Monday, February 28, 2011

Judging Books By Their Covers

War and Peace. Best book title of all time.

OK, I've never actually read War and Peace, but by the title I get the gist: there is some war and some peace. No need to read the book. I feel smarter all ready.

The best book titles leave nothing to chance. In fact, some of the best titles tell you what the book is about in case the actual text of the book is too hard to interpret. Kafka's The Trial, one of my all-time favorite reads, is a good example. Without the head's up that Joseph K. is preparing for a trial of some sort, the reader might become too confused (if not depressed) and not continue beyond the first few pages. Kafka's editor was savvy and really knew how to market a book.

The same could be argued for the editors at Shakepeare's publishing house. They knew how to position a book centuries before Nan Talese or even Judith Regan. No matter how abstruse and convoluted Shakespeare's texts or stories were, his people knew not to mess around with the titles. Romeo and Juliet? Yup, there is a dude named Romeo and a girl named Juliet and the plot has something to do with both of them. Othello? Don't ask me anything about this play, but I am pretty sure it included someone who was named "Othello." And I am going on faith that the various King Henrys and Richards are prominently featured in those plays. Even The Tempest, in which I played a non-speaking nymph in my school's 8th grade production, is aptly named (A storm? Yes.), although many middle schoolers may have to google the title to see what the word "tempest" means.

So why is it that some writers feel the need to complicate matters by naming their works something cryptic? Harper Lee: I saw the film version of your book and don't recall any mockingbirds---or feathered creatures of any kind, come to think of it. I'm pretty sure the director would have hired an animal trainer to be on set if the bird played any sort of actual role in the book. Maya Angelou: Why does that caged bird sing? And what's up with so many birds in literature? Jane Austen usually doesn't disappoint with her spot-on titles, so what happened with Pride and Prejudice? And J.D. Salinger? I know you stick in a sentence about Holden wanting to be in a field of rye catching kids, but I still don't get it. And I was an Ivy League English major. Come on, guys, isn't high school stressful enough without complicating matters? What kind of ego must these authors have that they want students to write entire essays attempting to interpret the handful of words chosen for their titles?

Maybe the bar is set too low when we first encounter books. It isn't fair to suddenly foist these enigmatic book titles on someone going through puberty. I blame Dr. Seuss. Yeah, yeah. The Cat is indeed wearing that infernal Hat. The kids are Hopping on their poor father, aka "Pop." Wouldn't you know The Foot Book is about feet?  There's a shocker. And he called himself a doctor.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

We Had Some Work Done

Before we bought our first place, property-owning friends explained to me that homeowners fall into one of two categories: Do-It-Yourselfers or Worker-Hirers. Being both frugal and somewhat of a control freak, there was no doubt in my mind that as a homeowner, I would be of the DIY variety.

Yes, I had visions of intsalling light fixtures wearing protective goggles and gloves, blasting music as I edged the walls with blue painters's tape, changing HVAC filters, retiling bathroom floors to coordinate with the seasons.

But then the kitchen drain clogged, and my DIY dreams sputtered and died along with the Insinkerator. After 45 futile minutes of jamming a wooden spoon down the drain and frantically flicking the garbage disposal switch up and down, I knew I had been defeated. A housecall by a burly plumber and $150 dollars later, I learned that the culprit was not so much a plumbing issue as a pasta one. Apparently penne must be completely pulverized in the disposal or it will expand and clog the system. Good to know. A little creepy to think about oozing, expanding cylinders of noodles, but glad to have been so edified.  

It soon became even more evident that we were not cut out to do any task that involved climbing a ladder, opening a compartment in a wall, caulking or grouting, patching, or virtually anything short of changing a lightbulb (oh yeah, only lightbulbs that could be changed without a ladder). We realized that we had significant deficits in the "handy" department.  We came to the sad realization that we were going to have to go to the dark side: Pay people to come to our house and fix things.

