Archive | November, 2011

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


Neither Hide nor Hair

30 Nov

Taking advantage of the off-season rates, my wife Diane and I  spent a couple days at the beach in South Carolina last year. Such vacations are not for amateurs. Even a short time away from home requires  tremendous logistical maneuvering. You have to drag along enough stuff, so that when you get to your destination, you can re-create a reasonable facsimile of your home. Fortunately Diane is the one who frets over all the weighty issues, like whether or not to take lawn chairs, while my negligible contribution is in the muscle department, lugging things back and forth.  

One of the most frequently over-looked vacation skills is the ability to hide things. It starts before you even leave the house. We left a key behind, so that Mike, our neighbor, could come by occasionally to entertain our spoiled cat, who complains for a solid week, whenever  we leave him alone. We showed Mike the secret hiding place for our house key and  he wasn’t very impressed.

I grew up with an open-door policy, so far as the house and car are concerned. This was   based on my father’s  “we have nothing worth stealing” philosophy and the deeply held belief that a broken window would cost more than anything a  thief  could possibly take.  But now we always lock up the house and hide the key.   Diane has warned me not to disclose the secrets location of  our hidden key. All I can tell you is that it is in an extremely clever hiding place.

Once we got to the beach, all I could think about was that scary American Express commercial,  showing a thief rifling through people’s belongings. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says that at the beach you should hide your wallet in your shoe,  because no one will ever think of looking  there, especially if you push it all the way down to the toe. I admit that I have done this. But what other options are there?

Some people use those nerdy plastic pouches that you pin to your swimsuit or wear around your neck. I can’t believe those things are very secure and I doubt that they are completely waterproof.  Besides looking dorky, they are not big enough to hold your wallet, the  hotel room plastic key card, your cell phone, your Kindle, and your car keys. You would need to wear a keg around your neck like a St. Bernard.

For about $55, you can buy a pair of flip flops such as the Reef Stash Sandals,   that have a secret compartment in the sole, where you can hide small valuables. The assumption here is that a thief would probably think that it was too unsanitary to mess with your flip flops, even if they were suspiciously thick.

  At one point we went to one of those swim-up bars, which are sort of cool, but presents the dilemma of where to keep your money to pay for the drinks. I put some cash in a baggy and kept it under my hat. I don’t know where the people without hats were stashing their money and I’m not sure I want to know.

There is also the issue of where to put your valuables when you leave the hotel room.    The usual sock drawer or under the mattress are ill-advised.   I hate to give the impression that I’m paranoid or that I don’t trust the housekeeping staff, but hotel rooms are notoriously insecure, given all the passkeys floating around, sliding glass doors, and those unreliable cardkeys. We decided to use the in-room safe, although some people advise against this.  Ours was one of those electronic ones, which you lock by entering a 4 digit code and then later  open using the same code. I read on a couple of travel blogs that all these safes have a master over-ride code that the management can use to open it in case you forget your code.   It was claimed that some hotels  leave “0000” or “1234” as the over-ride code. After reading this I checked out  our safe but neither of these  codes would open it. Your valuables are only as secure as the secrecy  of the  override code.

    Some people use the office hotel safe, signing things in and out, while others opt for those containers that look like familiar products, but have built-in secret compartments. Former detective sergeant Kevin Coffey from Corporate Travel Safety refers to these as “diversion safes”.  These devices are designed to look just like real items, such as popular soft drink cans,  wall clocks, dog food cans,  salt containers, water bottles,  vegetable cans, shaving cream cans, and even athlete’s foot spray.  I think you need to be selective, however. A bogus Coke can among several others in a refrigerator might work fine,  but  single can of creamed corn in your hotel room might elicit some suspicion.

There  is also  the disgusting,  but possibly effective, Brief Safe (also referred to as the Skidmark Underwear Safe),  which is a cloth container for your valuables, that resembles a soiled pair of men’s underwear.   The manufacturer says to leave it in plain view in your suitcase.  They claim even the most hardened burglar will “skid  to a screeching halt as soon as they see them.”  They come in only one color—white (and brown).    

You can also still acquire one of those hollowed-out books as a hiding place.   I made one, as a child, to hide my money from my older brother, Norman. I used a razor blade to cut out the center part of a large book and   glued the pages  together. It worked pretty well, since a book was the last place you’d catch Norman looking for anything.

