Archive | December, 2011

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

31 Dec


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

                                                                                                    H.L.  Mencken  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to Build a Better New Year’s Resolution

30 Dec


How many New Year’s have you resolved to lose weight, quit smoking, spend less, or exercise more? Research shows that most people make the same resolution for at least five years before they achieve even six months of success. While about 40 percent managed to continue for six months, over a quarter of all resolutions are abandoned within the first week.

People make the same resolution an average of ten times and even all these failures don’t reduce future plans for self-change. Over 60 percent make the same resolution year after year. As you might suspect, behaviors with an addictive quality are the most difficult to change. Relapse rates for these behaviors are extremely high (around 50 percent to 95 percent).

The main reason for failure is having very unrealistic expectations. Like the children in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, we all believe we are “above average.” People routinely overestimate their abilities, including the amount and rate of self-change they can achieve. In one study 60 percent of adolescents and 47 percent of adults believed that they could smoke for “just a few years” and then easily quit. Self-change is just much harder and takes much longer than most of us realize.

Also we tend to greatly overestimate the benefits obtained from the change. For example, many overweight people believe in what has been called “the power of thinness.” Not only will you lose weight, but you will also be vastly more attractive, popular, successful, and of course happy. The Duchess of Windsor once said that a woman can never be too rich or too thin and today popular culture icons have carried this shallow ideology to the extreme. While such anticipated benefits can motivate future attempts at change, when they are not immediately forthcoming, people are deeply discouraged.

Anther cause for failure is that many people frame their goals negatively — don’t overeat, don’t gamble, don’t drink, don’t spend, etc. Each individual breach of the prohibition is seen as another failure, which can rapidly lead to a total collapse of the change effort. You have a much better chance reaching your goals if they are couched in positive terms over a longer term.

When asked why they didn’t succeed, people usually misinterpret their failures. Typically they blame external factors like, “I was on the wrong diet” or “It just wasn’t a good time to start.” They also blame themselves for lack of will power. They believe minor adjustments can lead to success the next time-like picking a better diet or just trying harder. Since most individuals try to do way too much, it is important to redefine success in terms of modest and realistic goals.

Another major factor contributing to self-change failure is that most people are not at the stage where they are really ready to change. Dr. James O. Prochaska from the University of Rhode Island has worked decades researching self-change and has identified five basic stages:

1. Precontemplation: You have no intention to change your behavior in the foreseeable future. People in this stage lack awareness even about the need to change. They may, however, “wish” to change and often make resolutions without any plans whatsoever.

2. Contemplation: You are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about changing, but have not made a commitment to action. People often get stuck in this stage.

3. Preparation: You make up your mind and start planning. You intend to take action in the next month and have a definite plan in mind.

4. Action: You actually modify your behavior, experiences, or environment in order to achieve self-change.

5. Maintenance: This where you work to prevent relapse. Most people do not maintain their gains on their first attempt. With smoking, successful quitters made three to four attempts before they achieved long-term success. Most of us move through these stages in a spiral pattern. Typically we progress from contemplation to preparation to action to maintenance, and then relapse. During relapse, we often return to an earlier stage. However, each time we recycle, we learn from our mistakes and can try something different the next time around.

So this year if you really want to change, level with yourself and decide what stage you are at, then select some modest goal that can help you progress to the next stage.

For example, if you are still in the precontemplation stage, don’t try make some large impossible change. Instead commit to becoming more aware of the problem and how it affects you and your environment. Read about it, talk to others (friends, family and professionals), see films and try to fully experience and express your feelings regarding the issue.

If you are in the contemplation stage consider making a careful and comprehensive written cost-benefit analysis of the problem, listing all the pros and cons. Fully assess how and what you think and feel about the problem. What needs does it meet, are these needs still relevant, and are there other ways to meet them?

If you are in the preparation stage, this is the time for a resolution. Candid discussions with others, self- help groups, and counseling can help you decide and commit to a course of action in this stage.

Finally in the action and maintenance stages, you can benefit most from acquiring techniques to facilitate change, such as establishing self-rewards and learning how to relax or be more assertive. Developing alternatives for problem behaviors, finding sources of social support, and avoiding situations that lead to problem behaviors are other important strategies than you can learn more about through reading, counseling, or attending self-help groups.

So this year don’t set yourself up for failure. Know your readiness to change and strive to make those small achievable steps that lead to success.


Based on a Column that appeared  in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Epiphany Time

29 Dec


With Christmas finally  over, Many Christians around the world will soon be celebrating the Feast of The Epiphany — sometimes called Twelfth Night, since it occurs 12 days after Christmas. This observance commemorates early events in the life of Jesus. Traditionally the Western church has emphasized the Magi’s visit while the Eastern church focuses on Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Epiphany takes place on January 6 and dates as far back as 361 AD.

