Tag Archives: Comentary

Indiana Jones vs. Goliath

2 Jan

uNDERDOGV

“…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…”
Ecclesiastes 9:11
Last September when the Floyd Central football team unexpectedly defeated Jeffersonville High, the News Tribune quoted Floyd running back Gaige Klingsmith as saying, “This was a huge win, and everybody was doubting us. We were the underdogs and came through.” Just the other night my wife Diane and I were watching a Scottish television show about how a group of misfit underdogs managed to defeated their powerful arch-rivals in the traditional Scottish game of shinty (a cousin to racquetball). Whether it’s sports, politics, or international conflicts, people are always attracted by the idea of a winning underdog. From the Old Testament’s David and Goliath to the Hunger Games’ Katniss, the successful underdog is an archetype that is familiar to all of us. In fairy tales we have Cinderella and in sports we have James J. Braddock the “Cinderella Man” who defeated heavily favored Max Baer for the world’s heavyweight boxing championship in 1935. What else, besides a preference for underdogs, could account for all those Chicago Cubs fans.
Many of us identify with the underdog automatically. This may be because there are so many more underdogs than top dogs. In most endeavors, there is only one top dog, while there are many underdogs. To paraphrase Lincoln, God must have really love underdogs, since he made so many of them.
A few years ago University of South Florida psychologist Joseph Vandello, conducted several studies about people’s preferences for underdogs. In one study participants first read an essay about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Afterwards, half of the group was presented with a map showing Palestine as an area smaller than Israel, while the other half was given a map which was altered to show Israel as being smaller in size. When asked who they sided with, all participants chose the side that had the smaller map representation. Delving a bit deeper into the issue, Vandello also found that most people believed that underdogs worked harder than favorites. People naturally seemed to like for someone to defy the odds.
New York Times writer Steven Kotler suggest that we are attracted to underdogs due to that most American of values— “infinite possibility”. We like to believe that in America any one can grow up to be president and it encourages a sense of hope in our own lives.
Aside from our respect for hard work and the sense of hope they engender, the underdog’s appeal might be rooted in something even more basic. According to Los Angeles Times science writer Geoffrey Mohan, our brains may be actually hard wired to identify with the underdog. He cites a Japanese’ study, in which 10 month old infants watched an animated video of a yellow square (the underdog) being pursued by a bullying blue circle. The ball bumps the square seven times and then smashes it completely. The researcher found that 16 of the 20 infants tested reached out for the underdog yellow square.
In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at the New Yorker magazine, examined the underdog phenomena in the light of modern social science. Gladwell first considerers the biblical story of David and Goliath, analyzing it from a novel perspective. He maintains that in ancient times, armies had three types of troops— infantry, cavalry, and projectilists (slingers and archers). Each group had its strengths and weakness. For example, infantry required close quarters fighting in order to be effective, while cavalry moved too fast to be accurately targeted by projectiles. The slinger was a feared and respected warrior, not just a youth with a slingshot, as we often think of the shepherd boy David. When the Philistines proposed one-on-one combat to settle their dispute with Israel they had an infantry vs. infantry confrontation in mind. David, however, turned the tables, as he felt no obligation to play by those arbitrary rules. Gladwell cites one historian who said that Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword, would have against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol. In contemporary vernacular it seems that without realizing it, Goliath had taken a knife to a gunfight.
Diane says that it’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crowd parts and the huge swordsman steps forward expertly handling a massive blade. Like David, Steven Spielberg changes the paradigm and instead of giving us the arduous close quarters fight we expected, he has the exhausted Indiana Jones simply pull out his pistol and readily dispatch the scary and troublesome fellow. We didn’t expect it, but we loved it.
Changing the paradigm is the primary weapon in the underdog’s arsenal. Gladwell also refers to the work of Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft. In 2001 Arreguín-Toft published an article in the journal International Security entitled; How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. This work analyzes how underdogs can and often do win.
According to Arreguín-Toft’s analysis of international conflicts over the past two hundred years, the stronger side typically wins about 70% of the time. When the underdog, however, doesn’t play by traditional rules and adopts guerrilla or other unconventional tactics, this weaker side wins almost 64% of the time. But even underdogs, find it difficult to abandon tradition. During the American Revolution George Washington, for example, was determined to fight the war using classic European military strategy, despite the colonists’ early success with unconventional tactics. He found them distasteful and it almost cost him the war. Underdogs often win using approaches that the opposition finds “unsportsman like”.
This willingness to be disagreeable is related to the basic personality structure of the successful underdog. For the past 30 years psychologists have refined a theory of personality based on what is called the Five Factor Model. Using factor analysis they identified a set of basic personality traits, known as the Big Five. The Big Five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. University of Toronto psychologist Jordon Peterson’s research suggests that successful underdogs display high levels of openness and conscientiousness, but low levels of agreeableness. This profile paints a picture of an individual who is open to new ideas, self-disciplined and works very hard, but who is also prone to be uncooperative, antagonistic, and uncomformist— just the sort of person liable to skillfully use a creative and unconventional approach that others might find objectionable.
According the Gladwell, we should all keep in mind that the strong are not necessarily as strong as they think they are. Likewise the weak are not necessarily as weak as they are believed to be. If you find yourself in an underdog position the three things to remember are: (1) work as hard as you possibly can (2) Don’t be bound by convention and be open to new and creative approaches and finally (3) Don’t worry about what other people think. I’m pretty sure that the Philistines booed David when he first pulled out his slingshot.

