Tag Archives: childhood

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

Loopy Signatures

30 Jan

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Last weekend my two oldest granddaughters were discussing   signatures. The younger one asked her sister if she minded if she made some letters in her signature in the same way that her older sister did. It was as if she was afraid of violating some sort of a trademark.  I suppose a signature is your own personal logo. My wife Diane told the girls that since they were sisters, it was natural that their writing might look similar in some respects, but over time they would both develop distinctive signatures.

The discussion reflected the territoriality that can often be seen among siblings who are only a few years apart.  At one point in the past the older sister tried to  claim the color pink for her exclusive use.

Signatures have been in the news lately, with President Obama’s  nomination of Jack Lew for   Secretary of the  Treasury.  If confirmed,  Lew’s signature  will be on  U.S currency. His  illegible autograph consist of  a misshapen  “J” and  seven scrawled  loops.    New York Magazine  called it  “a Slinky that has lost its spring” or “one of those crazy straws you get at Six Flags”. It has also been compared it to the “squiggles” of  white frosting  that adorned the iconic Hostess Cupcake.

It’s unfortunate  Lew’s handwriting has garnered more attention than his qualifications.  Personally  I can sympathize since my own handwriting has been the subject of persistent criticism.  My third grade teacher Mrs. Lomax, who had the unenviable job of teaching us the Palmer Method, referred to my cursive as “chicken scratching” and on more than one occasion she said that my work looked like someone was writing with a dirty fingernail.  It was a rare day when my  homework didn’t have a couple of holes in it  from overzealous erasing.

My  brother, Norman, also had  poor  handwriting.  Even  as an adult  he used his own unique mixture of  printing and cursive.  Some experts say that skills required for  printing  are so different from those needed for  cursive  that most children  have to learn to  write twice.

I always admired Norman’s signature,  that had a flourish  coming off the final “r”   back to cross the ”t”  in “Stawar”.  When I graduated from high school I decided that I needed to have a more mature   signature, preferably one with some sort of distinctive touch like Norman’s. My signature was the same one I had in third grade.

The summer after graduation worked at a Golf  Shop where I sold golf balls, tees, gloves, and other equipment. Since I had to write a sales ticket for each item and sign it, this gave me  a great opportunity to perfect my signature. I changed    my  capital “T” from the stupid Palmer Method to the way my mother wrote and incorporated  a variation of Norman’s flourish,  so that it crossed the “t” in Stawar and at the same time completed the “y” in Terry.  By the end of the summer I had signed my name   thousands of times and was quite pleased with my new  signature.  Even if my cursive  was still   illegible, my signature was pretty cool.

Whenever I sign a lot of things  my hand fatigues  and my signature deteriorates until it  eventually  looks like my regular handwriting.   I once had a job where I had to sign hundreds of checks each month.   I would just glance at the supporting documents and  sign the check.  Years   after I had left that job,  a detective came to visit me. He produced an old check and asked me if I had signed it. I had to  admit that it looked like my signature. It turned out that check was not for the  computer system that I thought we were leasing at the time, but rather it was  a lease  payment for  some employee’s  sports car. That was one time I wished my signature was less distinctive and perhaps a little more illegible.

President Obama himself was recently involved in  a signature-related hullabaloo , when he had the fiscal cliff   bill signed by the White House’s autopen, while he was in Hawaii.   The autopen is a device that allows the president to put his signature on documents   without being present.   The apparatus has long been used to affix the president signature to mass mailings. Obama is the only president, however,  to use the autopen to actually sign legislation. He used it to   extend the Patriot Act, while he   visiting Europe and to approve  a spending bill  while   in Asia.   Although some have questioned its use, George W. Bush’s legal advisors wrote a memo in 2005 that affirmed its legality for signing legislation.

In both the Bush and the Obama administrations there has been some controversy about the  use of   autopens to sign condolence letters to the families of servicemen killed in combat.  After promising to sign all future letters personally, former   Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld   admitted that he had used the auto-pen, but only, “in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members”. The White House currently maintains that each letter is personally signed by the president.

According to handwriting analyst, Fiona Mackay a signature “is how you want to be seen” consciously  and unconsciously. It’s “your public face”  and your calling card.   Peoples’ signatures  change over their  lifetimes  and it  is  common  to use   different signatures for various functions;  like  signing a mortgage, a check, a love letter, or birthday card.

