Saturday, November 29, 2008

Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette

Thursday night we had Thanksgiving dinner at my brother-in-law Randy's house. We've been together for many years. Conversation was fun, we laughed and told stories.

At least once one of the family smokers slipped outside the house for a cigarette. In those long ago holiday celebrations three and four decades ago ashtrays were all over the house. We all just lit up where we were. We had a great meal, then finished it off with a cig and a cup of coffee or a drink. My father-in-law, Ray, smoked, I smoked...several people smoked until the air was choked with noxious fumes.

I started smoking as a teenager, but was in the Army before the addiction took hold. In June, 1967, we were taking a night class, outside, sitting on a lawn. An old sergeant noticed one of the guys in the back lighting up, so he said, "What the hell. Smoke 'em if you got 'em." I had a pack in my pocket and realized I was craving a smoke. Not just wanting it, but needing it. That's when I knew that all of the experimenting I'd done with tobacco over the past two or three years had finally come to addiction. When I tell that story people say, "How did you feel about it?" I guess they expect me to say I hated it. But I'm honest about it: "Well, it made up my mind as to whether I was a smoker or someone who just flirted with it. I knew then I was." I was kind of relieved. It was cheap, too. When I was in the Army cigarettes were 17¢ a pack! When I got home in late '68 the price doubled to 34¢.

It took ten years of smoking before I decided to seriously kick it, and it was because of the publicity about second-hand cigarette smoke, about kids growing up in a smoking household. My wife was pregnant with our son at the time. I set a target date and quit that day three months before he was born. I went through several days of withdrawal agony. By the time I'd been nicotine free for about two weeks I figured I'd beat the habit, and it turned out I had. Over the next few months I gained 30 pounds, though, and was pretty upset about that. That took another ten years to get rid of, but that's another story.

Nowadays I've almost forgotten how obnoxious smoking really is. I just don't see it that much. I'll be sitting at a traffic light and smell tobacco smoke from another car, or I'll see people standing outside a workplace, in the cold, puffing away. I'm grateful that on that date in 1978 I quit smoking. Just six months after my addiction became noticeable my father died of a heart attack at age 47. He was a lifelong smoker. Legend is, although he never confirmed it, that when he was 12 his mother handed him a carton of cigarettes and said, "I know you're going to smoke anyway, so you might as well smoke in the house." I didn't take heed of his death, let it be a lesson. I kept smoking anyway for nearly another decade.

When I quit smoking the average price of a pack was 65¢. Outrageous! Now I see people spending the better part of a $5.00 bill on a pack of cigarettes. If I hadn't already quit that would be enough to make me take the pledge.

"Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette" was a song that came out the year I was born--1947--and was made popular by Tex Williams. Asleep at the Wheel does a great version, featured in this video of happy, smiling--and presumably addicted--smokers.

"Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette.
Puff, puff, puff, and if you smoke yourself to death.
Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate, you just hate to make him wait,
But you've just gotta have another cigarette."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Help, my life is a reality show!

Along with my recent posting about people who think they've been abducted by aliens, comes this recent article about people who think they're participants in a reality TV show. It's called the Truman Syndrome, after the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. Some psychiatric patients believe their life is being filmed without their permission.

Like alien abduction, the Truman syndrome is fueled by popular culture, and has worked its way into personal delusions. Quoting the copyrighted article by Jennifer Peltz of the Associated Press:

Researchers have begun documenting what they dub the "Truman syndrome," a delusion afflicting people who are convinced that their lives are secretly playing out on a reality TV show. Scientists say the disorder underscores the influence pop culture can have on mental conditions. "The question is really: Is this just a new twist on an old paranoid or grandiose delusion ... or is there sort of a perfect storm of the culture we're in, in which fame holds such high value?" said Dr. Joel Gold, a psychiatrist affiliated with New York's Bellevue Hospital.