Originally Published in The Southern Indiana News-Tribune

 

SLING

Advertisements

Claus: The Feline Archcriminal

15 Mar

I would bet that at least 99% of Americans are opposed to animal crimes. I for one have always taken a firm stand against such patently unacceptable behavior. For these reasons I feel compelled to turn over to the authorities our recalcitrant cat, Claus. Sure, he looks like an adorable stuffed animal. He’ll snuggle up to you, purr, and even lick your hand. But this is all a façade, behind that cuddly fur and saucer-sized eyes, lurks a fiend— an archvillain, a feline Moriarty, a master criminal. Occasionally he slips up and reveals his true nature. He may start out nuzzling you, but before long the claws and fangs come out, and to him you’re nothing more than an oversized hunk of mouse meat.

I offer to the grand jury the following five felony counts and urge that Claus be indicted as soon as possible. Please be wary of his numerous tricks and lies. As we have learned the hard way, he is capable of almost anything.

Felony Count 1 Litter Box Malfeasance: Claus fancies himself an indoor cat. Even though we scoot him outside, whenever the weather is good, he apparently believes that he is “too delicate” to do his business out-of-doors. With his highly inflated sense of self esteem, he apparently holds it all in, until we let him back into the house.

When Claus was younger we kept one of his litter boxes downstairs in the bathroom tub. After we removed the box he seemed to think the drain was good enough. Now we have to keep that bathroom door closed at all times. Now we keep his litter box upstairs on an old vinyl tablecloth to catch any litter that might fall out. Always devious, he has taken to throwing a few pawfuls of litter onto the tablecloth to rationalize using the table cloth, rather than squeezing into his box. Along with his overt transgression, there seems to be a lot of contempt thrown in for good measure. He is the devil incarnate.

Felony Count 2 Food Dish Misconduct: Around 4:00PM or whenever he is let into the house, Claus starts his daily complaints and demands to be fed his wet food. He has always had plenty of dry food available, but by some nefarious means he managed to intimidate his cat-sitter into giving him wet food every day. The cat sitter then intimidated us, insisting that Claus just had to have wet food. I suspect some kind of mind control.

Claus is relentless in hanging around his food dish, griping, moaning, and threatening to bite the microwave electrical cord until he is fed. When he is fed, the first thing he does is tip over his dish, so that a big chunk of food falls on the floor. He often doesn’t even eat this, but just leaves it there. Someone needs to teach that cat a lesson.

Felony Count 3 Sofa Mistreatment: A few years before we knew what we were dealing with, we bought Claus a “Mouse-go-Round” scratching post. It had little mice made of carpet hanging by ribbons from the top of the post so that he could bat them around. All this, however, was evidently not good enough for Claus. Apparently this was not sufficient to satisfy his primal instincts. Recently we discovered that he has also been using a hidden corner of our living room couch as a scratching post. I take this offense rather personally. When he is asked to leave the room or we aren’t quick enough delivering his wet food, we can hear him in there sharpening his claws.

Felony Count 4 Attempted Manslaughter: Like any narcissistic personality, Claus always insists on going first. He runs ahead of us to the door when we come from work to make sure he can get a jump on complaining that he hasn’t been fed. He tries to jump ahead of us when we open the basement door. I don’t know why he is so keen on getting down there. He can get into our basement any time he pleases from the outside, using his secret evil Ninja powers. In addition he is always underfoot in the kitchen, just hoping to trip someone carrying a hot pot or pan. But worse of all, he has taken to jumping ahead of me when I go down the stairs. He frequently entwines himself between my legs as I try to step down. He is fiendishly clever and doesn’t do it every time. So now I worry, even when he isn’t even there. Like in chess the anticipation is worse than the move. I have lost all confidence in navigating the steps. It is a deadly psychological game of cat and what he sees as a very large mouse.