The art of interpreting handwriting is called graphology has been controversial for the past century.  Despite its persistent popularity, most research  does not support its validity   A 1982 meta-analysis   of over 200  studies concluded that graphology  could not accurately predict performance on any personality measure.  The British Psychological Society likened graphology to  astrology and considers both of them to have “zero validity”.

Despite the lack of  evidence,  many  interpretations are based  on  common sense.  Writers  Hugh Wilson  and Ruby Ernica Samy have each compiled interpretations of  the most  common variables  including:

  1. Size:  Large signatures  indicate confidence and   a high opinion of one’s self. An extremely oversized signature or one in all capitals  may reflect arrogance and exhibitionistic tendencies.   Small  size suggests shyness, low self-esteem,  and a wish not to be noticed.
  2. Underlining: Short and straight underlining suggests self-reliance but an unassuming manner.  Showy underlines  reflect  attention seeking tendencies, while   thick underlining may indicate  a need  for stability.  Zig zag underlines  reveal uncertainty.
  3. Slant: Signatures that slant to the right suggest aggressive confrontation of the world  while  a slant to the left suggests disengagement and nonconformity.
  4. Rising or Falling: A signature that rises suggests optimism and the ability to meet challenges. A falling or declining  signature indicates the opposite—pessimism and  depression . Level signatures indicate  emotional   stability.
  5. Legibility: Legible text followed by scrawled signature suggests a reluctance to reveal oneself. Over all  legibility  suggests a straightforward manner. It may also imply a lack of assertiveness and modesty. Signatures that are hard to read reflect intelligence  and fast thinking.
  6. Dots: Dotting your “i” with a picture  suggests creativity. A straight line for a dotted “i” reflects a hurried   pace. The lack of a dot suggests inattention to detail,  while a perfectly placed one reflects  compulsive features. A dot high over the stem may indicate ambition.
  7. Showiness:  A highly embellished signature, while egotistical and  attention-seeking,  can occasionally  indicate underlying  feelings of inadequacy. Such signatures are common for people   working in the arts,  show business, or psychology.

I not sure I really  believe any of this graphology business, but I still wouldn’t want a doctor who dots his “i’s” with  smiley faces.

Originaly published in The Southern Indiana News Tribune

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Toyland Tribulations

31 Oct

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

    

Baseball Has Not Been Berry Good to Me

26 Jun

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.  

The Forbidden Marshmallows

14 Feb

                     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s No Castle in My Room: I’m not Jealous, I’m Envious

31 Dec

 

  “In America, happiness is making $10 more a week than your brother-in-law.”

                                                                                                    H.L.  Mencken  

My son-in law, Jeff recently got a new computer. This, of course, means that I now have to upgrade mine. Regardless of  expense, or the features that I might actually need, my mantra when it comes to such things is simply that it must be “Better than Jeff’s”  (BTJ).  I don’t really care what I get, or how it works,  just  so long as it is BTJ.

 Such competitive envy is sometimes considered to be the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. It’s  certainly the most pervasive. In his 2003 book entitled  Envy,  former editor of  The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein, explains that sins like anger, sloth, gluttony, pride, and lust  usually have at least some modicum of pleasure attached to  them, but envy is entirely  “mean-spirited” and almost  always has malice behind it. When it spins out of control,  it  leads  to other antisocial behavior,  such as theft, fraud, and even murder. In Genesis, Cain’s murder of Abel is secondary to his original sin of intolerable envy.

My wife Diane claims that I’m quite the  jealous person. For example,  if she orders  something at a restaurant that  looks good,  I automatically covet  it. If she buys a new book, I want a new book. Actually  this is envy, rather than jealousy, because in such cases I   want another person’s possessions.  Jealousy is when you already have something, but are distressed about the possibility of losing it to a rival.  Envy involves two people and is  accompanied  by feelings of inferiority, longing, and resentment, while  jealousy typically involves three people,  and is characterized by  distrust, anxiety, and anger.

I would  point out this distinction to Diane,  but I’m not sure  she would appreciate it and might conclude, as Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut put it,  that I’m “ somebody who thinks he’s so damn smart, he never can keep his mouth shut.”  In the larger sense,  Diane  is still technically correct,  since I’m often  jealous, as well as envious,  a rather dubious distinction.

