Tag Archives: Popular Culture

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take A Number

18 Aug

 

            Everyone knows that Americans hate to stand in line. It’s contrary to the basic American values of independence and self-determination.  While standing in line may not threaten life, it certain threatens liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With the  possible exception of a couple of guys waiting for some Grateful Dead tickets, I have never seen anyone pursue happiness while waiting in a line. Lines are communistic eastern bloc phenomena. It’s what you expect to see inWarsaw–long lines of people waiting to buy toilet paper with splintery chunks of wood embedded in it.

            American’s greatest inventions were  devised  specifically to decreased  the  time  we  wait in lines. Fast food, the drive-in window, the automated teller,  the bar code scanner, the take-a-number machine, and the illiterate-friendly cash register were all  created to speed things up.  To obtain  a synergistic effect we even combine these advances so that   you  get fast food from a drive-in window while the cashier  uses a scanner and illiterate-friendly cash register.  And you pay with an ATM card. The  service is so fast, you actually go back in time. 

            Some people go a little crazy while waiting in line, a sort of claustrophobic panic.  Typically this occurs  to the person standing in front of you. Then you have  to wait  for an involuntarily commitment or anti-anxiety medication to be administered. Fortunately, in the state ofFlorida, convenience store clerks are granted both commitment and prescription privileges. 

            In an unscientific poll,  people say the five worse lines are:

            1. The bank drive-in window: Each  person in front of you will have a unique banking problem more appropriately resolved at a meeting of the  Federal Reserve  Board than  a drive-in window. I ask you, is it really wise to apply for a home mortgage at the drive-in window?  I usually end up  behind a pickup truck full of sinister looking guys who speak some unknown  language and  are trying to cash a third party  counter check from the First National Bank of  Croatia. Or I get behind someone who seems mystified by the pneumatic tube device and is unable to grasp the meaning of the flashing red light that says,  “Press for return”.

            2. The grocery store line  is   my favorite. At least you get to look at the tic tacs and  tabloids  catching up on the national and sometimes interplanetary news. “Hmm, JFK and Elvis seen having breakfast together at the International House of Pancakes, while UFO  squadron hovers overhead.”  Those UFO’s were probably just Elvis’s Belgian waffles. They also have these little bitty booklets with weird titles like: “Teach Your Cat to Invest in the Stock Market”, “Biblical Cures for Hemorrhoids”, and “One Hundred and One  Uses  for Apple  Cider Vinegar”. I think they  have these  books on word processors and they occasionally use  the  “find and substitute” command to reprint new versions. For example  the “One Hundred and One  Uses for Apple  Cider Vinegar” book is exactly the same as  the “One Hundred and One  Uses for Baking Soda” book. Evidently you  can brush your teeth, clean your coffeepot, or clear up your prickly heat with either substance.

             I  also like to watch the territorial disputes erupt on the conveyor belt. UN peacekeepers couldn’t secure these borders. People freak out when  Charmin bathroom tissue makes an incursion into their territorial space. And the cashiers  get a kick out of stopping the conveyor belt abruptly so that your 2 liter coke bottles are hurled across the  plastic divider  into someone else’s space.

            Finally there’s the interminable fresh produce transaction. “What are these,  pears?  Bosco,Bartlett, or Hemlock? Are these pole or wax beans?  Is this a turnip or a  parsnip? Is this a banana or a planaria? Finally it’s your turn and you hear the two most consoling words in the English language– “Paper or plastic?”

            3. The vehicle tag office and it’s kissing cousin the driver’s license bureau are thankfully being replaced by mail renewals.  But for those idiots like me who wait to the last possible second, this line  is a nightmare. I  go early but there’s always a line. It’s interesting to watch the employees totally ignore you as they  wait that final  five seconds before they open  the door. It seems that man was created  for the bureaucracy. The usual catch in this line is some crucial bit of information  you’re missing:  like your insurance policy number, your spouse’s driver’s license number, your vehicles’s mileage in 1987,  or the serial number of  the first car  you  ever drove. They also register motorcycles,  boats,  hunting vehicles, trailers, and  RV’s in this office so be careful.  Never get behind a guy wearing a sweaty camouflage baseball cap. You’d be amazed  how many bass boats, hummers,  and  dirt bikes one person can own. I once made the mistake of standing behind a guy with nautical headgear and had to wait for him to register the entire Mrs. Paul’s trawler fleet.

            4. The hospital emergency room is possibly the most tense of all lines. You’re  in pain, you’re worried about your insurance coverage, unspeakable things are occurring behind the curtains, and the place smells like a pine tree dipped in alcohol. I once went into an emergency room with an abscessed tooth and was in the most excruciating pain of my life. I looked at those feverish infants and afflicted geriatrics waiting in front of me and was quite prepared to flatten them if necessary to get in. As far  as I was concerned  this was festival seating of the fittest and if Mother Teresa got in front of me, she was going to have Reebok tracks on her face.

            5. Waiting lines at fast food restaurants  are somewhat  paradoxical.  Actually the term “fast food restaurant”  is an oxymoron. The pubescent work force takes the brunt of the criticism in this industry. I almost witnessed a full fledged riot once in a fast food line when a brand new employee  (excuse me, associate) was assigned to the cash register, thirty minutes before the annual town Christmas parade. The place was packed and people were real antsy. After she goofed up one order after another, the crowd got ugly and this associate was in real danger of being pulled from behind the register, blanched in the deep fryer, and covered with sweet and sour sauce. Since they pay these kids in Clearasil,  you really can’t  say much.

            If you disagree with my survey results all I can say is, “Hey buddy, take a number!”

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!”         

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.