Felony Count 5 Rodent Bribery/Extortion: I know that Claus realizes I am on to him, so he has been playing it cagey pretending to be sweet, but he’s not fooling anyone. The other day I was gingerly coming down the stairs when I almost stepped on a dead mouse, carefully placed on the bottom step. I have concluded that the presence of the dead rodent could mean one of three things. 1. It was an attempt to scare me to death, which almost succeeded. 2. It was an overt threat, sort of like that bloody horse’s head, the gangsters put in the guy’s bed in the Godfather movie. or 3. It was Claus’ cynical attempt to bribe me into silence.

Finally, if my body is found lying at the bottom of our stairs before Claus is prosecuted, make sure the police look for gray cat fur on my pants, just about shin high.

This blog orignally appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

He Never Shares!

30 Nov

 

Last week  our four year old grandson formally announced to everyone,  “I don’t share.” His two older sisters readily agreed that  “no sharing” was his standard  policy,  with the only exception being if  he  was going to   miss out on something he really wanted. In that case he temporarily suspends his no sharing rule. A friend’s three-year old foster granddaughter shows similar tendencies.  If just grabbing something doesn’t work, she declares she wants to share and then grabs it again. I’ll have to  try that.

All this dearth of sharing   reminds me of the “Joey Doesn’t  Share Food !“ episode of the television series Friends,  in which a woman, dating  the Joey Tribbiani character,  causally takes some food off his plate. Like a dog guarding his bowl, Joey reacts with sudden rage.

Our older two granddaughters, after engaging in a fierce life-long competition for nearly everything, have finally decided to call a cease-fire and to share all their belongings. They still have a problems deciding who get to go first and for  how long, but they are improving.

Psychologists study  sharing behavior using   the so-called  “Dictator Game”,  in which one person (the dictator) receives something  (usually  money or food)  and then  may  either  keep all of it, or share it with another person.  Results consistently  reveal,  that  that people usually  share;  often giving  up to  half of what they received. According to Psychology Today blogger,  Daniel Hawes,  one Dictator Game  study  found that   20% of  college students gave nothing,  60% gave up to  half their stake, and  20%  gave  exactly  half of their holdings.  Women generally  tend to give more than men and people can be primed by various means to share  more. For example, using words that evoke  thoughts of sharing, or telling a  story like the Good Samaritan, helps increase sharing.    

            Hawes also reported on  a study conducted by   Harvard researchers Peter Blake and David Rand   at the Boston Science Museum. These experimenters gave young children stickers to either keep or share.  Only 30% of three-year olds decided to share,  while more than 70% of   6 year olds shared their stickers.  Results also showed that all the children, regardless of age,  decided  how much to share based on  how much they liked  the possession. Overall they gave away about 10% less of their favorite stickers.

            Until  about age  four,  most sharing that takes place is not done out of  empathy, but rather  from imitation, or as part  of  the play  process.  Around  4 years of age,  the child develops  a sense of empathy and then sharing takes on a moral dimension  as an obligatory aspect of   social relationships.

            Often times,   people wish   to share certain things, precisely because they  believe the item is  valuable. I once shared two of my favorite books on comedy writing with a young man who was interested in humor.  He ended up leaving town without returning them. I didn’t think that was very funny.

Once  after back surgery  our nephew was laid up for the summer and we sent him a box of videos we had taped of the British science fiction comedy, Red Dwarf.  We wanted to share this show with him,  but were a little concerned   about what  he might think. Fortunately we created another fan and he returned all of the tapes.

This desire to share something we value may be  one of reasons why  many people engage  in  illegal file sharing. Although it may violate copyright laws, it still seems altruistic.  In 2003,  despite a onslaught of lawsuits,  a New York Times poll  indicated that only 36% of Americans believed file sharing was “never acceptable”. The Times said this   highlights a major disparity between “the legal status of file sharing and the apparent cultural consensus on its morality”.

People are frequently placed in situations where sharing is mandatory, like sharing an office or having a college roommate. Roommate issues are among the most common problems addressed in  college counseling centers. An online survey found that 60 percent of  employees  said their co-workers’ annoying habits were  the number one  source of stress in the workplace.

Inconsideration and personality conflicts account for most problems in sharing space, but       specific complaints usually include: 1. Taking or using  personal items  (including food) without permission, 2.Being messy,  3. Violating  personal space, 4. Unwillingness to compromise and  5. Different  styles. Whether it is someone stealing your stapler or eating your last package of Ramen Noodles, sharing personal space can be very challenging. One British study suggests that with smaller family sizes, more people are growing up without learning to share and this may  account for increased difficulty sharing  later in life.     

