Archive | Stawar RSS feed for this section

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

Nudging Ventured, Nudging Gained

20 Sep

 

A tremendous amount  of effort is expended  trying to  get  people to do things that are good for them. Many  of us, however,   lack the know-how or discipline when it comes  to dealing effectively with challenges such  as our  health,  finances,  and the environment. 

Whether it is  fastening our  seatbelts, conserving energy, or exercising more,  people often  resist doing the right thing. Two social scientists at the Universityof Chicagorecently published a book entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness  that addresses this phenomenon.

The authors Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein suggests that  positive change is best accomplished by the careful  design of “choice architecture” (nudging) rather than by punishing undesirable behavior. By “choice architecture” they mean the way we   arrange the settings where decisions are made. For example,  product placement in stores  greatly influences  the selections that are made. Products at eye level have a much higher probability of selling,  than those we have to stoop or tiptoe to see. That is why there is such a competition for desirable shelve space.

School lunchroom managers have similarly  found that they can significantly decrease the number of desserts that children  choose,  simply  by  putting  them  at the end of the cafeteria line or  placing them on a back row rather than right out front. Creating that need for tiny additional effort is what is meant by  “nudging”. 

Some people see nudging as outright manipulation,  but   Thaler and  Sunstein  believe that it is possible to help people make better choices while retaining our freedoms. Unapologetic about wanting to help  people  become healthier, wealthier, and wise, they subscribe to a philosophy called “libertarian paternalism”.  In a nutshell  they  believe in pushing people towards the choices they would have made anyway, if only they had sufficient wisdom, insight, or willpower.

I find this  approach  somewhat troublesome, as it seems   presumptuous to assume that someone else knows what is best for you. It tramples on our right  of self-determination, regardless of the quality of our choices. But I also have to admit that things like second-hand smoke and the governmental financial bailouts show that we are  so interconnected,   that other peoples’ bad decisions can  easily have a devastating effect on us. 

“Nudging” advocates  insist they are only trying to point our  decisions in the right direction, without significantly limiting  our freedom of choice. They even acknowledge peoples’  right to be self-destructive, but they see  no obligation to make that the easiest choice available. Also,  in designing choice situations,  there are unavoidable biases, so  why not have them skewed in a positive direction?  

One of the most powerful of  nudges  is setting  the desired default.  Default refers to what happens  if the person essentially does nothing. For example businesses that automatically enroll  employees in a savings plan  dramatically increase plan participation, even when employees are fully informed of their right to opt out. It is just like how most of us stick with the default options  on our computers and don’t change our passwords.  Newsweek columnist George Will sees the power of inertia in human behavior as formidable. He believes that the opt-out approach can applied beneficially to a variety of social  issues,  such as  increasing the number of organ donors by having it as the default option when getting a driver’s license.   

People  are also influenced by the way  in which issues are  framed. Consumers, for example,  are far more likely  to  purchase salami that is said to be “90%   fat-free” than salami that is said to contain “10% fat”. Patients even live longer if  physicians present their odds of living in terms of survival rates  rather than death rates.

            The need to conform  can  also serve as an important nudge. Research shows that if we think most other people  are recycling  or paying their taxes, we  are far more likely to do the same. Studies have shown that electricity consumption can also be pushed  in either direction,  depending on what information about other peoples’  usage is provided.  People who are told that neighbors are using less energy,  tend to decrease their  usage.  People  who are told that others  used more energy, generally do not change or even may increase  their energy consumption.

             Perhaps you have seen the  billboards on Interstate 64  saying things  like, “78% of Portlandyouth have never tried alcohol!” They come from the Portland Now Prevention Partnership’s (PNPP)  social norms campaign. This campaign is designed to contradict   the notion that all young people are using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. Since young people are greatly influenced by what they think their peers are doing,   the PNPP  wanted to be sure that they are getting accurate information.  

            Finally, many issues are far too complex for  us  to make good decisions. Most of  us  do not have the requisite time or expertise to devote to the careful analysis that is required. Choosing how  to distribute money in a retirement fund, picking the right insurance product,  or God forbid, selecting the best Medicare Prescription plan are next to impossible tasks for most people. Psychologically we are predisposed to resort  to ineffective simplification strategies—  such as choosing on the  basis of color, or some other irrelevant detail, just to reduced the stress.