Truthfully, cheapness and laziness are not states (or traits, depending on how ingrained the behaviors are) that are easily overcome. We complacently lived with our 1970s-era bathrooms, including shiny paisley metallic wallpaper on the ceiling, and white carpet (seriously, in the bathrooms). We ignored a nonfunctioning wetbar (also crica 1970) by sticking an Ikea bookcase in front of it. I did eventually rip down the ornate old-lady drapery in the master bedroom with my bare hands, but that was after several years and a sneaking suspicion that there was something lurking in the folds of the curtain that was making me sneeze.

For us, there were only two motivators to hire help to maintain our place: imminent safety (and even then, only after we had a child) and profit. For the former, I truthfully can only think of one instance when we needed to drop a dime for safety: when our 3-year-old daughter figured out how to unbolt the front door of our current 1920s Spanish home. A locksmith specializing in vintage locks was called that day, and a functional-yet-historically-appropriate deadbolt was installed by evening. Again, $150. Maybe we have a reputation as being the "$150-a-pop" family. But other than that, the only time we deigned to alter anything in our home was when we were certain the change would result in dollar signs.

Enter Mr. Kim.  Ahhh, Mr. Kim. It is indeed a mystery how Mr. Kim--who could not utter a word in any language but his native Korean, even after decades in Los Angeles--communicated with property owners or his revolving cadre of day laborers. But he was perfect for a quick cosmetic job that only had to last as long as the escrow. He was cheap, semi-reliable, and licensed--or he had been at one time, before his license was revoked.

We found Mr. Kim through a shrewd and penny-pinching neighbor who had managed properties before retiring to become a condo board president. Who cared if Mr. Kim's electrician was his befuddled cousin who happened to have his own power tools? So what if his workers painted over wallpaper rather than remove it? We just needed the place to not look like a grandpa's bachelor pad so we could unload it in an up market and move on. And so we did.

When we looked for our next place, the house in which we hoped to raise our children, we had a different perspective. We had become more self-aware and knew that we did not want to deal with even the infamous "minor cosmetic changes" that realtors love to talk about. We were looking in a pricey town and were not going to plunk down absurd amounts of money only to have to tinker with our purchase. We looked for updated kitchens done well, but not with over-the-top Sub Zero fridges or Viking stoves to drive up the price. Floors and walls had to be in good shape. This time we were playing for keeps and there was no way the likes of Mr. Kim was touching this piece of real estate. Our first realtor considered himself to be a visionary and would point out rooflines that could be expanded, walls that could be knocked down, and pantries that could be moved. He did not last long as our realtor.

Recently a friend showed me photos of a condo she is thinking of bidding on. It is roomy, bright and in a great location. The walls were freshly painted in warm, neutral colors. The exterior was well-maintained. The problem? The only shower was in an idiosyncratic soaking tub in the only bathroom, five feet deep and 3-feet wide. She had flashbacks of Baby Jessica in the well just looking at it. The tub appeared to be original to the building, so no one had thought to change it in 40 years. She asked me what I would do in this situation. I thought for a moment and suggested she learn to love sponge baths.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Unfair Science

It's that dreaded time of year again. The season that includes the inevitable incomprehensible, costly and humiliating ritual that leaves us drained of resources, resiliency and humanity.

Yes, it is Science Fair time.

There is no more compelling evidence of the misguided nature of our public school system than the Science Fair. Who had the bright idea that Elementary School children need to observe worms, grow mold, or mix household cleaners? Whoops. Did I type "Elementary School children"? My error. I am quite certain that no individual under 35 has ever had any role in the conceptualization or construction of a Science Fair project. If public school administrators think grown-ups need to hone their rock-collecting, soil-type identification, or velocity-measuring skills, they should make it a pre-condition of bearing a child. But since, as far as I know, this is not the case, Science Fair should be left to those two kids who enjoyed studying bugs in pre-school. The rest of us have TV to watch.

