Saturday, May 29, 2010

Going Up?

There is an interesting website called Urban Word of the Day. This could be described as an updated version of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. The main difference is that the words are submitted by the readers, in essence forming a dictionary that you write yourself.

Today’s word is elevator reflex, which the site defines ”as the urge people get once inside an elevator to stare compulsively at the ascending numbered lights (usually on top of the elevator doors) either because they are truly convinced this will speed up the whole 'process' or they are simply socially-awkward beings who can't bear to look at random people in the face for 30 seconds.”

The Doc, my wife, suggests that this is an inaccurate definition, that elevator reflex refers to people who enter an elevator as soon as the doors open without checking to see whether the car is going up or down. People push a button, the car arrives, and they get on only to discover the car is traveling in the opposite direction from where they wanted to go. Seconds later, the car they actually summoned arrives, going in the right direction, opens its doors and no one gets on, usually to the great annoyance of the people waiting in the elevator. The elevator industry calls this a phantom stop. I like this name, especially since the History Channel will eventually get around to producing a one hour show claiming phantom stops are proof of paranormal activity.

It saddens me to say this, but both the people at the Urban Word of the Day site and my wife are wrong. Elevator reflex actually refers to the irresistible urge people have to push an already lit button. Years ago, while working in the hotel business, I attended a short elevator maintenance class. Among the fascinating tidbits I learned was that the average wait in a building with a properly designed elevator system is 30 seconds. Frustration sets in shortly after this point and chances are the person waiting will push the button again.

Why do people do this? Are they trying to impress upon the button how sincere they are? If you ask them, they will say something along the lines of, “The button might be busted.” This nonsense is even harder to understand, if the button is busted, why push it at all?

By the way, the strangest part of that elevator course was surfing the cars; riding on top of the elevator cars. Elevator surfing is incredibly dangerous, you should never, ever consider doing it as several people die every year while doing this reckless activity. Unbelievably fun, especially if the shaft is dark, but don’t even consider it.

I have been thinking about elevators all week. The university has had a couple of power failures this week and my building has an elevator. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch anyone.

Elevators reveal a lot of strange behavior in people. Lots of studies have been done about where people position themselves in the car. The key factor is maintaining personal space. If there is only one person on the car, he will stand in the middle; two will move to the back corners, the third person who enters takes the middle, and so forth. In general, the pattern tends to follow the same pattern you see on the sides of dice.

There are a couple of sex based variations to this rule. An alpha male techno-geek entering a car will move directly in front of the controls and remain there no matter how many people enter the car. Women entering a car will frequently cross their arms in an attempt to claim a little more personal space.

I’ve always liked the anecdote about Alfred Hitchcock and elevators. If he rode on an elevator with a friend, whenever a stranger boarded the car, Hitchcock would begin a long description of an unusually bloody and violent murder scene. The gruesome story would continue until the somewhat freaked stranger got off the car. Hitchcock called this his elevator story.

I remember an old Candid Camera gag where actors would face the wrong direction in an elevator, standing with their backs to the door, for example. Anyone else entering the car would stand facing the same direction. Halfway through the elevator ride, the actors would turn 90 degrees and face a side wall. After a long pause, all the other people on the car would turn and face the same way.

Remember the elevator in my building? For years, the elevator car had a certain design flaw. My building has a basement and three floors, but for some reason the indicator lights inside the elevator were numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4. In other words, the ground floor was represented by number 2; the basement was number 1, etc. This is not a big mistake, but people looking for the third floor usually got off on the second floor and almost everyone trying to leave the building took an unscheduled trip to the basement. Hilarious.

Eventually, some new dean had this “fixed”. Some people have no sense of educational tradition.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Raising Small Sick Children

Small children are always sick. Seems like What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One were sick several times a week, if not more. And a cold could rebound between my wife and the boys for half a year. As soon as one of them got well, one of the other ones would share the virus again and it would start up all over again. Typhoid Mary has nothing on this family. Why can’t children share toys as easily as they share germs?