In Greek the word means” “appearance” or “manifestation” and the main theme, is the sudden revelation or “shining forth” of an important, life-changing, truth. The story of the wise men has always been a favorite of mine, maybe because of the way it integrates divergent elements like science and religion, innocence and experience, and the parochial and the universal or maybe it’s just because it’s the origin of Christmas gifts. Although the Bible provides few details, tradition holds that there were three wise men named Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. No one knows the real number, but we assume there were three, based on the number of gifts. The wise men are sometimes called “Three Kings” because of some scriptural references and the expense of their gifts. Admirably the Magi are usually portrayed as a racially and culturally diverse group and I especially like how they were not deceived by the evil King Herod. The subsequent massacre of the children of Bethlehem established Herod as a villain for the ages- someone, who, as Eddie Murphy once said, wants to go to Hell and not have to stand in line.

The wise men had their epiphany seeing the Christ Child in person, but what about the rest of us? Have you ever had a sudden realization that changed your life in some fundamental way? Epiphanies are an important aspect of many major life changes. Deciding to end or commit to a relationship, making vocation choices, and even choosing to enter recovery are all often preceded by some sort of epiphany. Armed with data from in-depth interviews and surveys, psychology professor William Miller from the University of New Mexico and co-author Janet C’de Baca, explore this issue in their book “Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives.” Miller defined” quantum change” as a vivid, surprising, benevolent, and enduring personal transformation, that usually occurs over a short time ranging from several minutes to several days. Miller says that after such changes many people reported giving spirituality a more central place in their lives. Surprisingly most people were not overtly seeking such radical changes. According to Miller’s research there are five distinctive features of quantum change experiences:

 1. Typically change occurred at a point of desperation, where something had to give-the so called “tipping point”.

2. The majority of people who experience these changes were not in obvious pain and change came into their lives seemingly uninvited. Others have found that such transformations are often proceeded by periods of inactivity when the process of change seems to be unknowingly “brewing”.

3. Personal growth accompanied the transformation. Discord and conflict were often replaced with acceptance and tranquility.

4. Many people who changed had previously suffered trauma or emotional distress, which somehow may have helped prepare them for change.

5. Most people interpreted their change as something “sacred” that had happened to them, although not all put it in a religious context.

According to Miller many reported the experience of “being in the flow of something larger than themselves.” Other researchers have noted that major breakthroughs typically occur when the individual is engaged in conversation with another person. This is not surprising since many sociologists believe that verbal interaction is the matrix for the creation of new knowledge. Sudden insight also appears to have a biological basis. Using sophisticated scanning devices, neuro-researchers John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern discovered that there consistently was activity in the right temporal part of the brain, just before people reported flashes of insight when solving puzzles. Subjects who had sudden insights showed this increased brain activity before they even saw the problem, suggesting they were already prepared for a sudden revelation.

Psychologist Jonathan Schooler found that people have more trouble getting insights when they try to logically solve a problem. Thinking in the usual manner seems to interfere and Kounios concludes that insight comes more easily when people don’t try so hard. While quantum changes and major breakthrough experiences are dramatic, they are also relatively infrequent. Many of us, however have had more subtle versions of these experiences. Thee everyday epiphanies are more like finding the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle that finally lets us see the whole picture. Frequently such information is right in front of us and begs for our attention, but our history, prejudices, and fears blind us. Such opportunities are not unseen, but simply unnoticed. Around the world people are documenting both their major and everyday epiphanies in on-line diaries or blogs.

 Surfing through the blogosphere I found the following descriptions.

 A Dozen Epiphanies

1. I had an epiphany that morning that led to a conscious decision to keep my trap shut.

 2. I had an epiphany that my Ph.D. was a useless abstraction piled on top of other useless abstractions.

3. I had an epiphany that what I was eating could actually have been making me sick.

4. I came to the realization that my behavior was steering my life in a bad direction and that I needed to change before it all came crashing down.

5. I came to the realization that I was in far over my head.

6. I came to the realization that I needed help.

7. I came to the realization that I was afraid of everything.

8. I came to the realization that the majority of my existence was devoted to satisfying the needs of the corporate bureaucracy.

9. I came to the realization that my child was all grown up.

10. I came to the realization that I am spending too much time on the Internet.

 11. I came to the realization that I should not buy a new car this year.

12. I had an epiphany that I looked exactly like my dad when he was my age, which was shocking.

While many of these seem as if they should have been obvious, often it takes us a long time and some perspective to identify the patterns in our own lives. Don’t be discouraged, just relax and maybe you can start the new year with your own personal epiphany.


From a column orginally appearing in  the Southen Indiana News Tribune.

