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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

He Never Shares!

30 Nov

 

Last week  our four year old grandson formally announced to everyone,  “I don’t share.” His two older sisters readily agreed that  “no sharing” was his standard  policy,  with the only exception being if  he  was going to   miss out on something he really wanted. In that case he temporarily suspends his no sharing rule. A friend’s three-year old foster granddaughter shows similar tendencies.  If just grabbing something doesn’t work, she declares she wants to share and then grabs it again. I’ll have to  try that.

All this dearth of sharing   reminds me of the “Joey Doesn’t  Share Food !“ episode of the television series Friends,  in which a woman, dating  the Joey Tribbiani character,  causally takes some food off his plate. Like a dog guarding his bowl, Joey reacts with sudden rage.

Our older two granddaughters, after engaging in a fierce life-long competition for nearly everything, have finally decided to call a cease-fire and to share all their belongings. They still have a problems deciding who get to go first and for  how long, but they are improving.

Psychologists study  sharing behavior using   the so-called  “Dictator Game”,  in which one person (the dictator) receives something  (usually  money or food)  and then  may  either  keep all of it, or share it with another person.  Results consistently  reveal,  that  that people usually  share;  often giving  up to  half of what they received. According to Psychology Today blogger,  Daniel Hawes,  one Dictator Game  study  found that   20% of  college students gave nothing,  60% gave up to  half their stake, and  20%  gave  exactly  half of their holdings.  Women generally  tend to give more than men and people can be primed by various means to share  more. For example, using words that evoke  thoughts of sharing, or telling a  story like the Good Samaritan, helps increase sharing.    

            Hawes also reported on  a study conducted by   Harvard researchers Peter Blake and David Rand   at the Boston Science Museum. These experimenters gave young children stickers to either keep or share.  Only 30% of three-year olds decided to share,  while more than 70% of   6 year olds shared their stickers.  Results also showed that all the children, regardless of age,  decided  how much to share based on  how much they liked  the possession. Overall they gave away about 10% less of their favorite stickers.

            Until  about age  four,  most sharing that takes place is not done out of  empathy, but rather  from imitation, or as part  of  the play  process.  Around  4 years of age,  the child develops  a sense of empathy and then sharing takes on a moral dimension  as an obligatory aspect of   social relationships.

            Often times,   people wish   to share certain things, precisely because they  believe the item is  valuable. I once shared two of my favorite books on comedy writing with a young man who was interested in humor.  He ended up leaving town without returning them. I didn’t think that was very funny.

Once  after back surgery  our nephew was laid up for the summer and we sent him a box of videos we had taped of the British science fiction comedy, Red Dwarf.  We wanted to share this show with him,  but were a little concerned   about what  he might think. Fortunately we created another fan and he returned all of the tapes.

This desire to share something we value may be  one of reasons why  many people engage  in  illegal file sharing. Although it may violate copyright laws, it still seems altruistic.  In 2003,  despite a onslaught of lawsuits,  a New York Times poll  indicated that only 36% of Americans believed file sharing was “never acceptable”. The Times said this   highlights a major disparity between “the legal status of file sharing and the apparent cultural consensus on its morality”.

People are frequently placed in situations where sharing is mandatory, like sharing an office or having a college roommate. Roommate issues are among the most common problems addressed in  college counseling centers. An online survey found that 60 percent of  employees  said their co-workers’ annoying habits were  the number one  source of stress in the workplace.

Inconsideration and personality conflicts account for most problems in sharing space, but       specific complaints usually include: 1. Taking or using  personal items  (including food) without permission, 2.Being messy,  3. Violating  personal space, 4. Unwillingness to compromise and  5. Different  styles. Whether it is someone stealing your stapler or eating your last package of Ramen Noodles, sharing personal space can be very challenging. One British study suggests that with smaller family sizes, more people are growing up without learning to share and this may  account for increased difficulty sharing  later in life.     

 Children often receive joint gifts that must be shared and this may aggravate existing sibling rivalry issues. For example on the television series, Everybody Loves  Raymond, there was an episode in which the  two grown brothers are arguing over  a  racing set they both received for  Christmas as children.  The older brother says that he always wanted to set the track up just like the one on the cover of the  box,  with the picture of that “happy brotherless boy”. 

Some parents  set rules for how sharing is to take place or establish mechanisms to assure equity, while others let the children fight it out among themselves. Some authorities think that giving  joint gifts is  useful,  since they give children practice in sharing and taking turns, that they might not get otherwise.

While sharing  might rationally seem contrary to our best interest,  it is an important lesson,  since it is one of the main ways we create  relationships. It is often very difficult to enjoy things alone.  Lord  Byron once wrote “All, who joy would win,  must share it. Happiness was born a twin.” 

For adults in a relationship, sharing things usually isn’t a problem,  unless they decide to breakup. In such situations retired California Superior Court Judge  Roderic Duncan suggests  making a list of all  the items jointly owned, assigning a value to each of them,  and then  deciding who is the logical owner. Having an established value can help both parties  agree on what is an equitable split. When it comes to disputed items,  the Judge  recommends flipping a coin, holding a sale,  or letting each party bid on the item in question.  