In the last two years, Gold has encountered five patients with delusions related to reality TV. Several of them specifically mentioned "The Truman Show." Gold and his brother, a psychologist, started presenting their observations at medical schools in 2006. After word spread beyond medical circles this summer, they learned of about 50 more people with similar symptoms. The Oscar-nominated movie stars Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank. He leads a merrily uneventful life until he realizes his friends and family are actors, his seaside town is a TV soundstage and every moment of his life has been broadcast.

His struggle to sort out reality and illusion is heartwarming, but researchers say it's often horrifying for "Truman syndrome" patients.
A few take pride in their imagined celebrity, but many are deeply upset at what feels like an Orwellian invasion of privacy. Delusions can be a symptom of various psychiatric illnesses, as well as neurological conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Some drugs also can make people delusional.

It's not unusual for psychiatrists to see delusional patients who believe their relatives have been replaced by impostors or who think figures in their lives are taking on multiple disguises.

But "Truman" delusions are more sweeping, involving not just some associates but society at large, Gold said.
Delusions tend to be classified by broad categories, such as the belief that one is being persecuted, but research has shown culture and technology can also affect them. Reality television may help such patients convince themselves their experiences are plausible, according to the Austrian woman's psychiatrists, writing in the journal Psychopathology in 2004.

Ian Gold, a philosophy and psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal who has researched the matter with his brother, suggests reality TV and the Web, with their ability to make strangers into intimates, may compound psychological pressure on people who have underlying problems dealing with others. That's not to say reality shows make healthy people delusional, "but, at the very least, it seems possible to me that people who would become ill are becoming ill quicker or in a different way," Ian Gold said.

Other researchers aren't convinced, but still find the "Truman syndrome" an interesting example of the connection between culture and mental health.

Makes sense to me. My personal feeling is that for some people fantasy, in the form of television, can become reality. It's a hell of a lot more interesting. Unfortunately for some of us, the dull reality of daily life can't be shut off by a remote control. For anyone actually wanting to invade my privacy and watch my daily life, well, good luck. I lead the most boring life imaginable. Even I pray for commercial breaks to get relief from the crushing monotony.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Please sir, can you spare 25 bil?"

The American automotive CEOs flew to Washington last week. After stepping out of their individual corporate jets, to everyone's disgust they went before Congress with hats in hand to beg for money.

I thought of the American car makers that have gone out of business in my lifetime. Just off the top of my head I can think of Studebaker, Packard, American Motors, Hudson...if I took the time to do a little research I'd probably come up with more that I've forgotten.

With all due respect to the working folks who earn their livings from GM, Ford and Chrysler, your companies have been mismanaged and their priorities gone askew. I hope that some help will come your way, but to ask me--who already pours more than enough of my income into your products--to contribute through taxes, well, gee, I gave at the office.

Anyway, looking at this beautiful car, in an ad in the July 7, 1947 Life Magazine, makes me wonder exactly what sort of thing happened to Studebaker that made it stop production in the U.S. in 1966. Studebakers were kind of a joke when I grew up in the 1950s and '60s; their cars were ugly to us, but now seem pretty in a designer way. Maybe they were just ahead of their time. The point is that as painful as it was I don't remember anyone asking the government for money to bail them out. Nor do I remember any other car companies doing the same. For all of our lives, as far back as we can remember, when a business succeeds it does it on its own, but there are lots and lots of reasons for failure, and no one cries to the government to extract them from the mess of their own making.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

That awful whisper

This ad came from a 1947 issue of Life magazine, a gift from my friend Peggy.

Paranoia rears its ugly head! The man hears a whisper between two women. They're talking about his body odor. Doesn't he notice it? Why not do something about it before the whispering starts?

Maybe he just thinks that's what they're whispering. Maybe what the women are whispering has to do with not wanting to be in an elevator with him because his hands get real busy. Maybe he eats garlic and his breath turns the elevator into a noxious fume factory.

Why not worry that the women know about something that's going to happen to him, like he's going to lose his job. He goes home and takes a shower using Lifebuoy soap, then goes to work the next day and gets a termination notice! No need to smell pretty for that.