And the fevers! A small boy can go from feeling perfectly fine to having a fever higher than his IQ in less than five minutes. Then a half hour later he wants to go outside and play, the fever is gone and he wants to know if he can have a sandwich!

Not that the boys didn’t really get sick occasionally. The dark angel of projectile vomiting visited our house more than once and both boys got sick enough occasionally that they were like a French submarine; they leaked at every orifice. We had the usual bouts of chicken pox, the galloping galontis and the creeping crud. Thankfully, nothing serious and nothing that stuck.

The sicknesses that I remember the most, however, were the far less serious ones. The ones that happened an hour before the school bus came or when it was someone’s turn to wash the dishes. I work with some people who regularly come down with the brown bottle flu or suddenly need to take a mental health day. These were the kinds of illnesses my boys came down with the most frequently.

Or sometimes, the boys saw the Doc or me take a couple of aspirins and suddenly they needed medicine, too. Within 30 seconds they had developed more symptoms that a convention of hypochondriacs. They were dying!

Luckily, the Doc and I found an all purpose cure for every disease unknown to medical science. I don’t even remember where we found the cure, but I think it was at one of those roadside novelty shops next to a highway. You know, the kind that advertises both gasoline and fireworks for sale. For a dollar, you can go out back of the shop and look at the “Thing” that lives in a cage. Well, sometimes it floats in a big glass jar, but you get the idea.

In the novelty shop, amidst all the genuine Native American kitsch made in China, there was a real treasure: a bottle of candy labeled as fake medicine. A hundred green candy peas in a plastic bottle with a medicine bottle style lid. The perfect all-purpose Wonder Drug!

Now before I tell you the rest of the story, I know what this week’s hate mail will be about. “You should never teach children that medicine is candy!” Oh, shut up! Every damn cough medicine on the market tastes like cherries, I can’t even describe the flavors they put in children’s vitamins. You want to blame someone, blame Mary Poppins. She’s the one who put a spoon full of sugar in the medicine.

The point of the story was that the boys didn’t think those peas were candy, they actually believed that every one of those peas was a powerful drug that combined antibiotics with painkillers and a dash of Pepto Bismol. We told them over and over again it was strong medicine. We kept it in the medicine cabinet and every time we used it, the Doc and I would hold serious conversations in front of them about the proper dosage. Hell, I saw many a sore throat cured with just one pea, if What’s-His-Name wanted two of them, he would have had to cough up a lung.

The peas did perform miraculous cures. The-Other-One once reattached a leg with… no that’s not quite right. But both boys made the school bus fairly regularly. And painfully scraped knees stopped hurting pretty quickly with the right dosage. Of course, any minor injury was much more painful if there was an audience for it.

We still have the bottle. Well, we did. I have previously written about how I suddenly became a grandfather-to-be. This precious child, the Munchkin, now occasionally needs medicine. So I passed the heirloom bottle down to The-Other-One. I have no doubt it will be equally effective for another generation.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Cycle of Life

I am waiting to hear word from Oslo about my upcoming Nobel Prize. Okay, the awards aren’t due for months, but the Scandihoovians can vote an extra early award for special circumstances. After all, it is not often that in a single moment of clarity an individual not only clears up one of life’s greatest mysteries but discovers a new life form.

My discovery started several weeks ago when I began searching through my desk for my magnifying glass. (I have noticed as I get older that the manufacturers of frozen burritos keep printing the microwave instructions in progressively smaller typeface.) I couldn’t find the magnifying glass, probably because every drawer was filled to overflowing with ball point pens.

Last week, I needed a red pen. I was grading final exams and several of the blue books needed smiting. In search of a suitable weapon to use, I ransacked the desk… and the ball points were all gone. It turns out that you can smite blue books with a pencil. Not quite as satisfying, but effective.

