  All things considered however,  my vote  for  the best  Christmas villain goes to Granville Sawyer.  You may not recognized the name,  but he is the twitchy and pompous store  psychologist in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Sawyer is the one who gets Santa Claus committed to a mental institution. By maltreating the store’s naive teenage janitor, Alfred, the Grinchy Sawyer  so infuriates Mr. Kringle,  that he gets cracked on the head with Santa’s cane.  This movie  was remade several  times, but Sawyer doesn’t fair any better in any version.  The best line  is when store owner R.H.  Macy’s says in a voice dripping with contempt, “Psy-chol-o-gist! Where did you get your degree, correspondence school? You’re fired.”  Finally a CEO we can admire.   

 Based on a column originially published in the in the New Albany Tribune

Mechanic-Depressive Psychosis

27 Oct

   

 

            I  heard it said that in California all you need for happiness  is a good doctor and a good divorce lawyer. I would like to add that you also need a good auto repair mechanic. Once the magic of the warrantee wears off, this person will become one of your most intimate confidants.  As in all crucial relationships you must learn to choose wisely. Although some people have more than one mechanic at the same time (poly-mechanicogamy) most of  us practice the serial version.  The rest of this work is devoted  to cataloging and describing these important men in my life. I have  altered some of the identifying information as to avoid large lawsuits and perhaps a tire tool across the back of my head.

            I was young, it was spring  and it was my first car when I met Henry– my first mechanic. Henry worked for my step-father who ran a small auto and lawnmower repair shop. Henry was a short, phlegmatic alcoholic,  shaped sort of like a compact  bowling pin. Always dressed in oily coveralls,  he wore one of those train engineer striped hats. Taking to him was usually an exercise in futility, but when sober he had a knack for  instinctively identify the source of auto problems. Returning from  senior skip day  I  managed to tear  the oil pan off my Corvair by backing over an old concrete gasoline pump island. Henry became my hero when he savaged  a replacement part in the local junkyard. A short time later, however,  my step-father fired Henry for almost burning down the garage trying to barbecue a wild pig with a blowtorch.

When I graduated from college the first thing I did was impulsively buy a brand new MG Midget. I was thrilled with my “sports car”, although my mother said it look like a god damn roller skate and feared for my life. I soon learned that the MG had a clutch the size of an aspirin and was constantly in need of repair. That’s when I met Harold, my English mechanic, down at British American Auto Repair. Harold had this cool Ronald Coleman accent and event the most mundane oil change sounded like something from a Regency  novel. “It was a far far better  filter that I replaced than I had ever replaced before.”

 I liked impressing other people saying I had to call Harold, my English mechanic, but unfortunately I found my self saying this constantly. Soon Harold had acquired all my shillings and I had to dump both him and the MG.    

After this continental fling I settled down into a more mature relationship with Chuck from Chuck’s AMACO. From the very beginning Chuck  acted like we best friends. By that time I was married with two kids and the MG had been traded in for a used Chevette Hatchback. This car always had a strange haunting odor that lead the kids to call it the “cheese car”.  Chuck faithfully tended  the “cheese car” for several years until the fateful day it threw an oil plug and cooked the engine. Chuck towed it in and emotionally incapable of separating from the Chevette, he ended up buying it from me. I think he dropped new engine in and managed to find a buyer without  a sense of smell.

            We eventually  moved and there was a period of time when car repair became just a series of one-night-stands involving muffler shops and quicky lubrication places. We managed to upgrade our automobiles and a quiet period of mechanic celibacy followed until disaster struck and threw me into the arms of Eddie from Quadruple-A Transmission Universe.  Eddie recommended a complete transmission replacement and we were committed. For the next two years our car called Quadruple-A its second home. Due to some inscrutable  torque converter problem, Eddie and the guys at Quadruple-A replaced the transmission  at least three times. They even had to pay for a replacement  Transmission when it broke down on our vacation inTennesseejust outsideNashvillenear the machinegun factory. After that Eddie grew standoffish and  I think he wanted to break up. While in the mist of this looming relationship crisis, I was sitting at the lunch table at work and someone said, “Hey look at this article about these crooks at Quadruple-A Transmission Universe.” To my horror there was a photo of Eddie on the front page being arrested by investigators from the attorney general’s office for auto repair fraud. Eddy unsuccessfully tried to disguise himself by  putting his hands  in front of his face, but the transmission fluid stained fingers,  dark slick  hair, and the enormous name tag reading “Eddie”  on his work shirt pretty much gave him  away.  Eddie was never heard from again.