Of course, the biggest problem is often deciding what items are actually jointly owned. One partner may have  paid for an item and feels like  it  belongs to him or her, but they only had the  money to do so, because  the other party  was paying for  rent,  a car,  or utilities. These sort of disputes are much more complicated to untangle.

Growing up,  my older brother was never much for sharing,  unless it was my bicycle, after he destroyed his own, or the contents of my bank, when he wanted something. I’m tempted to  say that he never really shared anything, but that wouldn’t be true. There was always the chicken pox.

 

From a colum in the News Tribune of Souhern Indiana

Sage Advice for Thanksgiving

22 Oct

 

Like many holidays Thanksgiving can evoke strong emotions. I knew a fellow who told me how much he dreaded Thanksgiving, ever since he got into a knife fight with his brother-in-law. His story reminded me of a character in the movie The Ladies Man, who said that he always carried at least two knives and a gun to Thanksgiving dinner.

Comedian Al Franken once said that his family celebrated holidays by sitting in the living room viciously criticizing one another, until someone had a seizure and then they had pie. Thanksgiving is often a time when family members, who manage to successfully avoid each other all year, are suddenly forced to spend an entire afternoon together. It is not coincidental that Hollywood chose Thanksgiving as the backdrop for dysfunctional family movies like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Avalon” and “Home for the Holidays.”

Although this is a time, when we should set aside our petty grievances to give thanks, the nerve-racking nature of the occasion often puts everyone’s teeth on edge. At one family gathering it was suggested to my overweight brother that perhaps he was eating too much. He responded by throwing a plate of spaghetti against the wall. Perhaps you also remember my story about how my father pitched a roasted turkey out the kitchen door one New Years day. Throwing foodstuff unfortunately is one Stawar holiday tradition that Martha Stewart never considered, even while in prison.

Holiday stress often reaches its peak during dinner conversation, which frequently serves as a trigger event. Seemingly innocent remarks can quickly escalate into open warfare. For mystified outsiders, with no person experience of dysfunction to fall back on, I have decoded several classic dinner table comments below.

1. How’s work going?

Translation: If you are working you deadbeat, when are you going to pay me back the money you owe me.

2. Who made the lime Jello mold?

Translation: What could they have possibly been thinking?

3. What’s your boy Jimmy up to these days?

Translation: Still on probation?

4. Cousin Billy, what a surprise to see you here.

Translation: Is your television broke?

4. And just exactly how much whipped cream do you intend to put on that thing anyway?

Translation: Don’t count on me administering CPR.

5. How’s your Atkinson’s “diet” coming along?

Translation: Hey, everybody, doesn’t he look just like a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

6. How does little Johnny like junior high?

Translation: Is the little monster any smarter than that dimwitted husband of yours?

7. How is your writing “career” coming along?

Translation: Have you got them up to $10 dollars a column yet?

8. Isn’t this turkey really moist, honey?

Translation: You’ll never be able to cook as good as my mother.

9. This wine is great, Bill.

Translation: I didn’t know Wal-Mart had a wine cellar.

10. Did you make this pumpkin pie?

Translation: We can’t expect much in terms of domestic skills from an overeducated egghead like you.

11. No thanks, I don’t need any help.

Translation: As a daughter-in-law you are not qualified to handle actual food.

13. It’s amazing how all this stuff just magically appears every year.

Translation: The fact that you are exhausted from cooking since 3:00AM this morning has completely eluded me.

12. No children yet?

Translation: You may have a big successful career smarty pants, but you will never be the woman I am.

Good luck making it through the minefield that is the dinner conversation and here are a few final tips to help you survive Thanksgiving.

1. Remember this is not a marathon family therapy session and not the best time to resolve lifelong resentments.

2. Keep communications superficial. According to some of Randy Newman’s lyrics “Feelings might go unexpressed. I think that’s probably for the best. Dig too deep who knows what you will find.”

3. Discourage alcohol consumption since that generally promotes uncensored disclosure, aggression, or flirtatious behavior, none which is particularly constructive at a family gathering.

4. Unless you have been up all night making stuffing and baking rolls, don’t rhapsodize about how much you just love Thanksgiving. That could engender some resentment on the part of the food preparer. Forty seconds of carving a turkey is not the same as actually fixing the meal.

5. Keep everyone busy. Watching parades or holiday movies usually puts everyone in a good mood. They limit actual interaction and avoid the latent hostilities that competitive activities bring out. Tryptophan induced naps can also serve this purpose.

6. Although it may annoy many women, marathon football watching is usually ok, so long as everyone is rooting for the same team or doesn’t care who wins.

7. Avoid touch football, Twister or any other activity that might involve physical contact of any sort.

8. And keep in mind the cardinal rule, no weapons allowed

(Based on a   article previous  in the Southern Indiana  News Tribune)

Brother-Hood: Another Steeltown Story

3 Jun

 If you ever had a big brother like mine you are familiar with the horrors of nuggies, paralyzing punches in the shoulder, the Dutch rub, and the dreaded Indian burn. The Communist Chinese had nothing on my brother Norman. But where he really excelled was in the area of psychological torture.

