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The Work Ethic

4 May


                 Last Saturday my wife Diane went with her friend Nancy to lunch at a teahouse in Seymour, about 50 miles away, leaving me unsupervised for most of the day. With nothing special planned, I suddenly found myself at loose ends. As the British novelist Susan Ertz once wrote, “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy…. afternoon.”
Only I knew what I should be doing, I just didn’t want to do it. I could see that a lot of people around town were making home improvements, completing chores or working in their yards. Diane says she’s been selling a lot of gardening books at the bookstore lately. We know many people who take their gardening very seriously and this was the kind of weekend when they would be hard at work.
It’s times like this when my sporadic sense of guilt kicks in and my father’s voice comes to me saying, “You are not  going to watch cartoons all Saturday are you? Don’t tell me you have homework to do, it’s July. Get out here and get to work.” The next thing you’d know I’d be knee-deep [literally]  in one of his weekend projects —  mixing concrete, heating up tar or squeezing into some insect-infested crawlspace, that would terrify even Indiana Jones.
His voice is the internalized critic that is the part of personality that Freud called the Superego. Such introjected parental values serve as a basis for our conscience, which produces guilt when we don’t comply with our beliefs about right and wrong. When these beliefs refer to placing value on hard work and diligence, people call it “the work ethic.” This is the conviction that hard work is morally beneficial and a sign of good character. It is related to what is often referred to as “The Protestant Ethic.” It was the belief held by some early Protestants that hard work and success in life were the mark of being one of the elect who were predestined to go to heaven.
Commenting on today’s workforce, syndicated columnist Dale Dauten recently wrote, “The work ethic is dead.” He claims that, “Younger generations in the workforce have killed it off.” It seems like previous generations always think that their successors have less of a work ethic than they did. I personally never worked as hard as my father and usually give in to my natural tendency toward laziness, but at least I feel kind of guilty about it. In my father’s generation calling someone a “bum,”  “gold brick” or “deadbeat” was just  about the worst insult you could make. I always thought it had to do with how they lived through the Great Depression, when work was so treasured and hard to get. I wonder if the  high and enduring unemployment rates of the current recession will lead to similar effects in the future. One thing is certain; the current generation of workers will undoubtedly criticize the next for being lazier.
To prove that I have at least some work ethic left and to assuage my Saturday guilt, I decided that I should  prioritize my efforts and work on the most pressing household chore. Deciding which chore tops the list, however,  can  be  a significant challenge in our household. Cartoonist Scott Adams, author of “The Dilbert Future,” says that we live in a “crumbling and defective world.” He then proceeds to list all of the things in his home that need to be fixed in some way, including his cat. Adams says he has adopted the “active neglect” method, primarily because he is far “too busy or clueless to fix anything.” Of course, the massive Stawar fix-it list puts Scott Adams’ paltry inventory of misery to shame.
Despite the myriad of possibilities, at this time of the year, spraying the perimeter of the house with insecticide, to keep the ferocious tics and ants at bay, seemed to make the most sense. I assumed that this job was going to be like most of the ones I conduct and involve spending large sums of money on tools and supplies at the hardware store. Just last week our oldest son replaced a towel rack in our  bathroom and it involved buying a $70 drill, drill bits and anchors, all to install a $13 towel rack. I had delegated the towel rack job to him, after I had previously put up  a matching toilet-paper holder. Using wood screws that were way too long, I had creatively managed to bolt a bathroom vanity cabinet drawer shut.
Fortunately this time, down in our basement, I was able to find several bottles of extra strength insecticide to spray around the house. The spray looks to be very toxic, but household chores are always much more attractive when they include some degree of risk. Comedian Rita Rudner says that men’s interest in barbecuing shows that they will even cook, if danger is involved. Even the slightly possibility of losing a limb or becoming asphyxiated, can turn an everyday chore into an adventure.
Contrary to my usual M.O., I actually read all the insecticide instructions and took all precautions as suggested, however, after spraying the poison around the house for a while, I must have inadvertently inhaled some of the fumes,  because I had a sudden coughing attack. I thought to myself, “Just great, Diane will come home and find me in the backyard laying in the grass flat on my back, like a big dead tic, overcome by my own poisonous concoction.” And that’s the only thing people will remember about me — “Oh, wasn’t he that guy who literally exterminated himself?” Fortunately, I was able to revive myself, with only negligible central nervous system damage, as far as I can tell.
With my token attempt to demonstrate some sort of work ethic finished, I spent the next hour scrubbing  off all the insecticide that I had spilled on myself. My final job of the day was to put a pork roast in the oven by 3 p.m. Regrettably my post-chore nap ran a little overtime and the roast was a little late getting in the oven.
But I did wash my hands again to minimize Diazinon contamination of the pork roast and to prevent some unfortunate chemical interaction with the Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue sauce.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune



The Accident Prone Zone

3 Jan



            I’ve never considered myself to be accident prone, but whenever I work with tools or sharp objects,  I seldom escape unscathed. Just the other day I had my fingers slammed by a car door. I don’t have a lot of major accidents, mostly just small mishaps related to carelessness and lack of attention.  