           In many respects contemporary culture cultivates envy.  Epstein has written  that the American advertising industry is a “vast and intricate envy-creating machine.”  The 1980s  “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” advertising campaign by Pantene,  is perhaps the most overt example  of envy-based advertising,   Modern marketing aims at convincing people to compare their situation with that of others,  opening wide the  door to envy.           
           Envy and jealousy are among the first complex  emotions that children display and infants and  toddlers  show their jealousy in both regressive and aggressive behavior.   

Children  cannot take on other’s viewpoints  and have a very difficult time developing the ability to share gracefully. I remember one Christmas when our youngest granddaughter received  a fabulous pink play castle, which irked her older sister  to no end. When they moved the castle from under the Christmas tree to the younger girl’s bedroom, our oldest granddaughter could be heard walking around the house muttering, in  an exasperated  fashion, “I don’t see a castle in my bedroom!”   

             The German philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote  “Because they feel unhappy, men cannot bear the sight of someone they think is happy.”   Frequently we tend to be so  envious, we can hardly bear the pleasure of others. People are often willing to sacrifice a great deal, rather than see someone else gain even a little.  A Russian folktale describes how  God  appeared to Ivan and told him  that he would grant him anything he wished.  However, there was one catch,  whatever he did for Ivan,  he would  do  double for Ivan’s despised  neighbor and rival,  Vladimir.  Ivan  brooded over this and finally asked God  to put out one of his eyes.

              Those tabloid newspapers at the grocery checkout, that emphasize the travails of celebrities, allow  us to  make favorable comparisons with the  beautiful  people,  so that we appear to be doing better than them,  in at least in some areas of life.  Epstein says we should call such  publications,  The National Schadenfreude, after the German word for taking pleasure in the pain of others.
        If there is an  upside to  envy,  it  is that it  occasionally  serves as  a catalyst for us to accomplish more and lead better lives.   

Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., author of I’d Change My Life If I Had More Time  says,  “When you realize you are capable of achieving what the other person has, envy can motivate.  Envy can be either a tool for destruction or a great gift.”   The  Greek philosopher  Aristotle described what he called “emulative envy”, which drives  us to imitate  the noble, the good, and the  just in other people.

            Envy strikes those aspects of our lives, in which we feel  most challenged and those that are most important to us. Competition and  pride are key factors. Freud wrote that envy is essentially  a “narcissistic wound”— a  major  threat to our self-esteem.

          Envy is also bound up with the childish notion that things always have to be fair. At Diane’s recent birthday celebration, that included four young grandchildren, there was nonstop squabbling and complaining about the size of the pieces of birthday cake. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s fair that children should always get the biggest pieces.   To reduce the likelihood of  envy among siblings,  parents often go to great pains to try to keep everything equal. Back in Florida Diane did groups with emotionally handicapped children in  public schools. When she used snacks for rewards,  she was always extremely careful to assure that each treat bag contain exactly the same amount, because even a single microgram difference had the potential to set off a major incident.

          Novelist Bonita Friedman has called envy,  ‘the writer’s disease’.  When writers read anything good,  they invariably think, “What’s the big deal, I could have done that myself.”, sort of the way your dog looks at you, when you’re driving the car.   Friedman bravely  admits  to going  into bookstores and immediately flipping to the  back of best sellers,  just to compare ages with   the author. Some people read obituaries just to make similar comparisons.  I’m reaching  that age when you start  thinking  about how nice it would be to  outlive,  rather than out-achieve your rivals, since that seems easier.  

Once I was looking at books at a supermarket and  sudenly  there was a picture of someone I knew. As if this wasn’t bad enough, several months later I saw her on a television show. All this  left me muttering,  “Where the heck is  the castle in my room?”

A Wonder Gift Life: The Best Thing I ever Got

13 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He Never Shares!

30 Nov

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From a colum in the News Tribune of Souhern Indiana

Chili Dog Gone it, Wish I was a Pumpkin Ice Cream Cone Eater

15 Nov

                     

                           After dropping our boat off at its second home— the repair shop for the rest of the year,  my wife Diane and I stopped at a roadside drive-in,  where she had some  birthday cake ice cream (which  apparently is vanilla with blue and white icing mixed into it) and I made my customary mistake  of getting a very messy foot-long chili cheese dog. She  didn’t care much for the flavor, but I was envious— I could smell sugar.   In recent years I’ve  become  partial to sugar-free pumpkin  frozen yoghurt, but you seldom see it around  until Harvest Homecoming time.

