Birthday Blathings

26 Jul

homerLast week, we kicked off the summer birthday season with a trip to an indoor water park in Cincinnati to celebrate our middle granddaughter’s 10th birthday.

Birthdays are taken pretty seriously in our family and the summer is cram-packed with them.

When our daughter was in kindergarten, she came home from school on her birthday still wearing her party hat. She insisted on keeping it on and wouldn’t take it off for the rest of the day. She sought the full measure from her birthday and wanted everyone else to know, without question, that she was “the birthday girl.”

My wife Diane has always thought that your birthday privileges should extend beyond your actual birthday, at least until the next family member’s special day. She also introduced the idea of a “fun day” in our family, in lieu of a formal birthday party, in which the birthday child gets to pick whatever they want to do that day.

I always assumed that most birthdays take place during the summer. Some demographers believe that women, especially teachers, may plan this in order to coincide with summer vacations. From an evolutionary perspective, it also makes sense to give birth when weather conditions are milder.

Turns out that I’m slightly off, and most birthdays in America fall between July and early October. Depending on the data used, the months of August and September usually come out on top.

One study by Harvard economist Amitabh Chandra, identifies Sept. 16 as the most common birthday in America. ABC news and several other sources, however, cite AnyBirthday.com’s survey, which designates Oct. 5 as America’s most popular birthday. The website says that more than 960,000 people have this birthday, compared to the 750,000 on an average day. October 5 also has the distinction of falling precisely nine months (274 days) from New Year’s Eve.

Julie Andrews, Kate Winslet, the late Bernie Mac and Nicky Hilton all share Oct. 5 birthdays.

The least common American birthday falls on Leap Day, Feb. 29. When the number of Leap Day birthdays is multiplied by four, however, the result falls within the average range.

Christmas Day is the next least frequent birthday. While you often hear complaints by people maintaining that their birthdays were spoiled by being too close to Christmas, very few people are actually born on Christmas Day. Admittedly, getting birthday presents wrapped in holiday paper, “Merry Birthday” cards and the notorious “twofer” — one gift for both occasions, sounds like a raw deal.

While some women, consciously or unconsciously, may be able to delay the onset of labor, the low numbers of births on holidays may also be due to how hospitals and doctors arrange their schedules.

According to a study by the Yale School of Public Health, positive and negative associations with specific holidays may also influence birthrates. This study shows a significant decrease in regular and cesarean births on Halloween, compared to the number of births one week before and one week after the holiday. On Valentine’s Day, however, there is a small but noticeable increase in regular births and an even larger increase in cesareans.

The typical American birthday follows a fairly rigidly defined social script. Among the standard elements are: The birthday party or family celebration with ice cream and cake; singing the Happy Birthday song; blowing out the candles on the cake; making a birthday wish (but keeping it secret); getting a birthday spanking (one for each year, one to grow on, and a pinch to grow an inch); and receiving gifts and birthday cards. “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language. It comes from a children’s song written and composed by Louisville sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893.

In my childhood, birthday parties were homemade events and usually involve ice cream cups with wooden spoons and games like musical chairs and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. When our children were growing up, Showtime Pizza and Chucky E. Cheese were the popular places to celebrate birthdays. Chuck E. Cheese is an anthropomorphic rat, although in his latest incarnation he looks less ratty and more resembles a cartoon mouse.

Our middle son was terrified by the keyboard-playing gorilla featured at Showtime Pizza. We convinced him that that the gorilla was just a Muppet (or Mup, as he called them). As for me, I always thought that gorilla was way too realistic for comfort and I had made a mental note that if it ever stood up, I was out of there.

Birthdays also figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition. While Jesus’ nativity was marked by gifts from the Wise Men, it is unclear whether this was a belated birthday celebration or the presentation of tributes. Two birthday parties mentioned in the Bible start out celebratory, but end up rather grisly. In the Old Testament, the Pharaoh, in the time of Joseph, ordered a feast on his birthday, inviting his servants. This all sounds rather pleasant, but the climax of the celebration was the execution of the Pharaoh’s chief baker.

Birthday parties fared little better in the New Testament. King Herod invited all the Galilean upper crust to his birthday party which featured dancing girls. Tragically, it ended up with John the Baptist’s beheading. You can understand why some folks are still wary of birthdays.

Certain birthdays are also incorporated into legal and religious systems to mark an individual’s “coming of age.” Depending on the cultural, legal or religious practices involved, people often assumed particular rights and responsibilities on specified birthdays.

This includes such things as being able to be conscripted or to enlist in the military, to marry without parental consent, to vote, to assume certain elected or appointed offices, to legally consume alcohol and tobacco products, to gamble, to obtain a driver’s license, to become an official member of a congregation or to be tried as an adult.

As people get older, birthdays are not all ice cream and cake. According to one Swiss study, people are more likely to die on their birthdays than any other day of the year. Epidemiologist Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross from the University of Zurich found that men and women are 14 percent more likely to die on their birthday. This rises to 18 percent for people over 60. Besides deaths from natural causes, suicides are 35 percent higher on birthdays and fatal accidents rose by almost 29 percent.

Birthdays may add more stress and alcohol use and the “birthday blues” may be contributing factors. Some scientists believe there is a “death postponement” phenomena, in which people with failing health, hang on long enough to reach some milestone like a certain holiday or special occasion.

University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley and her colleagues reported on how young children perceive birthdays. They told a sample of youngsters about three 2-year olds who were about to celebrate their birthdays. The first child had a party on his birthday. The next child was prevented from having a party. The third child had two parties.

The youngsters were then asked how old each child would be. Woolley says, “a significant number of children between the ages of 3 and 5 believed that the birthday party itself actually causes aging.” This charming belief — that confuses correlation with causality — is typical of what psychologists called “preoperational thinking.”

Around the age of 7, most children move from preoperational thought to “concrete operations.” At that point, thinking becomes less magical and they understand that it’s not the party that causes aging.

The next family birthday happens to be mine — June 20. I just hope I don’t get a “three-fer” — that’s a single present that counts for my birthday, Father’s Day as well as the midsummer Solstice.

From a column originally appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

Schindler’s Lift

11 Jul

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About three months ago, my wife Diane and I noticed that the Indianapolis hotel where we were staying had an elevator that required the use of a key card to access the floors with guest rooms.