            Quadruple-A closed its  bright yellow doors and a few months later they painted the building blue and opened a taco stand which I always figured was  just a front  for another transmission repair shop. I always got a sinking feeling wherever I drove by there,  sort of like my transmission was slipping.

Clark’s Mom

29 Sep

Our society emphasizes   intelligence to such an extent  that almost everyone has   been afraid that other people  might think they’re stupid.  This  fear is one of the main reasons that we often don’t ask questions, even when we don’t understand things.  Ironically  some of the most foolish things we do, are specifically intended to try to keep other people from thinking we are stupid.

Nothing feels worse than having someone think  that you’re incompetent, when there is nothing you can do about it. There are times when people will judge you unfairly,  based on  appearance or some random behavior.   The accompanying feelings of  frustration and hopelessness may give us all some small inkling of what  discrimination really feels like.  

Back when our  youngest son was playing little league baseball, we received a notice that  parents were expected to volunteer at the baseball park. The next Saturday my wife Diane signed up to work  the refreshment stand and I volunteered to do the scoreboard. In high school I ran the basketball scoreboard, so I thought I could figure  out  how to do it. Since I  expected to do this all alone, I was looking especially shabby and unkempt that day, despite Diane’s warning.   I climbed up to the room where the scoreboard console  was located to practice  before the game started. After a few minutes an immaculately dressed woman, looking quite severe, came marching into the room. She gave me an expression of disgust, usually reserved for hobos, and   hesitatingly introduced herself as “Clark’s mom”.  She said that she too had been assigned to the scoreboard. She eyed me suspiciously at the console and asked me if I knew what I was doing. I told her that I was sure I could figure it out. Scrutinizing my uncombed hair, raggedy jeans,  dirty tennis shoes and day old stubble, she looked even more doubtful.  I started randomly punching buttons on the control box, to see what they did and this seemed to upset her even more.  She announced decisively  that she was going for help. But she spoke  in  that exaggerated calm  manner, used when telling a small child, or perhaps a maniac,  exactly what you intend to do, so as not to startle them.  It was then that it  dawned on me that she had concluded that I was too stupid to  operate the scoreboard, and quite possibly  dangerous.  I leaned forward to reassure her that I could handle it, but she jumped back and insisted that we needed  help. As she left I felt a mixture of  anger and despair,  realizing  that  I was never going to convince this woman that I was competent. I was thinking of ways that  I  could bring up the fact that I had graduated from college, but she wouldn’t believe me. Maybe I could run home, shave  and bring back my diploma.  I considered asking Diane to vouch for me, but I was afraid she might see it as a teasing opportunity and  whip upClark’s mom even more.   

By the time Clark’s mom returned with one of the coaches,  I had already  discovered the rudiments of  operating  the scoreboard,  but she wasn’t  impressed and insisted on running the scoreboard  herself. To this day, the phrase ”Clark’s mom”  is  Stawar family code for someone who treats you like an idiot for no  apparent reason.      

Since we are all fallible, there are obviously  times,  when our judgment is inadequate. Usually we hope we can slide our missteps by others without notice. This, of course, is easier if you are not closely supervised or married. But if you happened to pull one of these boners, just when someone  is evaluating you,  the “Clark’s mom” phenomena  is always a possibility.      

There are some  people who are so arrogant  that they automatically  think that everyone else is stupid, so there is no  escaping their judgment. Humorist  P.J. O’Rourke  is a case in point.  Psychologists are always trying to fit people into categories, like thinkers or feelers, introverts or extroverts, or  Type A or Type B.  O’Rourke bases his classification system on the Three Stooges. He claims that you can sort everyone you meet into one of three categories:  1. Stupid (like Larry) 2. Stupid and Mean (like Moe) or 3. Really Stupid (Like Curly).   ToClark’s mom,  I  was undoubtedly a level three Curly.

