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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

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

Banishing Black Friday

22 Nov

 

The   day after Thanksgiving  also known as Black Friday, has traditionally served as the start of the holiday shopping season since the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924. So it’s time to snap out of your turkey-atropine induced stupor and head for Wal-Mart, the mall, or at least fire up the laptop. The term, “Black Friday” can be traced back to the 1960s, when policemen and bus drivers in Philadelphia used it to refer to the terrible traffic jams cause by the rush of holiday shoppers.

The phrase also harkens back to 1929 when “Black Tuesday” was the day the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression, which is maybe a little too close to home this year. “Black Friday” also suits the day because many businesses depend so heavily on holiday shopping to make their year profitable and being profitable is referred to as being “in the black”. Black ink was traditionally used in bookkeeping ledgers to record gains while red ink was used to record losses. Black Friday is often thought to be the busiest shopping day of the year, but this is not always true. While it has been among the top 10 shopping days for the past 20 years, it has risen to first place only a couple of times. Days towards the middle of December usually rank higher. When I was growing up in St. Louis, I remember a well-known local radio DJ getting in serious trouble for saying that this is the day when the merchants downtown dance around their cash registers, singing What a friend have in Jesus.

In 2005 the National Retail Federation coined the term “Cyber Monday” for the Monday following Black Friday, to mark the beginning of the on-line shopping season. Like Secretaries’, Bosses’, and Emergency Medical Technician’s Day, Cyber Monday is essentially a marketing ploy, intended to whip us up into a buying frenzy, as if we needed one. Even so, Cyber Monday is not the busiest on-line shopping day of the year. This also takes place later in the season, when we start to feel really desperate. With greater broadband availability, many people start their on-line shopping Thanksgiving Day itself or earlier. For some, on-line shopping has taken the place of the traditional Thanksgiving walk, nap, football watching, or family argument. Many on-line retailers have responded by offering their sales a day earlier. For the past few years DealTaker.com has created a special Black Friday website (www.dealtaker.com/blackfriday.html). You can find out what promotions are taking place in stores, as well as get access to items that are available online, at the same or better price. There are lists of the hottest toys, electronics, household items, and latest fashions. as well as exclusive coupons. You can even compare bargain hunting strategies on one of the discussion forums. So what is the outlook for today? According to Deloitte’s annual survey, more than half of all consumers plan to reduce holiday spending this year and the average reduction is about 14%. People blame higher food and energy costs and job uncertainty for the cutbacks.

About one in ten say they are still paying off last year’s holiday debt. People plan to cut in the areas of home improvement, household furnishings, clothing, charitable donations, and entertainment. Spending on gifts showed the smallest planned decrease (only 6.5%). Shoppers plan to spend an average of $532 on gifts this holiday season and buy around 21 gifts (down about 2 gifts from last year). This year’s shopping strategies include buying lower-priced goods and sale items, consolidating shopping trips and using coupons whenever possible. And the top gift this year? – same as the last five years– the gift card. Retailers love these things. Last year the Tower Group consulting firm estimated that unredeemed gift cards totaled nearly $8 billion annually, about 10 percent of all purchased. It is like tithing to VISA. Over a quarter of us have had at least one gift card expire before we could use it. Although I’ve personally given a lot of these cards, I’m still not sure I understand it. Sure it’s easy, especially since you can get almost anything at the checkout counter of the grocery store. Most of us were taught, however, that giving cash was lazy and impersonal, but somehow retailers have convinced us that if we convert our cash into a plastic card decorated with a holiday theme, then its okay to give it as a gift. We can pretend it is really a dinner, shower curtain, or maybe a book. Shoppers are somewhat concerned that stores might go out of business before the gift cards can be used. I should mention that the phrase “Black Friday” achieved special recognition a few year ago. Along with words such as “perfect storm”, “webinar”, “water boarding”, and “surge”, “Black Friday” has made it onto Lake Superior State University’s 2008 list of banished words. For the past 33 years language experts at this school have complied a tongue-in-cheek list of words, that they say should be “banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse, and general uselessness”. Also making the list this year are “organic”, “wordsmith”, “give back”, “Blank is the new blank.”, “sweet”, “decimate”, “pop”, “throw under the bus”, and “It is what it is.” I would say the list is awesome, but they banned that word in 1984. “Black Friday” probably made the list because it reflects our country’s current obsession with the economy. Also many pretentious columnists run this phrase, into the ground thinking it makes them sound more knowledgeable and cool.