Of course, a burglar could simply follow someone onto the elevator and get off on the same floor. Nevertheless, the key card gave a comforting sense of false security.

Then just a few weeks ago, we were at the downtown Marriott in New Orleans. They had recently changed their elevator system. Instead of the usual up and down buttons, there was a keypad, on which you entered your floor number. The keypad then indicated which of the seven elevator cars would take you to your floor.

Disconcertingly, there were no buttons to push inside the car, since it already knew where you were going. The system worked fine, was fairly fast and seemed to be an improvement over the usual elevator car roulette. Almost everyone commented about it.

It wasn’t all that great, however, for distractible people like me who punch in their number and then look away to check their e-mail and fail to notice what car they have been assigned. Our grandchildren wouldn’t like it either, because it cuts down on the number of buttons you get to push (or argue over pushing).

This system is called “The Schindler ID Traction Elevator” and they claim it can reduce average traveling time by up to 30 percent. There is even a You Tube video of the Marriott elevator. The Marriott video only has 77 views, compared to thousands of views of the video of the Schindler over at the New Orleans Sheraton. The Sheraton’s elevator computer must also serve hot hors d’œuvres and cocktails.

Vertical-movement devices have been around for a long time. They were mentioned in the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who says that Archimedes built his first elevator in 236 B.C. Personally, I have always been attracted to elevators and escalators. As a child, I considered them sort of thrill rides. According to the National Elevator Industry Inc., there are about 700,000 elevators and 35,000 escalators in the United States, with more than 325 million daily riders.

People have always been suspicious of elevators. In New Albany, the Hedden House was one of the first private residences to have its own elevator. In Jeffersonville, the Howard family, of steamboat fame, had planned to add an elevator to their beautiful new mansion in the late 1800s. They changed their mind when a Howard relative was injured in an elevator accident in which someone was killed. In 1852, Elisha Otis patented the first safety elevator, which helps prevent the fall of the cab if the cable is accidentally severed.

Today, elevators are required to have a variety of redundancies and safety devices, including a heavy-duty shock absorber system at the bottom of the shaft if all else fails. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 27 elevator-related fatalities each year. The fatality rate for taking an automobile ride is about 4,400 times higher than the rate for an elevator ride.

The escalator is an even safer option. A 2008 study found an injury rate of only 7.8 per 100,000 for elders and most of these were falls. There were no reported deaths. A 2006 study of youngsters found an even smaller injury rate (2.6). Regardless, many people are still afraid to ride in elevators and escalators. Children often worry that the escalator might devour them, while adults may feel trapped or claustrophobic.

Last year, Kyrie O’Connor writing in the Houston Chronicle differentiated between people who are escalator “standers” and “walkers”. She believes that Houston is dominated by standers. She says these folks (like me) stand around “as if they were on a conveyor belt or carnival ride.”

This is opposed to people hailing from the northeast, who tend to be walkers. O’Connor observed that most walkers were men and dress in business attire, rather than casual clothing.

Blogger H. Sandman speculates that “standers” are unexcited, lazy or maybe out of shape. He also describes them as possibly aimless, resigned and lacking anywhere important to go. Walkers are characterized as being impatient, driven and restless. As a confirmed stander, I can’t understand why those walkers just don’t take the stairs if they are in such an all-fired hurry.

Vertical movement also has other psychological features. Larry Sanna at the University of North Carolina found that the direction people travel when moving vertically can actually influence their behavior. He noted that upwards movement is often used as a metaphor for virtue, such as in the phrases “moral high ground” and “uplifting.” Downward movement, on the other hand, has negative connotations, such as “decline” and “the lowest of the low.”

Elevator behavior also has certain norms. According to New Yorker magazine staff writer Nick Paumgarten, when strangers ride elevators they regulate their position within the enclosed space to maintain a maximum distance from each other. For example, if there are two people, they will stand in opposite corners. If there are three, they form a triangle. Four people stand in a square configuration and so on.

Lee Gray from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte says that elevators “are socially very interesting, but often very awkward places.” He says people’s elevator movements are as predetermined as a square dance.

All this relates to the notion of personal space. Harvard anthropologist Edward T. Hall argued that personal space is the equivalent of an animal’s territory and that when it is violated, people feel particularly uneasy. In studies of primates and other animals forced to be in proximity, at first they try to minimize contact, act unobtrusive, and display discomfort, but the tight quarters often lead to aggressive outbursts.

Besides safety concerns, lack of control is one of the main causes of elevator phobia or “lift anxiety.” Paumgarten says that the “door close” button does not actually work (as I always suspected) on most older elevators. He claims that the buttons were installed to serve as a placebo to give riders an illusion of control.

Rebekah Rousi from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, studied elevators use in Australia and found that riders tended to talk mostly about the mechanical aspects of elevators and safety issues when interviewed. She says it was clear that users felt most safe when they perceive their own level of control as greatest.

Speaking of safety, Diane and I once visited the old building where I now work before it was renovated. It was on the weekend and we foolishly rode on a tiny ancient elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators installed in Jeffersonville. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we easily could have been trapped there for days.

The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation provides the following safety tips for elevator riders: 1. Use the door-open button to hold the doors open for slower riders, rather than trying to push them open (even if most of the buttons are mainly decorative); 2. Keep items and clothing clear of the doors; 3. Remain in the elevator car in case of emergency. (Do not crawl on top of the elevator car.); 4. Take the stairs if a fire may be present; and we would add 5. Think twice about riding an elevator in an abandoned building that is literally older than the invention of the airplane.

 

From a column first published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune

 

 

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Spelling 2013: From A to Zed

10 Jul

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Many students have sought fame and glory  in the world of competitive spelling.  I, however,  hold the distinction of misspelling the word “curriculum”  six times in my application for a doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction.  Kindly  Dr. Clark  said with a remarkably straight face  told me that it would probably be a good idea if I learned how to spell the word, if I intended to get a doctoral degree in it. Thus was the world before spell checkers.

Thanks to comic books I was a pretty good reader, but I seemed to have a touch of dysgraphia,  as my handwriting and my spelling always left much to be desired. Oh,  I could learned to spell hard words in areas that interested me,   like “Mr. Mxyzptlk”  (Superman’s impish adversary from the 5th dimension),  but I’ve always had a devil of time remembering  even common words that have complex vowel combinations or doubled constants.