 Children often receive joint gifts that must be shared and this may aggravate existing sibling rivalry issues. For example on the television series, Everybody Loves  Raymond, there was an episode in which the  two grown brothers are arguing over  a  racing set they both received for  Christmas as children.  The older brother says that he always wanted to set the track up just like the one on the cover of the  box,  with the picture of that “happy brotherless boy”. 

Some parents  set rules for how sharing is to take place or establish mechanisms to assure equity, while others let the children fight it out among themselves. Some authorities think that giving  joint gifts is  useful,  since they give children practice in sharing and taking turns, that they might not get otherwise.

While sharing  might rationally seem contrary to our best interest,  it is an important lesson,  since it is one of the main ways we create  relationships. It is often very difficult to enjoy things alone.  Lord  Byron once wrote “All, who joy would win,  must share it. Happiness was born a twin.” 

For adults in a relationship, sharing things usually isn’t a problem,  unless they decide to breakup. In such situations retired California Superior Court Judge  Roderic Duncan suggests  making a list of all  the items jointly owned, assigning a value to each of them,  and then  deciding who is the logical owner. Having an established value can help both parties  agree on what is an equitable split. When it comes to disputed items,  the Judge  recommends flipping a coin, holding a sale,  or letting each party bid on the item in question.  

Of course, the biggest problem is often deciding what items are actually jointly owned. One partner may have  paid for an item and feels like  it  belongs to him or her, but they only had the  money to do so, because  the other party  was paying for  rent,  a car,  or utilities. These sort of disputes are much more complicated to untangle.

Growing up,  my older brother was never much for sharing,  unless it was my bicycle, after he destroyed his own, or the contents of my bank, when he wanted something. I’m tempted to  say that he never really shared anything, but that wouldn’t be true. There was always the chicken pox.

 

From a colum in the News Tribune of Souhern Indiana

Lucky Ducks

20 Sep

Lately I‘ve  been thinking a lot about luck.  In these uncertain times, its tempting to think that maybe there is something you can do to  get a little edge.  My father was an usually practical man, but he  could be superstitious, especially when it came to  luck.  Growing up during the depression I don’t think he  want to take any unnecessary  chances.   He was known to carry  a  buckeye in his pocket for  luck, he refused to eat anything that that scratched the ground on New Year’s Day, and he even nailed a horseshoe  over the doorway to the  garage (pointing  upwards, of course, so  the luck wouldn’t dribble out). Despite his best efforts the only thing lucky in our family was the brand of cigarettes my mother smoked.

 I always assumed that luck was sort of randomly distributed, but it seems like it is more like other characteristics, with some people  at each extreme and most of us in the middle. Multi-millionaire Senator  Judd Gregg fromNew Hampshirecould be a poster child for  the lucky ducks.  In  2005 he cashed in a Powerball ticket worth $853,000.   To add a bit of irony,  his good luck occurred right after voting  against raising the minimum wage and  increasing subsidies  to help  poor people pay their heating bills.

Our son had a Norwegian friend who also lived  a charmed existence.  He had Aryan superiority written all over him.  Slot machines are everywhere inNorwayand this fellow couldn’t  pass one by with out playing and winning.

On the other side of the spectrum are people like  outdoors writer Patrick Mc Manus who insists  that he is so unlucky, when it comes to hunting and fishing, that his bad fortune rubs off on others. I guess there is nothing  very new about hexes,   jinxes,  and Jonahs.  They even made a movie about it.  William Macy  starred in a  2003 film entitled The Cooler, in which a  casino boss hires an  extremely unlucky man to hang around so that his  presence will break  other players good luck streaks.

Of course, the big question is  whether we make our own luck or is really just random. Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, once said, “Luck is the residue of design”.

English psychologist Richard Wiseman  from  the Universityof Hertfordshireand   author of   The Luck Factor,   has conducted a series of experiments comparing people who see themselves as lucky  and those who don’t.

In one  study he asked his subjects to follow a set path  across town to meet him at  a particular coffee shop.   Secretly he had  placed  20-pound notes along the pathway. He found that the  lucky subjects  were much more likely to notice the money and collect it along the way. Unlucky subjects were oblivious to the opportunities along the path.  When the subjects arrived at the  destination,   four people were waiting.One    was a very successful entrepreneur .  

The lucky subjects were  attracted to the rich entrepreneur and even engaged him in conversation. When  all  the subjects were   asked how the day went,  the unlucky ones said  nothing special  happened. The lucky subjects saw the day as very lucky and mentioned  finding the  money and talking to a person who might offer some business opportunities.