             After the recent storm flattened our car, we  had to buy a new one and for us that could be an overwhelming task. Fortunately, the internet has made this, and many other tasks, simpler  through what is called “expert collaborative filtering” . We eventually  bought one of the top ten expert-rated midsized autos,  based primarily  on price and yes color.  Also I noticed  that  window stickers on new  cars give fairly  detailed, but user friendly,  information regarding  safety and annual operating costs— a nice nudge towards  preventing accidents  and  energy conservation.       

            Nudging is also prominent in today’s  political arena.  According to University of Oregon economist Mark A. Thoma,  Democratic candiate Barack Obama  and  Britian’s Conservative party leader, have both shown considerable interest in the use of nudging  as a means to address social issues.  Without penalties, mandates, or bans, nudging techniques are governmental interventions that are usually much more palatable to voters.

            And  finally, you can only ignore the power of nudging at your  peril, as Republican candidate John McCain discovered back when he mocked  Barack Obama’s  nudging suggestion that we should inflate our tires properly to increase fuel efficiency. Although it sounds laughable and  trivial, optimal air pressure can actually save 3% or more on current fuel costs.   Despite his initial scoffing,  a chagrined McCain was eventually forced to issue  a statement  that he also supported proper tire inflation.  As anyone who has had a baby knows, sometimes even the  littlest of  things can have extraordinarily big effects.

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.

Situational Reading

2 Mar

             

The other day I heard a psychologist say that if  you don’t doze off within the first half an hour after going to bed, don’t lie awake struggling to fall asleep. Instead   get out of bed and read until you feel tired. My sister tried this, but would then stay up half the night reading. Her doctor advised her to stay in bed, keep the lights off and not be so impatient.  I suppose, that if you do read,  the trick  is to find a book that is not very engaging– something where  you don’t really care what’s going to happen next. Fon   Boardman Jr. from the Columbia University Press, polled librarians, editors, authors, reviewers, and  teachers and  their  consensus was that the world’s most boring author was George Eliot, so you might want to try reading Silas Marner.  It  certainly put me to sleep during sophomore English. One of my classmates referred to it as “Silly-Ass” Marner.    

            But without Mr. Boardman’s help,  how could you find such a book? Most libraries classify their holdings using either the  Dewey Decimal System or its  rival the Library of Congress Classification. Both systems   organize knowledge into  major classes and subdivides them into  divisions and  sections.  The Dewey System  is purely numerical and assigns a decimal number to each book and  can easily accommodate  an infinite number of works.     The Library of Congress  System   is an alpha-numeric mix with letters signifying the main divisions and double letters indicating subcategories. I can still remember that BF is the designation for psychology, but only because B.F. were the initials of arguably the most famous of American psychologists,  Burrhus Frederick (B.F.) Skinner. 

            Because they are based on categories of human knowledge, neither of these systems, can help you locate written works that are appropriate  for specific circumstances  like trying to fall asleep. In addition  to falling asleep there are   also a variety of other situations and venues which might call for customized reading materials. 

            To remedy this problem, I’d like to proposed a new classification system  based  on the demands of the setting–  the “Situation, Time,  And Whatever, Analytic Reading System or   the STAWAR system.

            Instead of subject matter; such as science, literature, or philosophy;  the STAWAR  system  employs other important attributes of reading material  such as how boring or engaging the material is,  its physical features (weight, size, appearance) and dimensions  such  as  granularity.  A blogger, named Pont,   defined   granularity as the “size of the semantic chunks of a work”. For example A dictionary or trivia book would have high granularity, a short story collection medium,  and a  Victor Hugo novel   very little.

            Below are a few proposed category descriptions  from  the STAWAR system: 

AP (Airplane): Airplane reading material should be lightweight and easily tucked into a pocket or carry on bag. Since the seats are narrow, newspapers are not recommended unless you are angling to become intimate with your seat mates.  Indigenous reading materials such as  the In-Flight Magazine,  weird catalogue,  safety card, and barf   cannot be  relied upon for  entertainment. This  material should be moderately engaging as  to distract your attention from strange engine noises and peanut crunching fellow passengers. Granularity should be based on the length of the flight or numbers of layovers. Excluded from this class are FAA safety reports and any stories regarding crash landings in the Andes or  incipient cannibalism.       