Based on conversations with a former burglar,  writer Jeffrey Strain, from advises against putting  your valuables in common hiding places such as toilet tanks, freezers,  and medicine cabinets.   

Finally there is the question as to where to hide your money while walking around. Security experts suggest using devices such as money belts, neck, leg, or shoulder wallets to foil pickpockets. Travel authority Rick Steves says, “Money belts are your key to peace of mind. I never travel without one.”

Older money belts  looked just like regular belts,   but  had a zippered compartment that allowed you to stash folded currency in them. Modern ones are small, zippered pouches that you wear around your waist, under your clothing, completely hidden from sight.  The ones with metal zippers were known to set off airport metal detectors, but the newer ones   made from fabric and composites are less likely to do so.

 I might consider wearing a money belt if I was doing a lot of travel  in Afghanistan or New Jersey,  but it seems overkill for most  minor trips. In the past I have used traveler’s checks,  but today debit and check cards make them redundant.  I do try to split my cash up  and keep it in a couple of different places, so that I can’t  lose it all at once.    

One reason that protecting valuables is especially important when traveling is because everything is so expensive. On the last few days of the trip I was worried that someone may have taken Diane’s credit card.  I would have reported it as stolen, but whoever took it, was spending less money than her (ala Rodney Dangerfield).      

Originally published in the News Tribune of Southern Indaina

Sticking it to the Man

29 Nov

Over the past month I’ve had a TB test, a blood workup, a flu shot, and a combination tetanus/whooping cough shot. I’ve never been particularly afraid of needles, but that’s a lot of jabbing. As a kid it seemed every time I went to the doctor I ended up getting a shot of some kind. Now doctors are more inclined to write prescriptions.  However, when we lived near Orlando, we saw a physician, who became to be known to us as  “The Shot Doctor”. When you went to see him,  no matter what was wrong with you, you could always count on getting some sort of injection. He had all these wooden boxes, packed with skinny glass hypodermic needles. You would walk into his office and before you knew it,  one of them would be stuck in your rear.  “You’ve got a cold, you need a shot”. “Headaches? A shot will clear that right up.”  “Flat feet? Drop your pants.”

 My recent needle marathon  took place because I had been dodging  doctor  appointments. I had the blood workup, the day before my doctor’s appointment (only about seven months late),  but  I lucked out because they didn’t have the results ready  for my appointment. So instead of the lecture,  I got a nice phone call from a  nurse instead.

I got a flu shot because I knew the doctor was going to ask me about it. Besides seasonal influenza  is  a major  public health hazard.  Influenza in America typically results in about  200,000 hospitalizations  and  36,000  fatalities annually. Generally, the  flu season in Indiana  starts around mid-fall, peaks in January,  and  runs through the spring.

According to a study  from New York’s  Mount Sinai Medical College,  the flu  is more  common in   winter  months  because  the  virus is more stable and   airborne longer when the weather  is cold,  dry, and the humidity is lower,  as it is in winter.   By studying guinea pigs, exposed to the virus,  the researchers found that influenza  transmission  was greatest  at 41o degrees and decreased as  the temperature rose, stopping completely at 86o

Also the shorter winter days with less sunshine, result in a decrease in the natural production of vitamin D,  a substance important for immunity.  Also in the winter months, due to bad weather children often   come into closer contact with each other,  resulting in more opportunities to spread the virus, at school and home.

Of course, the best way to avoid  the flu is the vaccine. Last year  the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), issued a new  recommendation, that said everyone over the age of 6 months should be inoculated. Exceptions are  people  who have reacted badly to the  vaccine in the past, people  with an egg allergy, and those who have previously contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome after getting the shot. It’s best to get your vaccination  early, because it takes almost 2 weeks to develop immunity.

In the 2010-2012 flu season, the CDC, estimated that over 120 million Americans  received flu shots. That number however, only represents 49 % of children and 41%  of adults— meaning that more than  half of Americans went unprotected. There are  several  reasons that  American  refuse flu vaccinations.

It’s been estimated that at least 10% of American adults   have a significant phobia of needles and injections  (technically termed  trypanophobia). The actual number is probably much greater since people with severe symptoms simply avoid medical treatment.This common phobia prevents a large number of American from getting an annual flu   vaccination.