Many of my earliest traumas relate to my brother and food. For example when I was about five years old, I learned that eggs come from chicken’s rear ends or as he put it– “butt-holes”.Normantaught me this, just as I was sitting down to breakfast. My mother believed that an appropriate  stick-to-your-ribs breakfast consisted of two eggs, four pieces of bacon, and about half a loaf of buttered toast, all washed down by a heavily sugared cup of milk with a teaspoon of coffee added so that I would feel like a grown-up.  I ate this breakfast with relish for several years until that fateful morning whenNormanexplained to me where eggs came from. While his anatomical knowledge of poultry may have been limited, it was close enough for me and I stopped eating eggs for the next 15 years.

Norman also taught me that mustard was harvested from dirty diapers. This lesson came one day while I was eating a mustard and bologna sandwich.Normanalso went on to tell me how health inspectors had found rats crawling in root beer bottles as well as tiny white worms   in my favorite candy bar. Wally Cleaver would never tell the Beaver such things. It   dawned on me that I was stuck with Eddie Haskell for a brother.

When I switched from root beer to cola,  Norman described how the company that made my favorite cola had a terrible accident one day, when a worker fell into a vat of cola and drowned. Of course the carbonation dissolved the poor fellow’s eyeballs and the company didn’t discover the body until the entire batch was bottled and shipped out. Bottles from this batch remain on grocers’ shelves to this very day. My mother must have wondered if  I was developing anorexia by this time.

In the  days before convenience stores, Steeltown have several  corner stores. My favorite was an establishment about two blocks from my house. It was called Baxter’s and they not only carried Superman comic books, but also served Chapman’s ice cream. Kindly old man Baxter would puff on his pipe patiently waiting for you to decide on what flavor you wanted. Baxter’s was much friendlier than Pepper’s Confectionery, where the paranoid owners treated everyone like a shoplifter. One day I was eating an ice cream cone, whenNormanarrived home from one of his frequent  delinquent forays. He was riding my black Schwin bike and as usual he jumped off before it stopped and the bike continued on, crashing into the side of the garage.  He had already ruined his own bike doing this and was well on the way to demolishing mine as well. “Didja get that cone at Baxter’s?” he asked. “Yeah”, I admitted reluctantly. “You know why those cones taste so good, doncha?” “Oh, no!” I thought, “I don’t want to hear this.” “It’s because old man Baxter slobbers pipe drool all over the ice cream.” “Oh Yeah?”, I said, without much conviction. “See for yourself.” he grinned.   I never finished that cone as I could swear the vanilla ice cream seemed to develop an aromatic tobacco tang.   The next time I was in Baxter’s I carefully kept an eye on old man Baxter scooping the ice cream, while I pretended to look at the comic books. Damn it if  Norman wasn’t right.

My parents often went out on Friday nights, leaving me completely at Norman’s mercy. He insisted on watching the Spook Spectacular movie—  a television show consisting of  old Universal Studio’s horror movies that completely terrified me. One stormy night, when I couldn’t stand to watch another second of Frankenstein strangling a little girl, I retreated to the back bedroom where I hoped I could avoid hearing the grunts and screams. I crept into the back closet and shut the door. This was an odd closet that had a window that overlooked our back porch. I opened the window wide and stood in the darkness, glad I couldn’t hear the television. 

Except for the lightening,  it was pitch dark.Normanmust have though I went to bed. About 15 minutes later, he strolled out on the back porch to smoke a cigarette, so my parents wouldn’t smell it in the house. It was so dark thatNormanstood right next to open window where I was standing, not six inches away, but failed to see me. Looking jumpy he lit his cigarette and anxiously scanned the stormy skies. The movie and the piercing thunder must have unnerved him too.  I knew I’d never get a chance like this again so I waited until next loud crash of thunder and leapt through the window yelling and grabbing atNorman. He dropped his cigarette– screaming in terror, like a little girl. When he recovered enough to realize it was me, he started chasing me through the house, swearing and threatening to kill me.  I ran into the bathroom and locked the door.Normanswore at me and pounded violently on the door until my parents finally came home and grounded him for a week for keeping me up so late and having a cigarette burn on his shirt.Normantried to play dumb saying he didn’t know where the cigarette burn came from. Maybe it came from an Indian burn that backfired, I suggested.

War of the Wasps

4 May

The hedges in the back yard are out of control and we can’t see through any of the windows. All is a blur of variegated green and white. My wife blames me, but the real culprits are those devious wasps. I knew they were there ever since I saw a few dead ones floating in the pool. Their thick papery nests were stuck to the soffeting and I repeatedly shot them down with the hose. I thought they had left.

I heard nary a buzz until the day I bought an electric hedge trimmer at a garage sale. I was determined to finally clip those overgrown hedges. After running the extension cord through a window, I started cutting the hedge nearest the dinning room. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, the air gradually thicken with wasps, until suddenly I was in a cyclone comprised entirely of wasps. Only then I noticed that my electric hedge trimmer was three inches away from an enormous wasp’s nest right in the middle of the hedge. That’s were they had gone. They did not seem to appreciated the violent shaking the trimmer created. Before I could apologize or retreat, I felt five simultaneous stings on my arms and back. I jerked up on the trimmer, cutting clean through the extension cord.