The date of the Science Fair is made known to the parents shortly after the start of the school year. And by the time your child is in second grade, you have at least one Fair under your belt and know what is involved. Yet, it isn't until days before the project is due--a good seven months into the school year--that many of these projects are even contemplated. Knowing the preparations involved--including tracking down the "household items" in specialty stores, remembering where you put the hot-glue gun from the previous year, and making sure you have enough cyan ink for your printer--why are most projects started until days, if not hours, before it is to be displayed in front of hundreds of high-achieving parents, many of them in the science field themselves?

The reason, I posit, is because every year parents desperately hope for a miracle: That their child will show an interest this year and come up with an idea themselves. Any idea. Seriously, anything.  Just so parents don't have to frantically go to the same "Science Fair ideas" website year after year and try to convince their child how their life would be enriched by studying why ice melts or which flavor of Capri Sun is most popular among their peers. If your child looks up from the Wii long enough to shoot down your ideas, the next line of reasoning involves undoing all the positive self-esteem you have tried to build in them by telling them their friends will make fun of them if their project is lame. When that doesn't get even the bat of an eye, parents pull out the big guns: If you do not do more of your project this year than last, no more Wii for a week.

Under dire threat, even the most unscientifically inclined child will feign some sort of interest, and humor the parent while the parent presents the child with articles, books, and still-in-the-package items for the project. Keep in mind that by this point (less than a week before Science Fair), the library is completely out of any science-related books (damn those organized parents with curious, disciplined children), so the parent spent all Sunday night on Amazon selecting a dozen books--sight unseen--in hopes that there may be a chapter or diagram in one of them that would relate to the chosen project. And, yes, these books were all shipped overnight at great cost. If you ever wondered why yard sales and used book stores are filled with never-opened school science books, wonder no more.

We have the unfortunate bad luck to live in a community that is just minutes from both CalTech and USC Medical School. A disproportionate number of our fine neighbors make a living conducting scientific research. Some may even have scienitific theories named after them. So perhaps the tenor of the pre-Fair negotiations are a little different in those households than in our own. But our own home consists of two Ph.D.s who are involved in the quest for (social) science knowledge, and neither of us seems to be able to muster any enthusiasm for this particular scientific process. Most of our attempts to convey physics theories to be understandable to a liberal-artsy 4th grader end with the phrase: "It's kind of hard to explain."

My son's first project was an 11th-hour study of what items Play-Doh adheres to. This involved me spending most of my work day sticking clay to things in my office and surreptitiously logging results and taking pictures in between patients. But the real work came when I had to cajole "observations" from my son (in "his" own words) to turn into printable statements that could be affixed to an enormous white board. If you have ever stared at a blank page and experienced fear-inducing writer's block, then you have some sense of what it is like to be mocked by 32X46 inches of clean, white cardboard. Just choosing fonts and colors can overwhelm even the most Zen of people.

Last year, my son teamed up with a classmate to do a project based on a kit the boy's father bought online. Neither my son nor his friend had any idea what sort of kit was purchased, but were excited about the prospect of hanging out together, maybe playing some Wii. I was thrilled not to have to be involved in the scientific process at all. However, nothing is as stressful to a control-freak, Type A mom than having someone else's parent--a father, no less--overseeing your child's academic output. Especially since the boy's parents lived apart and had more than a bit of tension  between them. The dad thought it was funny to let the boys go wild with tempera paint all over the display board, so much so that the paint obscured many of the results that I had spent hours designing, choosing fonts, and printing out. It was not funny. And to this day, my son still can't tell us what the kit the boy's dad ordered was supposed to demonstrate. Needless to say, my son will no longer be collaborating with anyone who is not related to him by blood or marriage.

This year, I was heartened that my son showed an interest in his project. He is a big baseball fan and enthusiastically came up with a number of innovative ideas related to baseball play or statistics. He even took initiative one day and dutifully logged each pitch thrown by a computerized Zack Greinke on his Wii MLB 2K10 game. I swear, the video players are even more realistic than the real-life players. But when he explained his idea, having to do with the probability of Greinke throwing a change-up to a left-handed batter in a certain inning, I realized that we were talking dissertation material, not 4th grade science. It took some convincing to dumb his ideas down to make them simple enough for me--I mean him--to do. I won't give away the end, but the eventual project involved a ladder, two parents, 18 balls, data collected, data lost, data recollected, balls lost, something about kinetic energy, and copious amounts of rain.