Needle  phobia  was officially recognized in 1994,   when it  was included as a diagnosis in the fourth edition of  the American Psychiatric  Association’s  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, (DSM-IV). Writing in the Journal of Family Practice, James G. Hamilton, suggests that needle phobia  is genetic and has an evolutionary  basis. He believes that our ancestors,  who were able to avoid  all  sorts of punctures or stab wounds  had  a significantly greater chance of survival.  Hamilton also found that   80% of patients with needle phobia reported  the  same fear in a close relative. 

For people who  suffer from needle phobia there are many treatments and alternatives that can be effective.  The alternate use of nasal sprays or jet injectors which use air pressure rather than  hypodermic needles is often suggested. Fast acting anti-anxiety medications, the dental anesthetic  nitrous oxide, topical anesthetics at the site of the needle stick and beta blockers have been found  useful for people who faint. Laying down, with the legs elevated, often helps prevent  loss of consciousness in people prone to faint and it usually helps if patients  are instructed to breathe deeply and slowly. For  more severe cases, various psychological approaches such as psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, hypnosis,  and muscle relaxation training have been found helpful.

 A growing group of parents  refuse flu shots for their children  because they believe that it   causes autism.  According to Jeff Dimond, a public affairs specialist at the CDC,  This belief  is usually based on an early, but  generally  discredited  study,  that linked a vaccine preservative  to autism. Although the association was never proven, the  substance  in question  was removed from  all  childhood vaccines and most  flu shots. Celebrity activists,   like   Jenny McCarthy,  who claimed her son’s autism was caused by a  childhood vaccination, have given this issue  a  lot of public traction. Despite the assertions of the CDC and  scientific experts,  one  study showed that over 24% of parents still give credence to McCarthy’s views on  vaccinations.   

Some people are frightened because they   believe  you can catch the flu  from the vaccination.   This comes from the belief that   vaccinations still  give you a mild case of the disease,  so you can build up your  immunity. Dimond says that  you are only exposed to the dead virus, which cannot cause the disease.

            Other refusers think that   flu shots are not all that effective. The CDC reports that flu shots are typically  between 70% and 90%  effective at preventing influenza. However, a recent study at the University of Minnesota found that the shots were about 59% effective, somewhat  less than the  CDC claim. While the study had no conclusions regarding the elderly,  they did find that the vaccine was 83%  effective for young children. There is also some evidence that even in  people who  get sick with influenza, the vaccination reduces severity and the chance of complications.  

 Finally some folks  simply believe  that you should always leave well enough alone.  A few day ago I was talking to a reasonable and intelligent professional, who told me that he never gets flu shots, even though they are free where he works and would only take a few minutes.    He didn’t have any strong beliefs,   a needle phobia, or any other logical reason. He just felt that since he never had the flu, why take a chance on unsetting the applecart.  I have to admit before my doctor convinced me, I felt exactly the same way. This line of thinking is based on the  pessimistic  philosophy  that if any   can go  wrong,  it  probably will,  so  why tempt fate. The only counter to  this line of thinking is  that the consequence of  contracting influenza is likely to do  much more harm,  than the vaccination ever could.  Social responsibility is another  cogent argument for vaccinations.  By having the shot you are also protecting other people you come in contact with, especially those who have weaker immune systems, like young children and the elderly. Think of it as your doctor avoidance program, one shot and you’re home free.


Originally in the News Tribune of Southern Indiana

Banishing Black Friday

22 Nov


The   day after Thanksgiving  also known as Black Friday, has traditionally served as the start of the holiday shopping season since the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924. So it’s time to snap out of your turkey-atropine induced stupor and head for Wal-Mart, the mall, or at least fire up the laptop. The term, “Black Friday” can be traced back to the 1960s, when policemen and bus drivers in Philadelphia used it to refer to the terrible traffic jams cause by the rush of holiday shoppers.

The phrase also harkens back to 1929 when “Black Tuesday” was the day the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression, which is maybe a little too close to home this year. “Black Friday” also suits the day because many businesses depend so heavily on holiday shopping to make their year profitable and being profitable is referred to as being “in the black”. Black ink was traditionally used in bookkeeping ledgers to record gains while red ink was used to record losses. Black Friday is often thought to be the busiest shopping day of the year, but this is not always true. While it has been among the top 10 shopping days for the past 20 years, it has risen to first place only a couple of times. Days towards the middle of December usually rank higher. When I was growing up in St. Louis, I remember a well-known local radio DJ getting in serious trouble for saying that this is the day when the merchants downtown dance around their cash registers, singing What a friend have in Jesus.

