Tag Archives: Comedy

The Sherlock of Homes

6 Sep

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Being a homeowner is fraught with challenges. Not the least of these is solving the numerous mysteries which inevitably present themselves. Below are two cases that have recently tested our meager powers of deduction.

The Mystery of the Secret Stench

A few weeks ago, we started noticing what seemed to be an odd smell emanating from somewhere in our upstairs bedroom. At first I thought it might an animal or perhaps one of the appliances malfunctioning. The odor was very unpleasant and waxed and waned throughout the day. Our cat who is the usual suspect, when something like this happens, had an airtight alibi, since he has been permanently banned from the bedroom.

A careful examination of the steam iron and air conditioner revealed nothing amiss. Although the disagreeable smell was indescribable, it seemed to be organic in nature. My wife Diane and I wondered if some animal had managed to sneak into the bedroom, perhaps through the window where the weather-stripping is loose. At length we considered the relative probabilities that the animal was a mouse, a snake, or possibly, a snake who had eaten a mouse. Coming to no firm conclusion, we immediately decided the wisest course of action was to abandon the bedroom and move all operations downstairs until the mystery was solved.

Our six-year old grandson listened to the story and said that it must be a skunk. At that point I began systematically investigating every inch of the bedroom, all the while room dreading what I might eventually find. I moved and looked under a large bookcase, a massive chest of drawers, the mattress, and the box springs. After all this I still couldn’t even isolate the source of the odor.
And every time I thought the odor might be dissipating, the smell would come waffling back, with a vengeance. I began to wonder if some animal might have been trapped inside the wall, had come to an untimely end, and was now stinking up the joint, as a kind of ghostly revenge.

Just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, one of the electrical wall plugs in the bedroom suddenly stopped working. At the time I didn’t believe the two incidents were connected, although I did imagined that a mouse might have chomped down on an electrical wire and had been electrocuted. What I couldn’t figure out was how his decomposing carcass could have created a stench, days before his unfortunate demise?

In my childhood I worked as a helper for my father, who was an electrician. My usual assigned tasks were to install wall plugs and to cut possibly electrified wires in insect ridden crawlspaces and hot itchy attics. Child labor laws were a bit lax back then.

Drawing on this experience, I set about replacing the wall plugs in our smelly bedroom. The first plug actually had a large crack in it, but replacing it did nothing to help. When I got to the third plug on the circuit, however, I hit pay dirt. This plug, although still working had melted inside and the smell of the scorched plastic turned out to be the unidentified odor that had been violating our bedroom. I now believe that when that plug heated up, the smell would become airborne, like a perverse version of those plug-in room deodorizers.

Diane had come into the bedroom, while I was working on this plug and I asked her to hold a flashlight for me. I realized what must have happened, as soon as I saw the melted plug. Unthinkingly I thrust the plug into her face saying excitedly, “Hey smell this!” It’s remarkable how much a melted electrical plug can look like a dead mouse in a poorly lit room. Thus the mystery of the fowl odor and the nonfunctional electrical plug were solved in one fell swoop and perhaps in a month or two Diane will start speaking to me again.

The Curious Case of the Concealed Cat

The second mystery more directly involved our chronically wayward cat, Klaus. First of all, Klaus is a very spoiled cat. A few years ago, while we were out of town, he managed to convince the cat-sitter into giving him wet cat food every night. He also persuaded the sitter to urge us to continue the practice when we returned. At the time, I told my Diane that there was no way that I was going to buy expensive wet cat food, just so Klaus could stuff his face every night. I said that it was totally unnecessary, since he got plenty of nourishment from his dry food and that he was fat enough as it was.

So yesterday, as I was opening a can of wet cat food, I mentioned to Diane that we needed to get more grilled salmon, since Klaus was getting tired of the flaked whitefish. Normally we keep Klaus in the house at night and make him go out in the mornings. I realize that this just the opposite of what most people do (like the Flintstones) , but we’re afraid that the coyotes, raccoons, and tougher cats in the neighborhood will beat Klaus up at night. Diane says that this is because we live in such a wild area, but I believe that it’s probably Klaus’ disagreeable personality that’s to blame.

Sometimes when it’s raining, Klaus resists going out in the morning, and we let him stay inside. Recently, however, he’s decided that he wants to stay inside every morning. He’s become like an unruly adolescent who wants to sleep late every day, go in and out of the house whenever he feels like it, and then stay out late every night carousing. He fully expects us to be on constant call to serve as his doorman and to make sure he never sees the bottom of his food bowl.

