Tag Archives: Comentary

Repairathon Man

8 Apr

If you have three small children and a broken dryer,  you have some idea of what hell is like.  A few weeks ago we were at my daughter’s house and   her bathroom was covered with hangers holding various articles of clothing, while a large fan whirled relentlessly.  The dryer had broken and they were waiting fir a replacement part they  ordered online. She had not yet resorted to that epitome of despair– taking her wet clothes to the  laundromat. 

For me the  laundromat, always   triggers traumatic memories of when I was single and spent   a large portion of my life at the “World O’ Suds”. I would  s put this off until the last possible minute and then I would schlep down there looking like a hobo in the only clean clothes I had left, in order to spend a fortune in quarters trying to get those darn towels dry.

Just a few months ago our dryer broke down. I decided to save a few bucks by seeing what the internet could offer. I eventually found a website that showed my dryer, and exactly what I needed to do to repair it. It seems that all the fuss was caused by a minuscule plastic fuse that cost about five dollars and takes 10 minutes to replace.  I went to the appliance store  where I bought the dryer and they sent me to an appliance parts warehouse out near the airport. This place actually had the fuse I desperately  needed hanging on a display rack near the cash register like it was a box of TicTacs®.

When I got home I managed to lose about half of the little metal screws that hold the back cover on the dryer, but after 10 minutes— all I can say is “Mission Accomplished”.

            Last winter, I used the Internet to fix  our furnace.  We have an oil furnace, which always manages to run out of fuel on the coldest day of the year. When our oil  furnace    completely runs out,  it  requires that you run some fuel through the line before it will start pumping again. So even when we finally got our fuel tank filled,  the furnace wouldn’t work.

I looked all this stuff up on the Internet and had decided to try to fix it myself, although I was very worried about what might happen in light of the unfortunate incident of the Coleman® Stove. I was alarmed to find that the process of running fuel through the lines is called “bleeding”, a term which has been often associated with my home repairs. I was also worried because the furnace in the pictures did not look very much like our furnace so I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing. With ticking  parts and colored wires sticking out all over, the furnace resembled  a large time bomb that I was trying to defuse. Call it “beginner’s  luck” or more properly “dumb luck”,  but I managed to bleed the line, only spilling  a gallon or two of No. 2  fuel oil over my coat and our basement floor.

            I must admit that I usually try pawn off calling the repairman on my wife, Diane. I also   make a point of not being around while the repairman is there and I have even  been known to take several trips around the block,  waiting for the repair truck to leave our driveway.

I think I do this for a couple of reasons. First it seems less than masculine to have another man come to your house to fix something that you should be able to repair yourself. Secondly, repairmen all seemed bent on giving me  a lecture on how I  can  make the repair myself in the future should it break again. Having no intention to ever do so,  I nod my head knowingly and have no idea what they’re talking about when they rattle on about   broil plates, solenoids, mullions and my personal favorite “the infinite heat switch”. Then I say that I understand perfectly and make a mental note that if it breaks again I will definitely have to get Diane to  call another repair guy.

Finally I  am embarrassed that they might   disparage my lame attempts at fixing the appliance before they came. They might ask what happened to all the metal screws on the  back cover, for example,   or ask what is all that duct tape doing wrapped around the infinite heat switch.

Years ago I had a van that would stall out all the time because the carburetor’s butterfly valve  would  not open and car didn’t get  enough air.  I discovered that if I shoved an object into the carburetor, it would open the valve enough to allow the engine to run. Generally I used a screwdriver for this purpose, but once I couldn’t find one  and instead   used  an old  bayonet,  I had  nagged my dad in buying me at the army surplus store when I was a kid. 

A few weeks later the car had other problems  and I took it into the garage, completely forgetting  about the bayonet. When the mechanic saw it  sticking in the carburetor he pulled it out as if he were King Arthur extracting Excalibur.  He said “I think I see your  problem, someone has engaged this van in hand to hand combat”.   I never lived  it down.