In panic I abandoned my equipment and made for the house. I could see the wasps buzzing around the decapitated extension cord in a frenzied dance of victory — the little bastards. Of course this meant war. I dressed my wounds and took a handful of Benadryl as I started swelling up like a bratwurst on a hot grill.

I sat in the dinning room studying my enemy through the window. My helpful and comedic wife, amused by my humiliation, suggested that I dress up like a giant wasp to fool them– a tactic once employed in a famous Donald Duck cartoon about honey bees. Although I rejected that plan and its accompanying sarcasm, it did suggest another strategy– I would make a bee-keeper’s suit and teach those wasps a much needed lesson.

I went out to the garage and concocted a spray bottle of the most deadly insecticide ever devised. The environment be dammed, this was war. Then I took my heaviest winter coat and fortified it with two sweatshirts. I pulled on two pairs of sweat pants over my bluejeans. And then I took my son’s pith helmet and put a double layer of sheer cloth over it, tucking the ends into the coat. Old thick leather gloves completed the insane ensemble.

Barely able to see and dribbling virulent poison all other the house, I made my way out the sliding glass doors, towards the hedge. The pathetic wasps were overwhelmed and soon saw that they were out of their league. In keeping with my scorched earth policy, I stumbled to the hedge with the wasp’s nest and pumped enough poison into it for it to be toxic for the next thousand years. My revenge, however, was short lived.

I had made just one fatal miscalculation. I forgot it was July. With the ambient air temperature like a sauna, the internal temperature of the improvised bee-keeper suit was about the same as the fiery furnace into which Shadarach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown. My profuse sweating interfered with my vision to such an extent that I tripped and spilt the venomous insecticide all over my ersatz bee-keeper suit, which now resembled a portable gas chamber.

I started choking and things were going dim as I struggled to get to the house. Had I really poisoned myself or was it the Benadryl kicking in? With my last reserve of strength, I peeled off the malignant clothing and crawled into the shower. Through the window, I could see the surviving wasps rejoicing — They were sure they had gotten me this time.

As I lapsed into semi-consciousness, I wondered if the EPA Superfund would pay for cleaning up my house and if a shish-ke-bob skewer would work as a stinger for a wasp costume.

Pomp and Circumstance

15 Apr

                 

                      Last year  I attended a double graduation and sat through  four hours of national anthems, platitudinous advice, and the mispronunciation of names. The four hours were only interrupted by a brief foray into the blazing hot sun to take pictures of sweating graduates. I would rather have attended a double murder. This large public university held four separate graduation ceremonies in one day to process all the graduates. I attended the first two. Although I suppose such rituals are necessary  to help people mark major life transitions, this is one passage I  would have  just as soon avoided.

            Graduations are intensely emotional  events. It’s like attending one of  those old Moonie  weddings with a thousand  brides and grooms. Feelings of joy, relief, and anxiety intermingle  while vague despondency charges the air. The faculty and staff share these feelings but mostly seem fatigued and can hardly wait for the ordeal to end.

             As each graduate’s name is  read for their ten seconds of immortality,  their personal  mini-fan club  erupts in applause, yelling, or even stomping. I  wonder about the students who get a real loud response. Do they have exceptionally large families? Are they very popular? Promiscuous? And I always feel sorry for those who don’t get any fuss made at all. What’s with them?  Do they feel rejected or upset?  At college graduations the people are so loosely connected, that even surrounded by thousands of revelers, each celebration  is still private.

            The first of the two graduations I attended was the liberal arts and sciences crowd. As a group they were serious and pretentious. Their featured commencement speaker was a fading local politico who tried some standup comedy and  superficial sensitivity — like Jay Leno meets Rod McKuen. I felt embarrassed for him, since he obviously didn’t have the sense to feel embarrassed for himself.

            Hundreds of nurses and social workers graduated in the next group. They were a  much rowdier bunch. It was as if they actually knew and even liked each other.  The crowd booed vigorously  when a stick-in-the-mud  security person  removed the giant beach ball that had suddenly appeared and was  batted around during the speeches. At one point of high emotion the nursing student section erupted into a massive free-for-all of silly string and confetti.

            The guest speaker this time was a feckless social services bureaucrat who was also a big shot fund-raiser for the university. In his precise introduction the university president diplomatically neglected to mention that this man was also a notorious slumlord. This bozo didn’t bother to make any sense at all. I wasn’t even embarrassed for him, just annoyed.

            Despite the inane speech I liked this ceremony better. The students showed more spirit  and the faculty  sported more dramatic threads. Some faculty wore silk gowns of  bright gold and red and most of them wore those classy soft caps, instead of the usual mortarboards.