BB (Barber/Beauty Shop): In these settings there is often a gender divide in  reading materials between  sports magazines and newspapers  vs.  beauty and fashion  publications. If you bring your own reading material  to the barbershop,  it should not  be too pretentious or you run the risk of social humiliation. In college I made the mistake of bringing a textbook from a class on the psychology of learning to the barber shop. It was entitled “Principles of Reinforcement”. The fellow sitting next to me noticed what I was reading.   I suddenly realized my mistake  and prepared for the inevitable  teasing. I was granted a  reprieve when he looked at the title and just said, “Oh you’re studying construction.” Thankfully construction work was sufficiently testosterone drenched in a way that psychology couldn’t be.   

BE  (Beach):  Beach reading is usually light guilty pleasures.  The books themselves   should usually be   inexpensive since they will be exposed to  water,  sand, and suntan lotion. Low  reflectivity is a plus. Occasionally larger volumes can be usefully employed. Although lugging them onto the beach can be a chore, they are serviceable as a makeshift pillow if you wrap a towel around them. 

CA (Car):   Talking on cell phones or texting while driving as been found to be quite distracting and dangerous. Reading, while driving, certainly must be just as bad  if not worse.  I once knew a woman who read while driving. She always kept a paperback on the front seat of her car, but to her credit she only read when the car was stopped at traffic lights or train crossings. I’m not aware that she ever had an accident, but other drivers were constantly honking their horns at her, as she would try to finish a paragraph before  taking off.  She said she preferred books with short chapters. 

            Reading in  vehicles can be a  difficult task even for passengers. Our kids always read in the car,  but  my wife Diane gets car sick.  I believe that books with large type are best for car reading and can help reduce potential nausea, unless they are by Danielle Steel.

CH (Church):  Except for church bulletins, hymnals, Bibles, and  collection envelope doodles, reading in church, like cell phone use  is   seen as socially inappropriate  by most Americans.   For iconoclasts, who still insist on reading in church,  the materials should either    resemble  or be  easily inserted into an indigenous publications. Content should be serious enough so that facial expressions are not revealing. Laugh-out-loud  and  irreverent materials  should be scrupulously avoided during the sermon.

              Finally specialized reading materials could be identified for a variety of other  venues such as doctors’ offices, courts, work,  classrooms, and laundromats. In retrospect, I am afraid to speculate in what setting  this piece  might best be read.

Wayne and the Mayor: Another Steeltown Story

15 Feb

             

               Like many local politicians in Steelyown, it wasn’t exactly clear how Stan Mayer made his living but it had something to do with insurance and real estate, although Stan never seemed to actually transact any business. He spent mpost of his time in back booth at the Trojan Cafe. Wayne Flynn was a harmless and delicate  delinquent and Steeltown’s number one Beatles’s fan.  He was basically too intelligent to work for the cityand annoyed everyone by roaring around town in a silver Corvette he had tricked his father into buying. The deal Wayne made was that in the unlikely event he graduated from high school, his father would pony up for the ‘vette’. 

            Wayne had spent less time in high school than Abraham Lincoln, but somehow   graduated anyway. For four years he never knew his locker combination, which was fine because he didn’t know where his locker was anyway. No one knows how he managed to graduate. The day after graduation he got the silver corvette. He had a local sign shop paint a discreet “Loner” on the back fender and became a local legend.

            The summer after graduation Mayor Stan spotted him in Glik’s Department Store and asked,  “Well Wayne, have you found any honest employment yet?”  Reflexively Wayne replied, “Nope, have you?”

            Despite the  bravado,  Wayne desperately needed a job to pay for the expensive car insurance the fiberglass corvette required, so he went to the Illinois State Employment Office, with his Steeltown High School diploma proudly in hand. Wayne’s diploma would have been more functional if it had been printed on the back of a shop towel. 

            The State Employment Office people took one look at Wayne and quickly sent him to a green block building on the outskirts of town. Inside were dull-eyed men who were taking long metal rods and putting them into a machine that bent them into 90-degree angles. On the other side of the building another group of zombies were taking long metal rods, that were already bent into a 90 degree angle, and putting them into a machine that straightened them out. Wayne didn’t like the looks of the place at all and immediately roared home and and spent then next two weeks listening to the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour.  Later he told us  it must have been some sort of government job.