In 2005 the National Retail Federation coined the term “Cyber Monday” for the Monday following Black Friday, to mark the beginning of the on-line shopping season. Like Secretaries’, Bosses’, and Emergency Medical Technician’s Day, Cyber Monday is essentially a marketing ploy, intended to whip us up into a buying frenzy, as if we needed one. Even so, Cyber Monday is not the busiest on-line shopping day of the year. This also takes place later in the season, when we start to feel really desperate. With greater broadband availability, many people start their on-line shopping Thanksgiving Day itself or earlier. For some, on-line shopping has taken the place of the traditional Thanksgiving walk, nap, football watching, or family argument. Many on-line retailers have responded by offering their sales a day earlier. For the past few years has created a special Black Friday website ( You can find out what promotions are taking place in stores, as well as get access to items that are available online, at the same or better price. There are lists of the hottest toys, electronics, household items, and latest fashions. as well as exclusive coupons. You can even compare bargain hunting strategies on one of the discussion forums. So what is the outlook for today? According to Deloitte’s annual survey, more than half of all consumers plan to reduce holiday spending this year and the average reduction is about 14%. People blame higher food and energy costs and job uncertainty for the cutbacks.

About one in ten say they are still paying off last year’s holiday debt. People plan to cut in the areas of home improvement, household furnishings, clothing, charitable donations, and entertainment. Spending on gifts showed the smallest planned decrease (only 6.5%). Shoppers plan to spend an average of $532 on gifts this holiday season and buy around 21 gifts (down about 2 gifts from last year). This year’s shopping strategies include buying lower-priced goods and sale items, consolidating shopping trips and using coupons whenever possible. And the top gift this year? – same as the last five years– the gift card. Retailers love these things. Last year the Tower Group consulting firm estimated that unredeemed gift cards totaled nearly $8 billion annually, about 10 percent of all purchased. It is like tithing to VISA. Over a quarter of us have had at least one gift card expire before we could use it. Although I’ve personally given a lot of these cards, I’m still not sure I understand it. Sure it’s easy, especially since you can get almost anything at the checkout counter of the grocery store. Most of us were taught, however, that giving cash was lazy and impersonal, but somehow retailers have convinced us that if we convert our cash into a plastic card decorated with a holiday theme, then its okay to give it as a gift. We can pretend it is really a dinner, shower curtain, or maybe a book. Shoppers are somewhat concerned that stores might go out of business before the gift cards can be used. I should mention that the phrase “Black Friday” achieved special recognition a few year ago. Along with words such as “perfect storm”, “webinar”, “water boarding”, and “surge”, “Black Friday” has made it onto Lake Superior State University’s 2008 list of banished words. For the past 33 years language experts at this school have complied a tongue-in-cheek list of words, that they say should be “banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse, and general uselessness”. Also making the list this year are “organic”, “wordsmith”, “give back”, “Blank is the new blank.”, “sweet”, “decimate”, “pop”, “throw under the bus”, and “It is what it is.” I would say the list is awesome, but they banned that word in 1984. “Black Friday” probably made the list because it reflects our country’s current obsession with the economy. Also many pretentious columnists run this phrase, into the ground thinking it makes them sound more knowledgeable and cool.

All this reminds when I was in high school and our freshman English teacher told us that there were two words that never should be used– one word was “nice” and the other was “swell”. So, of course, someone immediately asked, her, “So like, what are the two words?”

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.



What Makes Your Favorite Place, Favorite?

14 Nov


              Most of us have  a favorite place, whether it’s an easy chair at home, a lakeside cabin, or that little coffeehouse around the corner.  Growing up, one of  my wife Diane’s favorite places was her grandmother’s cottage inDoor County,Wisconsin. I suppose mine  was our garage, where I could play with hazardous tools,  make  toy soldiers out of molten lead, and avoid the persecution of my older brother, Norman.  My mother always preferred the hills of Southern Missouri, where she grew up.  My father’s special place, however, was  the basement. It was, damp,  isolated,   and cool and  had an old refrigerator full of beer.  For most of the summer  he lived under our house like a troll.

