Domestic Archeology

12 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crafty Devils

6 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gonna’ Need an Ocean

2 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday Blathings

26 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schindler’s Lift

11 Jul

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About three months ago, my wife Diane and I noticed that the Indianapolis hotel where we were staying had an elevator that required the use of a key card to access the floors with guest rooms.

Of course, a burglar could simply follow someone onto the elevator and get off on the same floor. Nevertheless, the key card gave a comforting sense of false security.

Then just a few weeks ago, we were at the downtown Marriott in New Orleans. They had recently changed their elevator system. Instead of the usual up and down buttons, there was a keypad, on which you entered your floor number. The keypad then indicated which of the seven elevator cars would take you to your floor.

Disconcertingly, there were no buttons to push inside the car, since it already knew where you were going. The system worked fine, was fairly fast and seemed to be an improvement over the usual elevator car roulette. Almost everyone commented about it.

It wasn’t all that great, however, for distractible people like me who punch in their number and then look away to check their e-mail and fail to notice what car they have been assigned. Our grandchildren wouldn’t like it either, because it cuts down on the number of buttons you get to push (or argue over pushing).

This system is called “The Schindler ID Traction Elevator” and they claim it can reduce average traveling time by up to 30 percent. There is even a You Tube video of the Marriott elevator. The Marriott video only has 77 views, compared to thousands of views of the video of the Schindler over at the New Orleans Sheraton. The Sheraton’s elevator computer must also serve hot hors d’œuvres and cocktails.

Vertical-movement devices have been around for a long time. They were mentioned in the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who says that Archimedes built his first elevator in 236 B.C. Personally, I have always been attracted to elevators and escalators. As a child, I considered them sort of thrill rides. According to the National Elevator Industry Inc., there are about 700,000 elevators and 35,000 escalators in the United States, with more than 325 million daily riders.

People have always been suspicious of elevators. In New Albany, the Hedden House was one of the first private residences to have its own elevator. In Jeffersonville, the Howard family, of steamboat fame, had planned to add an elevator to their beautiful new mansion in the late 1800s. They changed their mind when a Howard relative was injured in an elevator accident in which someone was killed. In 1852, Elisha Otis patented the first safety elevator, which helps prevent the fall of the cab if the cable is accidentally severed.

Today, elevators are required to have a variety of redundancies and safety devices, including a heavy-duty shock absorber system at the bottom of the shaft if all else fails. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 27 elevator-related fatalities each year. The fatality rate for taking an automobile ride is about 4,400 times higher than the rate for an elevator ride.

The escalator is an even safer option. A 2008 study found an injury rate of only 7.8 per 100,000 for elders and most of these were falls. There were no reported deaths. A 2006 study of youngsters found an even smaller injury rate (2.6). Regardless, many people are still afraid to ride in elevators and escalators. Children often worry that the escalator might devour them, while adults may feel trapped or claustrophobic.

Last year, Kyrie O’Connor writing in the Houston Chronicle differentiated between people who are escalator “standers” and “walkers”. She believes that Houston is dominated by standers. She says these folks (like me) stand around “as if they were on a conveyor belt or carnival ride.”

This is opposed to people hailing from the northeast, who tend to be walkers. O’Connor observed that most walkers were men and dress in business attire, rather than casual clothing.

Blogger H. Sandman speculates that “standers” are unexcited, lazy or maybe out of shape. He also describes them as possibly aimless, resigned and lacking anywhere important to go. Walkers are characterized as being impatient, driven and restless. As a confirmed stander, I can’t understand why those walkers just don’t take the stairs if they are in such an all-fired hurry.

Vertical movement also has other psychological features. Larry Sanna at the University of North Carolina found that the direction people travel when moving vertically can actually influence their behavior. He noted that upwards movement is often used as a metaphor for virtue, such as in the phrases “moral high ground” and “uplifting.” Downward movement, on the other hand, has negative connotations, such as “decline” and “the lowest of the low.”