Terry Stawar Semi-Finalist in 2010 Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Competition

11 Feb

February 9th the Robert Benchley Society  announced the  it’s Top Ten Semi-Finalists   in it’s 2010 Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Competition. Among this illustrious group is Terry L. Stawar of Georgetown, Indiana, for his piece entitled The Strange Case of the Wayward Beef Roast. At last some of the fame and recognition he hungers for.

Backyard Diehard: Another Steeltown Story

1 Feb

We were a typical blue collar family in Steeltown. We lived in a very modest three-bedroom brown-shingled house on the corner of Fourth and Ewing, just down from the Russian Orthodox Church with the gold onion-shaped spire.

My father worked as an electrician at the steel mill, but somehow that was never quite enough for him.  It would have surprised his coworkers and the other volunteer firemen to know that he had played the violin in a band, had a failed career as a watchmaker, played chess, invented various electrical devices, and love to read Scrooge McDuck comic books.  Some people might have thought my father was pretentious in some of his aspirations. For example, he had the notion that our backyard could be transformed into a Garden of Eden of sorts. Despite the pollution and terrible soil quality in Steeltown, he optimistically planted an apple tree, cherry tree, apricot tree, and strawberries. Then sat back waiting to enjoy the bounty.

After producing a single apricot, the apricot tree just gave up the ghost for no discernable reason. It just seemed to have lost the will to survive in our yard. The apple tree, however, grew but always seemed degenerate.  The apples were small, green, extremely hard, and usually contained some type of  horrifying insect. When the apples would fall from the tree,  they always seemed to be covered with flies, almost immediately. The apple tree trunk was stippled with holes that boring insects had created and the whole thing wasjust unwholesome. My mother once made an inedible  apple pie using the demonic fruit from the tree.

The cherry tree faired a little better, but yielded extremely sour cherries.  Whenever he had been drinking, which was quite often, my father would prune the cherry tree. It soon looked like a bonsai tree. In the hot summer our backyard would be full of intoxicated birds that had been eating the fermented sour cherries. Taking my lead from the birds, I once tried to make cherry wine, using sugar, gallon jugs, neutral grain alcohol, and a sour cherry mash. Supposedly the wine was ready when the corks popped out of the jugs. One jug exploded and our basement was covered in a sweet sticky fluid.  It had a very strong alcohol smell.  We were all afraid to drink the wine that survived. My friend Bert Armour, a Steeltown connoisseur of aldut beverages, volunteered to test it for us. His main qualification for  this task was that when the  polka band had played   “Roll out the Barrel” in the high school talent show, Bert was the one selected to roll an empty keg  of beer across the stage. I handed him the wine,   he took a big swig,  and then seemed struck speechless. 

The viscosity of this wine was about the same as the popular oil additive STP,  so for about 10 minutes,  Bert was physically unable to open his mouth. When the wine dissolved enough that he could speak, he said it had a good taste and was rather smooth. He declined to drink any more, fearing it might permanently glue his lips together.

My father  seemed jealous that my mother could grow terrific tomatoes with hardly any effort at all. Once she randomly  threw out some pumpkin seeds   and  the next fall, to his dismay, we had a yard full of large attractive pumpkins.

Like most yards in Steeltown, ours had a large porch swing for the adults and a swing-set for children. Only in our case my father had built the swing-set himself out of heavy-duty pipes. It was a bit dangerous because of the many sharp and protruding bolts. He hand made wooden seats and built a rather creative pipe teeter totter.  He painted the swing set battleship gray and we kids  played on it for years.

The backyard  also held a large brick barbecue pit that my father had built. He salvaged some firebrick from a demolished coke oven, and used them to line the pit. So basically our barbecue pit could withstand temperatures of over 2000 degrees.  The only problem was that he built it next to the ash pit, where we dumped our garbage and burned trash. Thinking it unsanitary, my mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Occasionally when no one was burning trash, my father would grill ribs. We would get the ribs form the butcher’s shop just down the alley.   This entire establishment was contained in a meat cooler.  There was sawdust on the floor and year round the old man, who ran it, wore a flat green hat and a thick green sweater with a mosaic of  blood stains on it. Once when I was sent  to buy ribs,  he held two slabs together and told me that ribs came from eagle wings. I was very young and naive enough that it sounded reasonable to me. Intrigued with this new information I told my brother Norman, who called me an idiot.