Don’t Cook Your own Financial Goose this Christmas

17 Dec


Like many of us I  have a love-hate relationship with my credit cards. On one hand they are convenient and easy to use, especially for online shopping. Of course, that is part of the problem. They are way too easy touse. According to money guru David Ramsey if you use credit cards instead of cash, you end up spending 12 to 18 percent more. Swiping a card is just not as traumatic as forking over the actual cash. During the next few weeks the first of the holiday credit card bills will come rolling in for millions of Americans. Some people call this the real “Nightmare After Christmas”. Holiday credit card purchases havegrown 50 percent over the past several years and continues togrow every  holiday season. The mortgage crunch, increased minimum payments and recent  bankruptcy laws may make things even more treacherous than ever. Bill Staler, a vice president at Consumer Credit Counseling Services has said  that their workload increases by 15 percent in the quarter following the winter holidays. Staler says that many people in recent years have found  it  more  difficult to use mortgage refinancing to pay off credit cards due to more stringent loan requirements and the decreases in home equity.  A 2004 survey showed that 73 percent of Americans believe that money is the top  all time stressor and Dr. Harvey Brenner from Johns Hopkins University has written that  economic instability is “the single most pervasive and continuous source of stress in our society.”

Psychologist Dr. Lynn Hornyak, who specializes in money issues finds that overspending and avoiding money issues are the two most common problems. Are there times when just can’t stand to open a bill or look at a bank statement? To me balancing a checkbook ranks just behind having a tooth pulled on my list of favorite activities. Money also has great symbolic significance. It may represent a way of keeping score in life or serve as a substitute for love and affection. The psychological significance of money can be seen by the reluctance of people to even discuss it. Many people would sooner discuss their children, relationships, or even sex lives, rather than their bankbooks. There are also some important gender differences. Women often see money as a means to maintain security. For men it may represent power and substitute for physical appeal in attracting partners. For many people money represents freedom of action and a lack of money may prevent us from making much-needed changes. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for people to stay in unsatisfying and even abusive relationships for the sake of financial security.

In their fantastic book “The Financial Wisdom of the Ebenezer Scrooge,” psychologists Ted and Brad Klontz and financial planner Rick Kahler identify the underlying culprit in most money conflicts as the “money scripts”

we internalized as we grow up. Using Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as a metaphor for how to transform your relationship with money, they show how Scrooge displays a variety of maladaptive money scripts. Money scripts are especially powerful because they are largely unconscious. They also tend to run in families. Family therapy authority Cloe Madanes has said that different family styles in gift giving and unresolved sibling rivalries are often the key factors in pathological overspending. Some of Ebenezer Scrooge’s self-defeating money scripts included: Don’t trust anyone with your money, don’t spend money on yourself, giving to the poor encourages laziness, money will give your life meaning, and if you had more money, things would be better.

Interestingly enough, Bob Cratchit doesn’t come off much better. Bob also has his own destructive money scripts such as: There will never be enough money, money is to be spent not saved, you’ll be paid what you’re worth, and you don’t deserve money. The authors question why Bob doesn’t quit defending Scrooge and just get a better job. Also they contend that Bob should have gotten Tiny Tim the medical care he needed instead impulsively blowing his meager resources on a Christmas goose. This extravagance is often left out of film and stage versions of the work. It is estimated that today the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner would have cost well over $500.

Stawar family money scripts often made reference to the “poor house” My father, who grew up in the Great Depression, viewed money as security. He was constantly saying that we were driving him to the poor houseby leaving on the lights, turning up the thermometer, or taking showers that lasted too long. This script was well entrenched in me. When I left home for college I sold an old car and received a crisp new$100 bill for it. Feeling insecure about being away for the first time, I kept the hundred literally in my shoe for over two years. Sometimes when I act anxious about money, my wife Diane says, “Would you feel better if you had a hundred dollar bill tucked in your shoe?” Unfortunately the answer is often “yes.” And even now whenever I hear the furnace running, I still feel a pang of anxiety.According to the Klontzs and Kahler being able to adaptively “rescript” is the key to developing a more functional financial life script.

There are other things you can do to help both now and in the future. Florida psychologist Cheryl Fellows has said  that due to financial stress, people often feel insecure and out of control after the holidays. She recommends that you try helping others and connect with family and friends to shore up your self worth  and security. Additionally many people need to take some practical steps. The following suggestions come from a variety of expert sources.

  1. Total all your bills so you know how much you actually owe.
  2. Pay on cards with the highest interest rates first.
  3. Sign up for online statements (e-mail balance notices for bank accounts or bills are great for chronic avoiders).
  4. Request in writing a lower interest rate or switch balances to a lower interest rate credit card.
  5. Establish a reminder system for making payment on time.
  6. Increase the amount you pay on every credit card.
  7. Change payment due dates to better match your cash flow.
  8. Cut expenses until holiday bills are paid (especial discretionary things like entertainment).
  9. Finally develop a detailed written plan for your holiday spending- maybe a Christmas club would help. The most important thing is to stick to your plan. Do not get caught up in the holiday fever and end upbuying the kids the newest and expensive fad that will take six years to pay off or splurging on your own $500 Christmas goose.

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

A Planet Terry Classic from over a Decade Ago: The Ten Commandments for Humor Writers, The Gospel According to Humor Magazine Editors

15 Dec



Note:  This never before published piece is about a dozen years old. The advice still holds true but the contact information is outdated and some  of the publications have bitten  the dust since then. Most of the participants  have also moved on to new challenges. Thanks to all the editors who particpated.