All this reminds when I was in high school and our freshman English teacher told us that there were two words that never should be used– one word was “nice” and the other was “swell”. So, of course, someone immediately asked, her, “So like, what are the two words?”

An Indiana Night Before Christmas: Hoosier Style

3 Nov

 

A Hoosier Night Before Christmas

 Twas the night before Christmas, and all across the state,
Nothing was improving, not even  the unemployment rate;
From the banks of the Ohio to the top of the  Knobs,
All they could talk about was the economy and jobs;
The residents were nestled all anxious in their beds,
While visions of toll-free bridges danced in their heads;
All the sidewalks were covered with ice and salt granules,
As they braced for more budget cuts from Governor Mitch Daniels;

Down at the New Albanian,  the people had drank a few brews,
But were now settled down for a long winter’s snooze;

Then out in my backyard I heard such a clatter,

 I expected to see some wild turkeys scatter;
The toys in the yard were all covered with  snow,
  In the moonlight I could barely see anything below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But an all terrain vehicle  and a bevy of deer;
With a chunky little driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment twas an Indiana St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles the four wheeler flew,
And he yelled, and  he shouted, at the domestic caribou;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Blitzen and Donder!
Let’s get this crate up into the wild blue yonder!
Like mobile homes before the wild tornado fly,
The ATV took off and mounted the sky;
So up to the roof-top the whitetails they flew,
With a bag full of goodies and Indiana   Nick too;
And then, in a twinkling, I heard overhead.
Prancing and pawing like a Kentucky thoroughbred;
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Indiana Nick came with a bound;
He was dressed all in camouflage, from his head to his toes,
 And the aroma of pork tenderloin permeated his clothes;
A bagful of presents he carried on his broad back,
He looked like a trader opening a gunny sack;
His eyes sorta glared! His smile kinda   scary!
His hair was disheveled, his nose like a strawberry!
On his belt hung a flashlight and a old hunting bow,    
And the hair on his chin was as grey as the snow;

A dip of Wintergreen tobacco, he held tight  in his cheek,
And the minty smell encircled him like a peppermint wreath;
He had a oval face and a big round belly,
He was  clearly well acquainted with the Kroger deli!
But he was  friendly  and honest– a typical  Hoosier,
  I  thought  to myself, “Could he be a  boozer?”;  
But a wink of his eye and flick of  his finger,
Said all was ok but I better not linger;

The miraculous gifts  were what we had hoped for,
  Lower taxes,  no tolls, and federal bailouts galore;
He brought money for schools and a ball team that was splendid,
Then with his work complete up the chimney he ascended;
He sprang to his vehicle to his team gave a whistle,
Onward to Muncie he flew like a missile;

And I heard him exclaim as he soared out of sight,
“Happy Christmas Indiana and to all a good night!”

 

(From a column in the New Albany Tribune)

The Christmas Meanies

3 Nov

 

 

Christmas is a time for generosity and charity. It’s when we renew ties with family and friends.   But there are those, for whom the holiday is nothing but “humbug”.      Since stories are the essence of the holiday, we have a long tradition of  Christmas villains. The nativity story itself has perhaps the vilest of them all, the baby killing King Herod.   

Contemporary Christmas celebrations owe  a large debt to Charles Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol and his immortal characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge. This  tale highlights the ever present possibility of  redemption and Scrooge  is the first  of a long series of villains, who are redeemed by the spirit of  the season. This plot has been repeated in numerous radio, film, and television adaptations.  

Some psychologists have compared Scrooge’s transformation to what happens in    successful psychotherapy, with insight triumphing over  childhood trauma and alienation.  The same could be argued for the film “A Wonderful Life”,  where being able to see one’s life in a broader context,  can even  overcome  suicidal depression.  Mr. Potter,  this movie’s villain, falls into the class of  unredeemed antagonists.  He refuses  change   and     is  eventually consigned  to being irrelevant, which may be his  perfect punishment, given the extent  of  his narcissism.