In order to stay inside in the mornings, Klaus has found a hiding spot that has left us completely baffled. We’ve search the entire house multiple times without success. I have to admire Klaus’ will power, as he has managed to resist coming out when I tempted him with the cat teaser (a fishing pole connected to a toy mouse), and when I rattled his wet cat food dish. He even stayed hidden when I shook his bag of cat treats, which almost always works. He usually come running, sort of like I do when someone shakes a bag of bacon jerky. I’m getting a little paranoid. The other morning I imagined that he must had snuck by me when I was half asleep and was now outside watching me through the window and mocking me, as I searched for him.

Klaus is so diabolical that I can find the family couch empty one minute and the next, like a ninja, he suddenly appears out of thin air. I told Diane that I fully expect to see him clinging to the ceiling or perhaps suspended under a chair. One of his chief strategies seems to be to circle back into the rooms we have already checked. I told Diane that I fully expect to see him clinging to the ceiling or perhaps suspended under some chair. One of his chief strategies seems to circled back into rooms that we have already checked. Our middle son, who is Klaus’ putative owner, and who had dumped him on us when he moved out , believes that Klaus is just using his magical cat powers.

Last week when we couldn’t find him, we tried making him over confident by talking loudly about much smarter he is than us. We hoped he would overhear us and get cocky and slip-up. He didn’t bite.
Never-the-less, Diane has theory as to his favorite hiding place and has neutralized his doubling back tactic. Tonight, however, just as we are preparing to leave town for a few days, another mystery suddenly cropped up. While watering plants, Diane spotted a mysterious wet spot bubbling up on our otherwise dry front lawn. I not sure what it is, but I’ll bet Klaus has something to do with it. I thought I saw him playing with, what suspiciously looked like a pipe wrench the other day.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

Sherlock Homes

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

 

    

Claus: The Feline Archcriminal

15 Mar

I would bet that at least 99% of Americans are opposed to animal crimes. I for one have always taken a firm stand against such patently unacceptable behavior. For these reasons I feel compelled to turn over to the authorities our recalcitrant cat, Claus. Sure, he looks like an adorable stuffed animal. He’ll snuggle up to you, purr, and even lick your hand. But this is all a façade, behind that cuddly fur and saucer-sized eyes, lurks a fiend— an archvillain, a feline Moriarty, a master criminal. Occasionally he slips up and reveals his true nature. He may start out nuzzling you, but before long the claws and fangs come out, and to him you’re nothing more than an oversized hunk of mouse meat.

I offer to the grand jury the following five felony counts and urge that Claus be indicted as soon as possible. Please be wary of his numerous tricks and lies. As we have learned the hard way, he is capable of almost anything.

Felony Count 1 Litter Box Malfeasance: Claus fancies himself an indoor cat. Even though we scoot him outside, whenever the weather is good, he apparently believes that he is “too delicate” to do his business out-of-doors. With his highly inflated sense of self esteem, he apparently holds it all in, until we let him back into the house.

When Claus was younger we kept one of his litter boxes downstairs in the bathroom tub. After we removed the box he seemed to think the drain was good enough. Now we have to keep that bathroom door closed at all times. Now we keep his litter box upstairs on an old vinyl tablecloth to catch any litter that might fall out. Always devious, he has taken to throwing a few pawfuls of litter onto the tablecloth to rationalize using the table cloth, rather than squeezing into his box. Along with his overt transgression, there seems to be a lot of contempt thrown in for good measure. He is the devil incarnate.

Felony Count 2 Food Dish Misconduct: Around 4:00PM or whenever he is let into the house, Claus starts his daily complaints and demands to be fed his wet food. He has always had plenty of dry food available, but by some nefarious means he managed to intimidate his cat-sitter into giving him wet food every day. The cat sitter then intimidated us, insisting that Claus just had to have wet food. I suspect some kind of mind control.

Claus is relentless in hanging around his food dish, griping, moaning, and threatening to bite the microwave electrical cord until he is fed. When he is fed, the first thing he does is tip over his dish, so that a big chunk of food falls on the floor. He often doesn’t even eat this, but just leaves it there. Someone needs to teach that cat a lesson.