Not only were lucky people more  observant,  they also had their radar especially attuned to potential opportunities. Overall they were more open to the possibility  of   positive experiences.

 In another study  Wiseman asked  lucky and unlucky people to look through a newspaper to determine how many photographs it contained.  Unlucky subjects took about  two minutes to count  the photographs, but  lucky people averaged only a few seconds.  On the  second newspaper page was a  message printed in two inch letters which said  “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”   Invariably unlucky subjects overlooked  it, while the lucky subjects easily  spotted it.  Such opportunities for good luck may be  constantly staring all of us  in the face,  but  we are  too inattentive to recognize them.

Wiseman  posited   that unlucky people are generally more anxious, which supports  research that suggests  anxiety interferes with the ability to notice the unexpected.

Lucky people also engage  their environment more actively,  thereby increasing the possibility of positive outcomes. Unlucky people  are more  passive,  as if they expect a hostile reception to any overtures they might make.       

  Wiseman concluded  that people could be taught to be luckier and devised what he called LuckSchool. InLuckSchool people practice exercises that encourage them to think and behave like  lucky people.  Wiseman  found that about 80% of his graduates said that they felt luckier and more satisfied with their lives.   

The curriculum was based on four principles. First, lucky people believe that the future holds  good fortune for them. This  becomes   self-fulfilling  and helps them persevere  in difficult times. Psychologists believe that optimism is the major factor underlying luck.  

Second, lucky people are very good at  recognizing and talking advantage of  unexpected opportunities. Being relaxed  helps them do this.

Third,  they  trust their instincts in making decisions and they focus  exclusively on the issue under consideration. If your intuition is consistently wrong,  then maybe you should do the exact opposite,  like George Constanza did on a  Seinfeld episode.  

Finally, lucky people have superior coping skills that help  them weather  adversity. In fact they seem to thrive on it.

People may also do things that diminish their luck.  Unlucky  actions are not only foolish things, like walking down a dark alley with  100 dollar bills  hanging out of  your  pocket, but also more subtle  behaviors  like   walking around aimlessly looking vulnerable.  

When it comes to certain  crimes, perhaps we occasionally make our own bad luck. It has been said you can’t cheat and honest man. In the 1997  film Grosse Pointe Blank , John Cusack stars as  a professional  hit man, who says,  “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there.”  But we should also be careful about  blaming  innocent victims and turning into Job’s comforters, who wrongly assumed Job did something wrong to merit his misfortune.

In tough times perhaps  we can all improve our  luck  a little by being more mindful of opportunities.  As for  the existence of luck?  French poet Jean Cocteau said,   “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?

A Gander at Comic Books

17 Sep

            

              The other day I was  explaining the origin of the comicbook character, Iron Man to my wife Diane. Iron Man first developed the high tech armor that gives him his powers in Viet Nam. His major adversaries originally were communist villains, like  The Crimson Dynamo. In the more recent  films, Afghanistan supplanted Vietnam and the sequel introduces a new Russian villain, although his motives are personal rather than political.    

            Being a girl, Diane lacked this vital information, and was unimpressed by the fascinating story.  Girls just don’t seem to grasp the importance of super-heroes.  Maybe this is because,  as comedian Jerry Seinfeld observed, all  men view themselves as sort of super-heroes. Seinfeld says as boys grow up,  Superman, Spiderman, and Batman are not just juvenile fantasies— they’re considered real  options.

            In 1842 Rudolph  Toppfer published a collection of newspaper comic strips in what is considered to be  the first comic book. But everything changed in 1938 when Action Comics introduced Superman, establishing the still dominant super-hero genre.   

            In the  1950s, comics came under attack,  as  congressional hearings charged them with the corruption of youth. The star witness before the  Senate Judiciary committee was psychiatrist Fredric Wertham.  Wertham  testified that comic books were  “an important contributing factor  in many cases of juvenile delinquency”.  He claimed that Batman was “homoerotic”, Superman promoted “sadistic” impulses, and Wonder Woman was about “sadomasochism”.  Ironically the creator of Wonder Woman was Harvard psychologist William Marston, who wanted a hero who used love, as readily as force, to fight crime.

            Fearing governmental intervention,  comic book  publishers voluntarily formed a self-policing organization. Works that complied with standards about crime, bloodshed, occultism, and sex, were awarded the Comics Code Seal.   As comics moved from mass media to niche markets, the importance of the code waned.

             Richard Kyle coined the term “graphic novel” in 1964 to describe European works that he considered more sophisticated than the  typical American fare. The term is now applied to “serious” comic books,  with quality bindings, that are sold in comic shops and bookstores.  They have been the basis for numerous movies.