In Christmas media offerings we see a variety of familiar villains.  In the horror-action genre there is Billy, the  serial killer of Silent Night, Deadly Night, who goes  on a Yuletide killing spree,  wearing a Santa suit.  He is finally stopped by being artfully  skewered by a Christmas tree.  And  we  have Bruce Willis facing  down  Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) the smarmy Christmas  terrorist  in Die Hard.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is considered by many baby boomers to be  the definitive version of   Dicken’s classic. We of the Bugs Bunny-Huckleberry Hound  generation,  identify more with Jim Backus’ Scrooge than with Alistair Sim or George C. Scott.   

Of course Dr. Seussimaginative How the Grinch Stole Christmas  gives us a another villain who rivals Scrooge.   This fuzzy green misanthrope is, as the song puts it,  “a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce”.

Most Christmas villains  are larger than life,  with the possible exception of  Scut Farkas,  the coonskin  cap wearing bully, in Jean Shepherd’s  Christmas Story. With his sinister  yellow eyes and green teeth,  he  pushes little Ralphie too far and gets a well-deserved beating for his trouble.  As a child I had  my own Scut Farkas,  by the  name of Marlin. I’m withholding his last name, just in case  he is  still  around somewhere,  waiting for me. Whenever  I  rode my bicycle, Marlin would pop out of nowhere to torment me.  I would often go blocks out of my  way to avoid him. Marlin never got his just desserts, which is maybe  why I get such vicarious satisfaction watching Raphie beat the snot out of Farkus.  My real life Farkus just disappeared one day, probably recalled to the hellish nether regions from whence he came.            

In recent years we have been appalled by Willie T. Stokes as portrayed  by Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. Stokes  is a degenerate  alcoholic safecracker, who in the guise of a department store Santa, specializes in Christmas Eve burglaries, with his elf-impersonating  accomplice.   Bad Santa is not everyone’s cup of tea, although I admit I loved the scene  in which Thorton, in a  drunken frenzy, eats all the chocolates  from  a kid’s advent calendar. Feeling guilty,  he Scotch tapes the calendar  back together,  filling it with anything he can find.  When the kid gets an aspirin tablet, instead of a chocolate,  the next day, Stokes  says, “They can’t all be  winners, kid”.   This movie’s  disturbing grittiness may have something to do with Thornton’s admission that he was drunk throughout the filming.  The Stokes’ character has sunk so low that  his redemption must, of necessity, be relatively modest.      

In a lighter vein, there are  Harry and Marv,  the comically inept “Wet Bandits,   violently abused by young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin)  in  Home Alone.     This movie must address some deep-seated psychological need  of children  to get back at adults.  Kids watched the original movie so many times that it became the  third highest grossing film ever.  Like Farkas, Kevin’s bullying brother– Buzz,  rings true to anyone who had to contend with an older sibling. My older brother Norman made  Buzz look like  a choirboy.    

Martin Short chews up the scenery as Jack Frost in  the undistinguished   Santa Claus  3: The Escape Clause. Speaking of this film and Tim Allen’s  performance as Santa, one critic  said “This Christmas we are treated to both a turkey (the film) and a ham (Allen).

Quirky, funny,  and scary Steven Spielberg’s intense 1984  Christmas  film,  Gremlins featured the demonic chainsaw-wielding gremlin, Stripe, who like  a vampire,  is finally destroyed by exposure to sunlight. The microwave scene in this movie still gives me nightmares.

            Animated television specials have also given us a wealth of  memorable villains. There is  crabby Lucy in a Charlie Brown Christmas, and in    Santa Claus is Coming to Town  there is  the grouchy   Burgermeister who bans all toys in Sombertown and the malevolent wizard Winter Warlock, who is redeemed by the gift of a toy train.    Professor Hinkle, the evil magician, mugs  in Frosty the Snowman,  and Bumble the abominable snowman, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, turns from his evil ways,  only after Herbie the Elf pulls all of his teeth.