Felony Count 3 Sofa Mistreatment: A few years before we knew what we were dealing with, we bought Claus a “Mouse-go-Round” scratching post. It had little mice made of carpet hanging by ribbons from the top of the post so that he could bat them around. All this, however, was evidently not good enough for Claus. Apparently this was not sufficient to satisfy his primal instincts. Recently we discovered that he has also been using a hidden corner of our living room couch as a scratching post. I take this offense rather personally. When he is asked to leave the room or we aren’t quick enough delivering his wet food, we can hear him in there sharpening his claws.

Felony Count 4 Attempted Manslaughter: Like any narcissistic personality, Claus always insists on going first. He runs ahead of us to the door when we come from work to make sure he can get a jump on complaining that he hasn’t been fed. He tries to jump ahead of us when we open the basement door. I don’t know why he is so keen on getting down there. He can get into our basement any time he pleases from the outside, using his secret evil Ninja powers. In addition he is always underfoot in the kitchen, just hoping to trip someone carrying a hot pot or pan. But worse of all, he has taken to jumping ahead of me when I go down the stairs. He frequently entwines himself between my legs as I try to step down. He is fiendishly clever and doesn’t do it every time. So now I worry, even when he isn’t even there. Like in chess the anticipation is worse than the move. I have lost all confidence in navigating the steps. It is a deadly psychological game of cat and what he sees as a very large mouse.

Felony Count 5 Rodent Bribery/Extortion: I know that Claus realizes I am on to him, so he has been playing it cagey pretending to be sweet, but he’s not fooling anyone. The other day I was gingerly coming down the stairs when I almost stepped on a dead mouse, carefully placed on the bottom step. I have concluded that the presence of the dead rodent could mean one of three things. 1. It was an attempt to scare me to death, which almost succeeded. 2. It was an overt threat, sort of like that bloody horse’s head, the gangsters put in the guy’s bed in the Godfather movie. or 3. It was Claus’ cynical attempt to bribe me into silence.

Finally, if my body is found lying at the bottom of our stairs before Claus is prosecuted, make sure the police look for gray cat fur on my pants, just about shin high.

This blog orignally appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

The Demise of Maria: The Not So Exquisite Corpse

8 Dec

           

                Contrary to the Broadway tune, “Maria” is not “the most beautiful sound I ever heard.” When I hear  this name,  I form an image of an unsightly and  ill-tempered Chihuahua with multiple shiny patches of fur.  Raised on expresso and sugar doughnuts,   Maria was jumpy, nippy and exceedingly fat. Her black shiny piggy eyes bulged from a nervous mound of tan flab—  like a canine Brando.

            Maria belonged to our friends Johnnie and Julie Green.  My wife, Diane and I would often visit them up North  to play whist.  They indulged this unseemly dog like a favored child. While we played cards,  Julie held the mongrel on her lap   removing its many fleas. Her technique  was to   dab  the flea with Vasoline Petroleum Jelly,   pinch it off, and  deposit it in an ashtray.  This unwholesome and possibly intentional distraction  hampered our card playing and made us wonder why we  were so pathetic that we had gone over there in the first place. Johnnie always kept score,  writing down “Champs” for  their score and “Chumps” for  ours. They were card sharks and as they put it we were (s)not.

            At the time, we  drove a slightly used silver,  AMC Concord — the deluxe edition with a plush maroon interior and plastic wood grain dashboard. The car was lousy but  its worst feature was a perpetual motor oil hemorrhage. This oil leak was the source of constant embarrassment  as it ruined our driveway and stained  parking lots throughout town.            

             Whenever we visited  Johnnie and Julie, I’d parked the car on the grass to avoid staining their driveway and to be spared a lecture on proper auto maintenance by Johnnie. Maria  was  in the front yard when  we arrived one evening. She welcomed us with a loud bark and vicious snap and then dashed under our car. Then Julie came running  out of the house calling  for her. Suddenly Maria dashed out from under the car yelping. “Gee whiz, what’s   this black stuff on her back? ” Julie asked Johnnie.  Smirking Diane and  I dummied up,  knowing full well that the little monster had just been anointed with some  really hot motor oil whilst loitering under the Concord. Feeling perkier,  Diane  kept score that night  writing down “Starwarriors” for us  and “Gangreens” for them. They were not amused.