My father really loved his small slice of Steeltown.

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

Can displays of Christmas decorations actually hurt people psychologically?

30 Nov

Can Christmas decorations actually hurt people’s psychologically?  Can  they damage self-esteem, depress mood or engender  feelings of alienation and exclusion?  Check out this link for the answer: http://tinyurl.com/26bwtpa

Santa’s Christmas Cat?

24 Sep

Claus, our two year old cat seems to be on a rampage over the holidays.  He won’t stay away from the artificial tree and  when I went into the family room the other day  the real Christmas tree was   laying on the floor. The rug was soak with water from the tree stand and Claus was nestled in the branches, denying any knowledge of how it could have possibly have happened. Although a very attractive cat, Claus unfortunately is an inveterate liar.  
For example,  all winter he keeps insisting that he wants to go outside. He is a very vocal cat—  not a desirable trait in a feline. He sit by the door for hours,  whining about how he needs to see a man  about a rodent or something.  But no sooner than you let  him out than he is on the other side of the door complaining about how cold it is outside.  You would think he could at least go to the bathroom while he was out there, but noooo,  that might  be too uncomfortable for his majesty. He saves it up,  apparently preferring his litter box that I have to clean
The other day my wife Diane let him out the back door and then went down to the basement where she immediately met him again.  Evidently Claus has learned to dematerialize and  reappear in  our basement at will.
Diane and I constantly compare him to our previous cat, Hobbes.  Poor Claus is like   the second wife in Daphne du Maurier ‘s  novel Rebecca,  who must compete with the memory of  the beloved  first wife.  Hobbes was one in a million:  an elegant gentleman cat  and Claus, I am afraid to say, is no gentleman.  Unlike the noisy and disconcertingly human-sounding Claus,  Hobbes only meowed  his orders once and expected and usually received  total  obedience. If we didn’t rush to  open the door at his first command, Hobbes would simply  walk away and act totally indifferent, there was none of this pedestrian  squalling.  Also Hobbes always did his business outside, bless his cat soul.
Of course, we have a selective memory when it comes to  Hobbes. He wasn’t perfect either,  if the truth be told.  As a kitten he ran up our  Christmas  tree and batted at every ornament  he saw.  
There was even one Christmas when the  great Hobbes totally disgraced himself.    Against our better judgment and express wishes, our oldest  son   brought another cat into our  house. This new  cat, Clawdy, was a female who had shared an essentially feral existence with a bunch of  college boys.  Clawdy immediately took  possession  of Hobbes’ favorite   place  our bedroom. Hobbes was too much of a gentleman  to evict a lady and besides Clawdy had become  terribly ferocious,  competing  with   college boys for   pizza scraps and having to use a filthy litter box that was hardly ever changed— much like the boys’ apartment bathroom if I remember correctly. 
Thus having both gender and territoriality issues,  Hobbes apparently  wanted to make certain that everyone in the house  knew that the  shiny presents under the tree were his property, which caused Diane, an obsessive compulsive wrapper, to almost have a seizure.
Last winter Claus was outside during an  ice storm and managed to get severely injured. We don’t know  exactly wheat happened,  but he managed to drag himself up the porch steps and to lay next to the dog.  Fortunately our son-in-law, Jeff is an emergency veterinarian near Cincinnati  and managed to patch him back together. We are also  lucky that cats have great recuperative powers. Jeff says if you throw two pieces of cat  in a room,  they will grow together into a cat. Claus was in intensive care  at my daughter and Jeff’s  house for several months, while my granddaughters nursed him back to health. I am not sure Claus truly appreciated all the attention, wearing a baby bonnet,  or riding in the doll stroller. Except for the indignity of having several inches removed from the tip of his tail, he recovered  remarkably, given the extent of his injuries. And he can still catch a mouse, he would like  you to know.
Claus was  named by our middle son after friend of his from Germany, but we still think of him as a Christmas cat. At the restaurant at Holiday World there are several paintings of Santa’s workshop  and many of them contain a cat that   has the same unique markings as Claus. We told our granddaughters that the paintings  prove  that Claus is related to Santa’s cat. They just smile back at us skeptically and humor us,  as if we were completely insane, much the way our  children do.  

     
Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (http://newsandtribune.com/)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,170 other followers