Archive | August, 2013

Domestic Archeology

12 Aug

Checkbook_Register_ImageNovelist William Gibson once wrote, “It’s impossible to move, to live, to
operate at any level without leaving traces …”

The most obvious of these  traces are photo albums and home movies. When arranged chronologically, we can actually see ourselves moving through time and space, sort of like those time-lapsed science movies back in school showing how plants grow. Looking at
old images of himself, talk show host Jay Leno seems proud of how he looked as a
young comic, and David Letterman jokes about his full head of curly hair.
Sometimes, however, this can be more like watching the picture of Dorian Gray
deteriorate before our eyes.

I remember we once watched a compilation of Barbara Walter’s past interviews on television, and the thing that stood out the most was how her hair styles changed over the years. As she commented herself,  it was mostly a retrospective of hairdos.

In a sense, such photos and films serve as the illustrations in the ongoing stories of people’s lives, showing where they have been, and perhaps where they are going. Family
therapists occasionally use such media to explore family relationships and
dynamics, following the lead of Canadian psychologist Judy Weiser, who pioneered
photography in psychotherapy back in 1970s.

There are also other personal  traces that we leave behind. In the 1970s, University of Arizona archaeologist William Rathje  described how our garbage can be used to gain insight into our behavior and relationships. He found that the things people tell interviewers are often inconsistent with the record their  trash leaves behind.

For example, people frequently claimed they eat lots  of fruits and vegetables, but their garbage tells a very different story. Rathje  says that garbage never lies. In his book, “Rubbish! The Archaeology of  Garbage,” he calls the tendency to under-report the amount of junk food consumed and over-report the amount of low-calorie foods eaten the “Lean Cuisine Syndrome.” Most people admit to drinking only about half the amount of alcohol  they actually consume, according to their garbage. In the “Good Provider
Syndrome,” heads of households overestimate the total amount of food their families consume.
I find myself constantly throwing away important  documents, necessitating digging through our garbage. We rarely drink coffee, but is seems like every time I have to rummage through the trash, to find the water bill, there is an abundance of coffee grinds. Also it appears that much of our diet consists of eggs and things covered in tomato sauce. Poking around in your trash gives you some insight into your diet, purchasing habits and family priorities.
“Middens” is the technical name that archeologists have given  to such informative trash heaps. Besides looking at the photographic record and plowing through the garbage, there are several other middens that are “ripe” for practicing what’s been called “domestic archaeology.”

Things like a loaded dishwasher or a pile of dirty laundry can serve as mini-middens. Sorting your dirty clothes can tell you all sorts of things about what you’ve been up to
over the past week.

How hard did you work? Did you go anywhere special? What was the weather like? Or in my case, what did I have for breakfast on Tuesday morning?  All of these questions and much more can be answered in the laundry room. You can even tell if it is cold or allergy season by the amount of shredded Kleenex that ends up strewn over the clothing.

As  technology has advanced, digital middens are now found in many places, such as
email archives, browser histories and computer recycle bins, as well as records
of text messages and cell phone calls. Recently, the state of Alaska released
more than 24,000 pages of emails sent and received by Sarah Palin during her
tenure as governor.

In this case, however, few revelations have been forthcoming, other than Palin’s complete and utter surprise at being asked to be the vice-presidential nominee and some surprising admiration expressed for a speech of President Barack Obama.

Among the most important of everyday  middens are people’s financial records. General George Washington’s hand-written expense account, published in 1970, can be instructive. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington refused to take a salary, settling instead for having his expenses covered. However, at the end of his service, he presented an astonished Congress with a detailed bill for what would be the equivalent of $2,665,096.03 today.

According to author Marvin Kitman, Washington’s  purchases included personal items such as fine carriages and the costs of entertaining important dignitaries, as well as military expenses such as reconnaissance and even his own army’s retreat.

Throughout the war, despite the blockade of English ships, Washington continued buying his favorite gourmet green tea. Just as it is possible to follow the events of the Revolution
through Washington’s expenditures, we can also experience a personal retrospective through our checkbook registers.

When my wife Diane and I  balance our checkbook, it’s like symbolically reliving the month. Each separate entry is a memory that shows where we put our priories. To paraphrase Matthew 6:21, “Where your debit card is used, there your heart will be
also.” Writer Kimberly Danger suggests reviewing your check register and
receipts for a month to see if anything stands out. She asks, “Is it an accurate
portrayal of what you value in life and where your priorities are?” Like our garbage, our checkbooks also never lie, they show precisely where our money  goes, rather than where we intend for it to go.

The website Planabidget.com asks the hypothetical question, if the world were destroyed and aliens came to earth and discovered your checkbook, “What would they
think?” Does your checkbook reveal your inner self and personality?  If those aliens ever get a gander at my check register, they will probably think I was being blackmailed by someone named Sallie Mae.