Spelling always made me  kind of anxious, so I was surprised  when my wife Diane and I found ourselves attending the 20th Annual Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee. It was held last Saturday morning at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The contest, which is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, took place in the swanky PNC Club, a luxury stadium suite with a glassed-in view of the playing field.

We were there because our oldest granddaughter Tori was one of the sixty-five contestants participating this year. This was Tori’s second appearance at the event. She represented Kenton County and had won the county championship by beating out a number of other school champions, including her younger sister.  The Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is sometimes referred to as the Kentucky State Spelling Championship, but it includes students from Indiana as well. In fact, the second place finisher this year was a girl from Lawrence County, Indiana.

The rote learning of spelling is an old tradition in American elementary schools and the spelling bee competition  has evolved into a popular  nation  institution.  Nonstandard spelling is routinely taken as indicating a lack of intelligence, illiteracy,  or lower socioeconomic status.  Hoosier U.S. Vice-president Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato at a 1992 spelling bee  in Trenton, New Jersey, was widely taken as a  strong verification of  his  alleged  lack of intellectual chops.

Of course, many folks (mostly poor spellers)  take an opposite view,  such as President Andrew Jackson,  who once said,  “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

Back in 1978 spelling reform advocate Abraham Citron,  from  Wayne State University,   vehemently  attacked  our   system of spelling,   as well as tradition educational methods  saying    “At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.” He described spelling as “difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful”.  He called it   “one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure”.

Godfrey Dewey, a Chairman of the national Phonemic Spelling Council, found that Americans use 561 different spellings for  the 41 separate  sounds that make up our spoken language.   The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 different  ways. English spelling rules are so irregular,  rote memory is the educational strategy of choice.  If mathematics was organized in  the same  haphazard manner,  our society would have  screeched to a halt long ago.

Citron who  founded  Better Education thru Simplified Spelling  argued for   creating a more rational  spelling . While major spelling reforms did not ocuurr,  many school systems banished spelling textbooks  and deemphasized the spelling curriculum for many years.  Last year, however,  Boston Globe writer Linda Matchan  reported that spelling is  making a dramatic comeback nationally,  with an  increased interest in  spelling clubs, as well as the reissue  of spelling books and the reestablishment of weekly spelling tests in many  schools.    Matchan  also notes the  growing popularity of  spelling bees with fabulous prizes,  like the legendary  Scripps National Spelling Bee,  which  is now broadcasted  live  on ESPN.

When it comes to prizes,  the Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is no   piker, with a first prize  that includes a $10,000  savings bond The top five places not only receive cash,  but a number of other awards  as well. Emily Keaton  an  8th grader from Pikesville Kentucky, who has won  this year’s Kentucky Derby Bee, making it four years in a row, walked away with a total of over $43,000.

Spelling bees  have  been featured in popular  movies such as “Akeelah and the Bee” and  “Spellbound”  as well as  the 2006 Broadway musical,  “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.  As spelling has become especially  “hot”,  Florida reading and spelling consultant  Richard Gentry  says,  “Researchers want to understand how we learn it, teachers want to know how best to teach it, and kids want to know how to   win competitions.” Spelling success also meets a need for an indicator of intellectual rigor that many parents find appealing. Spelling, along with activities such as academic teams and chess clubs,   increasingly offer an alternative for  children who aren’t  athletically  inclined  but still want to compete.

Educational psychologists have found that “deliberate practice”, which consists of  memorizing words while alone,  which is the  most difficult   and least enjoyable type of spelling preparation,  seems to lead to the  most success in competition.  Also related  to winning  is a little known (non-cognitive) personality factor that psychologists call “grit” . It mostly consists of passion and commitment to the task at hand. 

Brian Palmer, a writer for the online magazine Slate, investigated what happened to  National Spelling bee winners later in life. He found that many of them entered careers related to understanding the human mind.  Many became   psychiatrists, psychologists,  and neurosurgeons.  Others went on to work with words as writers and journalists.  One was even a Pulitzer  Prize winner. A few continued to participate  in competitions in other areas,  such  as television games shows like Jeopardy or  the international poker circuit.

Our granddaughter Tori, survived the brutal second round and finished  up in 7th place with another year to compete.  Emily Keaton is on to future successes and all eyes are now on her younger brother, to see if he has his sister’s spelling magic.

There are also spelling bees for people over the age of 50.  One of these is the AARP National Spelling Bee that  was established  in 1996 by   AARP members in Cheyenne, WY.  Their goal was  to create   a fun way to compete with each other,  while   keeping their minds sharp. This spelling bee is held annually in Cheyenne and you can find details on how to enter at the AARP.org website. You  can even win $1000 if you take first place, but you will have to beat 67 year-old attorney  Michael Petrina Jr., who has won twice—last time  spelling the word “Rhizoctonia.”  I’d consider  entering myself,   but I’d probably  get the word “curriculum”.

 

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Senior Discounts: Thanks for Nothing

3 Apr

senior-discountsRecently I was paying for some books at a thrift shop and the clerk asked me if I was “of a certain age”. At first I had no idea what she was talking about, and then it dawned on me that she was asking me (rather obliquely) if I qualified for the “senior discount”. I try not to be sensitive about my age, but I don’t like when people try to rush me. My wife Diane had a similar experience recently when an intrusive insurance saleswoman improperly assumed that she would be interested in Medicare supplemental insurance. Whatever happened to tact?

A few years ago, a middle aged woman wrote in to the “Ask Amy” syndicated advice column, describing how upset she was, when a store clerk offered her a senior discount. Hundreds of Baby Boomers wrote in to columnist Amy Dickenson, offering their sympathy and support for the woman. Let’s face it, when you are offered a senior discount the first message is always, “I think you look old.” The second one isn’t much better, “You’re also probably on a fixed income, so let us help you pay for that purchase.” Now these may not be the intended messages, but they’re the ones that people hear.

According to Brad Tuttle, who covers business and personal finance for Time Magazine, almost 10,000 Baby Boomers are turning 65 each day. He says “…even though Baby Boomers love getting a deal as much as the next person, they hate the idea of getting a “senior discount”—which is tantamount to accepting the fact that they’re officially old.” For the most part boomers still think that the term “senior citizen” should refer to their parents, the so-called “Greatest Generation”. According to Jo Ann Ewing, a senior services coordinator from Connecticut, “Many individuals in their 70s and 80s are fine with ‘senior’ status and senior savings, while baby boomers mostly are not.”