            Recently, I came home from a trip and sat my overnight bag  by  the kitchen door. It immediately fell over,  knocking  over the kitchen trash, spilling garbage  all over the floor.  It seems like I do these kind of things all the time.

             Of course it certainly could be much worse. According to the National Safety Council, there are about 120,000 accidental deaths every year. Unintentional injury is the fifth leading cause of  death.  Every year a bout 35 million Americans (approximately one  out of nine)  receive  medical care for nonfatal accidental injuries.

            In the 1920s  a British researcher coined the  term “accident proneness” and defined it as  “a personal idiosyncrasy predisposing the individual…  to a relatively high accident rate.” The concept has long been controversial. Interest in the concept originally peaked in the 1950’s, so that by the 1960’s, emphasis had shifted to human factors research, ergonomics,  and product safety measures,  which proved  more a more useful approach to accident prevention.   

            However, in a  recent resurgence,  Dutch researcher Ellen Visser, from Groningen University, analyzed the accident  patterns of  almost 150,000  people  from 15 countries. Data revealed that one person in 29 can be considered “accident prone”. While the majority of repeated accidents are due to  bad luck,  accident prone individuals have  a  50% greater probability of  being in  an accident than the general population.   

            It’s been said that fatigue is the primary cause of injuries in sports and physical activities. Fatigue decreases muscular control, while reducing the ability to focus attention. My wife, Diane says that she gets clumsy, when she’s tired.  When fatigued I’m even more careless than usual. My hand just healed from when I  raked a handsaw  across a couple fingers, while I was cutting wood. I especially worry about using the chainsaw when I’m tired,  since there’s  little margin  for error when it comes to a 20 inch Stihl Farm Boss.     

            Being accident-prone can be a symptom of deeper issues according to Samantha Dunn, the accident-prone author of   Not by Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life. According to Dunn, factors such as stress, depression, and anxiety also make us more vulnerable to mishaps.    

            Visser believes that accident proneness  is a manifestation of self-destructive urges. Accident prone people engage in more  high-risk behavior such as aggression, substance use,  and also have a higher prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders than  the general population. They fall on a self-destruction continuum, between normals and people who intentionally injure or even kill themselves, according to Visser.

            In 1949, Canadian psychiatrists W. A. Tillmann and  G. E. Hobbsfound that a small subgroup accounted for the vast majority of accidents that  occurred among professional drivers. As children these individuals had  unstable childhoods,   behavior  problems,   court involvement, and a disregard for authority.   As adults they had spotty employment histories,  were frequently fired from jobs, and often had   police records, apart from traffic offenses. They were described as being inordinately materialistic and consistently  sought immediate gratification, with little concern for the future.  As drivers, they were described as aggressive, impulsive, and lacked respect for rules and authority,    characteristic of  their lives in general. 

            In 1989 researchers  studied school-related injuries among more than 50,000  children in theTucsonSchool District. They  found that 17%  of   injuries occurred  to   1 % of the children.  Junior high boys, athletes, and pupils in alternative programs, were most likely to be accident prone.

            Many years ago our children played with a neighborhood boy and his little sister. These children were often unsupervised and the girl was constantly getting hurt. She would routinely get bit by a dog, smash her fingers in the car door, or fall off a sliding board and injure herself.    At first I thought she was accident prone, but after a while, my wife Diane and I decided that  it was  attention-seeking behavior. Ironically it was her older brother who lost an eye, when a nail he was hammering, flew back and struck him.

            I had a similar close call when I was about ten years old.  I was in our garage straightening out the old rusty nails my father insisted on saving. I struck the nail with my hammer, saw a spark, and the point hit me squarely in the throat. It didn’t hurt,  but it did bleed profusely.  I must have scared my mother to death.  Everyone thought I’d hit  my jugular vein. Actually I just missed it, and the bleeding stopped by the time we arrived at the emergency room.

            My pediatrician looked at the X-ray, of a bullet-shaped projectile lodged in my throat and asked my mother, “Who shot Terry?”  They never were able to remove the nail fragment. When metal detectors were introduced at airports, I worried that my shrapnel might set them off.

            Usually self-esteem is thought to be a good thing, but excessive confidence can put  you at risk,   if you put themselves in situations far beyond your capacity.  A 1995UniversityofIowastudy found that accident prone children habitually overestimate their physical abilities. Believing they can run faster, jump higher, or climb farther than they actually can,  they constantly put themselves in jeopardy.   They also typically fail to stop and consider the possible dangers associated with their actions. A case in point is the broken arm, my brotherNormanreceived, when he jumped off our garage roof.  