Crafty Devils

6 Aug

2009_09_Art_Jar_jr

When my wife Diane and   I moved to southern Indiana in 1999, I was immediately struck by the number of people involved in various arts and crafts. In  the first  houses we visited,  it seemed like there was  frequently an art studio in the basement or maybe even a full-size loom in the back bedroom.

According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation  32.7 million adults American adults participated  in needle crafts than in any other arts-related activity. Another 17.6 million engaged  in painting and drawing and 14.1 million created pottery or jewelry.   Some estimates are even higher.   According to Susan Brandt,  from the Hobby Industry Association,   80% of  American  households have at least one crafter which is  about 70 million participants in  total.  Brant says,  “Our research shows that about 14 percent of these crafters are selling what they make, which translates to around 12 million people.”

Back in Florida Diane had several  friends who were  into crafts and we would occasionally go to craft fairs.   I remember one church fair when we shamelessly spoiled our youngest son boy by getting him a number of toys  including a wooden  dinosaur covered with green glitter that got all over everything. Diane has  quite a bit of experience with arts and crafts from her work in schools with emotionally disturbed  children, Sunday school and vacation bible school teaching, and conducting  museum children’s activities.

I remember once helping in Diane’s Sunday School class for three-year-olds. They were doing a craft that called for  the use of glue and I was assigned to supervised a three year old girl named Jenna. Well Jenna wanted no part of me or my supervision and she constantly fought me tooth and nail over the control of the glue. The fact that I was 100 times bigger than her, did  not phase her in the least. Jenna was not easily impressed.

In recent years when we take vacation trips with our  grandchildren Diane usually has taken along some craft activities. Last year she made Gullah clothes pin dolls with the granddaughters, while I made a simple wood pirate ship with our grandson. I have found that even little boys can be  interested  in crafts,  if it involves skulls and cross bones. This year we’re putting together a small wooden sail boat, I hope it’s not too dull.

Once when Diane  was leading  Lewis and Clark related children’s activities  for  the Howard Steam Boat Museum’s  Chautauqua, I was assigned to fashion tomahawks, made out of small branches  and cardboard, with the boys. They were mildly interested in the task, but livened up considerably  when we decorated  them with bright red paint,  resembling blood. The parent did seem all that pleased with our handiwork.

Out of necessity people have been making and selling handicrafts throughout American history.  The  term “Arts and Crafts” was  coined in 1887,   by English artist and bookbinder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson.  At that  time it referred to  an international design movement that  lasted from 1860 well  into 1930s. This movement was largely a reaction against the industrialization of  the decorative arts at the time. It called for a return to  traditional forms and methods of craftsmanship and employed  medieval, romantic,  and classic  folk decorative styles

According to  crafts industry expert Barbara Brabecthe, however, “…the burgeoning handcrafts industry that we know today would not exist at all if someone hadn’t started the craft supply industry back in the 1940s.”   The craft supply industry started on the West Coast and swept across the country.  Brabecthe  says that  “ how-to instructional books”  and  the startup of       magazines especially  aimed at hobbyists and crafters in the 1960’s  encourage people to become involved in crafts. In  the mid-1970s  a Lou Harris poll revealed that two out of three Americans   participated in the arts and crafts, and even more wanted to get involved Large trade shows, craft fairs and  television shows pushed the movement even further  along.  Since then crafts have grown steadily,  fueled  by crazes such as Xavier Robert’s  Cabbage Patch Kids® in the 1980’s.

Michaels, North America’s largest arts and crafts specialty retailer  newest crafting trends for 2013 will be (1) Nostalgia/vintage items  using doilies, chalkboard paint, lace,  Mason jars and vintage book pages. (2) Eco-chic crafts employing  wood grain, natural fibers, rope, paper and cork. (3) Use of  Unexpected materials  such as wreaths made of photos, balloons, clothes pins, or fabric remnants. and (4) Personalization with initials and monograms showing up on all kinds of  everyday objects like cell phone cases and shoes.

Arts and  crafts  have also played a major role in American mental health. They were introduced into asylums  and mental hospitals in the early 19th-century  as    an early form of occupational therapy. Activities, such as basket weaving, were intended to   have a calming effect,  while keeping  patients busy and productive. Basket weaving and later the making of ceramic pieces continued  in mental health settings well  into the late 20th Century. In October  1970, Time Magazine published an   article entitled “Is Basket Weaving Harmful?”  The article described  how basket weaving was a  major part of the average  patient’s day.  Psychologists at the time argued  that  patients should not be forced or even encouraged to participate in such endless recreational therapy. Such activities were seen as been too akin  to childplay and ultimately  dehumanizing or at least infantilizing in  nature.