Some businesses and restaurants have tried to accommodate Baby Boomers by using euphemisms like Boomer Bargains, to describe their senior discounts. The American Association of Retired Persons (rebranded simply as AARP) accepts anyone over 50 years of age, retired or not and they consistently use the term “member” rather than senior. They are also careful to refer to their specially negotiated discounts as “member benefits” rather than “senior discounts”.

Former organizational development consultant Roland Hansen has recently complied a comprehensive list of many well-known businesses that offer senior discounts on his blog (rolandsramblings.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/discounts-for-senior-citizens). Caroline Mayer, a consumer reporter who worked for The Washington Post, warns, however, that senior discounts are not always the best deal. She says that other promotions that are available to the general public, regardless of age, are often better deals. One investigative reporter found that the senior checking account at one bank actually was much more expensive than the regular checking account the bank offered. In addition Mayer says you may be able to save even more through bargain websites, like Groupon or Priceline than you can with a senior discount

In 1997 political scientist Ted Rueter wrote an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “Senior Citizen Discounts are Affirmative Action for the Wealthy”, in which he called for an end to senior discounts saying,They cost American business billions of dollars. They breed resentment among the young. They are part of the battle over generational equity. [and] They are probably unconstitutional.”

Just last year a USA Today op-ed piece written by a journalist named Don Campbell (a senior himself) again argued that senior discounts should be eliminated mainly because, older folks, on the average, are considerably wealthier than young adults, who end up subsidizing the discounts. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals the gradually increasing net worth of people over 65 and the simultaneous decreasing net worth in households headed by people under 35. Many senior discounts start at the age of 50 or 55, which is usually prior to retirement for most Americans and are often a worker’s peak earning years.

Young single parents are probably a more deserving demographic group for such discounts, but of course senior discounts are not based on altruism. Originally they were intended to encourage older people, with fixed incomes, to make purchases they might otherwise avoid. Today, however, they are clearly designed to attract an expanding market segment that has lots of disposable income, as well as lots of time to shop. Jim Gilmartin, the owner of Coming of Age, a marketing firm specializing in reaching older consumers, says that senior discounts “sort of exploded exponentially as older shoppers came to represent a fast-growing demographic.”

Campbell concluded his anti-discount tirade saying, “What I wonder about is why thirty- and forty somethings aren’t livid that senior citizens — the most pampered, patronized and pandered-to group in America — get to save money simply by maintaining a pulse.”

Personally it’s not so much getting older that bothers me as constantly having it pointed out in unexpected ways. Not that long ago Diane and I went to a restaurant where they featured live music at night. After a while I went up to the counter and ordered a pizza. The cheery waitress, who looked to be about twelve years old, took my money and said that she would bring it to our table when it was ready.

The room was very crowded, so I was surprised when 10 minutes later the girl arrived and delivered the pizza right to us, without any difficulty or hesitation. I was innocently eating a slice and enjoying the music when I absentmindedly looked at the back of my receipt. There written quite clearly were the unforgiving words “Old guy in blue shirt”. And I didn’t even get a discount.

I’ve read where people have successfully sued businesses where employees have written insulting comments or discriminatory descriptions on receipts to be able to remember the customer. I’m afraid my only grounds for going to court would be that my shirt was actually more of a teal than blue. Frankly I’m just happy she didn’t write down “Fat, bald, and stupid old guy in a blue shirt”.

In a recent study, several age-related terms were evaluated by a sample of adults who were all 65 years or older. Results showed that the labels third age and elderly evoked quite negative associations, while several other names (including “seniors”) were generally seen as favorable, despite many Baby Boomers’ objections. I’m pretty sure that the label “Old guy in a blue shirt” was not among those tested, but I’m confident that it would not have fared very well.

Some folks don’t seem to have much of a problem with their age. Glenn from our Sunday School class, tells us that on his part-time job, he has to deal with lots of out-of-towners. He says these clients frequently ask him for recommendations about where to go “to have a good time”. While they seem to expect some sort of risqué suggestion, he says he always tells them, “I’m sixty-five, I go to Bob Evans for fun.”

Based on a column originally appearing in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

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With Chair-ity Towards All

3 Apr

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The other day my wife Diane said that her back was hurting, but she felt better when she sat in the car.  That’s probably because the driver’s seat is the best, and most expensive, chair we own. It certainly is the only chair we have that can be adjusted  eight different ways.

One of the few things I remember seeing in Washington D.C. was the exhibit featuring Archie Bunker’s favorite chair, from the   1970’s  television series, All in the Family. In 1978, Norman Lear, the show’s creator,   donated Archie and Edith’s chairs to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, when he thought the series was being cancelled. To his surprise it was renewed for another season and he paid thousands of dollars to make exact replicas of the  chairs that originally cost only about $8.00 each. The notion of a family member being territorial about a shabby,  but treasured,  chair, is something familiar, that surfaced again on Fraizer.

I  personally can understand Archie’s reverence for his favorite chair.  When Diane and I  started dating in the 1970’s,  we were both  just out of school,  poor,  and worked for  not-for-profits My apartment was sparsely furnished with second-hand furniture from my parent’s attic and Diane had also accumulated whatever furniture she could.  I remember complaining  to her  that whenever I visited,  she didn’t have a decent chair to sit in.  It’s hard to look very cool sitting in a bean bag chair.  I kept falling over.

Besides comfort, chairs are also symbolic of social status. Having a “chair at the table” has come to mean that you belong to a group and have co-equal status. A few years ago when we asked our daughter what birthday present our youngest granddaughter, Rosie,  would like for  her second birthday, our daughter said that Rosie really wanted her own chair. Rosie couldn’t wait to escape from her accursed “high chair” , a symbol of babyhood, and take her rightful place at the table with her siblings, as a peer,  rather than a second class citizen.

Of course,  where you’re seated  and the nature of your chair also says something about your status.  People seated at the head of the table  generally have the most  power. It is said that Merlin created King Arthur’s Round Table to avoid quarrels among the knights as to who had the highest status, although they still probably squabbled over who got to sit closest to the King.

Chairs took on a political dimension last  year   at the Republican National Convention,  when  Clint Eastwood delivered his monologue to an empty chair, intended to represent President Obama. Obama’s reelection team countered by tweeting out a photo of the president sitting in his Cabinet Room chair, and saying “this seat’s taken.”   These theatrics may not have made much difference in the election , but addressing an empty chair is a time-honored technique  in Gestalt psychotherapy (another 70’s phenomena). It was used to help patients resolve “unfinished business” with  others,  or even among different  aspects of themselves.