            I find Oogie Boogey  in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas especially frightening, but my favorite animated villain has to be  Heat Miser (“I’m Mr. 101”) from The Year Without a Santa Claus.   For some reason I never found his stepbrother, Snow Miser (Mr. Ten Below) very  appealing.  This year there is big news for all us unrepentant fans.  ABC Family plans to have  the  Miser Brothers  team up to  save Christmas in a long awaited sequel.

  All things considered however,  my vote  for  the best  Christmas villain goes to Granville Sawyer.  You may not recognized the name,  but he is the twitchy and pompous store  psychologist in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Sawyer is the one who gets Santa Claus committed to a mental institution. By maltreating the store’s naive teenage janitor, Alfred, the Grinchy Sawyer  so infuriates Mr. Kringle,  that he gets cracked on the head with Santa’s cane.  This movie  was remade several  times, but Sawyer doesn’t fair any better in any version.  The best line  is when store owner R.H.  Macy’s says in a voice dripping with contempt, “Psy-chol-o-gist! Where did you get your degree, correspondence school? You’re fired.”  Finally a CEO we can admire.   

 Based on a column originially published in the in the New Albany Tribune

My Picks for the Scariest Halloween Movies in the World

25 Oct

Real life is full of real  scary things, like layoffs, newly discovered lumps, registered letters, or grown-up children threatening to come back home.   While we hope to avoid these things, Halloween is a time when people consciously seek out scary experiences as a form of entertainment.                

             If you’re the sort of person who wants to be scared this year, below are my recommendations for the scariest Halloween movies ever.

  1. Psycho: Somehow I saw this Hitchcock movie, accidently when I was about 10 years old.  It’s a good thing we didn’t  have a shower at the time  or I would have been stinky until high school.
  2. The Exorcist: I read the book first and it gave me nightmares. When the little girl’s head spun completely  around in the movie,  I almost displayed what they call in the Haunted  House trade a loss of “yellow control”.
  3. IT: Pennywise, the demonic clown played by Tim Curry, is the scariest character ever.  I still don’t look down storm drains, because he  just might be there, looking up.   
  4. The Amityville Horror: After watching the begining of this movie, Diane and I actually walked out of the  theater , so we could rush home and check on our children.  
  5. The Pet Sematary: I started this book,  but  never finished it. When I got to the point in the book where the little boy gets run over by a speeding transport truck, I threw the book against the wall and never read another word. A friend at work, who had read the whole thing, asked me, “Haven’t these people ever heard of a fence?”
  6. The Shining:  Who can forget Jack Nicholson bursting through the door, screaming  “Heeere’s Johnny”.
  7. Alien: I could never get past the scene where the alien creature bursts from John Hurt’s  chest.
  8. Jaws: My popcorn went all over the theater,  when  they found the corpse in the  sunken boat. I still  swear that they flashed a picture of a shark in that scene,  right before they showed the body.  
  9. Frankenstein: When I was a kid my older brother Norman insisted on watching all of these old Universal horror movies on a local Friday night television show called Spook Spectacular. I was terrified.        
  10. The Turn of the Screw: I never really understood the book,  nor the film version, called The Innocents, until it was    explained to me. Now I think the ghosts were real and it’s very creepy.

     Finally if you prefer something a little more current you might try the  Paranormal Activity 3, The Grunge, or The Ring.  Happy Halloween!

It is interesting that all the villians have the “square mouth” expression that psychologist Paul Ekman indentified  as signalling  unbridled rage as in the illustration below.  

 

Sage Advice for Thanksgiving

22 Oct

 

Like many holidays Thanksgiving can evoke strong emotions. I knew a fellow who told me how much he dreaded Thanksgiving, ever since he got into a knife fight with his brother-in-law. His story reminded me of a character in the movie The Ladies Man, who said that he always carried at least two knives and a gun to Thanksgiving dinner.

Comedian Al Franken once said that his family celebrated holidays by sitting in the living room viciously criticizing one another, until someone had a seizure and then they had pie. Thanksgiving is often a time when family members, who manage to successfully avoid each other all year, are suddenly forced to spend an entire afternoon together. It is not coincidental that Hollywood chose Thanksgiving as the backdrop for dysfunctional family movies like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Avalon” and “Home for the Holidays.”