            Several years ago at my graduate school commencement, my elderly advisor appraised the rakish university president, decked out in a color coordinated brown velvet cap, and said, “Damn, I got to get me one of those hats.”  I hope he did.  The chic president was fired about a month later for putting massage parlor bills on his state credit card. I can only imagine what he would have done if he didn’t have a Ph.D. The story was so popular  in  all the local newspapers that  when I told a colleague that I  had just shook the  president’s hand at graduation,  he said I should have worn a rubber glove.

             No medieval rite of passage would be complete without some old fashion humiliation.  Throughout my life I’ve been  repeatedly embarrassed about my gender bending name– “Terry Lynn.” Like Johnny Cash’s  mother, mine  had an odd sense of the appropriate. My nominal distress culminated at graduation. I thought it was pretty impressive as the hung a hood on me, until  the  announcer said, “And now will Terry Lynn Stawar and her advisor come forward.”  Even the largely indifferent crowd found this mistake highly amusing and it’s something I will remember always—Graduation Day.

Valentine’s Day Special As a Dreamboat, I’m Sunk

6 Jan

             In his book Everything and a Kite, comedian  Ray Romano relates  that sometimes in the morning,  his wife  yells at him for his behavior in one of her  dreams.  He says, “That’s when you know you’re a true married couple: when you have to apologize for  what you did in her dream.”  I was surprised to  read this, I had  thought that perhaps I was the only one who had to account for his bad behavior in other people’s dreams.

             You see, Bad-Terry, as I call him, is really bad news. This highly  inconsiderate lout, is like having an evil twin who keeps popping up, getting you into big trouble.  He is my nocturnal Mr. Hyde who goes out, commits horrendous acts  and leaves poor innocent Dr. Jekyll  holding the bag in the morning.

                 I have protested  that  I shouldn’t  have to be accountable for my behavior  in someone else’s  dreams. After all I didn’t  write the script. If I misbehaved in my own dreams, well,  that might  be different. Of course,  no one would know about that,  unless I was careless or foolish enough to tell them. I think I  have a hard enough time being responsible for  my own conscious  behavior,  let alone someone else’s  unconscious thoughts.

                The average  person spends about six years of their life  dreaming. This works out to be about two hours a night, so my chances of getting in trouble, if dream time is included,  increases by a minimum of 8% .  As always,  Diane has an airtight counter argument. She says that dreams reflect the current emotional state of the dreamer  and that if  I  hadn’t  actually done  something to  evoke such feelings,  then she never would have had the dream in the first place. This of course is one of the reasons one should never get involved with women who have an advanced  degree in psychology. It is also probably why Ray Romano says that  in the war of the sexes, women have  nuclear armaments, while men have a sharp stick as their secret weapon.       

                   Unfortunately all the current scientific  research seems to support  Diane’s case. Modern theories  suggest  that dreams  express  unconscious conflicts and wishes,  help us cope with uncomfortable emotions,  and  perhaps  consolidate  memories.   The millions of connections between nerves cells, which are the   physical basis for our minds,  are  constantly changing in our brains.  Dreaming is when   these connections are  most loosely made,  which make  dreams appear  nonsensical  to our conscious minds. 

                  Studies have shown that people who experience   trauma have  dreams that reflect the same strong emotions. Imagery in their dreams is more  frequent, vivid, and intense. When people’s  emotions are mixed up,  their  dreams  tend to be more complicated.  So a major function of dreams may be to  help us incorporate experiences into our  memory, without experiencing  intense  emotional discomfort.

                 Dreams seem to be  necessary for good mental health, even if  the mechanism by which they are produced is not completely  understood. It is known that if people are deprived of dreams,  their  thinking  deteriorates and they become irritable and irrational. Sophisticated new brain imaging techniques hold the promise of cracking the riddle of dreams in the near future.   

                        I wonder if men  ever have dreams  about their wives misbehaving.  Somehow I doubt  it.  This is  probably due to a gender differences in dreams, although Diane  might argue that it only proves that women are better.  Unfortunately after being a psychotherapist for  many years,  I would have to agree that,  with all due respect to my gender, when compared with most women, most men are pretty loathesome—  sorry guys but it is  best to just own up to this and move on. 

                     Richard Wilkerson,  director of DreamGate, the Internet  Dream Education Center, says gender  differences in dreams begin at an early age. Girl’s dreams contain  more females and  familiar  people. They are often concerned with personal appearance and have more references to food in them.  Ironically one of the authorities on food references in dreams is a fellow named Walter Hamburger.

                       As you might expect girl’s dreams are  also more colorful and emotional.  In adulthood they   emphasize  the  indoors, family,  and home, and frequently include bodies of water, such as pools, lakes, and ponds. 

                       Men’s dreams  have more men in them,  and often contain  themes of conflict and competition. Outdoor settings are typical along with references to  weapons, tools, and autos.  Men also report more sexual dreams,  which should come as a big surprise.

                         Women’s dreams are definitely friendlier. About 25% of men’s dreams   involve  aggression,  while this is true for only about 4% of  women’s dreams,  where  any aggression is much more likely to be verbal than physical.

                            I have thought about telling Diane that Dream-Diane  had been mean to me in one of my dreams, but it’s never happened and even if it did,  I am convinced that Miss Perfect would  just laugh at me  in disbelief.  