            In the  1970s  indie publishers produced  underground comics  reflecting the prevailing counterculture. Many adults found the uninhibited styles of artists like Robert Crumb (the “Keep on Trucking” guy), shocking and offensive–  pretty much as intended.   “Alternative Comics”  represented by Harvey Pekar‘s American Splendor  came next  and are still popular.    

            According to Diamond Comic Distributors,  Marvel Comics currently holds a 45% market share compared to the 33% share of their chief rival, DC Comics,  which owns the Batman and Superman  franchisees. None of the smaller publishers have more than a 5% share.

            There are over half a million American comic book readers and  top selling issues exceed 120,000 copies a month. For years my friend Scott, has subscribed to several comics.  He seals each one in a Mylar bag and treats his collection as if it were his 401K. Truthfully, it  has done much better than the market.

            The first Spider-Man  is  worth over $75,000.  Iron Man #1  has been selling for  about $600, but the  movies promise to drive the price to over $1000.   At the very  upper end, the first Batman sells for about $400,000 and the “Holy Grail” of comicdom, Superman’s  first appearance,  is priceless, but  lists for over a half a million dollars.

            I owned first editions of Spiderman and Iron Man,  as well as  other Marvel comics from the 1960’s. Had I held on to them, I might be writing this from my villa on the Riviera. It is said that R. Crumb traded his early sketchbooks for a house in the south of France.   Unfortunately my older brother Norman, ever the wheeler-dealer,  traded my prized comics, without my knowledge. In return he got a box of old Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost,  and Ritchie Rich comics from the  kid down the street. These comics were in terrible shape and were mostly the unpopular Charelton and Harvey brands.  

            I can’t blameNormantoo much, since I personally ruined my only other   childhood opportunity for riches.  As a boy I came into possession of hundreds of old baseball cards. I wasn’t a fan and had no idea that they would ever be valuable.  So, I used them all for target practice with my BB gun. It makes me ill to think about it, but I probably would have plugged the Mona Lisa between the eyes, were it in my possession back then.

            My father was always a big fan of  Donald Duck comics. In the 1940’s, Carl Barks,  Disney’s “duck man” created Donald’s lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander, and my father’s favorite, Donald’s uncle, Scrooge McDuck, “the World’s Richest Duck”.    My father was always attracted to the notion of luck and I think he really liked the idea of  “swimming in money” as Scrooge often did, in his money bin.    

            Louisvilleartist Don Rosa is one of Barks’ most famous successors. In 1995 Rosawon the Eisner Award (the “Oscar of Comics”)  for The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,  series. The series second installment begins inLouisville, complete with a depiction of the Galt House and an exaggerated Falls of theOhio.     

            My whole family grew up as Scrooge fans, as did our kids. Normanonce visited us and when he saw a stack of Uncle Scrooge comics on the bedroom bookshelf, he started referring to his room as the “luxury suite”.          

            Perhaps this all culminates with our youngest son. In the fifth grade he drew a poster with   ducks on it. They were so animated that they seemed to come alive.   Diane immediately sensed that the talent that eluded me, may have found expression in David.  He recently finished art school inManhattanand is now drawing graphic novels inNew York City.   

            David was always fascinated by big city life. When the admissions counselor at the Art Institute of Chicago looked at his portfolio, he said David had a “gritty urban thing” going in his artwork.  When David  painted a mural in the children’s Sunday school classroom at church,  Diane and  I were concerned that Jesus might be smoking a cigarette or resemble Lenny Bruce.  David, however, managed to show some restraint.  

            Although much of his work is still gritty and urban,  he  continues to  paints and draw ducks. It’s in his blood. Diane and I saved all his elementary school sketchbooks. We haven’t given up on the Riviera yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doodle All the Day Long

16 Sep

                                                                                                                                                     

  At a   business meeting the other day, my attention began to wander as I sat there doodling. I don’t know if it was the topic, or all the antihistamines I was taking, but the meeting room gradually melted away and there I was in a boat with a refreshing breeze in my face. I heard my name in the distance, and suddenly I was yanked back, as if a bungee cord was attached to the boat. Evidently I was being asked to make some sort of decision. Everyone was looking at me so earnestly that I was too embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. My notes were no help. They were the minutes from the last meeting with all of the “o’s” and “e’s” filled in and some poorly drawn palm trees in the margin. Hoping that I hadn’t been asked to past the bowl of pretzels, I said that I would have to consider the issue and get back to everyone. They all nodded and seemed satisfied.