I am exhausted. And I haven't even picked a font yet.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Don't Cross Me!

I live a 4-minute-and-22-second drive from my daughter's school. I know this because the drive from door to door takes exactly the amount of time as the song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (from the original motion picture soundtrack). I drop my son off on the way, so the commute from home to his school is even less than 4:22. It may not sound like a lot of time, but in those few ticks of the minute hand one can experience a whole day's worth of stress.

You might wonder what could possibly cause a relatively well-adjusted person to nearly self-destruct during a simple 4-minute-and-22-second drive. If you are indeed wondering, then you are fortunate enough not to have to encounter the same obstacle five days a week, rain or shine. More specifically, the same obstacle with a neon vest and octagon sign. You have never encountered The Elementary School Crossing Guard.

I am all for safety. I am the mom you might hear shrieking at her kids not to get run over in parking lots. I have been known to act as a human shield against unknown dogs at the park. I close schoolyard gates even if school isn't in session. And I am appreciative of the school district providing kindly retirees to monitor the crossing activities of students and related people.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that Crossing Guard Training may focus too much on sign-holding techniques and the proper care for orange reflective sateen, and not enough time teaching Guards the nuances of getting people from Point A to Point B. My son has attended two of the three schools in our community. I have observed lead Crossing Guards (who have the plum assignment of crossing people into the main entrance of the school), substitute Crossing Guards, and side street Crossing Guards. I feel that this sampling of Crossing Guards gives me an adequate basis for my observations.

None of my city's Guards come equipped with folding chairs, a practice I have witnessed while driving through neighborhoods where there is apparently a more relaxed attitude toward crossing people. But being a lazy-yet-highly-productive person myself, I don't think comfort necessarily equates with lack of attention to one's task. Our Crossing Guards commit a greater sin than kicking back on the job--they are so intent on being active players in the school crossing arena, they end up gobbing up the whole system.

The Crossing Guard at the first elementary school my son attended was a perpetually perky chatterer who honored each season with holiday-themed hats and personally greeted each crosser. Because of her friendly ways, I learned early on to avoid her corner by taking a different route to school; trying to drive past her station when she was commenting on a child's desert habitat diorama (yes, while in the middle of the street) was a true lesson in patience, one that I failed every time. 

Fortunately, that Crossing Guard didn't have much to do because the PTA of that school was on overdrive and designated a team of Stay-At-Home-MBAs (SAHMBAs) to oversee the traffic and drop-off flow. Prior to the beginning of each school year, parents would get a memo from the PTA detailing the procedure for student drop-off. There were two entrances to the school, and each one was staffed with officious moms, complete with PTA lanyards, holding Starbucks travel mugs in one hand, and opening passenger-side doors with the other. The student's actual parent was to have no role in the disembarking of his or her offspring; only specially trained PTA officeholders were up to the task of opening the car door, unbuckling the child, and manipulating a bulging wheelie backpack from the back of a Prius.  These whirlwinds of credentialed efficiency were even known to zip jackets and pick up crumpled snack wrappers that blew out of the car with the child.  And remind harried working parents when it was Farmer's Market day (Thursday) so no family would be without organic chard for another week. At this school, drop-off had to be between 8:00 and 8:10--the gates opened at exactly 8 and were locked at 8:10 on the dot. Those PTA SAHMs got 500 kids and all their stuff in those gates in a 9:59 window. Pure poetry in motion.

Several years ago, we moved across town and my son began attending a different elementary school. This school has a more "crunchy" feel to it, with a PTA made up of fewer corporate types, and more academics, non-profit lawyers, and artists. Needless to say, the days of the military precision of school drop-off are gone, replaced by haphazard double-parkers, bicycle riders, and, inexplicably, families who walk to school even though they do not live across the street from the school itself. Truthfully, it is this last group that completely baffles me and, I must add, do the most for mucking up drop-off. 