                   Ever since we moved here, I have  been impressed by how much Hoosiers like  their ice cream.Indiana is the nation’s second largest producer, followin gCalifornia  and about 9% of all the milk produced is used for ice cream. Seasonal  ice cream places, like Zestos and Polly’s Freeze,  always have  long lines  and    Dairy Queens seem  to do a brisk year-round business.   

                  I grew up  near St. Louis and my father never told me that the St. Louis  produced almost  two dozen Nobel Prize winners,  But being a man with his priorities straight, he must have told me a thousand  times that the ice cream cone was invented  there in  1904 at the  World’s Fair.  

                        As a kid I was crazy about ice cream, until I was about seven years old. That’s when my older brother,Norman,  asked me if I knew why the ice cream cones at Baxter’s  Confectionary (my favorite place)  tasted so good. I admitted I didn’t know and Norman proceeded to tell me in graphic detail  how crotchety old man  Baxter, who  constantly smoked a pipe, drooled on every cone, as he made them.  Although I closely observed  the suspect Mr. Baxter I personally  never witnessed any such act.  Just the same,  that image  put me off ice cream until I graduated from college, when inexplicably I started smoking a pipe.  It’s funny how a mental picture  can have such an impact in your life, even if it’s not true.

                      Norman’s vivid stories of food atrocities also  convinced me not to eat, eggs,  mustard,  andClarkbars throughout most of my childhood.  There are also several brands of soft drinks I still won’t  touch,  because of the fellow who fell into the vat  at the bottling plant and drowned and then  the acid in the soda -  well you get the picture. Today urban legends on the internet have picked up where Norman left off. For example chocolate  milk  was ruined for me when I read  a  bogus report that claimed that they make chocolate milk  out of milk  that has been tainted with blood and appears pink.

                       Surveys show that 91% of adults and 98% of children enjoy ice-cream.   However, as a youngster,  Diane was notorious in her family for actually disliking ice-cream. Such a thing was simply unheard of in Wisconsin.   To add to the irony, she comes from  Two Rivers which  is one of the claimants for being  the “home of ice cream sundae”. Diane  never cared much for cheese either– another “Dairy State” blasphemy. They must have thought she was from the planet Remulak. She eventually had to leave the state.  

                         But I suppose Diane came by her dairy mutiny, legitimately. When the Wisconsin legislature banned the sale of oleomargarine, her  father would drive to Michiganjust to buy it,  instead of butter. And instead of wholesome natural Wisconsin cheddar,  her  mother preferred to serve Velveeta— which according to dubious Wisconsinlore was swept up  from the leftovers on the floor, after they made the real cheese. 

                       I remember when the first ice cream trucks came to our neighborhood. Children have a special radar and can  hear that ice cream truck music ten miles away.  Some kids followed those  trucks  around on their  bikes all day. They were  like remora attached to  sharks. They were the same ones who  would trail the city jeep, when it  sprayed the alleys for mosquitoes. I think they got  a little intoxicated  from inhaling that white cloud of insecticide and were addicted. I’m not sure which  had  the most negative heath effects, consuming the chemically saturated artificial ice cream or breathing all that toxic  bug killer.  

                    

                                 Over  20%  of Americans admit to binging on ice cream  in the middle of the night and about 10% say they actually lick  the bowl clean.  Once  we were shoveling ice cream into our eighteen-month old granddaughter,  when  suddenly she  balled up her little fists and pressed  them against  her temples. This was the youngest example of  an “ice cream headache”, I‘ve witnessed and we all felt a little guilty.

                    There is a   nerve center  in the back of the mouth and when it’s  rapidly cooled   the blood vessels constrict,  causing  pain receptors to overload and refer the discomfort to the head.  Sort of like a governor on a motor, that won’t   allow it to run faster than a designated speed, this mechanism punishes us, if we get greedy and eat our ice-cream too fast.    I don’t know why they don’t teach this in school, but   scientists claim that you   relieve “brain freeze” by rubbing your tongue or sucking hard on the roof of your mouth to warm it up.   