            We all tired of cards and Johnnie suggested that it would be very healthful if we took a  long walk. Johnnie and Julie loved to lecture us on health and especially diet, as Judy took great pride  in her nearly  anorexic physique.  Despite our  objections they insisted on bringing Maria along,  but refused to put her on a  leash.  Maria constantly ran ahead or straggled behind while Judy frantically screamed for her in a shrill voice.  As we walked down the dark road  this  shrieking was  beginning  to unnerve Diane. “Don’t worry about that damn dog. She’ll be all right.”

Suddenly we heard the crescendoing  roar of an engine as a sinister-looking black sedan came barreling down the road, drawing a bead on the unsightly dog. It looked like a demon car from some  Stephen King novel. It must have been going ninety and Maria was frozen in its highbeams, looking like a fat brown piglet in a centerstage spotlight.  The car from hell never slowed and with a blunted “thwunk” Maria was thrown  three feet in the air into dog heaven.  In shock,  Johnnie and I  retrieved our car and a Maria-sized  cardboard  box, while Diane and Julie waited beside the chubby still warm corpse.

            When we got back to the house, Johnnie  and Julie asked us if they should wake up their kids and tell them about Maria. We said, “No, absolutely not!” But they went ahead and did it anyway. Then they asked if  they should call  Julie’s elderly mother and father who were the dog’s godparents. Again, we said, “No! Absolutely not. But they went ahead and did it anyway.

            Within minutes the whole house was thrown into high hysteria.  Johnnie, Julie,  her mother, and the kids were all hugging and crying, while Judy’s father described the elaborate wooden coffin he intended to built for the late great Marie, who by now had stiffened up considerably and had an eternal snarl frozen on her muzzle. Tommy had her laying in state in the garage ironically on top of a  box of Quaker State Motor Oil.

            Diane and I tried  to appear supportive but when we saw an opening we grabbed our  kids, expressed our regrets, and headed for Daylight.  Feeling slightly guilty but immensely relieved in the tranquility of the incontinentConcord, off we went.  It was the last time we ever played whist.   

My apologies to all Chihuahua lovers everwhere, I look forward to your constructive comments and suggestions.

 

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

9 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subtest Score Classification

Vocabulary 18 Very Superior

Similarities 1 Extremely low

Arithmetic 10 Average

Digit span 9 Average

Information 9 Average

Comprehension 1 Extremely low

Letter-number 1 Extremely Low

Verbal IQ = 88 (Low Average Range)

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

Mechanic-Depressive Psychosis

27 Oct

   

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doodle All the Day Long

16 Sep

                                                                                                                                                     

  At a   business meeting the other day, my attention began to wander as I sat there doodling. I don’t know if it was the topic, or all the antihistamines I was taking, but the meeting room gradually melted away and there I was in a boat with a refreshing breeze in my face. I heard my name in the distance, and suddenly I was yanked back, as if a bungee cord was attached to the boat. Evidently I was being asked to make some sort of decision. Everyone was looking at me so earnestly that I was too embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. My notes were no help. They were the minutes from the last meeting with all of the “o’s” and “e’s” filled in and some poorly drawn palm trees in the margin. Hoping that I hadn’t been asked to past the bowl of pretzels, I said that I would have to consider the issue and get back to everyone. They all nodded and seemed satisfied.

                 Daydreaming and doodling are closely related phenomena. Doodling, which has been found in early Mesopotamian clay tablets, has been called the world’s most common and ignored art form. Anthropologists once theorized that certain strange stone-age cave paintings must have been created by early humans, while under the influence of indigenous drugs or possibly primitive music. However, one researcher examined the classroom doodles of college students and found artistic elements identical to the Paleolithic productions. This should come as no surprise to any parent of a college student. Doodling is technically the spontaneous production of drawings or markings, when one’s mind is preoccupied with something else. Doodling most often takes place in meetings, classrooms, while on the phone, and on napkins in restaurants. English psychologist Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth found that doodling actually improves memory and attention on certain tasks. People who doodled while listening to a dull phone message remembered 29% more than people who did not doodle. Everyone in England, however, isn’t convinced of its benefits, as a convicted rapist was released from prison when it was discovered that a juror was doodling sketches of the judge during the trial. The case has been appealed on the grounds that the juror was not paying enough attention to the evidence.