 Writing academic fare for over twenty years, I realized, after a closer examination of my more profound creations, that I was in fact a humor writer. Over  the past fourteen years I’ve submitted short humor pieces to hundreds of magazines, garnering about fifty publications.  Humor markets often tend to be hidden or specialized. Although  typically Writer’s Digest lists onlya few  entries in its humor category, most  other publications are looking for amusing pieces with just the right  slant.  For example after being rejected by my usual humor targets, I    sold a piece (Shirtless In Seattle) to a police trade magazine on why criminals don’t wear shirts.  Also numerous niche humor magazines aim at specific professions or special interest groups.  


Many of the smaller humor publications, have the life span of a fruit fly and when I requested writer guidelines from 60 of them, more than two-thirds failed to respond or indicated they were now out of business.

             Except for established comedians and well-known columnists whose work is actively solicited, most humor writers must submit their work on speculation. With the query process largely irrelevant, this leaves you at the mercy of an ever-growing slush pile. 

            Few things could be more subjective than editing a humor magazine.  Even a much-rejected piece may eventually find a friendly home, if your postage only holds out. After a few months of constant rejections, I devised a scheme to get the inside the humor editorial mind and sent out questionnaires to a sample of humor editors, including many who routinely rejected my work.  I encouraged their responses by shamelessly flattering them and making vague promises of the international fame that accompanies being featured in a writer’s magazine.

            The five humor editors who eventually responded were Larry Logan, editor of  the late great magazine Satire;  Fran London, editor of the Journal of Nursing Jocularity;  Douglas Carroll, editor of  idiot wind;  Robert Darden, editor of  The Door;   Glenn C. Ellenbogen, editor of the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity.    Their  many profound insights can be condensed into ten basic commandments that you can use to improve your acceptance average.


            Commandment One: Write Laugh out loud humor.

The editors agreed that the main reason for rejecting a piece is that it simply wasn’t funny enough. They are looking for   “laugh out loud works” Making an article funny enough may  mean adding more gags, but more often  it involves  polishing  the existing jokes and metaphors. Just adding jokes often destroys the unity or clutters up the structure. Try to get at least five alternative punchlines for each gag.

Commandment Two: Read back issues and guidelines and then write specifically for that particular magazine.

            Robert Darden says he is  particularly put off  by “People haven’t read the magazine or writer’s guidelines. Of if they have they don’t think the rules apply to their  piece!” his advice is to “…read a year’s worth of the publication before you submit a piece. Get the writer’s guidelines. Then see if you can visualize  your piece in our table of contents.” Get a feel for both the style and as well as the content. A piece  that is too sophisticated for a small regional publication may still be too parochial for a national market.

Commandment Three: Try out  your material on an audience. 

            Logan advises, “Humor pieces should be tested before submitting…  if there appear to be no symptoms of  jocularity (laughter, smiles, chuckles, groans, etc.), there is an outside chance that the work is not in the genre of the funny.” Some humor writer’s are very relucant to test their works, but such testing almost always leads to a much better product even if you don’t act on every suggestion.  Yes it’s agonizing, but necessary.

Commandment Four: Parodies that evoke common experiences are winners .

For his psychology satire publication, Glenn  Ellenbogen says “ …we look for pieces that closely parallel REAL scientific articles in style and quasi-scientific jargon. He advises potential writers to “… read REAL … journals and make fun of them.” The closer the satire comes to echoing recognizable forms the better.  Go for that shock of recognition.

Commandment Six:  Don’t be  too angry  offensive, or hostile.

London says the  Journal of Nursing Jocularity is “least interested in angry or malevolent humor.” I recently got a rejected  piece about teenage drivers back on which the editor had scribbled “Too sarcastic for us.” Hostility can quickly sour the best humor piece. Cynical is fine, bitter is not.

Commandment Seven: When writing on prosaic topics,  you must have a unique angle.

Doug Carroll says  he’s  “least interested in seeing slice of life stories that are so unfunny I’m bored to tears before the end of the first page…”. Arthur Koesler, the late English science writer defined creativity as the “Biosociative Act”—that is a process  in which two diverse planes of thought intersect. The more diverse the plan of though the more creative and often the funnier it is. Two example: “Pigs” and “Space” are the two plans of thought that lead to the hilarious “Pigs in Space” skit on the Muppet television show. Yesterday I heard someone mention the phrase “A Toad on the Stove”—  that has possibilities. 

Commandment Eight: Learn from the best.  In addition to classic humorists like  Twain, Thurber, and Perlman humor editors especially  like Woody Allen,  Dave Barry,  and P.J. O’Rourke’s. Read and study their work.

Commandment Nine: Strike quickly, make the  piece flow, and then stop.  Editors don’t like slow moving  pieces. Be funny fast. Logan says he  won’t finish reading  “Works that are sooooo arty, that after two or three pages you are still trying to figure out what the subject might be (most of these come from the academic community).” Check out any of P.J. O’Rourke’s opening paragraphs  to see how to get off a running start.