In a study of  hospitalized adults, arts and crafts were the most popular of sixteen activity groups offered, although  only one-third of the participants said that they found the arts and crafts  to be helpful. Despite only moderate  evidence  that arts and crafts are especially beneficial to   all psychiatric patients, this  may only reinforce that fact that treatment always  needs to be individualized.

When I began counseling children in the 1970’s.   almost all mental health centers had  large kilns and  materials to make ceramic pieces. Among  the first things I was given, when I started was a checker set and several plastic model kits. I was told that when I saw younger children, these would be good activities to keep them  calm and interested. I was also warned to keep them away from the glue. I don’t believe we ever made a model that didn’t have a gluey fingerprint on the windshield.  The plastic models, however,  did work our much better than the checkers, since the kids would usually get angry and turn   the board over,  when I wouldn’t  let them beat me.   I   still believe that such crafts  help   improve  motor control, sensory and perceptual stimulation,  as well as increasing rapport.. They also help children develop   patience and provide  cognitive challenges. Finally  used properly they  enhance self-esteem anda sense of efficacy.

Arts and craft  participation has also been found to be related to  scientific discovery and creativity  In 1958, UCLA psychologist Bernice Eiduson    began a 20 year long  study of scientists to try to determine what personality  factors differentiated the highly successful and productive  scientists (Nobel Prize winners and National Academy Members)  from their less successful  colleagues.   Robert Root-Bernstein from Michigan State University and   his colleagues took over the project in  the  1980’s. At first they were not   able to find any significant differences  In1988 they reanalyzed   their data and looked at the scientists’ participation in  arts and crafts, avocations, and recreational habit.    This time they found significant differences. The highly successful scientists were much more likely participate in various arts and crafts activities and believed that that these activities were relevant to their scientific work and could explain how their hobbies and pastimes contributed to their success.

Diane learned to sew and even made clothes for herself when she was in high school. I was never so talented. I did  spend a lot of  time out in my father garage taking things apart and  driving nails into pieces of wood. I did learn how to cast  lead soldiers out of molten lead and my brother Norman  tried his hand at crafts by trying to fashion a spear gun from a Popular Mechanics magazine blueprint. My father  confiscated the spear gun after it  misfired and made a two inch hole in the garage door, barely missing a couple of my brother’s hoodlum friends. Norman;s failure was short lived.  A few  years later he did succeed in making a large carbide cannon from another Popular Mechanics magazine set of plans.  .

I was once out in the garage trying to straighten a rusty crooked nail to use in  one of my projects (I think I was  hammering together a battleship). I hit the nail and  the head   broke off and struck me in the throat.  With blood all over my neck,  I scared my mother half to death. They rushed  me to the emergency room where I got  a tetanus shot.    The  x-ray showed the nail head lodged squarely in my throat,  fortunately just  north of my jugular vein. When my pediatrician, Dr. Berman arrived and looked at the X-ray,  he asked my mother, “Who shot Terry?” He wasn’t able to  remove the nail head, so to the best of my knowledge it is still with me.   For years  I’ve   been   waiting for a TSA  scanner  to go off at the airport, just  so I could tell them that it was probably the nail for my battleship.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune in Jeffersonville and New Albany, Indiana

Gonna’ Need an Ocean

2 Aug

Treatment-For-Poison-Ivy jpgI haven’t had a reaction to poison ivy since I was a kid,  but last week I came down with a terrible case  on my right arm.  Now it’s covered with  dark red splotches that make it look  like I’ve been attacked by marauding zombies.  The hydrocortisone I put on it does little to  stop the itching,  but it does make my arm nice and greasy.  Benadryl and other antihistamines only make  me really sleepy and  dopier than usual.

When my wife Diane and I work in the yard,  she always wears protective clothing. I, on the other hand, have   been tempting fate by refusing to wear gloves  or long sleeves.  I thought that maybe I was part of that  minority of people   who don’t react to urushiol, the  chemical in the sap of the plant,  that causes all the trouble. It was sheer  arrogance— like those doctors I once read about,  who made others wear protective gear around contagious patients, but didn’t wear any  themselves,  because they  thought they were just too smart to  get infected.

Diane is sensitive to poison ivy and even with all of her precautions, she’s still  had a few outbreaks every year. For a while were quarantining our cat, Klaus, inside the house, because he was suspected of   bringing poison ivy in on his fur. He is always rolling around in something.

I blame our air conditioner for my outbreak. We were outside cleaning up some branches and  we pulled up some English ivy  vines   that were creeping into  the condenser housing.  The next day the air conditioner  didn’t work. I think I  got exposed when I was taking off the  metal cover in order to see if there was anything obviously wrong that I could fix.