               When our brains lacks sufficient stimulation, they may manufacture their own content, like doodles and daydreams. For many people doodling provides just enough activity during boring tasks to prevent escape into full-fledged daydreams. Because doodling is largely unconscious, many believe it can provide insight into personality functioning. After the 2005 World Economic Forum, a reporter was snooping around the seat occupied by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and found papers with elaborate doodles of triangles, rectangles, circles, and words in boxes. The reporter had these drawings analyzed by a graphologist and newspapers throughout Britain gleefully reported that the doodles revealed that Blair was “struggling to concentrate” and “not a natural leader”. One journalist went so far as to call the prime minister “a closet vicar with a death wish”. But Blair had the last laugh when it was revealed that the doodles were actually made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who had inadvertently left them at Blair’s seat. David Greenberg a professor of history at Rutgers recently published a book on presidential doodles, showing that even the father of our country wasn’t above decorating his notebook with checkerboard designs. And the tradition continues today. A doodle by Barrack Obama recently sold for $2,500 on e-Bay.

                  Like the Rorschach test, there is little agreement about the specific meaning of doodles. For example, some authorities believe crosshatching and repeated patterns suggest a methodical approach to tasks, while others see it as an indicator of obsessive compulsive behavior. A house with smoke coming from the chimney means a welcoming fire for some experts, while for others it may signify sexual problems. While doodling represents a minor retreat from reality, daydreams are fully developed visual fantasies experienced while we’re awake. Research by University of Minnesota psychology professor, Eric Klinger, revealed that most daydreams are actually about ordinary events. They help remind us of everyday tasks. Less than 5% of daydreams involved sexual thoughts and violent daydreams are quite uncommon. Klinger’s research showed that over 75% of people with “boring jobs”, such as lifeguards and truck drivers, frequently use daydreams to ease the tedium of their workday. Daydreaming has often been judged as a non-productive pastime.

                    When I was growing up some psychologists even cautioned parents that persistent daydreaming could lead to a break with reality and even psychosis. But daydreaming has also been associated with major creative break-throughs in many disciplines. For example, in 1862, German chemist Friedrich Kekulé discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule in a daydream about a snake seizing its own tail. Walt Disney was well know for his frequent day dreaming and even today the Disney Corporation recognizes outstanding young people with its “Dreamers and Doers Awards”. Star athletes have long employed visualization as an effective training technique. For many practicing in imagination is as good or even better than real life and visualization is essentially the same state of mind as daydreaming. Of course day dreaming can be detrimental when a task demands our full attention. A Wisconsin survey found that daydreaming was second only to fatigue as the cause of auto accidents.

                     I once found that doodling can also be hazardous. I had just started a job and my new boss was briefing me about the employees I supervised. As he gave me the rundown, I idly doodled on the back of a stack of papers. He cautioned me about one of the women, describing her as “not a team player”. Later that day I met with all the employees and passed out a memo about supervision times. It went very well, but an hour later I got a phone call from the woman my boss warned me about. She demanded to know what the doodles on the back of her memo meant. She said she recognized palm trees, but she wanted to know why her name was written in what looked to be a traffic caution sign and why it was next to a box that contained the underlined words “Not a team player?”

 

Moral Courage, Doggone It

26 Aug

  

All that required for  evil to triumph,  is for good dogs to do nothing.       

 Adapted from Edmund Burke

 

 

 

 

Many of you may remember the classic television show Lassie.  At some point in every episode one of the main characters, usually Timmy, would find himself in terrible trouble. That is when Lassie, either with urging from Timmy or spontaneously, would run to get help. Usually this was often a heroic journey that involved things like crossing waterfalls and fighting off cougars.

Believe it or not, psychologists at theUniversityofWestern Ontariohave decided to see how real dogs respond to emergency situations. Studies, such as this,  are why I love psychology so much. I’m glad, however, this one took place inCanada,  so there’s little chance  they spent U.S  tax dollars on it.

The researchers conducted two experiments. That’s actually 14 experiments  in dog reckoning.  In the first experiment, the dog’s owner feigned having a heart attack and in the second experiment the dog’s owner pretended to have an accident, in which a bookcase fell on them and pinned them to the floor. In both experiments, bystanders were available to which the dog could run for help. The experimenters videotaped the dog’s behavior for six minutes after the phony accidents took place.  The researchers later scored the dog’s behavior for the time spent performing different behaviors.  Their categories included  roaming, approaching the victim or bystander, vocalizing, and pawing the ground. But where was aimless barking in the direction of the neighbors, rolling in something disgusting, biting the top off of irises, and annoying the cat?   I am pretty sure I know what my dog would have been doing.