             Of all my mishaps I suppose I hate stubbing my toe the most. Toes contain a lot of nerve endings making them extremely sensitive and there’s nothing to cushion the blow.  In our house we have a wrought iron railing by the staircase, that’s ideal for stubbing. If you manage to do it just right, the metal piece that braces the railing, jams the tender area between your toes. It seems like some medieval torture device. Instead of ‘The Iron Maiden’, you might call it the “The Iron Flip-Flop”. I’d confess to anything if threaten with that.



The Demise of Maria: The Not So Exquisite Corpse

8 Dec


                Contrary to the Broadway tune, “Maria” is not “the most beautiful sound I ever heard.” When I hear  this name,  I form an image of an unsightly and  ill-tempered Chihuahua with multiple shiny patches of fur.  Raised on expresso and sugar doughnuts,   Maria was jumpy, nippy and exceedingly fat. Her black shiny piggy eyes bulged from a nervous mound of tan flab—  like a canine Brando.

            Maria belonged to our friends Johnnie and Julie Green.  My wife, Diane and I would often visit them up North  to play whist.  They indulged this unseemly dog like a favored child. While we played cards,  Julie held the mongrel on her lap   removing its many fleas. Her technique  was to   dab  the flea with Vasoline Petroleum Jelly,   pinch it off, and  deposit it in an ashtray.  This unwholesome and possibly intentional distraction  hampered our card playing and made us wonder why we  were so pathetic that we had gone over there in the first place. Johnnie always kept score,  writing down “Champs” for  their score and “Chumps” for  ours. They were card sharks and as they put it we were (s)not.

            At the time, we  drove a slightly used silver,  AMC Concord — the deluxe edition with a plush maroon interior and plastic wood grain dashboard. The car was lousy but  its worst feature was a perpetual motor oil hemorrhage. This oil leak was the source of constant embarrassment  as it ruined our driveway and stained  parking lots throughout town.            

             Whenever we visited  Johnnie and Julie, I’d parked the car on the grass to avoid staining their driveway and to be spared a lecture on proper auto maintenance by Johnnie. Maria  was  in the front yard when  we arrived one evening. She welcomed us with a loud bark and vicious snap and then dashed under our car. Then Julie came running  out of the house calling  for her. Suddenly Maria dashed out from under the car yelping. “Gee whiz, what’s   this black stuff on her back? ” Julie asked Johnnie.  Smirking Diane and  I dummied up,  knowing full well that the little monster had just been anointed with some  really hot motor oil whilst loitering under the Concord. Feeling perkier,  Diane  kept score that night  writing down “Starwarriors” for us  and “Gangreens” for them. They were not amused.

            We all tired of cards and Johnnie suggested that it would be very healthful if we took a  long walk. Johnnie and Julie loved to lecture us on health and especially diet, as Judy took great pride  in her nearly  anorexic physique.  Despite our  objections they insisted on bringing Maria along,  but refused to put her on a  leash.  Maria constantly ran ahead or straggled behind while Judy frantically screamed for her in a shrill voice.  As we walked down the dark road  this  shrieking was  beginning  to unnerve Diane. “Don’t worry about that damn dog. She’ll be all right.”

Suddenly we heard the crescendoing  roar of an engine as a sinister-looking black sedan came barreling down the road, drawing a bead on the unsightly dog. It looked like a demon car from some  Stephen King novel. It must have been going ninety and Maria was frozen in its highbeams, looking like a fat brown piglet in a centerstage spotlight.  The car from hell never slowed and with a blunted “thwunk” Maria was thrown  three feet in the air into dog heaven.  In shock,  Johnnie and I  retrieved our car and a Maria-sized  cardboard  box, while Diane and Julie waited beside the chubby still warm corpse.

            When we got back to the house, Johnnie  and Julie asked us if they should wake up their kids and tell them about Maria. We said, “No, absolutely not!” But they went ahead and did it anyway. Then they asked if  they should call  Julie’s elderly mother and father who were the dog’s godparents. Again, we said, “No! Absolutely not. But they went ahead and did it anyway.

            Within minutes the whole house was thrown into high hysteria.  Johnnie, Julie,  her mother, and the kids were all hugging and crying, while Judy’s father described the elaborate wooden coffin he intended to built for the late great Marie, who by now had stiffened up considerably and had an eternal snarl frozen on her muzzle. Tommy had her laying in state in the garage ironically on top of a  box of Quaker State Motor Oil.

            Diane and I tried  to appear supportive but when we saw an opening we grabbed our  kids, expressed our regrets, and headed for Daylight.  Feeling slightly guilty but immensely relieved in the tranquility of the incontinentConcord, off we went.  It was the last time we ever played whist.   

My apologies to all Chihuahua lovers everwhere, I look forward to your constructive comments and suggestions.