Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fifty States of Mind

We always say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Actually, we don’t always say that. If we always said that we would be really crummy conversationalists.
“Hey, Jim, what do you think of the presidential candidates?”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“OK, Jim, what about the financial situation the United States is facing?”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Well, where do you want to eat tonight, Jim?”
“You can’t judge, ooowwww…”
Jim did not finish that sentence because his friend just gave him a swift kick in the shin and walked away muttering something about judging a friend by his intelligence.
Anyway, it is fairly common for people to prejudge things. Sometimes that way of thinking makes sense. If a man walks up to you wearing a leather jacket, a patch over one eye, boots with spikes capable of ruining Ben Hur’s chariot, and a tattoos of a skull and crossbones on one shoulder and the phrase “Waterboarding is for Sissies” on the other, chances are he is not going to ask you if you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior. Chances are more likely you are about to meet your personal savior.
One way people judge each other has to do with where a person calls home. Admit it. If you ask a stranger where they are from and they answer Scranton, Pennsylvania you will draw different conclusions about them than if they answer San Francisco, California.
A recent study discussed in an article in the Wall Street Journal seems to say there are things one can assume about a person who comes from a particular place in the country. A research scientist from the University of Cambridge in England (this immediately brings to mind a stereotypical tweed wearing, meerschaum pipe smoking, crumpet eating, Shakespeare quoting, aesthete who tips the machismo scale somewhere between Clay Aiken and that kid you knew in eighth grade who was the target of choice in every single dodgeball game ever played) has put together information from over 600,000 questionnaires in order to tell the “personality” of each of the fifty states.
These questionnaires measured what is called the “Big Five”. The five personality traits defined are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. Can you imagine a person strong in all five? I’m sure after you imagine a person like that you can easily imagine yourself resisting a powerful urge to slap him across the face because he would be more annoying than fingernails on a chalk board and Dennis Miller, combined.
Just like people, no state was strong in all five areas. Extraversion sounds like it is the director’s cut of a movie on DVD, but it really refers to the outgoing nature of a person. The number one state for this was North Dakota. There will now be a slight pause as all readers go: “Huh… North Dakota?” My guess is in North Dakota there isn’t much else but each other to occupy one’s time.
The winner amongst the fifty states for agreeableness is North Dakota. I am starting to smell a conspiracy here. Is it possible the Cambridge researcher was given a sizable bribe to make North Dakota sound like a wonderful, friendly place to live thus increasing its population and making South Dakota insanely jealous?
The top state in the conscientiousness department is North…just kidding, New Mexico. This is also the only personality trait for which Kansas made the top five. This is no surprise. Kansans pride themselves on their sense of duty and self-discipline. This might explain why we don’t score very highly in the two remaining categories.
Kansas is 34th in neuroticism and 38th in openness. Neuroticism measures things like stress and anxiety. (Digression for an old joke: A psychotic person thinks two plus two is five. A neurotic person knows two plus two is four, but hates it.) Well, we Kansans have too much self-discipline to allow ourselves to be anxious. That and a very high per capita intake of Prozac.
Being 38th in openness must be a surprise. There cannot possibly be thirty-seven states with more open spaces than we have. Wait. When this study says openness they mean openness to new ideas. We can be a bit set in our ways. The majority of Kansas voters voted for a Democratic presidential candidate forty-four years ago, a Democratic senator seventy-six years ago and each election still has a number of write-in votes for Eisenhower. We still like Ike.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