Writing in the on-line Magazine Jacobin,     design student Colin McSwiggen says that sometime  in the Stone Age between 6,000 and  12,000 years ago,  people of high-status  began sitting on  raised platforms containing  some sort of  backrest. He says,  “This was an effective way to signify  elevated status among people who otherwise sat on the ground.”  Throughout history the elevation,  size, composition, and expense of a seating device has conferred status.   Even today many companies have strict policies on who can order different kinds of office chairs.  Some only allow high backed  “executive chairs” for employees  above a certain rank in the hierarchy. On Star Trek, it’s obvious that the captain has the only decent chair  and view of the wide-screen TV.

Having a designated seat is also related to status, like having a personal  parking place.  Arthur’s Round Table had one special seat with a chair that was marked “Siege Perilous”, which means “the dangerous or perilous seat”.  Only the singular knight who was destined to find the Holy Grail could sit there safely. If was fatal for anyone to try.

I was once helping out at an outdoor festival and brought my own comfortable wooden folding chair to sit in because I didn’t care for the small metal chairs provided. Every time I got up to do something and came back, the same guy was sitting in my chair. I sure could have used some of that  Siege Perilous stuff.

According to  environmental psychologist Sally Augustine,  when people sit in a recliner  and  stretch out they generally  feel more powerful, confident, and have a higher tolerance for risk taking. They also get less angry when provoked by others.  Sitting in a confined or restricted posture, however has the opposite effect. Maybe this is the source for the sit-com folk wisdom that suggests it is best to confront mom or dad with bad news at the end of the day when they are relaxing in their recliner,   preferably with a potent cocktail in hand.

According to the health  quiz in Parade Magazine, that Diane  gave me last Sunday, these days chairs are actually considered to be even more dangerous to your health than cigarettes.  Research by The American Cancer Society  shows  that sitting is a significant risk factor predicting how long you’ll live. One recent  study found  sitting more than six hours a day increased female mortality  by 37% and male mortality by 17%.  Prolonged sitting also exacerbates back pain, which  afflicts 80% of adults, as well as  neck pain,  balance,  and flexibility.

Writing in the on-line Magazine,  Jacobin McSwiggen says, “No designer has ever made a good chair, because it is impossible. Some are better than others, but all are bad.” He says they are not only a health hazards that we are addict to,   but they  are also  “inextricably tied…  to our culture of status-obsessed individualism”.   .

 McSwiggen says that uncomfortable chairs can create pressure that leads to soreness, poor posture, restricted circulation, impeded respiration, and intestinal dysfunction. Even comfortable chairs encourage long durations of static positions,  which  in turn stress   the spine, weaken  muscles, and cause circulatory problems.

The science of ergonomics unfortunately has  shown little consensus regarding the best chair design, although  some progress has been made  with  Scandinavian innovations such as  ball chairs, kneeling chairs, and chairs that encourage sitting in different positions.  Even most of these, however,  are not compatible with current workspace designs  or acceptable in business settings due to appearance.

Some experts suggest  abandoning the chair altogether.  In the 1980’s   Jerome Congleton, from Texas A&M,  created  a standing desk and among  the newer products being marketed  are  standing work stations.    There is a famous photograph of President John F. Kennedy looking out of the south window of the oval office.  He was standing over a table reading newspapers. Due to his wartime back injury, President Kennedy couldn’t  sit in a chair  for more than a short time  without   walking  around.   He would often work and read standing up,  leaning over his desk. This may be the new work  model for many people– working while standing and/or  taking frequent breaks for walks.

               I’ve thought about trying one of the exercise ball chairs at work.  I hear, however,   that they are supposed to get sticky in warm weather.  I’m also afraid of accidently falling off and dribbling down the stairs.   

Based on a column that orginally appeared in the Southern Indiana News-tribune

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Lunchbucket Blues

3 Apr

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For the past several years I have been taking my lunch to work a couple of days a week.  It’s surprising how fast food smells can travel in our building.  When the hallway has the ambiance of  a movie theater,  everyone know that  someone  has been making buttered  microwave popcorn. Last month the whole building reeked of chili and shortly thereafter,  somebody  must have bought  fish sandwiches for all their coworkers,  as  going downstairs was like stepping aboard  a trawler.

I must confess, however,  that I am not entirely blameless.  The leftover Polish sausage and sauerkraut  I had last week created quite a stench and still sort of hangs in the air.    In an article entitled Brown-Bag Lunch Etiquette, Food Network blogger Victoria Phillips suggests that if you have an especially smelly lunch,  you should eat in the lunchroom or preferably outside at a picnic table. She also advises you not to eat your messy Ruben sandwich at your desk, where it can drip 1000 Island dressing all over your keyboard or phone.  She also cautions against leaving  uneaten lunch in the office refrigerator and throwing pungent food into the wastepaper basket under your desk.  She must have worked in our office.

            Today’s sluggish economy has motivated many people to look for savings wherever they can find them. According to a study published by the marking Firm NPD Group, Eating Patterns in America,   over 8.5 million Americans routinely take their lunch to work. A number of people have found that they can save anywhere up to  $2,500 a year,  simply  by eating lunch at work. One writer did the math  and figured  out  that a 22 year-old typical New Yorker  could have an additional $650,000    in his or her  retirement account by age 62,   just by taking their own lunch everyday.

According to Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst at NPD, a marketing firm,  “There are a number of factors adversely affecting the midday meal business at restaurants, and brown-bagging is one of them.”  About half of the people who frequent restaurants for lunch say that they now do it less often due to the expense. Besides the cost savings (about an 80% average reduction in expense), taking your lunch to work,  can give  you more variety, healthier choices, and  save you time. Also don’t forget to add in the savings for gasoline each week.

According to the NPD Group’s  2009 eating survey, people  spend more time eating and drinking at lunch than any other meal. At the same time lunch is the most frequently skipped meal (13% of the time compared to 10% for breakfast, and only 4% for supper).

Men are responsible for the most lunch meals prepared at home and about 40 % of  these meals  include a sandwich, although this trend has been dropping in recent years.  Classics like bologna, ham, and peanut butter and  jelly  are still the most popular  sandwiches in brown bag lunches.  Turkey also is growing in popularity,  but seems to fluxuate  a bit with its price. For women, fruit is now more popular than sandwiches for their lunches made at home.