             As an adult,  Diane has been on an unrelenting  quest to find the ideal place to get away— the most comfortable hotel or most fun vacation spot– one that we could return to every year.  A beautiful log cabin on a creek in  mountains ofNorth Carolinadid not measure up and Diane has continued searching all overFlorida,Georgia,Kentucky,  andIndiana. She now intends to investigateMyrtle Beach.  I think this must stem  from her  Norwegian ancestry.  One of  our son’s friends fromNorwaytold us  that  almost everyone there  has a get-a-way cabin or cottage,  where they spend a great deal of time. It’s like some kind of Scandinavian law. Diane  must not have found the perfect place  yet,  since our granddaughter asked  her why we never go back to the same place twice.  

               Finnish psychologist Kalevi Korpela, who specializes in the study of   favorite places, says that most people  employ  such places   to  mentally and emotionally restore themselves.   This restorative capacity of  favorite places is  rooted in a few basic qualities. (1)  Favorite places are  removed or distanced from everyday stresses and worries. (2) Such places  have desired features that hold a personal fascination for us.    (3) Finally our  unique emotional needs  are addressed by  aspects  of the  environment. For example, if we require  peace and quiet, our favorite place provides it. If stimulation and excitement is called for, then those features are present.

               Korpela found that adults who regularly visited their favorite places report having  more energy and fewer physical complaints, than people who were instructed to avoid their favorite places.

                 Just imagining favorite places  can elicit feelings of  relaxation and comfort. Therapists often utilize  these images to treat pain and anxiety disorders.  Diane used the image of  floating in an inner tube, when she practiced hypnotic relaxation for the birth of our last child. On the other hand, while I was  recovering from surgery a few years ago, I  focused on the image of a big bottle of Oxycontin.  

                Many people are especially attached to the area where they grew up.  Like salmon swimming upstream, we may periodically feel a need to return to our place of origin. A friend once observed  that even if there was nothing left but a single tree standing in the place where you grew up,  you would be compelled to periodically check the tree,  just to see if it was still there. This may be true as I recently heard a fellow say that every time he drove over a certain  interstate overpass he had   a warm feeling because he could  see the site where his childhood home was located.

              University  of Warwick psychologist Patricia Newell asked residents fromSenegal,Ireland, and the United States to identify their favorite  places, in order to determine whether people from different cultures share  similar preferences.  The study found far more commonalities in place preference than differences.  People from around the world generated almost identical categories of favorite places.  Overall, 61% of them identified some part of the natural environment as their favorite place and 38%  chose their own home. Of course,  it is not surprising that we selected our own homes, since we often go to great lengths to make sure they have  those features we most desire. Our preferences for natural environments may be based in our need to reconnect with nature, as we progressively have grown more alienated from our outdoor roots.  

               Strikingly similar preferences show up in a study of favorite places at a boy’s summer  camp.   Regardless of age  approximately 22% of the  boys chose the lake as their favorite place,   12%  picked their cabin, and  8% identified  the campfire area. 

              Urban planer  Erika Lew  writes,  that  our surroundings shape how we live and how we feel. She says just as places can make us feel good, they can also have the opposite effect.  A negative association  to  a place is dramatically portrayed in the movie Forrest Gump,  in which  the character Jenny returns to the  abandoned house, where she was sexually abused as a child.  Jenny throws rocks at the house until she is exhausted and can’t find any more ammunition. Forrest gives the classic comment, “I guess sometimes, there just aren’t enough rocks.”

              Since our positive and negative  associations  to places are often learned in our individual childhoods,  they aren’t necessarily shared. They may lie at the bottom of family conflicts,  like whether to go to the mountains or the beach this summer. In extreme cases,  they can lead to separate vacations.

           When Diane’s father retired, he insisted  in moving out  to the country, next to his uncle’s property–  a site that possibly  held   pleasant childhood memories. I once visited  “The Land”, as the family called the place, and in the barn, I wasn’t surprised to see a familiar sight—an old  refrigerator  fill of beer.  The place never held any attraction for Diane’s mother, who wasn’t comfortable there. A more sociable person, she prefer living in town, where she quickly returned, after her husband  passed away.

             So next  summer when the pressures of  work, school, or  family,   get to be too  much,  retreat to your favorite place and enjoy all those positive associations. If you just can’t agree on where to go, then maybe its time to find a new place  and start building some shared positive experiences.

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.

Psychoanalyzing your Christmas Cards

8 Nov



Did you do the Christmas card thing this year or did you just e-mail “Happy Holidays” to everyone in your address book? Maybe it’s technology or just the times, but people don’t seem, to take Christmas card giving as seriously as in the past. Banishing someone from your Christmas card list was the ultimate in social rejection. Lists were carefully saved and even passed down from generation to generation. Ironically most of the cards I get now come from companies wanting my business.