Would you like to guess the results? The researchers found that “in no  case did a dog solicit help from a bystander” and they concluded that “dogs did not understand the nature  of the emergency or the need to obtain help”.  Amazingly the researchers then went on to spend several pages making excuses for the dogs,  like  maybe they  weren’t   fooled and  had realized  it wasn’t  a real emergency and so on. 

The dogs (there were twelve of various breeds) mostly just roamed around, occasionally approaching the victim or the by-stander. The subtitle of this experiment was “dog bystander apathy”. I  don’t think this experiment should  be  interpreted to disparage the courage of  dogs, but rather it challenges our misguided attempts to try to impose human characteristic on our canine friends..

The real irony of this experiment is that in some situations humans don’t do much better than the dogs. Human bystander apathy has been studied in depth since the infamous Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, when the New York Times  reported  that 38 people  had heard or seen this young woman being attacked, for over half an hour, and  did nothing to help– not even call the police. Although later investigations contradicted some of these claims, it was clear that people were frequently very reluctant to get involved in such situations.

Since then studies have shown that people are less likely to take action if there are other people present, and the responsibility is dispersed.  I personally understand how this can happen. I have been in situations where I knew that speaking out, although terribly unpopular, would be the morally correct thing to do.  In most of these cases I have been fortunate enough that my wife, Diane, was also there.  And I know, regardless of the consequences, she is constitutionally unable to refrain from speaking out to injustice. Since she has much more moral courage than me, I cowardly have  accepted  that I usually don’t  have to say anything, because she most certainly will.

Also the more ambiguous the situation is, the less likely people are to become involved. In the Genovese case, some people said they thought they were witnessing a lovers’ spat or a drunken brawl and were reticent to get involved and possibly be embarrassed by such situations.  I believe this fear of being embarrassed is a key issue in people not standing up for others, especially in incidents of child abuse and domestic violence.  Unfortunately many people would rather risk the lives and futures of their friends and neighbors, than possible embarrassment.

Fears for personal safety, inconvenience, and possible liability inhibit some  people from  being Good Samaritans. The Genovese case led to much public outcry aboutAmerica’s growing callousness and apathy towards others. While not thrusting yourself into a potentially dangerous or inconvenient situation may have survival value, when it involves defending others,  such reticence violates the basic social contract we have with each other as fellow human beings. 

In the final analysis, this is mainly a question of moral courage.  Sins of omission can be just as grievous as sins of commission.  We must at least try to do better than our dogs.

Take A Number

18 Aug

 

            Everyone knows that Americans hate to stand in line. It’s contrary to the basic American values of independence and self-determination.  While standing in line may not threaten life, it certain threatens liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With the  possible exception of a couple of guys waiting for some Grateful Dead tickets, I have never seen anyone pursue happiness while waiting in a line. Lines are communistic eastern bloc phenomena. It’s what you expect to see inWarsaw–long lines of people waiting to buy toilet paper with splintery chunks of wood embedded in it.

            American’s greatest inventions were  devised  specifically to decreased  the  time  we  wait in lines. Fast food, the drive-in window, the automated teller,  the bar code scanner, the take-a-number machine, and the illiterate-friendly cash register were all  created to speed things up.  To obtain  a synergistic effect we even combine these advances so that   you  get fast food from a drive-in window while the cashier  uses a scanner and illiterate-friendly cash register.  And you pay with an ATM card. The  service is so fast, you actually go back in time. 

            Some people go a little crazy while waiting in line, a sort of claustrophobic panic.  Typically this occurs  to the person standing in front of you. Then you have  to wait  for an involuntarily commitment or anti-anxiety medication to be administered. Fortunately, in the state ofFlorida, convenience store clerks are granted both commitment and prescription privileges. 

            In an unscientific poll,  people say the five worse lines are:

            1. The bank drive-in window: Each  person in front of you will have a unique banking problem more appropriately resolved at a meeting of the  Federal Reserve  Board than  a drive-in window. I ask you, is it really wise to apply for a home mortgage at the drive-in window?  I usually end up  behind a pickup truck full of sinister looking guys who speak some unknown  language and  are trying to cash a third party  counter check from the First National Bank of  Croatia. Or I get behind someone who seems mystified by the pneumatic tube device and is unable to grasp the meaning of the flashing red light that says,  “Press for return”.