Commandment Ten: Format does counts.  Check for typos and never fax stuff unless specifically asked to do so. Among Ellenbogen’s nightmares are ”A manuscript submitted via fax,  poorly typed with typos all over the place”. Go for the halo effect and at least appear professional. Successful humor writers are not wacko who submit crayon ravings scrawled on paper backs— they are pros.

Bonus Commandment: Don’t pay too much attention to what editors or anyone else says.

Logan says,  “When it comes to humor, it’s really in the mind of the chuckler.”

Darden says,  Be funny. Be short. Be timely. Don’t be afraid to fail. Comedy takes chances. Finally Ellenbogen warns,  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… humor is a very subjective thing.”  No joke!



                                                            The Editors

            Larry Logan, Editor of  SATIRE: The Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Satire

 E-mail:, Website:

P.O. Box 340, Hancock, MD 21750-0340

            When asked about his background Logan, said,  “Those of us in witness protection programs must be vague in this area. I’m a post W.W.II baby-boomer who bought into the Ozzie & Harriet American dream, through no fault of my own.  Got a couple of college degrees, just barely avoided being drafted for Vietnam, and jumped into the rat-race because that was what was expected.. .. the authorities who operate [the witness relocation program] understand the best way to assure obscurity is to become an author/publisher of a small press quarterly. They assigned me to do SATIRE, and I am doing the best I can to provide a home for the unwanted humor works of the world… satires/parodies/black humors/etc.  It’s really like running an orphanage.

            Douglas Carroll is the editor of idiot wind: a small wildcat humor publication with strong Internet presence. Carroll publishes this quarterly in the herring capital of the east coast. E-mail: Website: Website:,  310 Poplar Alley, Apt. A, Occoquan, VA  22125.


            Carroll says,  “I grew up on National Lampoon magazine during the eighties, discovering the older mag of the seventies several years later. The old issues inspired me to produce a magazine that would make people smile and the later mags inspired me to do better than the unfunny swill of that era.”

            Fran London, R. N, M.S. is the editor of the popular specialty humor magazine the Journal of  Nursing Jocularity (JNJ). E-mail, Website:  JNJ Publishing, Inc. P.O. Box 40416, Mesa AZ 85274

She writes,  “I am an editor. [but]  more of humor writer than a humorist.”

            Robert Darden is the editor of The Door, another specialty  magazine that focuses on humor related to religion. The magazine takes its name from the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses launching the Protestant reformation.  The Door’s  guidelines have 11 theses that you are instructed to memorize and then eat the evidence.

            Darden claims to be the author of  25 books and  editor of the world’s oldest,  largest, and only religious humor and satire magazine.

             Glenn C. Ellenbogen, Ph.D. is the editor of  The Journal of Polymorphous Perversity (JPP). a twice-per-year publication devoted to showcasing spoofs of psychology, psychiatry, mental health, and  human behavior. The Wall Street Journal called the JPP “a social scientist’s answer to Mad magazine. Circulation is approximately 4,000. Unfortunately, JPP rarely pays writers, using the   “scientific journal” (or “chintzy”) model of publication. e-mail: Website: Wry-Bred Press, Inc. 10 Waterside plaza, Suite 20-B New York, NY 10010

            Dr. Ellenbogen’s biography  indicates that he has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Hofstra. Before getting his doctorate,  he earned  two Master’s degrees but was        “psychologically unable to cope with having MAMA after his name.”


A Wonder Gift Life: The Best Thing I ever Got

13 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hat’s Off to Winter

13 Dec

“A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the

rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.”

P. J. O’Rourke

Although I agree with O’Rourke’s sentiment, how can I explain the fact that I keep on buying hats anyway. For me hats fall into that unique category of things that you buy, but seldom ever use— like Veg-O-Matics, stationary bicycles, and Salad Shooters.

For example I just bought a brown felt hat that I will probably never wear. I was at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant and I figured it was almost winter and kind of nippy, the hat was 80% off, so why not. The hat itself is very cool. It is just that when I put it on, I never look like Harrison Ford. Also when I visualize other acquaintances I have seen wearing similar hats, I always decide that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

I have also bought several of those English flat driving hats to no avail. I knew a very dapper psychiatrist in his 70s who could make those things look really good. But when I slide behind the wheel of my big old Mercury wearing it, I just don’t look all that sporty.

I think there is a serious amount of “Chapeau Envy” (you Freudians know what I mean) involved in hat purchases. At my last college graduation, I noticed that the stylish new university president was wearing a soft academic cap, rakishly pulled over to one side, instead of the usual stiff mortarboard. When my advisor, an older gentleman, saw it and said to me “I just gotta get me one of those hats.” I knew exactly what he meant.