When we visited our daughter again on, thankfully,  her dryer was working again. We knew it was working because we could hear a continuous loud squeal emanating from her basement — or should I say “her downstairs”.  She has a walk-out  ground floor that she hates to hear us call  “a basement”.  I’m not sure what was wrong with the dryer, but I  told her if should  could  find me a large dagger of some sort,  I’m  sure I could fix it.

      

Situational Reading

2 Mar

             

The other day I heard a psychologist say that if  you don’t doze off within the first half an hour after going to bed, don’t lie awake struggling to fall asleep. Instead   get out of bed and read until you feel tired. My sister tried this, but would then stay up half the night reading. Her doctor advised her to stay in bed, keep the lights off and not be so impatient.  I suppose, that if you do read,  the trick  is to find a book that is not very engaging– something where  you don’t really care what’s going to happen next. Fon   Boardman Jr. from the Columbia University Press, polled librarians, editors, authors, reviewers, and  teachers and  their  consensus was that the world’s most boring author was George Eliot, so you might want to try reading Silas Marner.  It  certainly put me to sleep during sophomore English. One of my classmates referred to it as “Silly-Ass” Marner.    

            But without Mr. Boardman’s help,  how could you find such a book? Most libraries classify their holdings using either the  Dewey Decimal System or its  rival the Library of Congress Classification. Both systems   organize knowledge into  major classes and subdivides them into  divisions and  sections.  The Dewey System  is purely numerical and assigns a decimal number to each book and  can easily accommodate  an infinite number of works.     The Library of Congress  System   is an alpha-numeric mix with letters signifying the main divisions and double letters indicating subcategories. I can still remember that BF is the designation for psychology, but only because B.F. were the initials of arguably the most famous of American psychologists,  Burrhus Frederick (B.F.) Skinner. 

            Because they are based on categories of human knowledge, neither of these systems, can help you locate written works that are appropriate  for specific circumstances  like trying to fall asleep. In addition  to falling asleep there are   also a variety of other situations and venues which might call for customized reading materials. 

            To remedy this problem, I’d like to proposed a new classification system  based  on the demands of the setting–  the “Situation, Time,  And Whatever, Analytic Reading System or   the STAWAR system.

            Instead of subject matter; such as science, literature, or philosophy;  the STAWAR  system  employs other important attributes of reading material  such as how boring or engaging the material is,  its physical features (weight, size, appearance) and dimensions  such  as  granularity.  A blogger, named Pont,   defined   granularity as the “size of the semantic chunks of a work”. For example A dictionary or trivia book would have high granularity, a short story collection medium,  and a  Victor Hugo novel   very little.

            Below are a few proposed category descriptions  from  the STAWAR system: 

AP (Airplane): Airplane reading material should be lightweight and easily tucked into a pocket or carry on bag. Since the seats are narrow, newspapers are not recommended unless you are angling to become intimate with your seat mates.  Indigenous reading materials such as  the In-Flight Magazine,  weird catalogue,  safety card, and barf   cannot be  relied upon for  entertainment. This  material should be moderately engaging as  to distract your attention from strange engine noises and peanut crunching fellow passengers. Granularity should be based on the length of the flight or numbers of layovers. Excluded from this class are FAA safety reports and any stories regarding crash landings in the Andes or  incipient cannibalism.       

BB (Barber/Beauty Shop): In these settings there is often a gender divide in  reading materials between  sports magazines and newspapers  vs.  beauty and fashion  publications. If you bring your own reading material  to the barbershop,  it should not  be too pretentious or you run the risk of social humiliation. In college I made the mistake of bringing a textbook from a class on the psychology of learning to the barber shop. It was entitled “Principles of Reinforcement”. The fellow sitting next to me noticed what I was reading.   I suddenly realized my mistake  and prepared for the inevitable  teasing. I was granted a  reprieve when he looked at the title and just said, “Oh you’re studying construction.” Thankfully construction work was sufficiently testosterone drenched in a way that psychology couldn’t be.   