                 Daydreaming and doodling are closely related phenomena. Doodling, which has been found in early Mesopotamian clay tablets, has been called the world’s most common and ignored art form. Anthropologists once theorized that certain strange stone-age cave paintings must have been created by early humans, while under the influence of indigenous drugs or possibly primitive music. However, one researcher examined the classroom doodles of college students and found artistic elements identical to the Paleolithic productions. This should come as no surprise to any parent of a college student. Doodling is technically the spontaneous production of drawings or markings, when one’s mind is preoccupied with something else. Doodling most often takes place in meetings, classrooms, while on the phone, and on napkins in restaurants. English psychologist Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth found that doodling actually improves memory and attention on certain tasks. People who doodled while listening to a dull phone message remembered 29% more than people who did not doodle. Everyone in England, however, isn’t convinced of its benefits, as a convicted rapist was released from prison when it was discovered that a juror was doodling sketches of the judge during the trial. The case has been appealed on the grounds that the juror was not paying enough attention to the evidence.

               When our brains lacks sufficient stimulation, they may manufacture their own content, like doodles and daydreams. For many people doodling provides just enough activity during boring tasks to prevent escape into full-fledged daydreams. Because doodling is largely unconscious, many believe it can provide insight into personality functioning. After the 2005 World Economic Forum, a reporter was snooping around the seat occupied by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and found papers with elaborate doodles of triangles, rectangles, circles, and words in boxes. The reporter had these drawings analyzed by a graphologist and newspapers throughout Britain gleefully reported that the doodles revealed that Blair was “struggling to concentrate” and “not a natural leader”. One journalist went so far as to call the prime minister “a closet vicar with a death wish”. But Blair had the last laugh when it was revealed that the doodles were actually made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who had inadvertently left them at Blair’s seat. David Greenberg a professor of history at Rutgers recently published a book on presidential doodles, showing that even the father of our country wasn’t above decorating his notebook with checkerboard designs. And the tradition continues today. A doodle by Barrack Obama recently sold for $2,500 on e-Bay.

                  Like the Rorschach test, there is little agreement about the specific meaning of doodles. For example, some authorities believe crosshatching and repeated patterns suggest a methodical approach to tasks, while others see it as an indicator of obsessive compulsive behavior. A house with smoke coming from the chimney means a welcoming fire for some experts, while for others it may signify sexual problems. While doodling represents a minor retreat from reality, daydreams are fully developed visual fantasies experienced while we’re awake. Research by University of Minnesota psychology professor, Eric Klinger, revealed that most daydreams are actually about ordinary events. They help remind us of everyday tasks. Less than 5% of daydreams involved sexual thoughts and violent daydreams are quite uncommon. Klinger’s research showed that over 75% of people with “boring jobs”, such as lifeguards and truck drivers, frequently use daydreams to ease the tedium of their workday. Daydreaming has often been judged as a non-productive pastime.

                    When I was growing up some psychologists even cautioned parents that persistent daydreaming could lead to a break with reality and even psychosis. But daydreaming has also been associated with major creative break-throughs in many disciplines. For example, in 1862, German chemist Friedrich Kekulé discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule in a daydream about a snake seizing its own tail. Walt Disney was well know for his frequent day dreaming and even today the Disney Corporation recognizes outstanding young people with its “Dreamers and Doers Awards”. Star athletes have long employed visualization as an effective training technique. For many practicing in imagination is as good or even better than real life and visualization is essentially the same state of mind as daydreaming. Of course day dreaming can be detrimental when a task demands our full attention. A Wisconsin survey found that daydreaming was second only to fatigue as the cause of auto accidents.

                     I once found that doodling can also be hazardous. I had just started a job and my new boss was briefing me about the employees I supervised. As he gave me the rundown, I idly doodled on the back of a stack of papers. He cautioned me about one of the women, describing her as “not a team player”. Later that day I met with all the employees and passed out a memo about supervision times. It went very well, but an hour later I got a phone call from the woman my boss warned me about. She demanded to know what the doodles on the back of her memo meant. She said she recognized palm trees, but she wanted to know why her name was written in what looked to be a traffic caution sign and why it was next to a box that contained the underlined words “Not a team player?”

 

Stuck on Mary Lou

17 Aug

             Over the past couple of days, every once in a while,   music from the song “Time after Time”,  spontaneously  starts playing in my head. It is like having a pilot light constantly flickering in your brain while you just wait  for it to flare up. Except for the Goonies and Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I was never much of a  Cyndi Lauper fan, so  I only   know  two lines from this song but they keep repeating themselves.

            My wife Diane seems especially susceptible to the works of Ricky Nelson.  Whenever she plays Ricky Nelson songs as the background music at the bookstore she manages, she gets stuck on “Hello Mary Lou” for days.  At least it’s not “Garden Party”.  