For almost  40 years my father took a black metal lunchbox and Thermos to work each day. He left so early for work that I never actually saw what he took to eat at work. Both of his parents where from Eastern Europe and he grew up during the depression, so he was used to eating things like blood sausage, headcheese,  and pigs feet.   I always assumed that his lunch box contained something  equally unspeakable. My father was an electrician for a steel mill and each night when he came from work his lunchbox was empty,  except for a metal can containing a single roll of electrical tape. He used the metal cans to storage things like screws and nails,  but I was never sure what he did with all that tape. I think he considered it  a tip from the company for his good work.

Except for field trips and a brief period when I owned a Roy Roger’s lunch box, I always ate in the school cafeteria.  My lunch box eventually fell apart despite my father’s valiant attempt to repair its  handle with electrical tape. When I reached  high school, I took my lunch money and bought a Hires Root Beer and Butterfinger candy bar from the vending machine most days for lunch. To add  a little color and variety to  my diet I would occasionally  eat a Snickers Bar  and a Nehi Orange soda for its vitamin C content.

My wife Diane told me that end of the year school picnics her lunch consisted of a bologna sandwich, chips,  maybe a banana,  and for dessert,  the iconic  Hostess Cupcake.  Ironically that is about the same menu that was served in most   county jails for most of 1960 and  70s.

It was pretty much the same thing I would always take on school field trips.   The threatened demise of the Cupcake and Twinkie, since the  Hostess Bakery went bankrupt,  would  leave a huge gap in the traditional brownbag lunch,  if some other bakery doesn’t  save the brand.

For some reason my mother started making me ham salad sandwiches for my lunch for the annual school picnic.  (It was actually bologna salad, since it was never made with real  ham). This picnic was always  held at an amusement park  and  was the highlight of   the whole school year.  All of those positive associations with field trips and school picnics probably accounts for my garlic bologna addiction today.

When I was in college I stayed at a dorm that had a food plan. If you were going away for the day or had classes too far away to return for lunch, the dorm cafeteria prepared box lunches that you could take with you. My friends and I always took them and stashed them in our dorm room  refrigerator, if we didn’t plan to eat them that day. They were classic bologna sandwich  and banana lunches, but they often had excellent home-baked cookies included. On warm days the mayonnaise would sort of curdle and the banana would brown a little, but the cookies were always good and  perhaps even better with melted chocolate chips.

Brown bagging  at work is also a good way to avoid eating at a restaurant alone, which many people  dislike.

I remember reading somewhere that the average office desk has more germs on it than the average public toilet seat.  Be that as it may, there is still something kind of fun about my desk.    

Base on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

Bored to be Wild

3 Apr

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 Last weekend I was assigned to  watch my two youngest grandchildren, while my wife Diane and our daughter went shopping. This has become a more or less a routine procedure, intended to weed out the especially cranky and whiney members of our party. I’m sorry,  but  too much shopping hurts my knees and makes me crabby.

I did my level best to entertain the little nippers, including a lengthy cartoon quiz and discussion session  regarding  the relative merits of Spongebob Squarepants as compared to  Patrick and Squidward, innumerable  games of Stupid Zombies on my cellphone, and watching most of an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie  on You Tube.  Despite these desperate measures, blonde-haired, blue-eyed,  four-year-old Rosie turned to me and said dismally, “I’m bored.” Surprised that she  knew what that meant, I was forced to agreed, saying, “Yeah, me too”. With two older sisters I’m sure Rosie’s heard that phrase quite often.

I have always thought that being able to tolerate a boring situation with patience and equanimity was a sign of maturity. Since such circumstances are inevitable, it is an important life skill that children are seldom taught.  Of course, with today’s frenetic and over stimulating technology, entertaining yourself has become considerably easier, although some may argue that these same digital  advances,  have  resulted in shorter attention spans,  aggravating instead of ameliorating the problem.  

The first recorded use of the English word “boredom” was, appropriately enough, in Charles Dickens’ exceedingly boring novel “Bleak House”  back in  1852. Psychologists believe that there are three basic types of boredom stemming from:  1.  Being prevented from engaging in some desired activity,  2. Being forced to engage in some undesired activity, and 3. For no apparent reason, being unable  to remain engaged in any activity.  All of these are related to problems in focusing attention.

Boredom is usually described as an unpleasant emotional state,  experienced when an individual has nothing  in particular to do  and lacks  interest  in their surroundings. It is generally seen as the opposite of arousal and may occur when all immediate challenges   are either incomprehensible or conversely, too simple or monotonous.  Additionally boredom has been found to appear at times when all perceived needs have been fully met and overall motivation is low.

Relativity  may also be a factor in boredom,  as people who have just returned from a very exhilarating or stimulating environment may find their usual  surrounding dull and boring in comparison. Veterans, for example who return from combat, may have difficulty at times adjusting to the calmer environment of civilian life.   Inveterate thrill-seekers who engaged in highly exciting recreational  activities (such as sky-diving)  or occupations (such as fire-fighting) may also start to find everyday activities exceptionally  mundane and boring.          

Boredom also seems to be related to the fatigue that stems from engaging in repetitive activity. A 1926 study in Britain demonstrated individual differences in the amount of boredom reported by workers assigned to perform the same repetitive  and monotonous task.  When we are bored we generally experience a lack of interest,  poor concentration, and temporal distortion,   as time seems to crawl along.  

In 1986 Richard Farmer, from the Oregon Research Institute,  and  Norman D. Sundberg, from the University of Oregon, developed  the  Boredom Proneness Scale to measure how likely people are to feel bored.  Subsequent research has shown that boredom proneness is related to depression,  hopelessness, perceptions of increased effort, loneliness, and poor motivation.  Other studies have  found  it to be a significant factor in depression,  anxiety disorders,  alcohol and drug abuse (especially as professed by teens),  pathological gambling, as well as eating disorders. Individuals who are  easily bored,  also have reportedly more hostility, anger,  less career success,  and poorer social skills,  than people not prone to boredom.