BE  (Beach):  Beach reading is usually light guilty pleasures.  The books themselves   should usually be   inexpensive since they will be exposed to  water,  sand, and suntan lotion. Low  reflectivity is a plus. Occasionally larger volumes can be usefully employed. Although lugging them onto the beach can be a chore, they are serviceable as a makeshift pillow if you wrap a towel around them. 

CA (Car):   Talking on cell phones or texting while driving as been found to be quite distracting and dangerous. Reading, while driving, certainly must be just as bad  if not worse.  I once knew a woman who read while driving. She always kept a paperback on the front seat of her car, but to her credit she only read when the car was stopped at traffic lights or train crossings. I’m not aware that she ever had an accident, but other drivers were constantly honking their horns at her, as she would try to finish a paragraph before  taking off.  She said she preferred books with short chapters. 

            Reading in  vehicles can be a  difficult task even for passengers. Our kids always read in the car,  but  my wife Diane gets car sick.  I believe that books with large type are best for car reading and can help reduce potential nausea, unless they are by Danielle Steel.

CH (Church):  Except for church bulletins, hymnals, Bibles, and  collection envelope doodles, reading in church, like cell phone use  is   seen as socially inappropriate  by most Americans.   For iconoclasts, who still insist on reading in church,  the materials should either    resemble  or be  easily inserted into an indigenous publications. Content should be serious enough so that facial expressions are not revealing. Laugh-out-loud  and  irreverent materials  should be scrupulously avoided during the sermon.

              Finally specialized reading materials could be identified for a variety of other  venues such as doctors’ offices, courts, work,  classrooms, and laundromats. In retrospect, I am afraid to speculate in what setting  this piece  might best be read.

Wayne and the Mayor: Another Steeltown Story

15 Feb

             

               Like many local politicians in Steelyown, it wasn’t exactly clear how Stan Mayer made his living but it had something to do with insurance and real estate, although Stan never seemed to actually transact any business. He spent mpost of his time in back booth at the Trojan Cafe. Wayne Flynn was a harmless and delicate  delinquent and Steeltown’s number one Beatles’s fan.  He was basically too intelligent to work for the cityand annoyed everyone by roaring around town in a silver Corvette he had tricked his father into buying. The deal Wayne made was that in the unlikely event he graduated from high school, his father would pony up for the ‘vette’. 

            Wayne had spent less time in high school than Abraham Lincoln, but somehow   graduated anyway. For four years he never knew his locker combination, which was fine because he didn’t know where his locker was anyway. No one knows how he managed to graduate. The day after graduation he got the silver corvette. He had a local sign shop paint a discreet “Loner” on the back fender and became a local legend.

            The summer after graduation Mayor Stan spotted him in Glik’s Department Store and asked,  “Well Wayne, have you found any honest employment yet?”  Reflexively Wayne replied, “Nope, have you?”

            Despite the  bravado,  Wayne desperately needed a job to pay for the expensive car insurance the fiberglass corvette required, so he went to the Illinois State Employment Office, with his Steeltown High School diploma proudly in hand. Wayne’s diploma would have been more functional if it had been printed on the back of a shop towel. 

            The State Employment Office people took one look at Wayne and quickly sent him to a green block building on the outskirts of town. Inside were dull-eyed men who were taking long metal rods and putting them into a machine that bent them into 90-degree angles. On the other side of the building another group of zombies were taking long metal rods, that were already bent into a 90 degree angle, and putting them into a machine that straightened them out. Wayne didn’t like the looks of the place at all and immediately roared home and and spent then next two weeks listening to the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour.  Later he told us  it must have been some sort of government job.

Terry Stawar Semi-Finalist in 2010 Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Competition

11 Feb

February 9th the Robert Benchley Society  announced the  it’s Top Ten Semi-Finalists   in it’s 2010 Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Competition. Among this illustrious group is Terry L. Stawar of Georgetown, Indiana, for his piece entitled The Strange Case of the Wayward Beef Roast. At last some of the fame and recognition he hungers for.