Elevator behavior also has certain norms. According to New Yorker magazine staff writer Nick Paumgarten, when strangers ride elevators they regulate their position within the enclosed space to maintain a maximum distance from each other. For example, if there are two people, they will stand in opposite corners. If there are three, they form a triangle. Four people stand in a square configuration and so on.

Lee Gray from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte says that elevators “are socially very interesting, but often very awkward places.” He says people’s elevator movements are as predetermined as a square dance.

All this relates to the notion of personal space. Harvard anthropologist Edward T. Hall argued that personal space is the equivalent of an animal’s territory and that when it is violated, people feel particularly uneasy. In studies of primates and other animals forced to be in proximity, at first they try to minimize contact, act unobtrusive, and display discomfort, but the tight quarters often lead to aggressive outbursts.

Besides safety concerns, lack of control is one of the main causes of elevator phobia or “lift anxiety.” Paumgarten says that the “door close” button does not actually work (as I always suspected) on most older elevators. He claims that the buttons were installed to serve as a placebo to give riders an illusion of control.

Rebekah Rousi from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, studied elevators use in Australia and found that riders tended to talk mostly about the mechanical aspects of elevators and safety issues when interviewed. She says it was clear that users felt most safe when they perceive their own level of control as greatest.

Speaking of safety, Diane and I once visited the old building where I now work before it was renovated. It was on the weekend and we foolishly rode on a tiny ancient elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators installed in Jeffersonville. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we easily could have been trapped there for days.

The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation provides the following safety tips for elevator riders: 1. Use the door-open button to hold the doors open for slower riders, rather than trying to push them open (even if most of the buttons are mainly decorative); 2. Keep items and clothing clear of the doors; 3. Remain in the elevator car in case of emergency. (Do not crawl on top of the elevator car.); 4. Take the stairs if a fire may be present; and we would add 5. Think twice about riding an elevator in an abandoned building that is literally older than the invention of the airplane.

 

From a column first published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune

 

 

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Spelling 2013: From A to Zed

10 Jul

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Many students have sought fame and glory  in the world of competitive spelling.  I, however,  hold the distinction of misspelling the word “curriculum”  six times in my application for a doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction.  Kindly  Dr. Clark  said with a remarkably straight face  told me that it would probably be a good idea if I learned how to spell the word, if I intended to get a doctoral degree in it. Thus was the world before spell checkers.

Thanks to comic books I was a pretty good reader, but I seemed to have a touch of dysgraphia,  as my handwriting and my spelling always left much to be desired. Oh,  I could learned to spell hard words in areas that interested me,   like “Mr. Mxyzptlk”  (Superman’s impish adversary from the 5th dimension),  but I’ve always had a devil of time remembering  even common words that have complex vowel combinations or doubled constants.

Spelling always made me  kind of anxious, so I was surprised  when my wife Diane and I found ourselves attending the 20th Annual Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee. It was held last Saturday morning at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The contest, which is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, took place in the swanky PNC Club, a luxury stadium suite with a glassed-in view of the playing field.

We were there because our oldest granddaughter Tori was one of the sixty-five contestants participating this year. This was Tori’s second appearance at the event. She represented Kenton County and had won the county championship by beating out a number of other school champions, including her younger sister.  The Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is sometimes referred to as the Kentucky State Spelling Championship, but it includes students from Indiana as well. In fact, the second place finisher this year was a girl from Lawrence County, Indiana.

The rote learning of spelling is an old tradition in American elementary schools and the spelling bee competition  has evolved into a popular  nation  institution.  Nonstandard spelling is routinely taken as indicating a lack of intelligence, illiteracy,  or lower socioeconomic status.  Hoosier U.S. Vice-president Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato at a 1992 spelling bee  in Trenton, New Jersey, was widely taken as a  strong verification of  his  alleged  lack of intellectual chops.