Over the last several years, the number of Christmas cards sent by Americans has declined, probably due to communication technology and increased social isolation. Some of the personal touch remains, however, as a number of people include messages, or their annual Christmas letter, in their cards, bragging about their latest family triumphs in order to get one up you. Last night Diane wouldn’t open the card from her cousin before dinner because she said she did want to ruin her appetite.

Christmas cards began in London in 1843, the same year Charles Dickinson’s “Christmas Carol” was written. This current holiday season the Greeting Card Association estimates just over two billion greeting cards will be sent.

Christmas cards do have some appealing features. They connect us to others, help us put our emotions into words, and provide a tangible keepsake to preserve memories. Most of us feel inspired to reciprocate if we receive a card.

In one of the few scientific studies of holiday cards, Karen Fingerman and Patricia Griffiths from Pennsylvania State University found that people who received many cards believe that a large number of people are thinking about them and feel less lonely. Also people reported having a significant emotional reaction to about one-third of the cards they received, sort of like Diane. Younger adults view cards as a way to establish new social ties, while older adults see them as a link to their personal pasts.

Dr. David Holmes, a psychologist from England’s Manchester University says the choice of a specific Christmas card inevitably gives away an awful lot about the personality of the sender. Psychologists just love to interpret things-inkblots, dreams made up stories, drawings, and also any decision you make (or don’t make). It’s sort of an occupational hazard and analyzing your Christmas cards may be going a bit too far.

Anyway, Dr. Holmes says people who find it difficult to express their feelings often hide their timidity behind the humor of a comic card. Introverted people are drawn to cards that picture Christmas trees, especially those that are devoid of baubles or presents. Winterscapes are sure signs of loners, as are cool colors such as silver, white and blue. Holmes also suggests people who value tradition; tend to send the same sort of cards their parents sent. They often prefer Victorian or cozy fireplace scenes that evoke the past.

Snowman lovers tend to be very sincere softies with keen intellects, while penguin fanciers demonstrate taste, style, sophistication and a good sense of humor.

Even card shape may be meaningful. Square cards suggest practicality, while tall, slim cards suggest concern with style and an artistic flair. People who send round cards are the most unconventional, often in a chaotic sort of way.

I am not convinced about this, but below are some of my interpretative guidelines that I thought might help you this holiday season as you look at you cards.

• CANDLE: Suggests warms feelings, but a tall candle can be interpreted as being a show off.

• DOVES: Unconsciously thinking about chocolate when they bought the card.

• ELF: Suggests small but highly industrious features, sort of like Switzerland.

• FROSTY THE SNOWMAN: Drove by Wendy’s before choosing the card.

• GEESE: Possible goosaholic. Do their front steps have plaster geese dressed up in red capes?

• GINGERBREAD MAN: Suggest fear of being “consumed” by others, tendency to avoid situations by running away as fast as you can.

• GOLD: May have attention problem and is attracted by shiny objects.

• MUSICAL CARDS: This is the sort of person who would buy your kid a drum- significant latent hostility.

• NUTCRACKER: The scary teeth and military uniform add up to oral aggression in my book.

• CHRISTMAS PRESENTS: Generous, but maybe be a bit materialistic. The actual meaning may depend on the choice of wrapping paper, but let’s not get into that.

• SANTA: Jolly, but some possible paranoia (“He knows if you have been bad or good”). “Making a list and checking it twice” also suggests possible obsessive-compulsive issues.

• TOY SOLDIER: These are adorable, cute and smiley characters that are packing heat –denial of aggressive impulses.

• STARS: Stars are distant, aloof, impersonal, and grandiose- sort like our cat.

• STOCKING: Suggests some fetish possibilities that are best not discussed.

• TEDDY BEAR: The Teddy bear is the international symbol for cuteness. On the positive side, if some person sent you this card, maybe they think you are cute.

• WREATH: With no beginning or end, the wreath suggests a well-rounded personality.

How do your friends and family stack up? Is someone lonely or in need of cheering up? Do you want to cheer someone up? Maybe you should consider sending a last minute penguin.