                    Historically  people have long sought to divine the  meaning of their  dreams.  Are they just meaningless by-products of   neurotransmitters fizzling out in our brains? Or are they filled with  unconscious meanings that beg for  our attention.       

               In a Redbook Magazine article a few years ago, writer  Priscilla Grant, who might want to start minding her own business,  says that  “a recurrent negative dream about your husband could be  a “red-flag” that shouldn’t be ignored. She also says that  dreams can bring couples closer together and improve relationships. So maybe  it is important to not be so defensive or  quick to deny the constructive feedback that dreams can  provide.    That Ray Romano certainly has a lot to learn about women. 

Originally published in the New Albany Tribune

The Three Labours of Stawar

3 Jan

           

        Amidst my constant brooding about money matters, I recently came up with the scheme for refinancing our house, to take advantage of the rock bottom interest rates. I surprised myself, since generally I just talk about such things. Actually doing them makes me feel like a take-charge kind of guy but also incredibly anxious. I filled out the mortgage application papers like I was in a trance and had to face the trauma of looking at credit scores and listing all my bills. There was, however, one thing, I hadn’t counted on and that is the mortgage company insisted on having the house appraised. The thought of someone poking around our house, taking note of all my neglect, was enough to make me reconsider the whole thing.

             My wife Diane said she would go along with the refinancing, but she established two conditions. First, I had to be the one who was at home when the appraiser came to our house. I admit that I usually foist such embarrassing jobs off on her. When electricians, plumbers, or other repairmen come to our house, I conveniently have a very important meeting at work that I just can’t cancel. She has to face their embarrassing questions as they look over various aspects of my shoddy workmanship. If I see a repair truck in the driveway on my way home from work, I usually decide that maybe we need some milk from the store. Shepherding the appraiser through our house would be sort of a token payback for all the times Diane was stuck with that dirty job. Diane’s second condition was her insistence that I, for decency’s sake, clean up the basement and make some minor house repairs that I had been putting off for years. She had only asked me last week when was I going to straighten up my work bench. I was intimidated and reluctant, but that fixed 4% called to me in a siren’s voice. Diane had just sprained her foot so it was also made clear that these jobs were mine alone.

             The task before me began to assume mythic proportions in my mind. I remembered how the Greek gods require Hercules to complete a series of nearly impossible tasks to atone for his past misdeeds. But Hercules only had to slay some monsters, clean stables, and steal a couple of apples. Compared to my jobs, Hercules’s labors were a piece of cake.

Labor 1: The Cleansing of the Basement Hercules’s most humiliating assignment was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. King Augeas was known for his famous stables, which were the largest in the world. The livestock, housed there, were supernaturally robust and produced an enormous quantity of waste. Furthermore, the stables had not been cleaned in many years. However, if you ever saw our basement, I’m sure you would agree that the Augean stables had nothing over the Stawaran basement, which due to my procrastinating had not been thoroughly cleaned in nearly a decade. Hercules accomplished his task by cheating. He rerouted the course of two rivers so that they flushed out the stables. It would have probably been easier to redirect the Ohio, but I used plain old elbow grease. Although technically I wasn’t required to slay any giant monsters, cleaning the basement did involve tackling several horrendous spiders and something that may have been a slime creature. The job took two full days, dozens of trash bags, and a lungful of dust and debris. There was also some psychological cost to the task, since it involved sorting through our youngest son’s old toys. He is the baby of the family and although he’s been away from home for almost six years, his absence is still hard to accept. All those Legos and Star War toys evoked a flood of bittersweet feelings that didn’t make the task any easier.

Labor 2: The Spackling of the Bathroom My second task was to repair a hole in the ceiling of the guest bathroom. I forget how long ago the hole was made by a plumber looking for a leaky pipe. The leak had long since subsided, but the hole remained. Most of our guests have had the good manners not to inquire about this hole, but lacking any such social inhibitions, visiting children always point it out. Even babies having their diaper’s changed in this bathroom have gestured upwards towards the ceiling in an accusing manner. I managed to cut a piece of drywall and nail it to the ceiling and fill in around it with spackling compound. Since the ceiling had an “orange peel” plaster finish, the smooth drywall piece didn’t blend in very well, even after I painted it. About a day before the scheduled appraisal, I decided to get a large spray can of plaster texture to try to apply a surface, similar to the ceiling, on the drywall. A friend at work told me I didn’t have to put up masking tape since any spillover would easily wipe off. Just to be safe I taped a few sheets of newspaper to the walls anyway. I shook the can vigorously to mix the texture. When I pushed the button, it was like a plaster bomb detonated. I must have swallowed about a pound of plaster and the overspray covered everything in the room including the sink, walls, the chair I was standing on, and the shower curtain. About the only thing that did not get a coat of plaster was the piece of drywall, I was aiming at. It took me hours to clean up the mess.