The man is experiencing just what the ad men and copywriters want him to think. That he smells bad. That he offends. He not only has B.O., he has halitosis. He doesn't use a Gillette razor so he has a five o'clock shadow. His teeth are yellow because he doesn't use Pepsodent. He has nostril hairs and dandruff. Better get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie!

The list of bodily offenses goes on and on. When you think about it, just stay home so you won't offend anyone at any time! No one will have to whisper about you...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

False memories

In my last posting I mentioned false memories as being amongst the reasons people thought they'd been abducted by UFOs. I don't think I've been abducted by a UFO, although it's tempting to think that the reason I act the way I do might be attributed to aliens, but I'm sure I have a few false memories here and there. We humans, with those imperfect things called memories, are under a lot of influences. We can remember things that never happened.

Barb, a school secretary I encounter on my route, has reminded me several times when she met me I had long hair in a ponytail. I got my long hair cut in 1981, and was sure I hadn't met her until years later. As I pinned her down on the year she started working at the school district I found it was 1988, long after the ponytail was history. How had she remembered it? Because she worked with another lady who had worked with me in the late '70s and told her. As Barb and I established a working relationship her friend's memory became Barb's memory.

How many things do we actually remember, and how many we remember for some extraneous reason like that? I wonder how many things I have in my head that happened to me that actually didn't, that I may have seen on the ABC Movie Of The Week. Whew. The mind boggles.


Believe in synchronicity? I do. I mentioned a couple of things in my last posting, the false memories and creationists who believe dinosaurs existed at the same time as people 6,000 years ago, and saw those things the next day in the Sunday comic strips. If you pay attention there are a lot of coincidences in life, some of them meaningful, some not, but when they happen to me I always pay attention.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Reason to believe

It feels good to get off the political kick we've all been on for weeks.

Sally and I were talking about what makes a person believe. I've been reading a book called Abducted by Susan Clancy. It's subtitled "Why people come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens." The author did some studying of folks who believe, or say they believe, they have been abducted by little gray aliens. The author attributes a lot of the reason they believe this to sleep paralysis, false memories and pop culture, movies and television, planting images in peoples' heads.

Some belief is borne of the brain trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. That opens up a whole area that I don't want to get into because it's just too big. But I told Sally I'd heard an author talk about a book, The God Gene, about being genetically predisposed to believe.

Like the folks who think they've been abducted by aliens and had invasive medical experiments done on them, so do lots of people believe unequivocally in God, religion--at least one they find conforms to their needs--without any real proof that what they are believing in is real. Apparently Sally and I have missed out on that. Neither of us feels the need to believe in any kind of unseen world. I should qualify that by saying we just don't know. Unlike others who are seeking spiritual enlightenment, we just don't bother. We both come from families with that history, too.

Author Clancy is a psychologist with several degrees. In a clinical setting she talked to a lot of people who believed they'd been kidnapped. She asked if they had specific memories of the abduction and many said no, they just knew they'd been abducted. There were feelings they couldn't explain in themselves and when they cast about for reasons they settled on alien abduction. I guess it wouldn't be much different to say they'd been visited by angels, or the Virgin Mary. As she states in the book, she didn't test how religious the abductees were, but thinks that may have relevance.

Susan Clancy might be as close to figuring it out as anyone, but human beings are complicated. It seems everyone has a reason for everything no matter how strange--or alien--it might seem to other people. Often the person with the belief doesn't know why they hold that belief. That's probably where the idea of a gene that determines whether a person is a believer or not would kick in.

I believe, relying on the science of brain research, that people have a genetic predispositon to be a believer or non-believer. It could explain why it's so hard to communicate on that level, and causes people to puzzle over the behavior of others: "Why don't those people believe like we do? Can't they see the truth? It's right in front of them!" I look in the sky, I see lights, and that's what they are to me: lights. You look in the sky and see those same lights and you believe they are people from another planet, that they might be here to take you aboard their spaceship so they can perform hideous experiments. I have unexplained feelings and attribute them to my medication, stress at work, or insomnia, and you might look at those same problems and think they were caused by aliens giving you an anal probe or getting you pregnant with their babies. I see dinosaur bones and think of an earth hundreds of millions of years ago. You look at those same bones and think they were living creatures who were around 6000 years ago when Adam and Eve were setting up housekeeping in the Garden of Eden.