Backyard Diehard: Another Steeltown Story

1 Feb

We were a typical blue collar family in Steeltown. We lived in a very modest three-bedroom brown-shingled house on the corner of Fourth and Ewing, just down from the Russian Orthodox Church with the gold onion-shaped spire.

My father worked as an electrician at the steel mill, but somehow that was never quite enough for him.  It would have surprised his coworkers and the other volunteer firemen to know that he had played the violin in a band, had a failed career as a watchmaker, played chess, invented various electrical devices, and love to read Scrooge McDuck comic books.  Some people might have thought my father was pretentious in some of his aspirations. For example, he had the notion that our backyard could be transformed into a Garden of Eden of sorts. Despite the pollution and terrible soil quality in Steeltown, he optimistically planted an apple tree, cherry tree, apricot tree, and strawberries. Then sat back waiting to enjoy the bounty.

After producing a single apricot, the apricot tree just gave up the ghost for no discernable reason. It just seemed to have lost the will to survive in our yard. The apple tree, however, grew but always seemed degenerate.  The apples were small, green, extremely hard, and usually contained some type of  horrifying insect. When the apples would fall from the tree,  they always seemed to be covered with flies, almost immediately. The apple tree trunk was stippled with holes that boring insects had created and the whole thing wasjust unwholesome. My mother once made an inedible  apple pie using the demonic fruit from the tree.

The cherry tree faired a little better, but yielded extremely sour cherries.  Whenever he had been drinking, which was quite often, my father would prune the cherry tree. It soon looked like a bonsai tree. In the hot summer our backyard would be full of intoxicated birds that had been eating the fermented sour cherries. Taking my lead from the birds, I once tried to make cherry wine, using sugar, gallon jugs, neutral grain alcohol, and a sour cherry mash. Supposedly the wine was ready when the corks popped out of the jugs. One jug exploded and our basement was covered in a sweet sticky fluid.  It had a very strong alcohol smell.  We were all afraid to drink the wine that survived. My friend Bert Armour, a Steeltown connoisseur of aldut beverages, volunteered to test it for us. His main qualification for  this task was that when the  polka band had played   “Roll out the Barrel” in the high school talent show, Bert was the one selected to roll an empty keg  of beer across the stage. I handed him the wine,   he took a big swig,  and then seemed struck speechless. 

The viscosity of this wine was about the same as the popular oil additive STP,  so for about 10 minutes,  Bert was physically unable to open his mouth. When the wine dissolved enough that he could speak, he said it had a good taste and was rather smooth. He declined to drink any more, fearing it might permanently glue his lips together.

My father  seemed jealous that my mother could grow terrific tomatoes with hardly any effort at all. Once she randomly  threw out some pumpkin seeds   and  the next fall, to his dismay, we had a yard full of large attractive pumpkins.

Like most yards in Steeltown, ours had a large porch swing for the adults and a swing-set for children. Only in our case my father had built the swing-set himself out of heavy-duty pipes. It was a bit dangerous because of the many sharp and protruding bolts. He hand made wooden seats and built a rather creative pipe teeter totter.  He painted the swing set battleship gray and we kids  played on it for years.

The backyard  also held a large brick barbecue pit that my father had built. He salvaged some firebrick from a demolished coke oven, and used them to line the pit. So basically our barbecue pit could withstand temperatures of over 2000 degrees.  The only problem was that he built it next to the ash pit, where we dumped our garbage and burned trash. Thinking it unsanitary, my mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Occasionally when no one was burning trash, my father would grill ribs. We would get the ribs form the butcher’s shop just down the alley.   This entire establishment was contained in a meat cooler.  There was sawdust on the floor and year round the old man, who ran it, wore a flat green hat and a thick green sweater with a mosaic of  blood stains on it. Once when I was sent  to buy ribs,  he held two slabs together and told me that ribs came from eagle wings. I was very young and naive enough that it sounded reasonable to me. Intrigued with this new information I told my brother Norman, who called me an idiot.

My father really loved his small slice of Steeltown.