Labor 3. Weedwacking the Pathway We have a small outbuilding about 100 yards from our house. Since I wanted the house to appraise for as much as possible, I wanted to make sure the appraiser could see it. Over the summer the pathway to the building had become overgrown, so my final labor was to clear it. For over twenty minutes I tried to get the line trimmer going, by pulling the starter cord. I finally discovered I had dialed the wrong settings, which would have prevented it from ever starting. By the time I got the thing started I was already exhausted. The pathway had many painful thorny branches blocking it, but the trimmer was able to mow them down. In a green cloud of flying thorns and poison ivy, I cut a pathway to the building, completing my final labor.

               The appraiser went over the house with a fine tooth comb. Just my luck that since the mortgage crisis, banks are very wary of inflated appraisals. I survived the ordeal and am waiting for the results. If the appraisal isn’t high enough, my next scheme may involve fetching a Golden Fleece.

Orginally published in the New Albany Tribune/Jeffersonville  Evening News

Happy Franksgiving America

29 Oct

We are only a month away from Thanksgiving Day — the holiday that more than a quarter of Americans claim is their favorite. My exhaustive research shows that families gather together to give thanks in the manner of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans’ harvest celebration of 1621. My source? None other than that repository of all knowledge: the Weekly Reader magazine. It’s a sort of Huey, Dewey and Louie’s Junior Woodchuck Manual for us baby boomers.

But according to sociologists Melanie Wallendorf from the University of Arizona and Eric Arnould from the University of Colorado, Thanksgiving also serves multiple social functions as a “collective ritual that celebrates our material abundance through feasting.”

They contend that our elaborate Thanksgiving Day meal is a way of reassuring ourselves that we have the ability to more than meet our basic needs. We stuff our turkeys, as well as ourselves, to show how well we’re doing. Perhaps that’s why we add so much butter to everything. When I was growing up, my family only served real butter at Christmas and Thanksgiving time.

Since this abundance ritual — in its basic form (turkey, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie) — is widely shared, it also serves to binds us all together and increase social cohesion. But unlike the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, those of us born since World War II come to believe in a “permanent abundance.” We aren’t sitting in clover just because it’s harvest time or because we had a particularly good year. We view continually increasing material abundance as a defining feature of what it means to be an American.

These days, however, the unpredictable price of energy, rising food and health care costs, the mortgage credit crunch and the stock market meltdown have challenged this cherished belief. In a Newsweek cover story titled “A Darker Future for Us,” business writer Robert J. Samuelson says that fundamental changes in our economy have put us on the cusp of a new era, in which continually increasing prosperity cannot be counted upon.

Conservative columnist George Will has recently emphasized the historic link between Thanksgiving and the economy. He pointed out how President Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to extend the Christmas shopping season to help battle the Great Depression. Back then, it was unthinkable to advertise Christmas merchandise before Thanksgiving. Will says that FDR did not defer to the calendar any more than he did to the Constitution, even though over 60 percent of the country disapproved of his actions and the public was outraged. FDR’s critics mocked the early Thanksgiving by calling it “Franksgiving.”

Unless it gives them a three-day weekend, Americans just don’t cotton to anyone messing with their traditions. Jeffersonville Mayor Galligan recently learned this after his attempt to change the date of Halloween, or as they now call it in Jeffersonville — “Tommyween.”

Over time, major corporations have become integrated into our traditions. So despite our stated preference for the “old fashioned” and “homemade,” most of us are preparing to eat our Butterball turkeys, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and Pepperidge Farm stuffing. While those three companies seem recession-proof — with strong annual earnings from Ocean Spay, a new corporate headquarters for Butterball and Pepperidge Farm being the most profitable division of the Campbell Soup Company — many other corporate icons have fallen on hard times. Like many Americans, in recent months the companies that handle my mortgage, retirement fund, insurance and major credit card have all faced serious fiscal difficulty. Even R. H. Macy & Company, the sponsors of the New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade and the setting for The Miracle on 34th Street, filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s and the brand only survived through a series of mergers and reorganizations. As recently as early October, the reconstituted Macy’s slashed its 2008 profit outlook, due to the softening economy that has consumers scaling back on spending.

So what do we have to be thankful for this year in the present era of mortgage foreclosures, dwindling retirement accounts and trillion dollar bailouts? I asked a number of people and there were many of the customary responses: faith, family, friends and health. Many people were also thankful simply to be Americans, with all the freedoms we enjoy. Others were thankful for the election outcomes; even those whose candidates lost were at least glad that the long campaign is finally over. A surprising number of people said they were thankful for their “jobs,” perhaps in recognition that the unemployment rate just hit a 14-year high.

In the field of mental health in which I work, the watchwords of our profession are “hope” and “recovery” and such an ideology of optimism is more relevant today than ever. When FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself in his first inaugural address in 1933, the Great Depression had reached its greatest depth. FDR was the man for those times, precisely because he could convey the those optimistic values which are at the core of the American character.

In the same speech, FDR also said these words that may be more relevant today than they were when he first said them. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” Or as John and Paul (The Beatles, not the apostles) put it for us baby boomers — “We can get by with a little help from our friends.”