There are a lot of people, most, I'd guess, who'd resist the idea of a gene determining how and what we believe. Even though I can believe there's such a gene I don't believe it's wholly responsible. People just have too many influences and too many choices. There are also peer and family pressures to believe a certain way. To the religious folks It would take God out of the picture to have a gene that tells your brain whether you're religious or not. To them that's completely unacceptable. To the abductees it takes away a notion that why they act the way they do is beyond their control because they're being controlled by an external force.

The latest I heard is that a gene might determine whether you're a political liberal or conservative! I'm sure everyone could have fun with that.


While we're on the subject of believing, here's a fine cover of the old Tim Hardin song, "Reason to Believe," by Daniel Has Six Strings.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day 1968

To all Veterans and someday-to-be veterans, HAPPY VETERAN'S DAY.

Forty years ago today I was being processed out of the U.S. Army at Fort Dix, NJ. Several of my buddies from Utah, and other areas of the country, were also being discharged in a group that was going home from Germany. I'd been looking forward to this for so long that I was running on adrenaline. Except for a catnap here and there I hadn't slept in over 24 hours.

We arrived at Fort Dix somewhere around 2:00 a.m. and were processed through customs. A GI ahead of me had his duffel bag searched. In the bottom they found a stack of porno magazines. The customs inspector said, "You know you can't bring these into the country," and they went into some sort of receptacle. Maybe later the customs agents had a look. Gotta see the evidence, you know. I'm sure there was a lot of porn in those pre-Internet days that was smuggled in, but a lot that was confiscated.

We were bused to the messhall, which even at that ungodly hour of the morning was staffed by basic trainees. We were tired, but I'll bet the KP's were even more tired. Can you imagine working the all-night diner? These poor guys suddenly had a hundred or more people to feed. As we went through the line I noticed a lot of trainees gawking at us. We were in our Class-A uniforms, with all our ribbons, patches, brass and insignias. I'll bet to them we looked like a bunch of generals. It hadn't been all that long since I'd been a trainee and didn't know the difference between grades or rank.

We were processed as quickly as possible because it was Veteran's Day, a federal holiday, and no one wanted to be there. I understood that normally it took about three days to clear Fort Dix, but they got us done in a matter of hours so they could all go home. Our discharge papers, our DD214 forms, were typed and presented to us. We were also given travel money. As the clerk said to us: "You have choices. You go by privately owned vehicle (POV) and you get the most mileage money for travel. You go by train or bus you get less, you go by air you get the least of all." He paused for effect. "You don't have to put down POV if you don't want to." Naturally, every one of us wrote down POV. I worried for a couple of years afterward that Uncle Sam would come knocking at my door and ask for his $500 back. Like everyone else I headed for the airline counter and got a flight to Salt Lake City. Cost: $55.00.

Before we left we stood in a formation. Dawn was breaking. A sergeant stood in front of us. "Now this is a goddam holiday. You're gonna be veterans on Veteran's Day. Everything's closed today. But if it was up to me I'd march every goddam one of you to the barber shop and get your goddam hair cut. You are a disgrace to the goddam uniforms you're wearing." With that last goddam farewell to the troops we were suddenly free men, shaggy heads and all, piling into buses for the nearby Philadelphia airport.

My buddy Wally and I snoozed on the way to Chicago's O'Hare International. We had to make a connection, but had a couple of hours to kill. We headed for an airport bar. While we were having our drinks--rum and Coke--we saw a commotion in the concourse. We looked up to see a dozen or more people moving fast, led by Diana Ross, the singer late of the Supremes. After forty years that memory is still clear: Ross was wearing a floor-length white mink coat which was flapping open as she ran. The people behind her were carrying luggage, and one man even had two small poodles in his arms. They were all African-Americans, and they were all wearing fur coats.