Even in high school I was a slave to hat fashion. Several of the older and tougher boys began wearing berets, probably because of the popularity of the song, “The Green Berets”. I was too embarrassed to ask my folks for a beret (they would never understand) and too broke to buy one, so I rummaged through all of the old clothes in our attic and eventually found an old moth eaten beret. It was quite small, but sort of green in color. It had some sort of cloth badge stitched on it which I carefully removed. With some effort I could pull it on, although it really squeezed my cranium. Like the beret described by writer David Sedaris, it fit my head like the top of an acorn. I wore it around school for a week or so until some kid got a close look at it and announced to the whole football team, “Hey Stawar is wearing a Girl Scout hat, it’s just like my sisters”. I should have known that it was one of my older sisters’ hats– what was I thinking. I didn’t wear a hat for at least three years after that.

Although I always liked the idea of wearing a hat, I never liked the feel of them on my head. George Carlin once said that hats are strange because after wearing them for a while you no longer feel it on your head, but then when you take it off, it feels like you’re wearing a hat. I never liked that flashback hat feeling and hats make my head itch.

There are times however, when you have to wear one. Several years ago we visitedYellowstoneNational Parkin the wintertime. Before we left we went to an expedition store and I bought a fur cap, that they called the “Mad Bomber”— not very politically correct today. I imagined my self looking like Sergeant Preston of theYukon, but a glance in the mirror quickly disabused me of that notion, as the name Elmer Fudd came to mind. This fur hat is Russian looking and emphasizes my Slavic ancestry. I look like I should be plowing a beet field in some gulag, rather than arresting enemies of the Crown. I still wear this hat whenever the weather gets cold enough. It is very warm and itchy and people frequently complement me on it, although I always wonder if they are really laughing behind my hat.

As I think about it my new winter hat has “poseur” written upon it too boldly to wear in public. I am afraid it will soon be joining the Stetson Cowboy hat, the Dickensonian top hat, and the rest of the gang in the hall closet.

The Biz-Quiz: Mastering Your Fear of Public Speaking

13 Dec


                         Would you  rather die than speak in front of group of people? Relax, you’re not alone. Surveys consistently show that more Americans are more afraid of public speaking than just about anything else– spiders, snakes, heights, even death. And yet  your ability to articulate your business’s mission, advantages, and benefits is crucial to its long range success. From local service clubs to press conferences, trade shows, and stockholder’s meetings,  public speaking is not a discretionary skill.

            Speech anxiety is  the technical term and over 85% of us suffer from it.  Symptoms range from sweaty palms, dry mouth, racing heat beat, tremors, gastric upset, weak knees, to tightness in the throat and general paralysis. Your nervous system acts as if  something is extremely dangerous and  has prepared itself for  flight, fight, or freezing.

            Speech anxiety occurs in a  three part cycle. First there is the development of a  “performance orientation”,  this followed by a surge of physiological arousal, and finally  there is maladaptive self-talk that defines the arousal  as fear. Research indicates that people with speech anxiety often produce a tremendous increase in  heat rate (up 200 to 250%) when they first start speaking. Fortunately this decreases  rapidly as the speaker proceeds, although the memory of the discomfort remains as a  powerful discouragement from future speaking ventures.  

            Many business people  have missed  tremendous opportunities  and a few have even abandon their enterprise entirely just to avoid public speaking. Perhaps you remember other pupils back in school who readily took a failing grade, rather than have to stand in front of the class to recite a poem.  And even if you have engaged in public speaking for many years, it is not unusual for periodic bouts of speech anxiety to return.

            The following quiz is based on  techniques  gleaned from  psychological and communication experts. These are most effective  techniques available today  to help master speech anxiety.

  1. You should think of your speech as a kind of performance and focus on remembering your  lines.        True    False 
  2. Exercise can help you relax before a presentation.  True  False
  3. Always memorize your speech word for word to build confidence.  True  False
  4. Your audience doesn’t matter a good speaker goes  on with the show regardless of the audience. True False
  5. Your speech should be natural and conversational in tone. True   False
  6. Once start feeling very anxious it’s all over and you’re heading for disaster.           True  False
  7. What you say to yourself about the speech is not important. True False
  8. Practice in imagination can be very help in making a speech. True False
  9. Always stay right behind the podium, moving makes you anxious and is very distracting. True  False
  10. Always come to the place where y9ou will speech a couples of hours early. The longer you stay there the more relaxed you’ ll feel.  True  False
  11. Don’t try o eliminate all the tension, you need some  True  False
  12. If you feel anxious or scared, tell your audience. True  False


1.  False  Adopt  a “communications” rather than a “performance” orientation. Keep in mind your primary goal is to  communicate effectively. Make your communication objectives    explicit, succinct,  and attainable. They should be the centerpiece of your presentation.

2. True  Take a brisk walk  or engaged in other exercise prior to going to the location of the speech. Physical activity is an excellent way to reduce stress and tension and prepare for making a presentation.

3.  False  Never memorize or  read  your speech. Think of the presentation as a one-sided conversation. Some good speakers often  practice by  standing at the podium with their notes and simply “telling” their  presentation to one or two people. Use an outline or roadmap for your speech rather than a complete text.