                    About one in twenty  people  report they share their ice cream with pets  and I’ve noticed that many stores sell frozen novelties designed for animals. They look pretty tasty,  but in this economy, do dogs really need ice-cream sandwiches?   

                    But  we love our pets and  nothing symbolizes indulgence better than ice-cream. Like pie alamode, it’s  that extra treat,  literally  on top of another treat. We recently took our grandchildren to the Newport Aquarium, which they found somewhat entertaining, especially the gift shop, where we spent most of the time.  On the way home we stopped at an ice cream shop. There were  way too many flavors to choose from and the busy shopkeeper grew highly impatient and annoyed at all the indecision.  I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t make up my mind, they didn’t have  sugar-free pumpkin or chili cheese dogs.

 

 

Shocking Inventions

6 Oct

            

 

 

              It is usually assumed that inventors possess a high degree of genius. When we think about the electric light bulb or telephone, we figure that some advanced intelligence must have been at work. But perhaps this is    erroneous, it may be than inventiveness and intelligence is actually unrelated. As evidence for this hypothesis I offer the Stawar family inventions– prime examples of creativity without necessarily intelligence.

            My father was a self-taught electrician and as I grew up I was exposed to variety of his attempts to advance the science of electricity.  Nearly all of his inventions involved having several exposed live electrical wires hanging about so that any false move could result in a life threatening electrical shock. This danger may have never occurred to my father because he was personally immune to electrical shock. Like a snake handler who had been bitten so often that the venom was no longer toxic, my father had been shocked so many times in his 44 years as an electrician, be could literally hold two “hot” 100 volt electrical wires in his hands with no obvious ill effect—I’d like to see Thomas Edison do that.

            My father built an elaborate workshop that included a long workbench with a one inch thick rubber mat to stand on to keep from getting grounded—although he could longer feel shock,  he seemed to realize that it still could kill him under the right circumstances.

Dad built a test light into the workbench so he could test electrical circuits. This device consisted of two exposed live electrical wires which when touched together completed a circuit illuminating a 100 watt light bulb. The device was always on and could not be shut off. As a child I quickly learned to only touch the insulated part of the wires and I often played with the device, burning up flashlight bulbs and defibrillating small animals.

              I believe my father may have actually designed and built one of the first fully electric lawn mowers. Now this was in the time before plugs had three prongs (ground fault technology) so using an electric lawn mower on dewy grass was like sticking a wet fork into a toaster. And the ever-present lethal possibility of running over the cord was an added source of excitement.

My father never grasps the basic principles of mechanical engineering,  but he loved electrical motors. After several experiments  he decided that he needed an enormous electric motor to power the mower. This motor resembled a turbine from  Grand Couleedam. To support the gigantic motor he needed a very strong frame. Since he was able to arc weld a little,  he constructed a square box out of heavy gauge metal. He hacksawed pointy grooves in the front and fitted it with a push handle made out of thick steel pipe. The mower now resembled a Shermantank with sharp teeth and weighted about the same. Although it actually could cut grass, it was so heavy you needed to take a nap after every 10 feet.

 

 

 

After using this Frankenstein of a lawnmower for a while, our old push mower seemed virtually weightless. Dad may have inadvertently invented the first Nautilus exercise machine.

              In the fifth grade I took one of my father’s inventions to school to a sort of “show and tell” program. This was his famed electric hot dog cooker. He had soldered wires on to two nails, which he then mounted in a small wooden rack, the length of a standard hot dog. Then he attached the wires to a plug. When plugged in the hot dog completed the circuit and the meat was essentially electrocuted. Of course if you touched the hot-dog you stood the chance of also being cooked. A hot dog cooked in this manner develops an awful peculiar acidic taste. It also had the odor of searing flesh, which was reminiscent of the execution chamber at the state prison. When I demonstrated the device my science  teacher yelled at me about the general hazard this miniature electric chair for wieners represented and the horrendous smell, which quickly filled the entire school.

              Another time I took an electric magnetizer my father invented to school and was told to immediately take it home because it was too dangerous. Never discouraged by any setbacks,  one Christmas my father decided to put red and green lights  up on our front porch. However instead of using regular Christmas lights, he installed porcelain sockets and used full sized 200 watt red and green light bulbs with a timer which made them flash on and off. I thought it look pretty cool, my mother said it made the house look like a “God-damn tavern”. I suspect my father sort of liked that look.

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