Things You Can’t Put in a Cup: Another Steeltown Story

4 Oct

 

Danny Halderman got into big trouble the day the kindergarten teacher asked him, “What are some other things you can put in a cup?” “Milk”, “water”, “soda”, “tea”, “coffee” and every other reasonable answer had already been suggested by the gaggle of butt-smooching girls sitting in front row by the time Danny was forced to play Mrs. Crook’s version of Family Feud. “Piss.” he said with enthusiasm to Mrs. Crook’s horror and the class’s great amusement. “Well, yeah… ‘piss’ may be technically correct, but such language is simply not acceptable.” Mrs. Cook must have thought to herself, as she sent Danny to the principal’s office, simultaneously quieting the hysterical class with a gesture and the ole stink eye.

Today kids like Danny would be get diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and pumped full of stimulants, but back in 1955 he was just another pain in the ass and was packed off to Mr. Paleski’s office for a lecture or a couples of swats. “The principal is your pal.” we were taught. Danny spent a lot of time with his pal. And when he wasn’t with his pal, he was standing outside class in the cloakroom. “The cloakroom” sounds medieval, and is where you were banished when the teacher could no longer stand the sight of you and she was afraid of pissing off her pal by sending you to him too often. The cloaks were long gone and only quilted winter coats, galoshes, and funky milk crates filled the room. Danny preferred it to the classroom and would rummage through our coat pockets and belongings to amuse himself.

But Danny wasn’t nearly as sad a case as Nancy, the short stout girl in first grade, who rambled through all our lives like a stampeding heifer. She was obviously mentally challenged or and possibly autistic, but mostly I remember the teacher’s constant screaming at her. All the kids had long since quit laughing at her, because we had uniformly concluded that she was as nuts as a rat in a coffee can and laughing, like screaming, seemed sad and pointless. One day Nancy just vanished. No one was surprised when the rumor circulated that her rambunctiousness resulted in a fire in which her clothing ignited and she perished. No one ever told us what really happened, but the tragic myth was one of those things that was true enough .

Sarah and Judy were known as the “hag sisters.” Their ages were unknown, but it was assumed that they were a lot older than the rest of us. Unrelated by blood, they looked alike and only socialized with each other, although not by choice. They seemed pretty much incapable of learning and never talked in class. When asked a question, they just sadly shook their heads. Other times they grinned a lot with spooky vacant looks on their faces. Now I recognize those stares as dissociation and shudder at what horrors of abuse and neglect these pathetic girls, must have endured. They both wore bizarre clothing– mostly long faded house dresses and occasionally ancient tattered formals with anachronistic scarves and veils. They were always filthy and smelled of decaying fabric and feces and were desperately in need of dental work.

Their distinguishing feature, however, was stringy Medusa hair. It was so witchy looking it scared us. In the elementary school collective unconscious they were illustrative of archetypal childhood “cooties.” I remember once watching Sarah get swats for not paying attention during math. Her dress looked like dry-rot and I half expected her and the dress to disintegrate under the assault of the paddle. As her absent eyes filled with tears, I felt furious at the teacher for not knowing what every kid instinctively knew– that Sarah had bigger fish to fry in her dismal life than worrying about stinking long division. I wondered what Sarah would look like in normal clothes, cleaned up, hair combed and with a little dental work on those yellow buck monstrosities. But I could only speculate for a second or I might get tainted myself. Where the hell were all the grown-ups?

Wayne couldn’t read and the whole class would cringe when the teacher forced him. It was painful to watch. What was she thinking? Everyone else knew exactly why Wayne always picked a fight right after reading. The third grade teacher once broke a ruler over his head. I guess she was as frustrated as Wayne. I always fantasized that Wayne got a GED and became the world’s wealthiest dyslexic auto mechanic. But the scuttlebutt was that he became cannon fodder in Viet Nam, which of course was statistically more likely.

And finally there was Tom. Tom only had one little problem. One day he took a small plastic horse out of another kid’s desk to play with during recess. And suddenly all hell broke loose. For some mysterious reason this incident escalated into a case of immense proportion, as if the crappy plastic horse were the crown jewels. This was incomprehensible, since most of us had our lunch money stolen or extorted every day we weren’t actually beaten up by some large psychopathic classmate and usually no one seemed to give two hoots in hell. After a massive investigation, Dennis was apprehended and taken into custody. Although we full expected an execution, instead Dennis was sent to the kindly and motherly school social worker, who I will refer to as Mr. Wilkins.

Evidently Tom beat the rap by copping a not guilty by reason of insanity plea. When we asked Dennis what happen in his sessions with Wilkins, chagrined, he said the social worker asked him if he liked to play with little plastic toys. Mortified, Tom said. “I guess so.” and Wilkins produced a couple dozen plastic toys from a leather briefcase and let Tom play with them for the next hour. After a few months of playing with little plastic toys, Dennis was pronounced cured and the sessions stopped. Tom was forever deeply embarrassed by the whole incident, which was duly noted in his permanent record. If you don’t count opening soda pop bottles, still in the vending machine, and sucking out their contents with a straw, in the seventh grade, Tom never stole anything else in his whole life. Well done, Mr. Wilkins. The bad news is Tom’s whole life was only about nine more years, since he was shot to death in a dispute outside a tavern shortly after graduating from high school. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t over a little plastic horse.

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