Archive | 5:00 pm

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