I once Mapquested our distance from school. I believe it was somewhere in the vicinity of 1/2 a mile. I know we are .3 miles from Trader Joe's, because that was the biggest factor in buying our house, and the school is very close to TJs. I continue to be astounded that our neighbors--all of whom also hold down jobs--stroll to school with their children every day, rain or shine. Some drive to the general area of the school and walk. Not sure what that accomplishes, but the key here is that perfectly sane people who do not need to hoof it with their dawdling kids to school actually do. I don't know whether to admire them or build a more secure fence around our property. 

The only person who seems more confused dealing with people walking to school, however, is the Crossing Guard. The Crossing Guard of this school is an elderly man, who appears to be easily distractible--not a quality I personally would look for in a Crossing Guard for an elementary school. He holds up a line of a dozen cars in favor of someone walking a cute dog. Now, I like cute animals as much as the next person, but if your job is to cross 500 kids into a school within a 10-minute period (yes, the crunchy school has the same guidelines), then you need to keep your eye on the ball for the full 600 seconds. You are a football kicker whose only job is to kick the ball over the goal post. That is your moment to shine. So when it is that magic window from 8 to 8:10 am on a weekday (excluding Federal holidays, teacher furlough days, and "pupil free" days), you damn well better have an eagle eye out for those who are trying to get to school. 

Since this particular Crossing Guard most likely attended elementary school before the automobile was invented, he may not have a frame of reference what it is like to be a driver at the mercy of an unfocused and idiosyncratic guard. He doesn't appear to understand that it would be wise to heed the drivers, because a Range Rover can do a lot more damage than an ambulatory crosser, except maybe during the week of Science Fair, when students are bringing all sorts of chemicals and radioactive matter to school. Yes, it is sweet to see a grandmother crossing with a toddler on a leisurely morning stroll, but that family bonding moment comes at a high price for those who do not have time to wait for a 2-year-old to be cajoled aimlessly across the street. On a daily basis, I have to squelch the urge to honk, curse, or hurl a water bottle at the Crossing Guard, who never fails to cross form before function: Joggers with earbuds. Mothers with infants, but no older siblings in sight. If he could use the power of his position to stop the childless runner from crossing when there are 15 cars waiting, there might be fewer kids running for the schoolyard in a futile attempt to be on school property before the dreaded bell. There also might be fewer parents on medication due to the stress of the morning drop-off. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Psssst, Lorax: I Have Some Trees For You....

I recently have been reading Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” with my daughter. 
We didn’t take the book out of the library because I wanted to teach her about the environment or anything. I had actually barely heard of the book. She wanted to read it because it is the favorite story of a certain boy in her class, who apparently foists the book on his preschool conquests in the manner that a 1970s male might show a paramour his “etchings.” 
They start early.

Anyway, the book was way ahead of its time. I know the early 1970s was its own time, full of ecological awareness, but Dr. Seuss’s prescience as to the utter devastation when nature is messed with is uncanny. The outcome of the showdown between the environmentally aware Ed Begley Jr.-like Lorax and his nemesis, the greedy Donald Trump-ish Once-ler, is like An Inconvenient Truth, but for the pre-K set.

The Lorax proclaims that he “speaks for the trees,” since trees don't have tongues and can’t speak, unless they are the creepy nightmare-inducing trees from the Wizard of Oz. The book really got me thinking about trees. Sure, I like trees as much as the next person. I'm not sure I have ever met anyone who didn't cop to being a tree fan. They provide shade, clean the air, and are superior hiding places for Hide and Seek. Treehouses, of course, would not be nearly as awesome--and would require a different moniker--if not for the support of a tree. Of course, having a neighbor with a treehouse can be a source of resentment, because, seriously, how cool is a family with a treehouse? I don't think there can be enough therapy to boost the self-esteem of the child who goes through elementary school being known as the kid who lived nextdoor to the cool kid with the treehouse.