Although this is a time, when we should set aside our petty grievances to give thanks, the nerve-racking nature of the occasion often puts everyone’s teeth on edge. At one family gathering it was suggested to my overweight brother that perhaps he was eating too much. He responded by throwing a plate of spaghetti against the wall. Perhaps you also remember my story about how my father pitched a roasted turkey out the kitchen door one New Years day. Throwing foodstuff unfortunately is one Stawar holiday tradition that Martha Stewart never considered, even while in prison.

Holiday stress often reaches its peak during dinner conversation, which frequently serves as a trigger event. Seemingly innocent remarks can quickly escalate into open warfare. For mystified outsiders, with no person experience of dysfunction to fall back on, I have decoded several classic dinner table comments below.

1. How’s work going?

Translation: If you are working you deadbeat, when are you going to pay me back the money you owe me.

2. Who made the lime Jello mold?

Translation: What could they have possibly been thinking?

3. What’s your boy Jimmy up to these days?

Translation: Still on probation?

4. Cousin Billy, what a surprise to see you here.

Translation: Is your television broke?

4. And just exactly how much whipped cream do you intend to put on that thing anyway?

Translation: Don’t count on me administering CPR.

5. How’s your Atkinson’s “diet” coming along?

Translation: Hey, everybody, doesn’t he look just like a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

6. How does little Johnny like junior high?

Translation: Is the little monster any smarter than that dimwitted husband of yours?

7. How is your writing “career” coming along?

Translation: Have you got them up to $10 dollars a column yet?

8. Isn’t this turkey really moist, honey?

Translation: You’ll never be able to cook as good as my mother.

9. This wine is great, Bill.

Translation: I didn’t know Wal-Mart had a wine cellar.

10. Did you make this pumpkin pie?

Translation: We can’t expect much in terms of domestic skills from an overeducated egghead like you.

11. No thanks, I don’t need any help.

Translation: As a daughter-in-law you are not qualified to handle actual food.

13. It’s amazing how all this stuff just magically appears every year.

Translation: The fact that you are exhausted from cooking since 3:00AM this morning has completely eluded me.

12. No children yet?

Translation: You may have a big successful career smarty pants, but you will never be the woman I am.

Good luck making it through the minefield that is the dinner conversation and here are a few final tips to help you survive Thanksgiving.

1. Remember this is not a marathon family therapy session and not the best time to resolve lifelong resentments.

2. Keep communications superficial. According to some of Randy Newman’s lyrics “Feelings might go unexpressed. I think that’s probably for the best. Dig too deep who knows what you will find.”

3. Discourage alcohol consumption since that generally promotes uncensored disclosure, aggression, or flirtatious behavior, none which is particularly constructive at a family gathering.

4. Unless you have been up all night making stuffing and baking rolls, don’t rhapsodize about how much you just love Thanksgiving. That could engender some resentment on the part of the food preparer. Forty seconds of carving a turkey is not the same as actually fixing the meal.

5. Keep everyone busy. Watching parades or holiday movies usually puts everyone in a good mood. They limit actual interaction and avoid the latent hostilities that competitive activities bring out. Tryptophan induced naps can also serve this purpose.

6. Although it may annoy many women, marathon football watching is usually ok, so long as everyone is rooting for the same team or doesn’t care who wins.

7. Avoid touch football, Twister or any other activity that might involve physical contact of any sort.

8. And keep in mind the cardinal rule, no weapons allowed

(Based on a   article previous  in the Southern Indiana  News Tribune)

Tons of Pumpkin Fun

14 Oct

With Halloween and  Thanksgiving closing in,  the talk has turn to that venerable symbol of Autumn– the   pumpkin. Chris Stevens from New Richmond, Wisconsin currently holds the world’s record  for pumpkin growing with his 1,810.5 pound pumpkin. His pumpkin weighs more than the Smart Car. Steven took the  pumpkin title at last years Stillwater Wisconsin Festival . Growers are getting closer to that holy grail of  Pumkindom  the one-ton pumpkin- a squash bigger than a Killer Whale. Such a pumpkin could make a Jack O’ Lantern that could double as a summer cabin.