Of course, many folks (mostly poor spellers)  take an opposite view,  such as President Andrew Jackson,  who once said,  “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

Back in 1978 spelling reform advocate Abraham Citron,  from  Wayne State University,   vehemently  attacked  our   system of spelling,   as well as tradition educational methods  saying    “At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.” He described spelling as “difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful”.  He called it   “one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure”.

Godfrey Dewey, a Chairman of the national Phonemic Spelling Council, found that Americans use 561 different spellings for  the 41 separate  sounds that make up our spoken language.   The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 different  ways. English spelling rules are so irregular,  rote memory is the educational strategy of choice.  If mathematics was organized in  the same  haphazard manner,  our society would have  screeched to a halt long ago.

Citron who  founded  Better Education thru Simplified Spelling  argued for   creating a more rational  spelling . While major spelling reforms did not ocuurr,  many school systems banished spelling textbooks  and deemphasized the spelling curriculum for many years.  Last year, however,  Boston Globe writer Linda Matchan  reported that spelling is  making a dramatic comeback nationally,  with an  increased interest in  spelling clubs, as well as the reissue  of spelling books and the reestablishment of weekly spelling tests in many  schools.    Matchan  also notes the  growing popularity of  spelling bees with fabulous prizes,  like the legendary  Scripps National Spelling Bee,  which  is now broadcasted  live  on ESPN.

When it comes to prizes,  the Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is no   piker, with a first prize  that includes a $10,000  savings bond The top five places not only receive cash,  but a number of other awards  as well. Emily Keaton  an  8th grader from Pikesville Kentucky, who has won  this year’s Kentucky Derby Bee, making it four years in a row, walked away with a total of over $43,000.

Spelling bees  have  been featured in popular  movies such as “Akeelah and the Bee” and  “Spellbound”  as well as  the 2006 Broadway musical,  “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.  As spelling has become especially  “hot”,  Florida reading and spelling consultant  Richard Gentry  says,  “Researchers want to understand how we learn it, teachers want to know how best to teach it, and kids want to know how to   win competitions.” Spelling success also meets a need for an indicator of intellectual rigor that many parents find appealing. Spelling, along with activities such as academic teams and chess clubs,   increasingly offer an alternative for  children who aren’t  athletically  inclined  but still want to compete.

Educational psychologists have found that “deliberate practice”, which consists of  memorizing words while alone,  which is the  most difficult   and least enjoyable type of spelling preparation,  seems to lead to the  most success in competition.  Also related  to winning  is a little known (non-cognitive) personality factor that psychologists call “grit” . It mostly consists of passion and commitment to the task at hand. 

Brian Palmer, a writer for the online magazine Slate, investigated what happened to  National Spelling bee winners later in life. He found that many of them entered careers related to understanding the human mind.  Many became   psychiatrists, psychologists,  and neurosurgeons.  Others went on to work with words as writers and journalists.  One was even a Pulitzer  Prize winner. A few continued to participate  in competitions in other areas,  such  as television games shows like Jeopardy or  the international poker circuit.

Our granddaughter Tori, survived the brutal second round and finished  up in 7th place with another year to compete.  Emily Keaton is on to future successes and all eyes are now on her younger brother, to see if he has his sister’s spelling magic.

There are also spelling bees for people over the age of 50.  One of these is the AARP National Spelling Bee that  was established  in 1996 by   AARP members in Cheyenne, WY.  Their goal was  to create   a fun way to compete with each other,  while   keeping their minds sharp. This spelling bee is held annually in Cheyenne and you can find details on how to enter at the AARP.org website. You  can even win $1000 if you take first place, but you will have to beat 67 year-old attorney  Michael Petrina Jr., who has won twice—last time  spelling the word “Rhizoctonia.”  I’d consider  entering myself,   but I’d probably  get the word “curriculum”.

 

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Senior Discounts: Thanks for Nothing

3 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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