4.   False Your should always  know your audience. Have a good idea who they are and what their needs, attitudes  and interests are.   Try speaking  to one person in the audience at a time.  Tradition says to try to imagine  the members of your audience as naked or in their underwear  in order to reduce their capacity to intimidate you. You might also  imagine that the audience is composed entire of clones of yourself. It’s important to develop a positive attitude  towards your listeners. See them as attentive and helpful, not as the enemy.

5.  True Speak the way you normally talk. Don’t try to project a phony oratorical voice. Conversational tone is your aim. Use contractions, but limit idiosyncratic slang or jargon. 

6. False Realize that the  intense arousal you feel at the beginning of a speech is very short lived and will reside quickly. Reinterpret these arousal signs as excitement rather than  fear, it can even help.

7.  False  You should always actively challenge irrational and self-defeating assumptions and program yourself with encouraging positive self- talk. Replace “They are going to hate me and I can’t  stand it.” with “This is difficult but I know I can do it.”

8. True Picture yourself succeeding. Pick a good speaker you admire and imagine your self responding  just as they do during a presentation. There is good evidence that this imaginary practice  can effectively shape behavior. If you can’t imagine giving an effective presentation,  then it’s all that much more difficult to do in reality. Before long  computer technology will allow people to practice giving give virtual speeches and this will be a major advance in  overcoming speech anxiety.

9. False Moving around is very important as it  creates more interest and breaks up the monotony of a passive speaker and it gives you a chance to walk off some of the tension.

10. False Come to the area of the presentation about 15 minutes early. You might want to check it out earlier in the day to make sure all is prepared,  but don’t wait  in that area for any extended period of time or you will build up tension. A final  brisk walk just before the presentation is helpful.

11.  False Remember your goal  is to control and manage your tension. Don’t try to eliminate it entirely. This is neither possible nor particularly  desirable. You need  some of the arousal to energize and give life to the presentation.

12. False Warm up the group and yourself through self disclosure, but never make the audience uncomfortable by telling them you’re scared or by showing disappointment in your presentation.  Remember you probably did much better than you realize.


0-3 Nervous Nellie  3-5 Fair   6-8 Good  9-12 A regular  toastmaster          




Parading Around

11 Dec

“During  Christmas he  took the kids down to see the floats
When he wanted to stay home and watch the Baltimore Colts.”

                                                                         Bobby Russell

                                                                              The 1432 Franklin Pike Circle Hero


I have to admit that I am not a parade person. Parades tend to have  a lot of things that I,  usually try to avoid–  like noise, crowds,  traffic jams, and  Porta Pottis®.  However, there’s no denying that parades can be  exciting, flashy, if not somewhat exhibitionistic,  a lot like  America  itself.  Maybe that’s why most people love them so much.  I missed this year’s Harvest Homecoming Parade,  but I did work a few hours in our company’s booth at the festival. I blew up helium balloons, that my wife Diane pressed on passing children and babies. To avoid losing the balloons, Diane would try to get the people to tie the balloons to the child’s hand or to their stroller. I was surprised at how the babies were so crabby about this minor  invasion of their personal space. Diane said it was probably because babies have such little control over things, it makes them testy about people interfering with their immediate environment.       

After Harvest Homecoming behind us,  parade enthusiasts always  look  forward to that  most famous of American parades, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.   Back in the 1920’s many of Macy’s Department Store employees were immigrants,  who wanted to celebrate the new American holiday with  a familiar European tradition, the holiday parade. The employees marched throughManhattan,  dressed in costumes,  accompanied by floats,  bands,  and animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. A quarter of a million people watched that first parade and by  the 1930s  over a million people lined the parade route.

 With the popularity of the  1947 movie  Miracle  on 34th Street and expanded television coverage,  the Macy’s Parade  quickly became a national phenomena. Like Pavlov’s dog, every time I see this parade, my mouth starts watering,  as I imagine I smell a turkey roasting.

    Back in high school I  marched in several parades. However, I was never in the right place at the right time and there  was no way  I was ever coordinated  enough to  march and play music at the same time.  Mostly, I remember wearing  a heavy woolen band uniform in the middle of the summer and  the most excitement came not from the marching, but from  guessing who would be the first to  past out from heat prostration.

When we lived in Florida,  I enjoy watching the  boat parades, which were  held at night, when it was cooler.   Such water parades  have a long tradition.  The term “float”, itself  was derived from  the decorated barges that were originally towed along canals,   by  people  or draft animals on the nearby shore.    

Diane and I once visited Mardi Gras World,  the place  inNew Orleanswhere they build  and store  the elaborate Mardi  Gras floats. The floats, which they keep in warehouses called dens, were spectacular.  We also saw Voodoo World on our way back.  