I never gave trees too much scrutiny until relatively recently. In graduate school, a friend who had also done her undergrad work at the same university got all weepy every spring when the impressionistic Jacaranda trees would bloom. I was not very well-versed in my species of arbors, 
so I had to run an Internet search to see what on earth she was talking about. I felt slightly duncelike when I saw the photos of the Jacarandas because they are these puffy purple-ish trees and really don't require much of an attention span to notice them, especially since the entire campus is covered with them. They are the university's "signature tree," so to speak. At the same time as the Jacaranda revelation, we also lived in a 
neighborhood with parallel streets named Palm, Maple, Oakhurst (our street). Maybe I was thrown off by the "hurst" in our street name, but it took years before I figured out that the names of the streets correlated with the types of trees that lined the sidewalks. Clever!

When we went to tour the house in which we now live, I was charmed by the towering old Sycamore tree in the front yard. I am actually showing off a bit because I didn't know what sort of tree it was until we had a prickly British landscape consultant over who had nothing nice to say about our garden except for our 100-year-old Sycamore tree. She told us it was a Sycamore, and my husband and I both nodded knowingly, like of course we knew that. I think she found us to be more offensive than the garden, especially when it became clear we were not going to be repeat customers (did I mention she wasn't getting her usually exorbitant fee because we had won the consult in a charity auction??) The (actually true) punchline of that story is that it turned out the very same Ms. Victory Garden had actually been hired by the previous owners to design the front and back gardens. We managed to remain cordial for the balance of the consult and no pruning shears or tillers were used for anything but their intended purposes. I swear.

Having grown up in a climate where trees produce only leaves, acorns and, due north, sap for maple syrup, I am enamored with foliage that yields anything useful at all. In the decades since I figured out that fruit actually grows on things, such as trees or vines, I have always thought it would be really cool to grow food in my own yard. So when I saw that our soon-to-be house had fruit trees in addition to a lumbering “regular” tree, I knew we had scored. I supplemented the existing lemon, tangerine and loquat trees with avocado, apple, peach, plum, apricot and pear trees. It would be a virtual orchard! We would live off the land! No need to do any research as to which trees thrive in what conditions.. if it was sold at our local nursery, it must be compatible with our plot of land. Mother Nature will know just what to do.

Well, Mother Nature has a good sense of humor. As much as I want to 
say living amongst trees has filled me with awe and wonder, I will tell you
the trees are the bane of my existence. The elegant Sycamore 
that is so majestic for about two weeks in the spring (perhaps not coincidentally, the season of the open house...),  is a royal pain for the other 50 weeks. That damn tree spews so many leaves and related detritus that it is a full-time job to eradicate all of its droppings. Our neighbors' stately Evergreens mock us as we rake and fill endless bags and trash cans. The slightest rain or wind—and yes, we have both in Los Angeles—releases new torrents of foliage and debris.  And those fruit trees that 
had me seeing visions a self-sustaining Eden? The single fruit that annually grows on each tree is ferreted away by squirrels before we can “harvest” it. And the mature fruit trees that have yielded fruit for generations? Who on earth needs hundreds and hundreds of pieces of fruit? Seriously, what is a loquat good for, aside from pelting my car with its sticky, putrid offerings. And I have some bad news for you, tangerine tree—no one wants to eat your sour, pit-filled orbs. 

One year we were instructed to supply “healthy” snacks for my son’s basketball team, so I brought a reusable Trader Joe's bag full of tangerines. Wouldn’t you know that those damned things were all dried up inside? Those poor, physically drained, exhausted kids. All they got to quench their thirst and replenish their nutrients was a handful of dried pulp and bulbous seeds. You probably would not be surprised to hear that we have brought Doritos every sports season since.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Theory

Graduate school is a special time in an intellectual's life. It is a rarefied opportunity to acquire lofty knowledge that will serve the scholar for years to come. One develops skills to discern which professors are least likely to assign copious amounts of work. One figures out which secretary to cozy up to so dissertation paperwork will get signed and submitted by deadlines. One learns what to answer in a psychological battery to appear dangerously psychotic, and wonder if the professor will refer said person to university counseling. One can have a little clean fun with the non-English-speaking professor by loudly repeating in class her same obscene-sounding mispronounciations of statistical theories. One  identifies the professors closest to retirement to put on a dissertation committee. One might even realize that a dissertation chair with a reputation for ethical lapses might make the perfect dissertation chair.