Happy Franksgiving America

29 Oct

We are only a month away from Thanksgiving Day — the holiday that more than a quarter of Americans claim is their favorite. My exhaustive research shows that families gather together to give thanks in the manner of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans’ harvest celebration of 1621. My source? None other than that repository of all knowledge: the Weekly Reader magazine. It’s a sort of Huey, Dewey and Louie’s Junior Woodchuck Manual for us baby boomers.

But according to sociologists Melanie Wallendorf from the University of Arizona and Eric Arnould from the University of Colorado, Thanksgiving also serves multiple social functions as a “collective ritual that celebrates our material abundance through feasting.”

They contend that our elaborate Thanksgiving Day meal is a way of reassuring ourselves that we have the ability to more than meet our basic needs. We stuff our turkeys, as well as ourselves, to show how well we’re doing. Perhaps that’s why we add so much butter to everything. When I was growing up, my family only served real butter at Christmas and Thanksgiving time.

Since this abundance ritual — in its basic form (turkey, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie) — is widely shared, it also serves to binds us all together and increase social cohesion. But unlike the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, those of us born since World War II come to believe in a “permanent abundance.” We aren’t sitting in clover just because it’s harvest time or because we had a particularly good year. We view continually increasing material abundance as a defining feature of what it means to be an American.

These days, however, the unpredictable price of energy, rising food and health care costs, the mortgage credit crunch and the stock market meltdown have challenged this cherished belief. In a Newsweek cover story titled “A Darker Future for Us,” business writer Robert J. Samuelson says that fundamental changes in our economy have put us on the cusp of a new era, in which continually increasing prosperity cannot be counted upon.

Conservative columnist George Will has recently emphasized the historic link between Thanksgiving and the economy. He pointed out how President Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to extend the Christmas shopping season to help battle the Great Depression. Back then, it was unthinkable to advertise Christmas merchandise before Thanksgiving. Will says that FDR did not defer to the calendar any more than he did to the Constitution, even though over 60 percent of the country disapproved of his actions and the public was outraged. FDR’s critics mocked the early Thanksgiving by calling it “Franksgiving.”

Unless it gives them a three-day weekend, Americans just don’t cotton to anyone messing with their traditions. Jeffersonville Mayor Galligan recently learned this after his attempt to change the date of Halloween, or as they now call it in Jeffersonville — “Tommyween.”

Over time, major corporations have become integrated into our traditions. So despite our stated preference for the “old fashioned” and “homemade,” most of us are preparing to eat our Butterball turkeys, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and Pepperidge Farm stuffing. While those three companies seem recession-proof — with strong annual earnings from Ocean Spay, a new corporate headquarters for Butterball and Pepperidge Farm being the most profitable division of the Campbell Soup Company — many other corporate icons have fallen on hard times. Like many Americans, in recent months the companies that handle my mortgage, retirement fund, insurance and major credit card have all faced serious fiscal difficulty. Even R. H. Macy & Company, the sponsors of the New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade and the setting for The Miracle on 34th Street, filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s and the brand only survived through a series of mergers and reorganizations. As recently as early October, the reconstituted Macy’s slashed its 2008 profit outlook, due to the softening economy that has consumers scaling back on spending.

So what do we have to be thankful for this year in the present era of mortgage foreclosures, dwindling retirement accounts and trillion dollar bailouts? I asked a number of people and there were many of the customary responses: faith, family, friends and health. Many people were also thankful simply to be Americans, with all the freedoms we enjoy. Others were thankful for the election outcomes; even those whose candidates lost were at least glad that the long campaign is finally over. A surprising number of people said they were thankful for their “jobs,” perhaps in recognition that the unemployment rate just hit a 14-year high.

In the field of mental health in which I work, the watchwords of our profession are “hope” and “recovery” and such an ideology of optimism is more relevant today than ever. When FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself in his first inaugural address in 1933, the Great Depression had reached its greatest depth. FDR was the man for those times, precisely because he could convey the those optimistic values which are at the core of the American character.