Before Hurricane Katrina over 200,000 people annually  visited  Mardi Gras World on Algiers Point, directly   across theMississippifrom the French Quarter.   This is where float maker,  Blain Kern, established his workshop  back in the 1940’s. His team of artists and sculptors not only make floats, but also fiber glass figures  for casinos, amusement parks, and studios like Universal and Disney.  Overcoming high winds, six feet of flood water,  and looters,  the Mardi Gras parades went on  as scheduled, just six months after the storm. Today parades are still big business in New Orleans  and  the 82 year old Kern is about to  triple the size  of Mardi Gras World in a new facility near the convention center.

While parades are associated with religious holidays and seasonal festivals, they’re are often used in totalitarian countries  for propaganda and political purposes. We all set in front of our TVs and watched the  huge missiles being towed down Red Square during the May Day parades in the formerSoviet Union.  Earlier this month,Chinacelebrated its  anniversary  of Communist rule with  a massive military  parade that  included 5,000 troops, ballistic missiles, and  a fly-by of more than 150 fighter aircraft. The Chinese even had a  fleet of special aircraft ready to  disperse storm clouds,  to make  sure nothing  rained on their parade.

In America it is a little different. My step-father was an enthusiastic  member  of  a veterans’ association  and was the designated driver for the post’s amphibious vehicle, a customized version of the military’s enormous DUWK (pronounced duck)  amphibious truck.  He drove the duck  in a lot of  parades around theMidwestin the 1960s.  Usually they would stock the duck full of beer and snacks and a small delegation of post members would accompany him to wave at the crowds and throw candy  to the kids.  

Once they set out for a national convention and parade inChicago. After a little too much partying along the way, they got lost and ended up on some back road. Things were going along fine  until my stepfather tried to  drive the 14 ft. tall duck through a 13 ft. tall underpass. Part of the roof was sheared off and the vehicle  was tightly wedged beneath the underpass. With the help of some local veterans and a gigantic tow truck, they were able to dislodge the  ruptured duck and continue on to Chicago. They were able to make it to the parade, although the duck now sported a  sunroof. I always miss the good stuff.

Based on a column in  Southern Indiana’s  News-Tribune


The Cat Food Standard

10 Dec



I’m in hot water because we ran out of cat food, again.  I didn’t forget to buy it.  My wife is mad at me because I have this aversion to stocking up on consumables like cat food,  dog food, applesauce,  ketchup, and other condiments. And rather than admit to my neurosis I become defensive. Whenever she says, “Do we need more cat food?” I automatically say no– Just how much cat food do you really  need? Suppose poor Felix, bless his heart,  gets flattened by a truck; there we’d  be with $500 worth of  superfluous Puss-in-Boots on hand. Furthermore  it  would be emotionally devastating to dispose of it,  even if I could find a buyer.  Now if you only have a few cans it’s not a problem to toss them into the donation container at the store.  
 When I was a younger my stepfather would buy cases of dented cans from  this shady surplus store. This stuff was left over from old train wrecks and truck hi-jackings and usually was about a decade old. For years we had cases of  canned pepper steak, chicken chow mein, and tamales crammed in our basement. The rancid stuff didn’t have labels and I was scared to eat it. I developed nightmares about moldy  cans of decaying food crawling up through the floorboards. Hence more of my negative associations with stocking up behavior.
 Another rationalization is that I don’t want to tie up all my readily available cash in  pet food and groceries.  That stuff just isn’t all that liquid. What if a kid says, “Dad I need  lunch money.” and all my cash is invested in a case of Fancy Feast, sitting in the pantry. What you do, throw him a  surplus can and say,  “Here kid, trade this for  a lunch ticket ?” 
 Perhaps instead of the gold or silver standard our economy should switch to the cat food standard. I would feel  much more secure but vending machines would need very large slots.
 This habit partially stems from my single days when I was always broke and spent most of  my spare time  grocery shopping. I literally shopped on a  daily basis. Each night on the way home I stopped at the store and bought tiny quantities of food, barely enough for one meal.  Soft drinks were the only foodstuff I bought in any quantity.
 I imitated the highly efficient Japanese “just-in-time” production method, in which manufacturing companies  have component parts delivered directly to the  assembly line on the plant floor at the precise time they are needed. Their cash earns interest  longer and they save a lot of money in storage space.  The analogy breaks down because I guess, unless you eat in weird places, you usually can’t buy food just as it enters your mouth.
 Using the same logic, I’d seldom  filled up my car’s gas tank. If  I filled up the tank I usually didn’t have enough money left to go anywhere.  People have finally convinced me that buying in bulk is cheaper and that  small portions  are much more expensive. Evidently what’s good for Toyota ain’t necessarily good for most of us. I’ve gotten  better, but those traumatic years occasionally intrude and overpower me.
 I’ve always admired how my friend Tony stocked extras three deep in his pantry. Over at his house, when you’d run out of mayonnase,  magically there would be new jar migrating to the front row, just like a shark’s tooth. For generally  being an idiot  he managed his dry-goods really well.

From an article in the New Humor Magazine