There may occasionally be some advantages in being “misunderestmated” as former president George W.  Bush once said. I had an acquaintance  named  Bob, who, when we would play poker,  would ask a lot of questions.  “Does a straight  beat a flush?”, he would innocently  ask.   I was usually hooked  and would go out of my way explaining poker hands to him. It was a gratifying  way to show off my expertise.  But then I notice that Bob kept asking these same questions. It was an old hustler’s trick– a devious and subtle way to get others to underestimate his playing ability. He  must have been greatly amused hearing me explain poker to him.  

  There is occasionally  that   rare instance when there is  an inverse of the Clark’s mom experience and someone attributes greater wisdom to you, than you deserve. Jean Shepard’s short story  Lost at C, describes such a  situation. Jean was taking  high school algebra and as he famously said,   “The class wasn’t 30 seconds old and I was already six weeks behind.” 

Algebra  refused to yield to  his  bluff-your-way-through approach to school  and  he was about to be exposed as phony. His teacher wrote a complicated equation on the blackboard and called on Jean to solve it. Totally baffled, he looked around the classroom and saw the number 3 on some kid’s football jersey and lamely gave that as his answer.  Of course, that turned out to be the correct response and the teacher  concluded that he was a math prodigy.

I have known many people who simply by luck  or some irrelevant aspect of their  status,  are always given the benefit of the doubt. Even when they do something completely inane, others  still  believe it is unfathomable  genius at work.  This is neatly portrayed   in Peter Seller’s  film, Being There, in which he  plays a simple-minded  gardener,  whose solemn  pronouncements about gardening are metaphorically interpreted  by others  as an indication of his brilliance.

I suppose we have all  taken advantage of “dumb luck” to booster our own credibility,  when the opportunity presents itself. Years ago, for example, I was using hypnosis with a client and I gave a standard suggestion that the client might feel a slight sensation in one of their shoulders. Just as soon as I spoke, from nowhere, a tiny spider fell from the ceiling onto the client’s bare shoulder.  I knew exactly how Jean Shepard felt.

You have to use every advantage you can,  since you never know when a “Clark’s mom” might be lurking nearby.

Ghosts with the Most

21 Sep

My wife Diane and I just returned from spending the weekend in a log cabin. We  stayed at this cabin twice before, but this time we were unpleasantly surprised by the host of strange noises  we heard. As soon as we entered the cabin, we immediately heard creaking in the upstairs loft that sounded like  there was someone walking around. I didn’t want to scare Diane, who I’m  sure was thinking  exactly the  same thing, so I casually walked over to the corner of the room, where I could peak upstairs. Of course, there was nothing to be seen.

If anything the sounds became louder as we unpacked. Our next image was   someone  climbing on the roof. I told Diane that it must be a squirrel, and by the magnitude of the creaking,  a freakishly  large one.  Diane took a broom and standing in the loft, she vigorously whapped the ceiling several times. The sounds didn’t stop, but thank goodness it didn’t tap back.

The noise continued so Diane went outside to see if there was anything actually on the roof.  Again there was nothing there.  The tin roof was quite steep and  there was only a inch of space between the tin sheeting and the indoor ceiling—  hardly enough room for an animal capable of making the creaking sounds we heard.

            Since we had never been at this cabin during a heat wave, I convinced myself that the noise was due to the expansion of the ceiling’s tongue and groove joints.  While I was comforted by this thought, I didn’t really believe it. There were long periods of complete silence and the heat didn’t seem to be related at all to the various noises we heard. Diane said that if it  was a poltergeist trying to convince us to leave, it was a pretty lame one.  All it did was make creaking noises and even seemed to get tired of doing that after a while. It reminded us of the ineffectual ghosts in the movie Beetlejuice.