            2. The grocery store line  is   my favorite. At least you get to look at the tic tacs and  tabloids  catching up on the national and sometimes interplanetary news. “Hmm, JFK and Elvis seen having breakfast together at the International House of Pancakes, while UFO  squadron hovers overhead.”  Those UFO’s were probably just Elvis’s Belgian waffles. They also have these little bitty booklets with weird titles like: “Teach Your Cat to Invest in the Stock Market”, “Biblical Cures for Hemorrhoids”, and “One Hundred and One  Uses  for Apple  Cider Vinegar”. I think they  have these  books on word processors and they occasionally use  the  “find and substitute” command to reprint new versions. For example  the “One Hundred and One  Uses for Apple  Cider Vinegar” book is exactly the same as  the “One Hundred and One  Uses for Baking Soda” book. Evidently you  can brush your teeth, clean your coffeepot, or clear up your prickly heat with either substance.

             I  also like to watch the territorial disputes erupt on the conveyor belt. UN peacekeepers couldn’t secure these borders. People freak out when  Charmin bathroom tissue makes an incursion into their territorial space. And the cashiers  get a kick out of stopping the conveyor belt abruptly so that your 2 liter coke bottles are hurled across the  plastic divider  into someone else’s space.

            Finally there’s the interminable fresh produce transaction. “What are these,  pears?  Bosco,Bartlett, or Hemlock? Are these pole or wax beans?  Is this a turnip or a  parsnip? Is this a banana or a planaria? Finally it’s your turn and you hear the two most consoling words in the English language– “Paper or plastic?”

            3. The vehicle tag office and it’s kissing cousin the driver’s license bureau are thankfully being replaced by mail renewals.  But for those idiots like me who wait to the last possible second, this line  is a nightmare. I  go early but there’s always a line. It’s interesting to watch the employees totally ignore you as they  wait that final  five seconds before they open  the door. It seems that man was created  for the bureaucracy. The usual catch in this line is some crucial bit of information  you’re missing:  like your insurance policy number, your spouse’s driver’s license number, your vehicles’s mileage in 1987,  or the serial number of  the first car  you  ever drove. They also register motorcycles,  boats,  hunting vehicles, trailers, and  RV’s in this office so be careful.  Never get behind a guy wearing a sweaty camouflage baseball cap. You’d be amazed  how many bass boats, hummers,  and  dirt bikes one person can own. I once made the mistake of standing behind a guy with nautical headgear and had to wait for him to register the entire Mrs. Paul’s trawler fleet.

            4. The hospital emergency room is possibly the most tense of all lines. You’re  in pain, you’re worried about your insurance coverage, unspeakable things are occurring behind the curtains, and the place smells like a pine tree dipped in alcohol. I once went into an emergency room with an abscessed tooth and was in the most excruciating pain of my life. I looked at those feverish infants and afflicted geriatrics waiting in front of me and was quite prepared to flatten them if necessary to get in. As far  as I was concerned  this was festival seating of the fittest and if Mother Teresa got in front of me, she was going to have Reebok tracks on her face.

            5. Waiting lines at fast food restaurants  are somewhat  paradoxical.  Actually the term “fast food restaurant”  is an oxymoron. The pubescent work force takes the brunt of the criticism in this industry. I almost witnessed a full fledged riot once in a fast food line when a brand new employee  (excuse me, associate) was assigned to the cash register, thirty minutes before the annual town Christmas parade. The place was packed and people were real antsy. After she goofed up one order after another, the crowd got ugly and this associate was in real danger of being pulled from behind the register, blanched in the deep fryer, and covered with sweet and sour sauce. Since they pay these kids in Clearasil,  you really can’t  say much.

            If you disagree with my survey results all I can say is, “Hey buddy, take a number!”

Stuck on Mary Lou

17 Aug

             Over the past couple of days, every once in a while,   music from the song “Time after Time”,  spontaneously  starts playing in my head. It is like having a pilot light constantly flickering in your brain while you just wait  for it to flare up. Except for the Goonies and Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I was never much of a  Cyndi Lauper fan, so  I only   know  two lines from this song but they keep repeating themselves.

            My wife Diane seems especially susceptible to the works of Ricky Nelson.  Whenever she plays Ricky Nelson songs as the background music at the bookstore she manages, she gets stuck on “Hello Mary Lou” for days.  At least it’s not “Garden Party”.  

            Neuroscientists call this phenomena an “earworm”, which  is the literal translation of the German term, Ohrwurm, which simply means a song that gets stuck in your head. Over 98%  of Americans  report  having this experience. One-third of respondents in a international survey said  they have earworms every day and  90% said they occur  at least  once a week.   