A few days later, I’m hanging shirts in my closet. Every single shirt I owned was either on my back or hanging in my closet, yet I had several dozen extra wire coat hangers. Where did they come from? And stranger still, a few days later, where did they go? Suddenly, I had more shirts than hangers!

(Note. This reminds me of something that really needs a comment. My son, What’s-His-Name, is married. His wife, the Teach, believes that shirts may only be hung up if all the same colors are grouped together. It would be unkind of me to say that this foolishness is possibly a little OCD. So I won’t say that. But, Teach, you are anal enough to suck up a sofa cushion.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Lots of ball point pens, no hangers. Something else was strange about the laundry. Half of my socks are missing. How in the world does this happen? I am damn near certain that every single day, I come home from the university wearing two socks. I can’t be losing them. I could understand it if I was losing shoes… No, my socks are disappearing, too.

Being a little absent-minded, I decided to make a list, so I went to my desk for a pad of paper and …ALL THE PENS WERE BACK! My first thought was that my wife was playing tricks on me, but then I remembered that the Doc had her sense of humor surgically removed during her second year of medical school.

It took me days to figure it out. And during that time, the hangers came and went, the ball point pens ebbed and flowed and I think I am down to three mismatched socks. Socks never come back.

And then it hit me; something was eating the socks. The socks were food! Here’s the way I see it. Earth has been invaded and there is an alien life form of shape shifters that are living and multiplying among us. What we think of as ball point pens are in reality egg cases. They incubate harmlessly in desk and kitchen drawers, under sofa cushions and in glove compartments. Obviously they select dark and warm locations for the eggs to hatch.

Eventually, the eggs hatch and out emerge and change their shape to match, as you’ve probably guessed, coat hangers. On their trip to the closet/nursery to hide out, they stop by the laundry basket for a snack. Not wanting to appear obvious, they only eat one sock from each pair. Then they jump into a closet and hide. This is the larval stage.

I am still working on the pupal stage, but I think it may be old cake pans and pie plates in the kitchen. I could be wrong; I did notice we seem to have more garden tools than I ever remember having used. But I am sure of the next stage.

Once the aliens get to the adult stage, this iron based life form is mature enough to try and blend in with their environment, so they take multiple forms. It is difficult to spot them, but if you are careful you can spot them around your house. Do you suddenly have an extra old bicycle behind the garage? Is there a rusty barbecue grill in the back yard you don’t remember having before?

A few of them may even leave your house to migrate to other locations. What else could explain all those ugly Volkswagens on the road?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Raising Small Children - Part Three

One of my sons is color blind. Not What’s-His-Name, but The-Other-One. Basically, he cannot differentiate between red and green, most of the rest of the colors are not really great either.

My wife and I discovered this at one of those interactive museums where the children are allowed to touch the exhibits and play with anything they want. Along one wall there was a collection of pictures, each a weird pattern of colored dots that revealed a number. If your vision is normal, you saw one number. If not, you saw another.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. If your vision is normal, you will see the number 70. Those with red/green color blindness will see the number 29.

Looking back, this really shouldn’t have surprised us that much. For years, we had allowed him to pick his own clothes out for school, and most days he left the house looking like something Walt Disney would dream up if he dropped acid. Let’s just say his clothes clashed.

His socks rarely matched, but so what? He’s male. Hell, I looked down one day in class and discovered my shoes didn’t match.

And I remember telling the boy on more than one occasion not to eat a green banana. Trust me; don’t let color blind people pick out your produce.

Somehow, even with all these hints, we didn’t know he was color blind and naturally, neither did he. I was shocked and he couldn’t have cared less. I guess you can’t miss what you don’t know.

As he got older, his being color blind was obvious. One day he was mowing the grass in the front yard and ran the lawnmower over a large piece of red cellophane. It might have been the wrapper off a box of chocolate. Instantly, there were several hundred pieces of red confetti all over the green grass. Since the little bastard had run over it on purpose, it seemed only fair to make him clean up the mess, and it was the kind of mess that you could see a block away.

