Archive | January, 2013

Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan


Halloween is a distant memory and the scary costumes are long gone , but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind. Our five-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile“Shaun the Sheep” to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spinoff from the popular Wallace and Gromit films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover, while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little stuffed lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box, so we put Shaun in the car trunk instead. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie, Poltergeist. I also remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus, that could have been a scene right out of Jurassic Park. Especially in his book, “It”, Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children even the older ones disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown make-up is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frighten of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles”. They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our three-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child our middle son, Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘six-inch-long flying cockroaches’, we’d all have to move out of the state.” In elementary school Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school.

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively towards others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt, or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypical images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”. Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence towards the mothering figure, as well as, the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother”. As for me I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Such feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, ” Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away”. All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted. It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realized that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

Origionally Published in the Souther Indiana News Journal


Loopy Signatures

30 Jan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originaly published in The Southern Indiana News Tribune