(Based on an article  appearing originally  in the  the New Albany Tribune)


An Indiana Night Before Christmas: Hoosier Style

3 Nov


A Hoosier Night Before Christmas

 Twas the night before Christmas, and all across the state,
Nothing was improving, not even  the unemployment rate;
From the banks of the Ohio to the top of the  Knobs,
All they could talk about was the economy and jobs;
The residents were nestled all anxious in their beds,
While visions of toll-free bridges danced in their heads;
All the sidewalks were covered with ice and salt granules,
As they braced for more budget cuts from Governor Mitch Daniels;

Down at the New Albanian,  the people had drank a few brews,
But were now settled down for a long winter’s snooze;

Then out in my backyard I heard such a clatter,

 I expected to see some wild turkeys scatter;
The toys in the yard were all covered with  snow,
  In the moonlight I could barely see anything below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But an all terrain vehicle  and a bevy of deer;
With a chunky little driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment twas an Indiana St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles the four wheeler flew,
And he yelled, and  he shouted, at the domestic caribou;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Blitzen and Donder!
Let’s get this crate up into the wild blue yonder!
Like mobile homes before the wild tornado fly,
The ATV took off and mounted the sky;
So up to the roof-top the whitetails they flew,
With a bag full of goodies and Indiana   Nick too;
And then, in a twinkling, I heard overhead.
Prancing and pawing like a Kentucky thoroughbred;
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Indiana Nick came with a bound;
He was dressed all in camouflage, from his head to his toes,
 And the aroma of pork tenderloin permeated his clothes;
A bagful of presents he carried on his broad back,
He looked like a trader opening a gunny sack;
His eyes sorta glared! His smile kinda   scary!
His hair was disheveled, his nose like a strawberry!
On his belt hung a flashlight and a old hunting bow,    
And the hair on his chin was as grey as the snow;

A dip of Wintergreen tobacco, he held tight  in his cheek,
And the minty smell encircled him like a peppermint wreath;
He had a oval face and a big round belly,
He was  clearly well acquainted with the Kroger deli!
But he was  friendly  and honest– a typical  Hoosier,
  I  thought  to myself, “Could he be a  boozer?”;  
But a wink of his eye and flick of  his finger,
Said all was ok but I better not linger;

The miraculous gifts  were what we had hoped for,
  Lower taxes,  no tolls, and federal bailouts galore;
He brought money for schools and a ball team that was splendid,
Then with his work complete up the chimney he ascended;
He sprang to his vehicle to his team gave a whistle,
Onward to Muncie he flew like a missile;

And I heard him exclaim as he soared out of sight,
“Happy Christmas Indiana and to all a good night!”


(From a column in the New Albany Tribune)

The Christmas Meanies

3 Nov



Christmas is a time for generosity and charity. It’s when we renew ties with family and friends.   But there are those, for whom the holiday is nothing but “humbug”.      Since stories are the essence of the holiday, we have a long tradition of  Christmas villains. The nativity story itself has perhaps the vilest of them all, the baby killing King Herod.   

Contemporary Christmas celebrations owe  a large debt to Charles Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol and his immortal characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge. This  tale highlights the ever present possibility of  redemption and Scrooge  is the first  of a long series of villains, who are redeemed by the spirit of  the season. This plot has been repeated in numerous radio, film, and television adaptations.  

Some psychologists have compared Scrooge’s transformation to what happens in    successful psychotherapy, with insight triumphing over  childhood trauma and alienation.  The same could be argued for the film “A Wonderful Life”,  where being able to see one’s life in a broader context,  can even  overcome  suicidal depression.  Mr. Potter,  this movie’s villain, falls into the class of  unredeemed antagonists.  He refuses  change   and     is  eventually consigned  to being irrelevant, which may be his  perfect punishment, given the extent  of  his narcissism.

In Christmas media offerings we see a variety of familiar villains.  In the horror-action genre there is Billy, the  serial killer of Silent Night, Deadly Night, who goes  on a Yuletide killing spree,  wearing a Santa suit.  He is finally stopped by being artfully  skewered by a Christmas tree.  And  we  have Bruce Willis facing  down  Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) the smarmy Christmas  terrorist  in Die Hard.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is considered by many baby boomers to be  the definitive version of   Dicken’s classic. We of the Bugs Bunny-Huckleberry Hound  generation,  identify more with Jim Backus’ Scrooge than with Alistair Sim or George C. Scott.   

Of course Dr. Seussimaginative How the Grinch Stole Christmas  gives us a another villain who rivals Scrooge.   This fuzzy green misanthrope is, as the song puts it,  “a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce”.