Diana Ross at LAX this year. No mink coat for this trip:

My brother picked me up in Salt Lake in the late evening, and we talked some before I crashed. I had been up for what seemed like days. We had left our unit in Nuremberg, Germany, on Saturday the 9th, traveled by train to Frankfurt, and except for our time at Ft. Dix we had been in airports and on planes ever since. That Monday night I slept in my own bed for the first time in a long time. The next morning I got up and went to see Sally. As I think back on those events forty years ago it's like the old cliché: It was the first day of the rest of my life.

For another Veteran's Day message click here.

Last year's Veteran's Day message is here.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

When the storm hit

You watch as the clouds roll in, big, dark, ominous. You know that you're in an exposed place, vulnerable, and the full force of the storm will hit you.

You know there is nothing you can do but wait for the fury to envelop you, to hang on to anything you can, a tree, your wife, anything that will keep you from being blown off the ground and tossed like a woodchip through the air.

Suddenly it's on you and you take the full brunt, all the energy that has been gathering and building. It is just what everyone predicted, and you must ride it out however you can. Within a few hours it's over. But the storm has left massive damage, not only to you but to everyone around you.

Imagine you're John McCain and that storm was last Tuesday. If there is anything left to pick up, I hope you won't need FEMA to help.

While Barack Obama might be the first African American to attain the job of President of the United States, portrayals of black presidents have been around for a long time, going back at least to The Man, starring James Earl Jones as Douglas Dillman. In the movie Dillman becomes President through a complicated set of coincidences with the line of succession to the presidency. In 1972, when the movie was produced, that would have been the only way a black man would have gotten the job.

More recently we had Morgan Freeman, who has played other roles not traditionally seen as black--Little John in Robin Hood comes to mind--as the president in the 1998 movie Deep Impact.

Dennis Haysbert, tall and distinguished, was President David Palmer for several years in the series 24. Haysbert went on to represent Allstate Insurance in commercials and to the lead in the series, The Unit. Haysbert has said publicly that he believes his portrayal helped Barack Obama win the nomination.

I believe Haysbert in a larger sense, that these roles have helped put in the public mind the notion of a black man as president wouldn't be all that unusual.

I also believe that having black people more active in television and movies has placed them in the public consciousness, a place where they were invisible until the late 1960s. In response to the Civil Rights movement producers put more African Americans in movies and TV. The generation my son represents grew up seeing black people on TV every day. They weren't as exotic as they seemed to us Baby Boomers who grew up in a whites-only television environment.

Finally, I found it interesting that the latest Time has a front cover with Obama, and a back cover with Tiger Woods. Both men are superstars in venues formerly closed to people of color, both men are mixed race. Could this juxtaposition have been a coincidence? Hmmm.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween goes SPLAT!

Every year it's a challenge to know how many Halloween trick-or-treaters we need to be prepared for. We've lived in our neighborhood for 33 years; young children have grown up, left home. The neighborhood's aggregate age got older, so for a few years we had no trick-or-treaters, then more young families with young kids moved in. Last year we had a bunch of little kids, but the rush was over by 8:00 p.m. Last night they came until we turned out the lights and locked the door at 9:00. All night we had little kids with parents in tow, but many of the kids looked older; last night the very last visitors were teenagers who were with a person standing outside our gate. He/she was in costume, but just out of the light so I couldn't make out details. The person looked large...looming, scary. The teenagers took their candy without a thank-you, then scrammed so we shut it down for the evening.

I didn't recognize many of the kids who were ringing our doorbell; I believe they had been at it for a while, going from block to block, and had pillowcases full of candy to show for it.

What's fun about trick or treating is seeing the real little kids in costume, maybe out for their first time. I don't want to see jaded, greedy teenagers. Kids, when you're about 9 or 10 you should really be thinking about retirement from the trick or treat experience. Leave it to the littl'uns.

My son told me his daughters were content to watch the kids who came to their house all evening. The girls didn't want to go out trick or treating themselves. It's something I've noticed about them, and especially the older one, Bella. She is a very careful observer. She checks it out. She doesn't jump into anything. I think that's a good quality. It'll help keep her out of all kinds of trouble as she grows up.