One thing that is not learned in six years of doctoral study is anything about the actual subject being studied. That is reserved for a very special post-doc period called "studying for the licensing exams." These magical months, spent almost exclusively in the company of flash cards, practice tests, CDs, and used study guides, is not only reserved for psychology Ph.Ds, however: My attorney and physician friends will also have flashbacks recalling this time.

I was going to include a clever paragraph about how, while studying, I felt like I was embodying most  of the theories I was memorizing--attributing the gist of a one-sentence overview of someone's lifelong theory to describe my experience. Similar to how medical students convince themselves that they have symptoms of every obscure disease they read about. But, sadly, another hallmark of the infamous "licensing-exam-cram" is that as soon as the examinations are finished, the information is apparently no longer available in either short- or long-term memory. Especially if you were, say, nine-months pregnant for the national exam (with the only bathroom outside, through the courtyard, and take a left), and nursing every two hours for the state exam (talk about incentive to finish a three-hour exam quickly). I know there are all sorts of theories about information processing and encoding that explain why these facts have such a short shelf-life in one's brain, but I really don't recall the specifics of those theories. I vaguely recall some theories involving unsuspecting students administering electric shock, and other unsuspecting students being imprisoned. Psychological researchers sure are a misanthropic bunch.

However, I am proud to say that after six years of graduate school, thousands of hours of pre- and post-doctoral training, and hours of standardized tests with cut-throat pass rates, I do indeed recall two theories. Actually, apparently not so much "theories" as "effects." The first one is the Zeigarnik Effect. The gist of the ZE is that we tend to continue to think about tasks that we have not completed. So if you are working on a complicated project at work, for example, it will plague you until you have finished it. I suppose this makes sense, except clearly Dr. Zeigarnik did not have a sufficient sampling of true obsessors in his research study. For those of us who would be outliers for Zeigarnik's bell curve, there is always a reason to continue to ruminate over a task, even if it has been completed, graded, published, and engraved in stone somewhere.

The other effect comes from Dr. Garcia, a researcher who perhaps was a childhood finicky eater (an early "foodie" perhaps?) and made it his life's mission to prove to his mother that he wasn't trying to personally shame her by not eating his vegetables. Cue "The Garcia Effect." This theory posits that we develop aversions to certain foods--and similar foods--after a bad experience with said food. So if you ever became physically ill after eating, let's say, cottage cheese, you may have a lifelong, literal distaste for cottage cheese. And, perhaps, yogurt or rice pudding. This is one of a long line of social science theories that is seemingly so self-evident, any parent of a three-year old could have come up with it. The example that is commonly given to illustrate this theory is that someone who has a bad experience with tangerines may also avoid oranges and clementines. Considering most of us cannot tell the difference among these three fruits, I would say it is a safe bet we would avoid all of them if any of them ever sickened us.

I have my own theory about social science research theories: Most researchers could save years of effort running complex statistical models if they would spend five minutes around actual people. Or, more specifically, children. My daughter was once greatly traumatized by a smidgeon of basil on her penne-with-butter at a 5-star restaurant. Had it not been for our dear Dr. Garcia, I would never have been able to anticipate that the mere sight of a single sesame seed, spice, or herb would be enough to ask the waiter to extract the offending particle with surgical tweezers. And if I ever want to see my child's face drained of all color, I merely have to ask if she would like to have some pineapple. "Remember I tried pineapple and didn't like it?" she agitatedly reminds me... Yes, in 2008--a half a lifetime ago! Well done, Dr. Garcia, well done. Hmmm. I have a readymade sample to observe (my kids) and a Ph.D. in psychology. I am going to obsess (thanks, Dr. Zeigarnik) until I come up with my own Effect.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