I’m afraid that I fall into that high boredom prone category. When I’m in a situation that  I find boring  where there is  little activity  going on,  my mind is  like a computer that automatically shifts into sleep mode.   I find that I have   these attentional lapses  especially at   continuing education seminars.  I used to embarrass Diane by bringing along a big stack of paperwork to do during these workshops to keep myself occupied. Now it’s even worse with  laptops and smart phones. I’m afraid that I’ve turned into  one of those insufferable people  who sit near the wall so they can plug in and pretend they are taking notes, when they are really reading their e-mail,   watching You Tube, checking their bank balance, or making grocery lists.

I suppose my worse attentional lapse took place a few years ago at a department  store. There were a lot of bargains and sales that day and   Diane and I had been shopping for quite a while. After an exhausting search,  Diane had found several items of clothing that she wanted to buy. I was tasked with watching over her intended purchases while she tried on some other things. I found an empty chair and put the clothing on the chair next to me. With nothing to do, except to sit there,  my attention started to wander.  Eventually the lack of activity caused my internal  screensaver to  kick  in, I shut down,   and  must have  nodded off. When I was roused by a rude shake, I discovered, to my horror, that all the clothes had disappeared. Some overzealous clerk had taken the entire pile of clothing and hung them back up on the racks, literally under my nose. Suffice it to say that Diane was less than pleased with my dedication that day.

            According to educational researcher Ulrike E. Nett  from  The University of Konstanz in Germany  there are  three psychological strategies that people  typically use to cope with boredom. 1. They reappraise the situation and try  to increase the relative importance of the boring situation or activity. 2. They actively make changes to the situation to make it less boring. and 3. They evade the boring situation by seeking out a more interesting activity or diversion.  

Generally boredom is seen as a negative force in people’s lives, however,  like any situation that causes discomfort,   it also can serve as an impetus for positive change by increasing our motivation to act. For example,  an individual with a very boring job,  may use the boredom as a catalysis to seek out a more challenging and ultimately rewarding position.

Finally, existential philosophers have viewed boredom, which they have called “a muffling fog”,   as a fundamental dimension of human existence.  In situations lacking any stimulation, the individual must confront “nothingness”.  Directly experiencing this lack of meaning creates existential anxiety.   Using  “waiting at the railway station”  as an example,  philosopher  Martin Heidegger wrote over  100 pages on the topic of boredom, which, either ironically or perhaps  fittingly, are  themselves incredibly boring to read. 

I had no idea Rosie could be so profound in her observations about spending time with me. I’m just afraid she might agree with Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who once   famously wrote “…there is a sense that any immediate moment of life may be fundamentally tedious [especially when spent with grandpa].”

Based on a column in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

A Ticklish Issue

3 Apr

ImageAristotle, Socrates, Galileo, Da Vinci  and Darwin  are just a few of  history’s  great minds who  have speculated  about the origin and purpose of tickling.  My four-year-old grand-daughter, Rosie,  is an inveterate tickler. She revels in the power that tickling gives her over  older and larger  people. I also think she does it  because she likes to be tickled herself.  For some reason, however, she has picked me  as the primary target for her assaults, as small children and dogs often do.

I must have victim written all over my face, as I  can hardly visit anywhere,  without  some child or dog giving me the business. Little dogs, like my daughter’s Bichon Frise, jump on my lap and try to lick my face.   Our niece’s  Siberian Huskies slobber on my hands,  steal my fur hat, or try to bury  a bone (the one in my arm). I’m also a prime target for mimes. For her part Rosie never misses an opportunity to tickle me.

Today evolutionary psychology may be close to finding some answers regarding why people tickle.   Robert R. Provine,  a psychologist at the University of Maryland says that  tickling is a “mechanism for social  bonding between close companions. It helps forge relationships between family members  and friends...”

According to Provine, infants begin laughing in response to tickling  within the first few months of life. He says “It’s one of the first forms of communication between babies and their caregivers…”   Parents tickle because they are so reinforced by the baby’s laughter.

Back in the 1980’s University of Iowa  psychiatrist Donald Black  noted that the most ticklish parts of the body  tend to be where we have protective reflexes.   He believed that children learn to protect their necks, ribs, feet, and armpits as they wrestle and  tickle each other. In 1924, J.C. Gregory proposed that ticklish places on the body were those most vulnerable in combat and learning to guard them conveyed an evolutionary advantage. Laughter in response to such tickling may be seen as a sign of submission or a way to say “uncle”.

 Besides possibly developing self-defense skills, tickling among children can reinforce sibling and/or peer bonding.  It also may be an alternative to  violence intended  to hurt or  dominate each other.  When one sibling tickles  another  relentlessly,  to point of  unpleasantness it is called “tickle torture.”

Based on his observations of chimpanzees and orangutans, Provine also believes that the “ha-ha” of human laugher most likely evolved from the inevitable panting  that takes place  during prolonged tickle fights. 

Some experts  believe  that tickling  requires  social interaction and that’s one reason why  you can’t tickle yourself.  University of California psychologist Christine Harris, however, believes that tickling is more like a automatic reflex. To test her hypothesis,  she built a robotic arm that looked like a tickling machine. She christened her creation — Mechanical Meg. Subjects were blindfold and then tickled by what they thought was Mechanical Meg. Actually they were tickled by a human assistant hiding under a table (Meg didn’t actually work).  The subjects laughed and squirmed anyway, demonstrating that   tickling did not require the perceived presence of another human being.

I personally believe that you can tickle someone without actually touching them. When our kids were preschoolers I would sometimes tickle them on the knees (a much neglected tickle target). Then I would sit across the room and tell them that I could tickle them by remote control. I would stare seriously at their knees and wiggle my fingers and they would invariably start laughing and grab their knees.

Around the turn of the century scientists classified tickling into major categories. “Knismesis” is  evoked by a very light touch on the skin. It may produce an itching sensation, but not laughter. It is the sensation you get when an insect crawls on you and may have evolved in mammals to help them keep rid of parasites. 

The other class of tickling is called “gargalesis” and is achieved by repeatedly applying pressure to sensitive areas. Gargalesis is generally met with uncontrollable laughter.  It is generally   pleasurable, but can be extremely uncomfortable when it involves persistent involuntary tickling. Gargalesis was once believed to be the exclusive province of primates,  but more recent research suggests that rats can also be tickled. I pity the poor graduate assistant who  had that  job.