The word pumpkin is derived from the  Greek for “large melon”. The French called them   pompons. The British altered this  to pumpions in the American Colonies they were called simply “pumpkins”.    Pumpkin-like  seeds that are over nine thousand years old have been in Mexico.

Pumpkins are often included in the squash family and have also been seen as one type of vegetable marrow.

            In American over  1.5 billion pounds   of pumpkins are produced annually with Illinois and Indiana producing the most.  Pumpkins have  both male and female flowers on the same plant and hoiney bees are important  to provide pollination. The USDA recommends one bee hiove per acre of pumpkins.   The traditional American pumpkin is the Connecticut Field variety but the largest pumpkins are Cucurbita maxima. They were cross bred  from a  squash genotype,and the kabocha-pumpkin types in the1800’ s. The most popular pumpkin type today among competitive growers is called  the Atlantic Giant.   The 500 pound barrier was broken in  1981, by Howard Dill  of Nova Scotia and by 1994, the   the 1,000-pound mark was exceeded.

                They are approximately 80 competitive pumpkin festivals held each year around the  country. In some of these the cash prize  is based on the weight of the pumpkin. One contest in California pays 6 dollars a pound to the winner, so a one-ton pumpkin would net $12,000.  By the way the Smart Car cost about 8 dollar a pound.

Valentine’s Day Special As a Dreamboat, I’m Sunk

6 Jan

             In his book Everything and a Kite, comedian  Ray Romano relates  that sometimes in the morning,  his wife  yells at him for his behavior in one of her  dreams.  He says, “That’s when you know you’re a true married couple: when you have to apologize for  what you did in her dream.”  I was surprised to  read this, I had  thought that perhaps I was the only one who had to account for his bad behavior in other people’s dreams.

             You see, Bad-Terry, as I call him, is really bad news. This highly  inconsiderate lout, is like having an evil twin who keeps popping up, getting you into big trouble.  He is my nocturnal Mr. Hyde who goes out, commits horrendous acts  and leaves poor innocent Dr. Jekyll  holding the bag in the morning.

                 I have protested  that  I shouldn’t  have to be accountable for my behavior  in someone else’s  dreams. After all I didn’t  write the script. If I misbehaved in my own dreams, well,  that might  be different. Of course,  no one would know about that,  unless I was careless or foolish enough to tell them. I think I  have a hard enough time being responsible for  my own conscious  behavior,  let alone someone else’s  unconscious thoughts.

                The average  person spends about six years of their life  dreaming. This works out to be about two hours a night, so my chances of getting in trouble, if dream time is included,  increases by a minimum of 8% .  As always,  Diane has an airtight counter argument. She says that dreams reflect the current emotional state of the dreamer  and that if  I  hadn’t  actually done  something to  evoke such feelings,  then she never would have had the dream in the first place. This of course is one of the reasons one should never get involved with women who have an advanced  degree in psychology. It is also probably why Ray Romano says that  in the war of the sexes, women have  nuclear armaments, while men have a sharp stick as their secret weapon.       

                   Unfortunately all the current scientific  research seems to support  Diane’s case. Modern theories  suggest  that dreams  express  unconscious conflicts and wishes,  help us cope with uncomfortable emotions,  and  perhaps  consolidate  memories.   The millions of connections between nerves cells, which are the   physical basis for our minds,  are  constantly changing in our brains.  Dreaming is when   these connections are  most loosely made,  which make  dreams appear  nonsensical  to our conscious minds. 

                  Studies have shown that people who experience   trauma have  dreams that reflect the same strong emotions. Imagery in their dreams is more  frequent, vivid, and intense. When people’s  emotions are mixed up,  their  dreams  tend to be more complicated.  So a major function of dreams may be to  help us incorporate experiences into our  memory, without experiencing  intense  emotional discomfort.

                 Dreams seem to be  necessary for good mental health, even if  the mechanism by which they are produced is not completely  understood. It is known that if people are deprived of dreams,  their  thinking  deteriorates and they become irritable and irrational. Sophisticated new brain imaging techniques hold the promise of cracking the riddle of dreams in the near future.   