Most Christmas villains  are larger than life,  with the possible exception of  Scut Farkas,  the coonskin  cap wearing bully, in Jean Shepherd’s  Christmas Story. With his sinister  yellow eyes and green teeth,  he  pushes little Ralphie too far and gets a well-deserved beating for his trouble.  As a child I had  my own Scut Farkas,  by the  name of Marlin. I’m withholding his last name, just in case  he is  still  around somewhere,  waiting for me. Whenever  I  rode my bicycle, Marlin would pop out of nowhere to torment me.  I would often go blocks out of my  way to avoid him. Marlin never got his just desserts, which is maybe  why I get such vicarious satisfaction watching Raphie beat the snot out of Farkus.  My real life Farkus just disappeared one day, probably recalled to the hellish nether regions from whence he came.            

In recent years we have been appalled by Willie T. Stokes as portrayed  by Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. Stokes  is a degenerate  alcoholic safecracker, who in the guise of a department store Santa, specializes in Christmas Eve burglaries, with his elf-impersonating  accomplice.   Bad Santa is not everyone’s cup of tea, although I admit I loved the scene  in which Thorton, in a  drunken frenzy, eats all the chocolates  from  a kid’s advent calendar. Feeling guilty,  he Scotch tapes the calendar  back together,  filling it with anything he can find.  When the kid gets an aspirin tablet, instead of a chocolate,  the next day, Stokes  says, “They can’t all be  winners, kid”.   This movie’s  disturbing grittiness may have something to do with Thornton’s admission that he was drunk throughout the filming.  The Stokes’ character has sunk so low that  his redemption must, of necessity, be relatively modest.      

In a lighter vein, there are  Harry and Marv,  the comically inept “Wet Bandits,   violently abused by young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin)  in  Home Alone.     This movie must address some deep-seated psychological need  of children  to get back at adults.  Kids watched the original movie so many times that it became the  third highest grossing film ever.  Like Farkas, Kevin’s bullying brother– Buzz,  rings true to anyone who had to contend with an older sibling. My older brother Norman made  Buzz look like  a choirboy.    

Martin Short chews up the scenery as Jack Frost in  the undistinguished   Santa Claus  3: The Escape Clause. Speaking of this film and Tim Allen’s  performance as Santa, one critic  said “This Christmas we are treated to both a turkey (the film) and a ham (Allen).

Quirky, funny,  and scary Steven Spielberg’s intense 1984  Christmas  film,  Gremlins featured the demonic chainsaw-wielding gremlin, Stripe, who like  a vampire,  is finally destroyed by exposure to sunlight. The microwave scene in this movie still gives me nightmares.

            Animated television specials have also given us a wealth of  memorable villains. There is  crabby Lucy in a Charlie Brown Christmas, and in    Santa Claus is Coming to Town  there is  the grouchy   Burgermeister who bans all toys in Sombertown and the malevolent wizard Winter Warlock, who is redeemed by the gift of a toy train.    Professor Hinkle, the evil magician, mugs  in Frosty the Snowman,  and Bumble the abominable snowman, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, turns from his evil ways,  only after Herbie the Elf pulls all of his teeth.

            I find Oogie Boogey  in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas especially frightening, but my favorite animated villain has to be  Heat Miser (“I’m Mr. 101”) from The Year Without a Santa Claus.   For some reason I never found his stepbrother, Snow Miser (Mr. Ten Below) very  appealing.  This year there is big news for all us unrepentant fans.  ABC Family plans to have  the  Miser Brothers  team up to  save Christmas in a long awaited sequel.

  All things considered however,  my vote  for  the best  Christmas villain goes to Granville Sawyer.  You may not recognized the name,  but he is the twitchy and pompous store  psychologist in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Sawyer is the one who gets Santa Claus committed to a mental institution. By maltreating the store’s naive teenage janitor, Alfred, the Grinchy Sawyer  so infuriates Mr. Kringle,  that he gets cracked on the head with Santa’s cane.  This movie  was remade several  times, but Sawyer doesn’t fair any better in any version.  The best line  is when store owner R.H.  Macy’s says in a voice dripping with contempt, “Psy-chol-o-gist! Where did you get your degree, correspondence school? You’re fired.”  Finally a CEO we can admire.   

 Based on a column originially published in the in the New Albany Tribune