Charles Darwin  theorized that tickling was related to the anticipation of pleasure. He based this on the observation that ticklish people often  laugh before  being actually  tickled . In addition unexpected tickling from a complete stranger is generally perceived as an assault and no laughing matter.   Darwin believed that in order to laugh at a tickle, you cannot know the exact location where you were going to be touched. Knowing where the stimulation was going to take place removes all anticipation and that’s why people cannot effectively tickle themselves.  More recent research seems to confirm this notion.      

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues at University College London analyzed   self-tickling  using sophisticated  brain imaging studies.  Her studies show your brain can predict sensations when your own movements are the cause, but not if someone else does it. She says, “When you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction is used to cancel the response of other brain areas to the tickle. Knight Ridder newspaper reporter Usha Lee McFarling says,” the cerebellum acts as a killjoy, squelching the tickling response if the tickling doesn’t come from an outside source.

Research also suggests that tickling is a young person’s game and often between four and seven years of age many children no longer see it as pleasurable.  A survey of college students found that that only 32%  reported that they enjoy being tickled and about 36% said  they didn’t  like the experience at all. .  It probably has a lot to   do with   the wide variability in different peoples’ pain and pressure thresholds.  Provine says that interest and   participation in tickling drops off significantly after the age of forty. I must be an exception, since I have to frequently use tickling in self-defense. I think it must be like jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. Young children have no problem doing it,  but the older you get the harder it becomes. 

Some authorities say that if you shut your eyes tight and concentrated real hard during a tickle attack, you can stop the sensation. I think I’ll try that next time, but I’m skeptical.

 

Based on a column that originally appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune,

Unpaid Internships: Opportunity or Oppression?

8 Feb

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 Recently the subject of work internships has become  part of the national conversation.  The topic  has shown up in articles,  books, television shows,  and even a  debate  on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. It hit home as our  youngest son is more than halfway through an unpaid internship at a business in Manhattan.  Like most young people completing internships,  he has been lead to believe and hopes it will result in  a full time job. Ben Zarov,  an intern at Publishers Weekly, recently posted on-line  the  following   joke  which sums up one  current perspective on internships:  “How many interns does it take  to screw in a light bulb? [Answer]  Who cares it’s free.” 

In psychology, social work, and related fields,  internships, field placements, and practicums have always been  a big part of the standard curriculum. They are often closely connected to licensure and certification requirements.  Before she finished graduate school in psychology, my wife Diane had done an internship and four practicums in a variety of settings. I, on the other hand, had dodged all of them like they were the plague. I somehow managed to graduate and get a job with as little practical experience as possible.

 It has been estimated that over one-half  million  young Americans will participate  in internship programs this year.  The number of interns has almost tripled over the last decade. Our   middle son says that most businesses in New York City rely so heavily   on unpaid interns they could hardly survive without them.     

According to a Pew Research Center report,  issued  in February, only 54% of young adults currently have jobs. That is the lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics back in the 1940s.    Youth unemployment   is usually  much higher than the adult rate, but it has been especially  hard hit by an economy which has forced many experienced adults  to flood the entry job market. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of  young adults  have taken unpaid jobs or moved back in with their parents due to the shrinking job market.  

While paid internships almost double the chance of a job offer after completion,  there is less evidence that unpaid internships are nearly  as beneficial.  The unpaid internship,  however,  is becoming  so familiar it has shown up on television.  In April  an unpaid internship  figured in the  premiere  episode  of the critically  acclaimed HBO television series,  Girls.     When Hannah, the lead character asks to get paid, she is unceremoniously  terminated  from  her   literary agency  internship in New York City,   after  giving them two years of free labor.  Upon hearing that she was let go,  her highly insensitive  boyfriend   says, “Weren’t you an intern? So they just asked you not to hang out there anymore?”

Under the U.S. Fair Labor and Standards Act, private sector internships are generally considered a form of paid employment.  Payment,  however,  may be withheld is there is (1) a strong training component, (2) the intern  doesn’t displace a regular employee,  and (3) the employer gains no direct immediate  benefit.    In theory   training and experience are the compensation that the intern supposedly accrues.  Internships are often the only way that young people can garner the experience and job skills that make them marketable in our fiercely competitive economy. Even when they lead to a job, many internships function simply as unpaid probationary periods. 

 It has been estimated nearly half of all unpaid internships are technically illegal and American businesses benefit from them  to the tune of over $600 million dollars annually  in free labor. 

In his 2011 book  Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, Brooklyn-based writer  and former intern,  Ross Perlin examines the dark side of  internships, which for all practical purposes  have become the defacto  conduit  to a white collar  job in America.  He describes in  detail various questionable and  exploitive practices which have lead to situations such as a sexually harassed  intern, who couldn’t sue because she wasn’t considered a legal employee, and the Disney intern who ended up owing money to the Disney Corporation  after being charged  for rent. Disney currently has over 8,000 interns at Disney World alone.  Universities  also come under fire  for charging students exorbitant  tuition for participating in  internships under the school’s purview.  Even the White House, with its large unpaid internship  program, doesn’t  escape  unscathed in  Perlin’s exposé.

  Unpaid and exploitive  internships are most frequently seen in the  media, politics, publishing, arts, and entertainment industries. Finance, the sciences, and the law tend to have more traditional paid internship or work study programs.

In a February New York Times Op-Ed piece Perlin says,   “The well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket.” He says  it  is   time to enforce the law.  Other Western countries have also acted   to protect  interns.  In France,  for example,  interns are not paid wages,  but they must be given a  bonus if they work more than two months in one academic year.

Another criticism of   unpaid internships is that it perpetuates class differences. As the  new gateway to a professional career, unpaid internships may block the path for young people who cannot afford to work for free. In a recent lawsuit against the  Hearst Corporation, one intern claimed that unpaid internships  intensify class distinctions, reducing the capacity for social mobility in our society.

Even Perlin, however,  admits that genuine internships still exist that provide both learning  opportunities and  pathways to substantial employment.

My personal lack of an internship or practicums finally caught up with me.  Although I graduated  with a large number of credit hours,  it was almost all theory, with very little if any practice. When I started my first job as a new staff psychologist in Mississippi,   I had never actually seen a real life  client face-to-face  for counseling.  I was pretty much terrified when a surly adolescent boy was hauled into my office, after he had been kicked out of school for smoking.  I quickly discovered three things that college had not taught me: (1) Theory has its limits, (2) maybe an internship would have been helpful  and (3) perhaps I wasn’t nearly as clever as I had thought I was.  

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Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan

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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