                        I wonder if men  ever have dreams  about their wives misbehaving.  Somehow I doubt  it.  This is  probably due to a gender differences in dreams, although Diane  might argue that it only proves that women are better.  Unfortunately after being a psychotherapist for  many years,  I would have to agree that,  with all due respect to my gender, when compared with most women, most men are pretty loathesome—  sorry guys but it is  best to just own up to this and move on. 

                     Richard Wilkerson,  director of DreamGate, the Internet  Dream Education Center, says gender  differences in dreams begin at an early age. Girl’s dreams contain  more females and  familiar  people. They are often concerned with personal appearance and have more references to food in them.  Ironically one of the authorities on food references in dreams is a fellow named Walter Hamburger.

                       As you might expect girl’s dreams are  also more colorful and emotional.  In adulthood they   emphasize  the  indoors, family,  and home, and frequently include bodies of water, such as pools, lakes, and ponds. 

                       Men’s dreams  have more men in them,  and often contain  themes of conflict and competition. Outdoor settings are typical along with references to  weapons, tools, and autos.  Men also report more sexual dreams,  which should come as a big surprise.

                         Women’s dreams are definitely friendlier. About 25% of men’s dreams   involve  aggression,  while this is true for only about 4% of  women’s dreams,  where  any aggression is much more likely to be verbal than physical.

                            I have thought about telling Diane that Dream-Diane  had been mean to me in one of my dreams, but it’s never happened and even if it did,  I am convinced that Miss Perfect would  just laugh at me  in disbelief.  

                    Historically  people have long sought to divine the  meaning of their  dreams.  Are they just meaningless by-products of   neurotransmitters fizzling out in our brains? Or are they filled with  unconscious meanings that beg for  our attention.       

               In a Redbook Magazine article a few years ago, writer  Priscilla Grant, who might want to start minding her own business,  says that  “a recurrent negative dream about your husband could be  a “red-flag” that shouldn’t be ignored. She also says that  dreams can bring couples closer together and improve relationships. So maybe  it is important to not be so defensive or  quick to deny the constructive feedback that dreams can  provide.    That Ray Romano certainly has a lot to learn about women. 

Originally published in the New Albany Tribune

Evaluating Your Children’s Presents this Christmas

16 Dec

This article will tell you if you bought enough and the right kinds of presents this year to make this Christmas one of wonder and awe for your children. Christmas eve is almost here. You must soon decide if Santa’s presents are sufficient to surprise and delight your children. Consider using the following five tests.
Things Required:
• Spreadsheet of all presents bought broken down by child
• Lastest credit card statement
• Your last ounce of strength
Step 1
Are there enough presents to unwrap Christmas morning? Unfortunately a dozen presents is about the minimum for a successful Christmas today. Don’t wrap each crayon separately but save batteries for the stocking. One Christmas Eve we came up short, necessitating a crisis visit to Wal-Mart. With our last ten dollars I rescued a refugee from the clearance bin— Milky the cow. This oversized Holstein with latex udders could actually be milked. Although creepy, it did put us over the top. We also scored priceless photos of our bewildered daughter examining Milky’ s underside Christmas morning.
Step 2
Did you pay enough? If you have not reached your limit on at least one major credit card, then back to the mall. Snooty toy shops can quickly increase net expenditures with bizarre educational toys from unpronounceable countries. On-line purchases also provide a great opportunity since shipping always adds 15%.
Step 3
This is critical. How flashy are the presents? Will the kid next door eat his heart out? Cheap toys with lots of lights, smoke, and noise can shore up this department. Don’t worry if they break before New Year’s, the future is now.
Step 4
Do they take up enough space? If you don’t have a bike, you might be in trouble. One year we failed to have a huge present under the tree. Christmas morning the kids said those seven words guaranteed to break your heart, “It doesn’t look like Santa Claus came.” We learned our lesson and always bulked up the haul. Inflatable toys can accomplish this in a cost effective way. Life-sized crocodiles can help set that perfect holiday mood of avarice.
Step 5
If you have more than once kid, there must be perfect balance. We have often switched gift tags at the last minute or doubled down and assigned the new X-box to two kids. This not only achieves balance, but guarantees months of holiday squabbling.

Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow (1978)