This Really Sucks

My vacuum costs $700. I bought it off Ebay. Even though the whole point of buying something from a faceless entity on an auction site is to get a good deal, I don't think the final price was all that much less than buying it brand spanking new. If I were one to offer unsolicited advice, I would definitely recommend against buying a heavy, unwieldy (but European!) appliance sight-unseen, especially when the postage to send it back would equal more than to buy a new not-European machine at the store.

But boy, does my Miele suck. The attachment at the end of the long metal doohickey doesn't do anything other than mush the Cheerios into the floor. It has an aversion to carpets. And it blows air out of all its steel orifices. The replacement bags and filters are horrifically expensive and need to be special ordered. Our $45 Dirt Devil is far superior in these departments, and a perky lavender color to boot. Although I am not a vain person, I find it quite humiliating to utter the name "Dirt Devil" in public. It's just such a dumb name. Luckily, the DD does not require any vacuum bags and whenever it stops working or seems clogged, it is just as easy to chuck the whole vacuum than have to converse with a vacuum repairperson about the DD. I think we have also owned Eureka and Oreck vacuums, and those are just as embarrassing to talk about it public.

Did I mention that my Miele sucks? I mean it really sucks. Even without the attachment, it sucks up everything in its wake. My Miele is undoubtedly now worth significantly more than $700 because of all the coins and precious jewelry it has inhaled from our floors. It eats up pencils whole. It gets such a hold on curtains or stray socks that I imagine I am in the movie Jaws and attempting to extract a limb from the shark. This woman-against-machine drama plays into my competitive nature. I keep the power amped up to the highest setting--1100, but I have no idea what the 1100 is measured in. Volts? Watts? Amps? Since my Miele is German, maybe 1100 Wegstundes? Klafters? Meiles? Hmmm, my money is on the last one. Anyway, I am pulled along at 1100 Euro-somethings by five feet (150 cm) of steel pipe that juts and dives with such craft that I feel I am Luke Skywalker wielding a light sabre intent on cleaning the entire galaxy. After all that force that is with me, I have forgiven my Miele for its shortcomings.

I haven't always been so smitten with cleaning appliances. In fact, for many years I swore by the cleaning strategy of "baby wipes and a Dustbuster." I had a rather philosophical, fatalistic approach to housecleaning: If it couldn't be removed from the rug, floor, counters, or furniture by ether of those items, maybe it wasn't meant to be removed at all. I went through many, many Dustbusters before I realized that you occasionally have to stick your finger in to unstick anything bigger than a grain of rice, and the handheld is off and purring again. I did think it was a little suspicious how so many people claimed to have their Dustbusters for years, and I frequently only got one use out of it. But I have a liberal arts education, so I couldn't have been expected to know this.

Last year, prior to the purchase of my Miele, we were at a princess dress-up area at a County Fair. For reasons I cannot fathom, the princess area included a play vacuum. I was not sure whether to find this to be empowering to young girls--princesses don't just sit around and eat bon bons!--or merely an historical oversight, since Cinderella clearly pre-dates the invention of he vacuum. Much to my shock and dismay, my daughter, dressed in a regal costume of heavy velvet in 102-degree heat, started pushing the vacuum around. I considered redirecting her energies, but the other available options also involved forms of menial labor, like serving and washing things. Quelle horreur!

While I was bemoaning how, despite my best efforts to avoid it, centuries of gender stereotyping influenced my daughter's choice of a vacuum over a magic wand, I had another thought. Maybe her selection of a vacuum was actually a bold one, appealing to her sense of novelty. After all, I recalled when my son was about the same age, on the rare occasion we had a cleaning service in the house, he approached one of the cleaners who was busily vacuuming, pointed at the appliance, and very loudly asked, "What is THAT?"