            Neuroscientists call this phenomena an “earworm”, which  is the literal translation of the German term, Ohrwurm, which simply means a song that gets stuck in your head. Over 98%  of Americans  report  having this experience. One-third of respondents in a international survey said  they have earworms every day and  90% said they occur  at least  once a week.   

            As early as 1876,  Mark Twain wrote a  tongue-in-cheek article for the Atlantic Monthly,  in which he claims he acquired  an earworm from a newspaper jingle. Some of the addictive verses from the jingle were:   

                                    “Conductor, when you receive a fare,
                                    Punch in the presence of the passenjare.

                                    Punch, brothers!  Punch with care!
                                    Punch in the presence of the passenjare.”

This  jingle   drove  Twain crazy,  until he jokingly describes how he passed it on to an unfortunate acquaintance. It is a good thing he died 54 years before Walt Disney  opened his   “It’s a Small World” attraction—  Twain would have never survived it.   

            In 1997 humorist  Dave Barry wrote the “Book of Bad Songs”, which summarizes his  survey of the world’s worst songs.  Barry contends that bad song lyrics and  jingles for products that no longer exist, are the two things that we are most likely to remember,  while our ATM passwords and the names of our children are assigned relatively  low priority by our perverse memory.   Barry warns that his book might even “put bad songs into your head”. He suggests that the book  is best deployed as a  psychological weapon  and given to enemies.

        I believe that I once had the winner of Barry’s worse song survey,MacArthurPark, stuck in my head for a week. I distinctly remember humming about a cake left out in the rain and how long it took to bake it.

            Earworm songs are always familiar to the victim and usually are not   perceived as a significant problem.  However,  in a 2005 survey 7.5%  of people did  report  having their least favorite song stuck in their head on occasion. In this more recent study, Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart ” replacedMacArthurParkas the most despised song.

            Most of the time earworms end within a day or so, but they are thought to be more difficult to suppress by people  who are most into  music.  Women and men experience earworms with about the same frequency, but they seem to last a little longer for women.   Usually the songs are a catchy tune  that you may have liked at some point in the past, but they may become highly annoying from the sheer repetition. They especially seem to appear when people are alone and bored.   

            Earworms are a type of intrusive involuntary imagery, which can include spontaneous   pictures, smells, and tastes.  Auditory intrusions, however,  seem to be more common than those from other sensory modalities. Some scientists believe that earworms may be a mild form of auditory hallucinations. Others think they may be the normal side effect of the memory consolidation process. Famous neurologist Oliver Sacks theorizes that they may just be the natural consequence of having our brains  constantly  bombarded by music.

            James Kellaris, a marketing professor  at theUniversityofCincinnati, has extensively studied earworms  and views  them as   a “cognitive itch.”   Kellaris, believes that certain music has  unusual qualities, such as repetitiveness, simplicity, or unexpectedness,  that hook  the brain’s attention. The brain tries to process this irritating stimulation by repeating it, which only makes matters worse–  like scratching an insect bite. However, since virtually any song may be an earworm for some people,  Kellaris now believes that the phenomenon probably results from an interaction of song properties and individual traits.

            Kellaris conducted a 2003 survey to determine his own  earworm “Playlist From Hell” and he  included commercial jingles, as well as songs. After idiosyncratic earworms,  the  most common ones cited were:  1. Chili’s (Baby Back Ribs), 2. Who Let the Dogs Out?,  3. We Will Rock You, 4. Kit-Kat bar jingle (Gimme a break), 5. TheMission Impossible Theme, 6. YMCA,  7. Whomp, There It Is, 8. The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and  9. It’s a Small World After All.

            People have adopted a variety of different techniques to eliminate or suppress earworms including; substituting a new tune,  passing it on,  distraction,  listening to the earworm, discussing it, or simply  waiting for it to pass. I looked up the lyrics to “Time After Time” and was surprised to find that the verses I was hearing in my head weren’t exactly the same as the actual song. I also listened to the song, but it didn’t go away, although the lyrics mysteriously corrected themselves. Some people believe that the more attention you give to an earworm, the more resistant it is to leaving.

            Kellaris’ website says that there is a common myth that some tunes (like the Flintstones’  Theme) can serve as an “eraser  song” that can eliminate earworms. It may distract the individual, but there is no evidence of any true “eraser effect”. And there is even the danger the eraser song will become a brand new earworm, itself.  

            I don’t believe learning about earworms has helped me at all, but  “Time After Time” has finally  faded from my brain. I am not sure how I did it,   but  something, (from the, town ofBedrock),  is now telling me that, “I’ll never have that recipe again, oh nooo!”