From Monogamous Mice to Androgynous Anchovies

Many scientists are reporting that Genes may be even more influential to how humans behave than was previously thought to be the case. I can kind of see what they mean. Gene Rayburn hosted my favorite game show, Match Game. Gene Kelly was one of the best dancers ever. Gene Simmons has one of the longest tongues ever. Gene Moore is considered the top window dresser of the 20th century. (I did not make that up. I found it on Wikipedia.) But I fail to see how these giants in their fields influence all of human behavior.
What’s that? Oh, I feel somewhat embarrassed. It is not “Genes” its genes. Genes are those tiny little doohickeys hanging out within our DNA which lay out the blueprint for the building of people. Back in the 1800’s a scientist guy named Gregor Mendel studied inheritance in pea plants and hypothesized about how traits are passed from parent to offspring. Most the time this concept was simply applied to what color a kid’s eyes would be due to the eye color of the parents. Do you remember doing those Punnet Squares in tenth grade biology? I hated those things.
It seems the more we learn about genes and how humans are hard-wired the more it becomes clear we really don’t know how much influence they have over many more nuanced aspects of who we are. A recent study done by a group of Swedish scientists discusses how a certain gene in men can lead to having better marriages.
This relationship enhancing gene is in charge of modulating the hormone vasopressin. The word “vasopressin” is from an archaic East Indian language and translates to “one who admits he is wrong even when he is not”. Okay, I made that up. It really means “one who considers having power over the remote control a god given right”. I made that up, too.
The thing is all this stuff I’m making up is not all that strange compared to the real story. The scientists first became tuned into this gene and the attendant hormone while studying voles. Voles? I had to run to Wikipedia yet again.
Voles are rodents. Great, when deciding what to study in order to get an insight into how men do well or not in a long-term relationship scientists look to rodents. I’m offended. I mean voles are not even tough rodents. Why couldn’t it have been capybaras? They are rodents with attitude, weighing in at over 170 pounds. But, no. They had to go and compare us to male voles. Animals that have a list of predators longer than the list of people who want to slap Britney Spears. They do not even grow bigger than seven inches long, and here’s the kicker, the female is larger than the male. That might explain why a vole is monogamous. She can kick his short hairy tail.
Here is a direct quote from the article as it appeared on the Yahoo News webpage. “They (the researchers) found that men with a certain variant, known as an allele, of the vasopressin 1a gene, called 334, tended to score especially low on a standard psychological test called the Partner Bonding Scale. They were also less likely to be married than men carrying another form of the gene. And carrying two copies of the 334 allele doubled the odds that the men had undergone some sort of marital crisis over the past year.”
Well. I have only one thing to say to that. Huh?
The very next day after I read about rodents being a “vole” model for men committed to their relationship I read another scientific report. This report talked about how all those chemicals man keeps pumping into the environment have effects on genes. Pair that with what I just learned about the importance of genes in regards to how people function and this news is as frightening as one of those John Stossel reports on 20/20.
The scientific genius guy reporting in this article said the chemicals leaking out into the water supply are likely the reason why many fish species are mutating. How are they mutating? They are developing both male and female sex organs. That’s quite a mutation.
If this phenomenon expands to humans there is a bright side. Men with the 334 allele will have a better chance of maintaining a long term relationship if it is with himself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To Be Paid in Kind

Whenever a person takes up pen and paper (or, in a more contemporary tone, keyboard and laserjet) it is known to the author the message he is trying to impart has probably been done. I realize what I have to say has been said before. We have John Milton, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Mel Brooks. I cannot possibly measure up to their skills. This does not mean I am going to give up.
One of those great writers was Henry James. He was a brilliant man from a family of great thinkers. He wrote over twenty novels not to mention numerous novellas, criticisms, journals and plays. I have read almost none of his stuff, but I still think I can accurately say the best thing he ever wrote was the following: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
I am going to put my spin on what Mr. James said because I fear kindness is as common in everyday life as Big Macs are at a convention of Vegans. Okay, I’m dabbling in hyperbole when I say that. I do see acts of kindness on a regular basis. Working at a school affords me opportunities to see children do small acts of kindness, teachers take extra time to help a kid grow, and counselors go above and beyond the call of duty to make a kid feel better about himself.
This week I was an audience member for a presentation from a group known as Rachel’s Challenge. This group was named for an extraordinary young lady who was a victim of the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado. I am already straying too far from my job as a humor writer so I will spare you the horrible details. Luckily, the bulk of the message revolved around her outlook on life and how acts of kindness can make a difference in people’s lives. The chief hope of this program is that getting others to chip in with acts of kindness will create a chain reaction, snowballing until kindness becomes the norm instead of the anomaly.
I truly believe kindness is the most valuable character trait for people I want to spend time with and the one I try hardest to impart to the next generation. The fear which is growing in me is people will see that the antithesis of kindness gets people what they want. The chain reaction this behavior sets into motion is dangerous.
I recently listened to a lecture by Phillip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and the author of the book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He discussed how situational and systemic factors can make people behave in awful ways they would not think of doing if the environment was different. He specifically looked at prisons and the horrific behaviors at Abu Ghraib.
If you look around it seems the situational and systemic factors most prevalent are impolite if not downright mean-spirited. I just read an article on the CNN website about the presidential election. 15 paragraphs into the article they started talking about education after getting all the important sniping and downright lying taken care of first. I have liberal leanings so there may be a smattering of partisan prejudice, even though I try not to do so, but the Republican convention seemed chock full of sarcastic comments and invectives. The Democrats took their share of shots at their opponents, but it didn’t seem to be as bitter or nasty.
Political talk on Fox and MSNBC is angry far too much of the time. I have never missed John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite, and David Brinkley so much in my life. If Edward R. Murrow tunes his astral television (even better than Hi-def) to present day television news there wouldn’t be enough cigarettes or bourbon in the world to get the bad taste out of his mouth.
Reality television trades on the worst of people. Duplicitous behaviors can win you a million dollars (as well as eating bugs and foregoing personal hygiene for weeks on end). If Big Brother is watching he is watching people stab others in the back. If you want to be just like Donald Trump I think it is time to reexamine your value set.
This country should be a beacon of humanity. Instead it spends too much time peddling pettiness and impoliteness. That is not who we are, but it could be who we become.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Life Isn't Always Fair