In the same speech, FDR also said these words that may be more relevant today than they were when he first said them. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” Or as John and Paul (The Beatles, not the apostles) put it for us baby boomers — “We can get by with a little help from our friends.”

What Does Your Halloween Costume Say about You?

27 Oct

 

Check out Dr. Stawar’s  Column on Decoding the halloween costume.

http://newsandtribune.com/columns/x1416244513/STAWAR-Decoding-the-Halloween-costume

Santa’s Christmas Cat?

24 Sep

Claus, our two year old cat seems to be on a rampage over the holidays.  He won’t stay away from the artificial tree and  when I went into the family room the other day  the real Christmas tree was   laying on the floor. The rug was soak with water from the tree stand and Claus was nestled in the branches, denying any knowledge of how it could have possibly have happened. Although a very attractive cat, Claus unfortunately is an inveterate liar.  
For example,  all winter he keeps insisting that he wants to go outside. He is a very vocal cat—  not a desirable trait in a feline. He sit by the door for hours,  whining about how he needs to see a man  about a rodent or something.  But no sooner than you let  him out than he is on the other side of the door complaining about how cold it is outside.  You would think he could at least go to the bathroom while he was out there, but noooo,  that might  be too uncomfortable for his majesty. He saves it up,  apparently preferring his litter box that I have to clean
The other day my wife Diane let him out the back door and then went down to the basement where she immediately met him again.  Evidently Claus has learned to dematerialize and  reappear in  our basement at will.
Diane and I constantly compare him to our previous cat, Hobbes.  Poor Claus is like   the second wife in Daphne du Maurier ‘s  novel Rebecca,  who must compete with the memory of  the beloved  first wife.  Hobbes was one in a million:  an elegant gentleman cat  and Claus, I am afraid to say, is no gentleman.  Unlike the noisy and disconcertingly human-sounding Claus,  Hobbes only meowed  his orders once and expected and usually received  total  obedience. If we didn’t rush to  open the door at his first command, Hobbes would simply  walk away and act totally indifferent, there was none of this pedestrian  squalling.  Also Hobbes always did his business outside, bless his cat soul.
Of course, we have a selective memory when it comes to  Hobbes. He wasn’t perfect either,  if the truth be told.  As a kitten he ran up our  Christmas  tree and batted at every ornament  he saw.  
There was even one Christmas when the  great Hobbes totally disgraced himself.    Against our better judgment and express wishes, our oldest  son   brought another cat into our  house. This new  cat, Clawdy, was a female who had shared an essentially feral existence with a bunch of  college boys.  Clawdy immediately took  possession  of Hobbes’ favorite   place  our bedroom. Hobbes was too much of a gentleman  to evict a lady and besides Clawdy had become  terribly ferocious,  competing  with   college boys for   pizza scraps and having to use a filthy litter box that was hardly ever changed— much like the boys’ apartment bathroom if I remember correctly. 
Thus having both gender and territoriality issues,  Hobbes apparently  wanted to make certain that everyone in the house  knew that the  shiny presents under the tree were his property, which caused Diane, an obsessive compulsive wrapper, to almost have a seizure.
Last winter Claus was outside during an  ice storm and managed to get severely injured. We don’t know  exactly wheat happened,  but he managed to drag himself up the porch steps and to lay next to the dog.  Fortunately our son-in-law, Jeff is an emergency veterinarian near Cincinnati  and managed to patch him back together. We are also  lucky that cats have great recuperative powers. Jeff says if you throw two pieces of cat  in a room,  they will grow together into a cat. Claus was in intensive care  at my daughter and Jeff’s  house for several months, while my granddaughters nursed him back to health. I am not sure Claus truly appreciated all the attention, wearing a baby bonnet,  or riding in the doll stroller. Except for the indignity of having several inches removed from the tip of his tail, he recovered  remarkably, given the extent of his injuries. And he can still catch a mouse, he would like  you to know.
Claus was  named by our middle son after friend of his from Germany, but we still think of him as a Christmas cat. At the restaurant at Holiday World there are several paintings of Santa’s workshop  and many of them contain a cat that   has the same unique markings as Claus. We told our granddaughters that the paintings  prove  that Claus is related to Santa’s cat. They just smile back at us skeptically and humor us,  as if we were completely insane, much the way our  children do.  