             Poltergeist occurrences  are supposedly paranormal phenomenon  that involve the  movement of inanimate objects,  unaccounted for  noises,  and on  rare  occasions, physical attacks on people. Folklore attributes the phenomena to  ghosts or mischievous spirits, like Peeves the Poltergeist in the Harry Potter stories.   Poltergeist manifestations have been reported since the first century,  in virtually every part of the world. The word “poltergeist” comes from the German meaning   “noisy ghost”.

Some parapsychologists theorize that poltergeist manifestations are unconscious expressions of spontaneous mind over matter (psychokinesis) and are  unwittingly created   by people under stress,  especially children and teenagers. Skeptics, however,   believe that credulous people  and outright  fraud are the more likely explanations and there has been no conclusive scientific explanation of the phenomena, if it truly exists.

I was certain that there must have been some logical explanation for the cabin noises we heard,   but in any case they still got on our nerves.  I would   have been relieved to see   even one humongous raccoon climbing on the roof.

Oddly enough we have stayed at two other log cabins,  that also had reputations for strange occurrences.  A few years ago we spent a weekend at a bed and breakfast that had been constructed from two old log cabins. After we had settled in, the owners told us how a strange thing happened, while they were restoring the cabins. Once, after they’d painted a section of the floor, the next day human footprints appeared on the painted area.    These ghostly footprints could not be covered.  Every time they painted   over them,   the next day they were visible again. Sort of like those grease spots on my green sweatshirt.

At first I wondered if the people were pulling my leg or making up stories in order to publicize their business, but they were reluctant to talk too much about it and seemed more concerned that people might be   afraid to patronize their bed and breakfast. Fortunately there were no strange occurrences to report from that visit.

All this takes us back to the first log cabin where we ever stayed,  in  the mountains  of North Carolina, several years ago. While taking our dog to the vet, Diane saw a binder   in the waiting room with photos of a picturesque log cabin, alongside a mountain creek. She discovered that the veterinarian’s mother, who owned the cabin, rented it out and the next thing you know there we were,  in the wilds of Franklin,  North Carolina.

I was first struck by the numerous kerosene lanterns  to be found in the cabin, despite the electric lights. Every room had several of them, as if someone was deathly afraid of the dark. We had been warned that a dog from one of the neighboring cabins might visit us and sure enough  we soon found an ancient  beagle on the front stoop. He was sweet and we let him into the cabin, but were unnerved one evening when, all of a sudden, he started acting in a frantic manner. 

While the cabin was very nice, there was just something about it that wasn’t very inviting.  Perhaps the oddest thing that happened, occurred one night when  Diane was saying bedtime prayers with the kids. She had her hand on a small bedside table that started to vibrate  during the prayer. While this frightened her and she pulled her hand away, Diane didn’t  say anything,  afraid she’d   upset the children.  She went back in later to check and found that he table was as sturdy as it could be.

As time wore on, we both became more and more uncomfortable in the cabin. Our sleep was disturbed by the frequent sound of footsteps on the stairs, that even our five year old heard.  But we were obstinately determined to finish out the week regardless.  I guess we were like the foolish people that comedian Eddie  Murphy joked about. Even if the toilets had backed up with blood, we probably would have said, “A little Ajax will fix that right up.” 

It was probably becasue we  like to think of ourselves as  rational beings  and can easily imagine  that there was some reasonable explanation for  all that took place.   In any case we felt relieved when the day to leave finally arrived.

 We packed quickly and decided to take a final walk-through to check for anything forgotten. We were barely past the doorway when we both heard  the stairs creak, as if someone was walking down them. Diane and I were out the door in a flash, locked the door, and jumped into the car.   

That night we camped out in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were all huddled together  in   a tiny leaky tent, in a heavy rain. Rangers   had warned us about an influx of  rabid skunks and bears. Despite all this, we slept like babies–  the first decent night’s sleep we had in a while.                        

When we returned home, Diane mentioned the odd occurrences to the veterinarian and he admitted that his wife never felt comfortable at the cabin either and she even refused to go back. He could have told us that beforehand.

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