The next ten days are a big deal for Hutchinson. There will be tractor pulls, arm wrestling contests, chainsaw artists, pigs racing and pigs just standing around, bands who last hit the Billboard charts in 1986, a performer who had his first top ten hit when you could still buy 8-track tapes and a performer who was born seventeen years after that song was on the charts. The Kansas State Fair is off and running.
I grew up in Hutchinson so the Fair is part of my earliest memories. The very first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Fair, not something their PR guys would want me to say, is mud. It always seemed to rain during the Fair. The second thing is road signs. The first real hint the Fair was coming was when I was walking home from Roosevelt Elementary School there would be sign posts with no signs. The city would put up “No Parking” signs on several streets close to the fairgrounds, but the posts would go up before the signs were added.
We lived close enough we would be serenaded by the dulcet tones of race car engines on weekends and we could catch occasional bars of music wafting over the treetops from the rock groups at the Grandstand. We also lived close enough I could easily walk there. This meant when I got old enough to go without parental escort I could do so without even asking for a ride. Asking for money? Yes. A ride? No.
My best friend, Rob, and I would go to the Fair. As was the case in many aspects of our friendship, he was the adventurous one and I was not. He wanted to go on the rides which would make Alan Shepard throw up. I did not. He would talk to long-haired men with tattoos chiding us to play their midway games. I would not. He would actually get the little crane thing to grab a prize and drop it through the little door which meant it was now yours. I would not. The crane thing isn’t really all that adventurous; it’s just another example of his fair going skill and my lack thereof.
Another thing Rob loved about the Fair more than I did was free stuff. He would load up on giveaways from businesses and political candidates like it was pirate treasure. Once Rob loaded up on stuff at the Democratic Party booth. The Republican booth got more trade so the Democrats probably didn’t mind. Anyway, he got a bunch of bumper stickers which simply read “Glickman” for no other reason than we both thought the name was funny. We didn’t know at the time that little known Glickman guy would go on to become the Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, the group who brings us the Oscars and decides if a movie has too many dirty words to be rated G.
When I was in high school I worked on the school newspaper so I was actually able to attend press conferences for two performers in the Grandstand: Bill Cosby and Red Skelton, two giants of the comedy world who are personal heroes of mine. As stated above, I am not adventurous so I didn’t say anything, but I do have framed on my office wall Red Skelton’s autograph and a picture of a much skinnier, bad hair wearing Chris Pyle sitting quite close to a comedic genius. Awfully cool.
I haven’t been back to the Fair much since I moved out of the family home. I will be taking my ten-year-old son there this weekend. I am looking forward to a few things. I want to see the place through ten-year-old eyes again, even if it is vicariously through George’s reactions. I want to get free stuff from booths in the Sunflower Building. I want to see a gigantic sculpture made from butter. I would really like to get a candied apple, but the last time I went you could only get the caramel kind. Some government watchdog probably found the glass like candy substance used to encase the fruit was carcinogenic, darn them. It’s food on a stick. It’s not supposed to be good for you. I’ve never seen a Pronto Pup represented on any food pyramid, yet they haven’t stopped selling those.

P.S. They had candied apples. I bought one. It tasted...horrible. You can't recapture those halcyon days of one's youth.