     
Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (http://newsandtribune.com/)

I Do Not Like Green Eggs and Salmon Croquettes

18 Sep

             

               I wouldn’t call our three year old grandson, Oliver,  a picky eater, although from year one it was clear he didn’t want other people to feed him. Even now he wants to maintain control over things. When we recently went to the movies, he was determined to supervise  the popcorn. He would share, but insisted on giving me one kernel at a time and he had to thoroughly examine each one before he would let loose with it.  Perhaps that comes from having two bossy big sisters.

            When she was a little girl, Oliver’s mother was, at times, too good of an eater. To our mortification she would literally lick her plate clean when we ate out in restaurants. 

            But I, believe it or not,  had the reputation in my family as being an incredibly fussy eater. I rejected almost everything. For a while I would only eat the yellow part  of eggs. Later I switched and would only eat the white part. Comedian  George Carlin says that “fussy eater” is just a euphemism for “Big Pain in the Ass”. As I grew older I would rarely eat anything but hamburgers and chocolate milkshakes.  Dr. Berman, my jolly, rotund, cigar-smoking pediatrician, told my mother not to worry.  He said that I could get along just fine on this diet, which I now suspect was pretty much the same things he ate.   

            About 20% of children are fussy eaters. Two factors contribute to this rejection of foods:   “food  neophobia” and picky eating. “Food neophobia”  is  the reluctance to eat unfamiliar foods.  New foods are often rejected by children solely on the basis of their names.   George Carlin says he would never eat food with names like squash, wheat germ, or  horse radish when he was a kid. Picky eaters are children who eat a very limited variety, because they reject both familiar and unfamiliar foods. On average, picky eaters are lighter and shorter than their  peers, but still within the normal range for their age.

            In some instances picky eating is matter of imitating parents or older siblings. For example, my brother Norman disliked cucumbers.  Once when we all went out to dinner, he and his two daughters acted liked they had been poisoned when they discovered cucumbers in the salad.   In other cases it is some characteristic of the food, itself, that leads to its rejection, such as taste, color, or consistency.  For instance foods that are hard,  mushy, gooey, or chunky are often summarily rejected.

            In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin asks his mother if he has to eat the “slimy” asparagus.  Calvin hates mushy vegetables, but when his mother tells him that they’re really monkey brains, his weakness for grossness overcomes his resistance and he’s happy to eat them. Picky eating is seen throughout popular culture. Who can forget Dr. Suess’ classic  Green Eggs and Ham.  There is also the episode of  Leave it to Beaver,  in which  the Beaver’s  refusal to eat Brussels sprouts almost causes him to miss the  trip to Mayfield to see the big game. 

            Cultural factors also play a role in food rejection. In Japan kids tend to hate carrots and green peppers. In one episode of Pokemon,  the Misty character  says the three things she  hates most in life are “bugs, carrots, and bell peppers”.

            Picky eating is not confined to children. You might remember that President  George H.W. Bush   created quite a stir when he announced that he  didn’t  like broccoli.  University of Pennsylvania  anthropologist Jane Kauer surveyed over  500 adults regarding their eating habits. She found that one-third of them described themselves as “unusually picky eaters ” and  about 20%  had  an extremely narrow range of acceptable  foods.  

             Kauer also discovered that about  60% of adults clean their plates at mealtime and about half  eat the same breakfast nearly every day.  Many of us won’t drink while we eat or eat food that has any sort of filling (ravioli, pirogues,  blintzes, etc.).   About 20%  of us abhor the jellied consistency of  raw tomatoes and routinely avoid  unfamiliar foods. One of our kids always ate things sequentially and made a big fuss whenever foods touched each other on his plate. To desensitize him, my wife Diane would always serve him his hamburger with one baked bean on top of the bun. 