You could see it a block away, unless, of course, you were color blind. I couldn’t make him pick up the little pieces of red plastic, because it was impossible for him to find them. Thankfully, we have two sons; I made What’s-His-Name do it.

Still, as the father of a color blind child, I knew my duty. Immediately, I started teasing the crap out of him. I missed not a single opportunity to make fun of him, tease him, or taunt him. Obviously, I did this for his own good, since I knew other kids would tease him at school and I wanted him to be immune to this. Besides, it was fun.

It turned out, however, that being color blind has its own rewards. Did you know that color blind people are practically immune to camouflage? This ability to see things that are trying to hide may be the evolutionary explanation why there seem to be so many people with red-green color blindness. Maybe thousands of years ago, these were the best hunters.

I got a great first hand exhibition of this several years ago. I decided to install a camera to watch the pool from an ivy covered wall on the patio. The camera was tiny, and several times while running the wiring, I “lost” the camera and it took me a while to locate it again among the ivy. A small black camera hidden in the dark spaces between the green leaves is invisible. To most of us, anyway.

When I finished, I sat down with a beer to admire my work. The-Other-One walked up and almost immediately asked, “When did we get a camera?”

I still tease him about his shirts, but to tell the truth, sometimes I wish I could borrow his eyes for a while. It would be interesting to see the world as he sees it. And I could let my wife, the Doc, pick out my shirts.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

In Reference To

Now that the semester is nearly over, it is letter writing season. Students regularly show up hoping that I will write them a letter of recommendation so they can either get a job or enter a graduate degree program. Now that the economy has turned sour, I am writing a lot more of the latter. The job market is cold, while the ivy halls of academia are heated at taxpayer expense.

For most of my students, such a letter is not a gift, but an earned right; if you work your ass off in my class, the least I owe you is a small letter of recommendation. For many others, it is a Christmas gift they are stealing from a parked car at the mall.

My biggest problem is that I simply don’t remember most of these students. “I took your class in Military History,” they say. Yeah, that narrowed it down to about a thousand people, most of them about your age… How do you write a great letter that says nothing?

I wish there were an accepted code used by academics that would seem to be positive, yet actually told the reader the student in question was the intellectual equivalent of a turnip. Men have such a code; all you have to do is say that the woman being discussed has “a wonderful personality” and every man present will know her appearance would stop an eight day clock. You can say this right in front of your wife, and not understanding the code, she will just smile and nod her head in agreement.

Since there isn’t such a code, I would like to start one. From now on, when you read a letter of recommendation that states the student “came to class regularly” it actually means the following:

Dear Sir or Madam:

The bearer of this letter was my student for one or more classes. I can’t remember exactly how many, since he sat in the back row, fell asleep, slumped in the seat, and was all but invisible. I can attest that the student was present at one or more final exams, since I distinctly remember introducing myself.

Unfortunately, this student has delusions of adequacy. To be perfectly blunt, I would not use this student for breeding stock. Actually, come to think of it, I believe he used to study animal husbandry, until they caught him at it.

This student evidently wishes to enter your program in search of a graduate degree. In all honesty, I believe the student has two motives: First, there are no math prerequisites for a masters degree in the Sociology of Range Science Education Literature. To be fair, this is the same reason he sought an undergraduate degree in History.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, this student wishes to postpone his inevitable entrance into the fast food industry as long as possible. Since it seems likely that his parents will prefer to write checks indefinitely as opposed to having their son live at home, your department can probably count on this student to remain enrolled through his post-doctoral years.

Our Athletic Director assures me that the student will have his ankle bracelet removed next week. And I am fairly sure he is no longer contagious.

I urge you to admit this student, as our entire department is looking forward to his future career. Somewhere else.

Sincerely yours,
Mark Milliorn