            As early as 1876,  Mark Twain wrote a  tongue-in-cheek article for the Atlantic Monthly,  in which he claims he acquired  an earworm from a newspaper jingle. Some of the addictive verses from the jingle were:   

                                    “Conductor, when you receive a fare,
                                    Punch in the presence of the passenjare.

                                    Punch, brothers!  Punch with care!
                                    Punch in the presence of the passenjare.”

This  jingle   drove  Twain crazy,  until he jokingly describes how he passed it on to an unfortunate acquaintance. It is a good thing he died 54 years before Walt Disney  opened his   “It’s a Small World” attraction—  Twain would have never survived it.   

            In 1997 humorist  Dave Barry wrote the “Book of Bad Songs”, which summarizes his  survey of the world’s worst songs.  Barry contends that bad song lyrics and  jingles for products that no longer exist, are the two things that we are most likely to remember,  while our ATM passwords and the names of our children are assigned relatively  low priority by our perverse memory.   Barry warns that his book might even “put bad songs into your head”. He suggests that the book  is best deployed as a  psychological weapon  and given to enemies.

        I believe that I once had the winner of Barry’s worse song survey,MacArthurPark, stuck in my head for a week. I distinctly remember humming about a cake left out in the rain and how long it took to bake it.

            Earworm songs are always familiar to the victim and usually are not   perceived as a significant problem.  However,  in a 2005 survey 7.5%  of people did  report  having their least favorite song stuck in their head on occasion. In this more recent study, Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart ” replacedMacArthurParkas the most despised song.

            Most of the time earworms end within a day or so, but they are thought to be more difficult to suppress by people  who are most into  music.  Women and men experience earworms with about the same frequency, but they seem to last a little longer for women.   Usually the songs are a catchy tune  that you may have liked at some point in the past, but they may become highly annoying from the sheer repetition. They especially seem to appear when people are alone and bored.   

            Earworms are a type of intrusive involuntary imagery, which can include spontaneous   pictures, smells, and tastes.  Auditory intrusions, however,  seem to be more common than those from other sensory modalities. Some scientists believe that earworms may be a mild form of auditory hallucinations. Others think they may be the normal side effect of the memory consolidation process. Famous neurologist Oliver Sacks theorizes that they may just be the natural consequence of having our brains  constantly  bombarded by music.

            James Kellaris, a marketing professor  at theUniversityofCincinnati, has extensively studied earworms  and views  them as   a “cognitive itch.”   Kellaris, believes that certain music has  unusual qualities, such as repetitiveness, simplicity, or unexpectedness,  that hook  the brain’s attention. The brain tries to process this irritating stimulation by repeating it, which only makes matters worse–  like scratching an insect bite. However, since virtually any song may be an earworm for some people,  Kellaris now believes that the phenomenon probably results from an interaction of song properties and individual traits.

            Kellaris conducted a 2003 survey to determine his own  earworm “Playlist From Hell” and he  included commercial jingles, as well as songs. After idiosyncratic earworms,  the  most common ones cited were:  1. Chili’s (Baby Back Ribs), 2. Who Let the Dogs Out?,  3. We Will Rock You, 4. Kit-Kat bar jingle (Gimme a break), 5. TheMission Impossible Theme, 6. YMCA,  7. Whomp, There It Is, 8. The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and  9. It’s a Small World After All.

            People have adopted a variety of different techniques to eliminate or suppress earworms including; substituting a new tune,  passing it on,  distraction,  listening to the earworm, discussing it, or simply  waiting for it to pass. I looked up the lyrics to “Time After Time” and was surprised to find that the verses I was hearing in my head weren’t exactly the same as the actual song. I also listened to the song, but it didn’t go away, although the lyrics mysteriously corrected themselves. Some people believe that the more attention you give to an earworm, the more resistant it is to leaving.

            Kellaris’ website says that there is a common myth that some tunes (like the Flintstones’  Theme) can serve as an “eraser  song” that can eliminate earworms. It may distract the individual, but there is no evidence of any true “eraser effect”. And there is even the danger the eraser song will become a brand new earworm, itself.  

            I don’t believe learning about earworms has helped me at all, but  “Time After Time” has finally  faded from my brain. I am not sure how I did it,   but  something, (from the, town ofBedrock),  is now telling me that, “I’ll never have that recipe again, oh nooo!”         

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