            Kauer and others have found that fried chicken, chicken fingers, French fries, chocolate chip cookies, plain cheese pizza, and Kraft macaroni and cheese are among the small number of food items that are almost universally accepted. These comfort foods are   familiar, bland,  and obvious  in regard to their make-up.   At times picky eaters are   almost paranoid about what is in the food they eat. There is a lack of trust about ingredients,  and in more extreme cases, preparation.  I once had a boss who flatly refused to eat ethnic foods, fearing they were tainted in some way.   Kauer says, “We all know what’s in fried chicken…   …even if we get it from some place we’ve never been before.”  And George Carlin neatly summarizes the issue saying, “I only eat things I can immediately recognize. I came to eat, not to make inquiries.”
            Extremely picky eaters displayed more obsessive-compulsive and depressive  tendencies,  expressions of disgust,  and avoidance of unfamiliar foods than non-picky eaters.  In taste tests,  they also subjectively rated sweet and bitter flavors as being more intense. As a group they weren’t food-haters, they just saw themselves as “highly selective”. Never-the-less, mental health experts are considering adding a classification  called “selective eating disorder ” to the American Psychiatric Association’s new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

            So the next time I won’t eat a salmon croquette with that yellow stuff on it, remember,  I’m not being “picky”–  just “highly selective”.

Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (http://newsandtribune.com/)

Another Steeltown Story: The Emergency Room

7 Sep

My first visit to the hospital emergency room took place when I was in the second grade. At the time I had a very young and very nervous first-year teacher, Miss Dole. And a few weeks into the new school year I was to add to her anxiety. Not being particularly precocious, I was easily influenced when someone suggested we play “slot machine”, using the nickels intended for the purchase of chocolate milk. I was suppose to put several nickels in my mouth, then someone would pull my arm down, I would roll my eyes, and spit out the nickels— Jackpot!

As I said I was not particularly advanced, so after putting the first nickel in my mouth, I immediately swallowed it. I decided that I should probably tell Miss Dole. Knowing how jumpy she was, I spoke in a very quiet voice. I had to repeat myself several times. When she finally comprehended what I was saying, she screamed, grabbed me, and carried me from one end of the hallway to the other several times. Her worse nightmare had come true. No one seemed to know what to do. The school nurse suggested that I eat a piece of Wonder Bread®. I was in no discomfort only curious about what was to happen next. Eventually they called an ambulance and I rode to the emergency room along accompanied by the truant officer. The driver was very nice and let me turn on the siren and flashing lights. At the hospital they said the nickel was lodged (probably in Wonder Bread®) , but didn’t constitute any danger, so after receiving a massive dose of radiation from a fluoroscope, I was whisked back to school.
Curious why I wasn’t very hungry and why I glowed in the dark when I got home, my mother asked me what happened in school. I thought she was going to faint when I told her an ambulance took me to the hospital and I had a note from the school nurse I’d forgotten to give her. Despite my hope for instant celebrity, an ingested nickel turned out to be small potatoes in our family. When that show-off Norman was in the second grade, he managed to swallow a bullet.
My second visit was a few years later. My dad was very frugal and believed that nails should be recycled. So I would pull old nails out of boards and then flatten them to be used again. On this occasion I had a large nail, in the workbench vise that I intended to straighten. I hit the nail with my hammer and a piece of it struck me right in the middle of the throat. Again I felt no pain, but blood was gushing out, as if I had severed my jugular. My mother almost fainted when she saw me, but we slapped a handkerchief over the wound and rush to the emergency room. They x-rayed me and called my pediatrician. Dr. Berman was a large, affable, cigar-chomping doctor from the old school. He breezed into the emergency room, scanned the x-ray and casually asked, “Who shot you Terry?”, as if that were not surprising. On the x-ray, the nail piece resembled a tiny bullet. He probed for it for a while and then decided it was harmless where it was. He explained about shrapnel and just left it there. To this day whenever I go through metal detectors, I worry the nail will set them off.