Getting the cover off entailed laying down  in the surrounding  vegetation. Although I did put down a tarp, it wasn’t large enough to  cover all of it. Of course, I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt at the time.  The repairman later told us that the wire that  the thermostat wire  was a very fine one, that looks just like a vine and   we must have pulled it loose. This time I’ve learned my lesson. The next time we work in the yard I’ve  promised to cover up.

I still find   poison ivy hard to identify. Evidently the plant is very versatile and  grows  in several forms,  including  a ground cover, a climbing vine, and a shrub. I think we have all of these types and it seems like there has been even more of it in  the past few years.  In 2007  U.S. Agriculture Department botanist Lewis Ziska,   and his colleagues published   a study,   in Weed Science  which  concluded  that,  due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, poison ivy plants are   getting larger, hardier, and   more toxic.   Ziska claims that over the last 50 years the growth rate has doubled.

Poison ivy has been irritating people for a long time. It  was given its current name  by Captain John Smith in 1609 in Jamestown.  Over the years people have developed a number of rhymes to help them  remember to avoid  this plant. These include jingles like:  “Leaflets three; let it be.”,  “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.” ,. “Side leaflets like mittens, will itch like the dickens.”, “Raggy rope, don’t be a dope!”, “One, two, three? Don’t touch me.”, “Berries white, run in fright”;  and “Red leaflets in the spring, is a dangerous thing.”.

According to  the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at least 350,000 Americans  suffer from  urushiol-induced contact dermatitis each year. The number is even higher when  poison sumac and poison oak are included.  Urushiol is really potent stuff. Only 1  billionth of a gram is  needed to cause a rash.

The  poison ivy rash  which is characterized by redness, itching,  swelling, and blisters, usually develops within  a few hours  up to  a week from exposure. The rash can last anywhere   from one to six  weeks, depending on  its severity. Most people   become sensitized with repeated exposures to urushiol.  Dawn Davis, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN  says, “The dermatitis gets worse each subsequent time.” She also says that a person’s  reactivity  tends to decline with age. Also people with compromised immune systems   may not react to  urushiol.  Age, previous exposures, immune system functioning, and heredity   all  play a role in how severe the reaction to poison ivy  will be.

Washing with soap and water or  alcohol within 15 to 30 minutes of exposure may help prevent a reaction.  Commercial poison ivy washes such as Zanfel, are  also available. Typical over the counter   treatments include,  Calamine lotion (zinc oxide  and ferric oxide),  hydrocortisone cream,  and  antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadyl).  Oatmeal baths and baking soda  may also help relive  the itching.  Scratching the rash is strongly discouraged   as this can lead  to secondary bacterial infections,  that usually have to be treated with antibiotics. Powerful steroids such as prednisone  may also be prescribed in severe cases.

Most people tough it out at home with over-the-counter remedies. Experts suggest, however,   that you  should see your doctor if : (1.) More than one-fourth of your skin is involved; (2.) You run a temperature over 100o F;  (3.)  There are any signs of infection; (4.) If it spreads to  the  eyes,   mouth, or  other sensitive areas; (5.) If the  itching is very severe and keeps you awake at night;  or (6) It does not show improvement within a few days.

Urushiol dermatitis  can also occur when you are  exposed to objects that have come in contact with poison ivy  like clothing, gardening  tools, camping equipment, and other objects.  Urushiol oil can  remain active for  years, so  even dead vines or last year’s jacket can still cause a reaction.    Logs covered with poison ivy vines can cause problems if  they are burned and the urushiol becomes airborne. If such smoke is inhaled a  rash can irritate the lining of the lungs, causing extreme pain and difficulty breathing.

Poison ivy is not considered to be contagious, in that it is not transmitted by   exposure to the blisters, rash, or fluid, which Diane still does not  believe. By the time   these symptoms appear the irritant oil has been absorbed  into the skin or washed away. Of course, the irritation can  be transmitted from person-to-person  in the earliest stage,  when   oil  is still  present on the skin.

Finally,  to protect yourself against   exposure,  the following steps are most often recommended  (1.) Routinely wash tools, work clothes, and gloves. (2.) Always wear long sleeves,  long pants, and gloves. (3.)  If  your  pet has been exposed, wash it thoroughly with pet shampoo while wearing rubber gloves, (4.) If you are extremely reactive consider using  IvyBlock,  an over-the-counter product that  provides a  barrier (like sun block) that prevents  the toxic oil from penetrating.  Use Roundup or other herbicide to eliminate poison ivy in high traffic areas. (7). Buy a  goat. They love to eat poison ivy, which has no detrimental effects on them.

All of this thinking about poison ivy has made me itchy,  even  in places where I don’t have a rash. I think I’ll take comedian Stephen Wright’s advice about what to do  if  you have poison ivy on the brain and think  about sandpaper.