Sunday, December 21, 2008

Adventures in Radioland IV

Last week I was on a show on a progressive radio network. The host promotes alternative health diets and supplements and calls himself “Dr.” despite a somewhat shaky academic background. He is something of a guru, and his radio style is to do long, pensive monologues rife with doom and gloom. In his view, the world is burning slowly as powerful forces align themselves against us.

I agreed to be on the show because—why not?—perhaps I could do some good and promote a book at the same time. In addition, I figured his audience would be politically liberal. Undoubtedly from the paranoid, conspiracy theory wing of the progressive camp (for example, the host is an HIV denier who suggests that HIV is harmless and is not the cause of AIDS), but liberal and, as a result, receptive to some of my ideas about commercialism and the economy. I felt a little better about my decision when I later heard the host say that Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, had recently been on the show.

As is often the case, I was approached via email by a producer who told me to be available in my office at 12:30, but on the appointed day, he called me about 15 minutes early and put me on hold, where I was able to listen to the show while waiting. What became obvious was that the producer did not communicate well with the host. The show had started at noon, and the host had been rambling on about doom and gloom with little sign of letup. Once on the line I listened and waited. And waited. Finally, at about 12:40—by now I had been listening to the monologue, uninterrupted by commercials, for 25 minutes—the host’s lecture turned to economic doom and gloom and he threw the ball to me.

The host asked no specific question. In effect, he was saying, “With that introduction, please take it away, Stuart....” Caught a little off guard, I began to ramble myself, but the question was, how long should I ramble? For most radio interviews, there is an expectation of a back-and-forth conversation. If there is time, the guest is allowed to go on for a minute or two if so moved, but monologues are discouraged. Not so in this case. When I paused to see if the host wanted back in, there was dead air for a few seconds. Finally, he came back with another languid, amorphous question, and it became clear that he wanted me to drift on for as long as possible. He had a two-hour block to fill and hoped I would do my share. Unfortunately, neither he nor the producer had given me any guidance about this. For all I knew, this was a six-minute interview, for which sound bites would be most appropriate, but in the end we went on at least 20 minutes, arriving safely at the top of his first hour.

Eventually the host thanked me for being on the show, repeated my name, title, and the name of my book and went on to talk about other things. So, after making certain I was not going to be called upon again, I hung up. In a couple of minutes the producer called back to ask whether I was supposed to return in the second hour. I said I didn’t know but it sounded to me like the host had sent me on my way. Uncertain, the producer—who should have been the one telling me just how long I would be on, instead of the reverse—asked to put me on hold again just in case. After listening to 15 more minutes of doom and gloom monologue (it must take a particular type of person to be a fan of such a downer program), the producer came back on and said I could hang up. He was obviously clueless about his host’s master plan.

A final note. In a previous Adventures in Radioland post, I wrote about banging steam pipes in my office and my other unwanted noises that have interrupted my radio interviews. On this progressive radio occasion I escaped the banging pipes for the full time I was on the radio, despite very cold temperatures, but halfway through my interview, the college grounds people decided to use an enormous sucking machine to pick up piles of leaves directly under my office window. For much of the 20 minutes I was on, my rambling comments were accompanied by high-pitched vacuum cleaner noises. Yet another audio problem to be added to the list.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Garbled by the Web

Here is a wonderful example of what computers can do. This incorrect book title and incoherent quote--both by me--were found on an anonymous website in an entry with the amusing title: “American Consumers Are Abbreviate On Conduct If It Comes To Departing With Their Income.”
"Never accept Americans, who accept consistently admired their toys, been faced with a bearings area their impulses are so harder to control," says Stuart Vyse, a assistant of attitude and columnist of the accessible book Traveling Broke: Why Americans Can't Hold on to Their Money.

This is probably a case of inadvertent back-translation. An actual quote from me was translated into an unknown foreign language and then translated back into this broken English. Undoubtedly both translations were done automatically by computer, which explains the wonderfully inaccurate result here.

It does give me the idea, however, that the sequel to Going Broke might be a guidebook called Traveling Broke.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Pajama Phenomenon

I have been teaching at the college level for over twenty years, and I have seen many styles of student attire come and go. Black-and-white photographs of college students from the 1950s or earlier show men in jackets and ties and women in dresses, but those days are long gone. Jeans, sneakers, sweatshirts, and t-shirts are now the norm, but sweatpants, track suits, and other forms of workout clothes are also common. Some of my colleagues were annoyed when their students started wearing baseball caps to class. More popular with men than women, these head coverings are often worn backwards with the bill going down the neck, but they also commonly appear frontwards, straight on or at a variety of listing, half-twisted angles. The hats-in-class trend has persisted for over a decade with little hint of decline, and most college professors hardly notice anymore.

But over the last couple of years I have witnessed a new development. Students have started coming to class wearing pajamas. In most cases, flannel pajama bottoms are worn with some kind of conventional, non-sleep attire top. My first encounters with this fashion were with male students, but I have also seen women dressed this way for a Psychology 101 lecture.

I am a casual dresser myself. I often wear jeans and running shoes to class, generally with an oxford shirt and/or a sweater on top. I rarely wear a jacket and almost never a tie. Furthermore, I consider myself fairly accepting of the fashions worn by students. I was young once, too, and what matters most is the student’s attentiveness and motivation to perform.

But something about the pajama thing bothers me. Perhaps it is an artificial distinction, but it seems to me that pajamas were not intended for use outside the house. I know that at the small liberal arts college where I work, students sometimes feel like they live in a bubble. The classrooms are just steps from their beds, and it must feel like they have tumbled down the stairs to a class at the kitchen table. Furthermore, many adults are comfortable wearing a bathrobe to drive their kids to school or to go through the drive-thru window a Dunkin’ Donuts. In addition, pajamas seem to be a general college-age phenomenon not limited to small residential institutions. On a recent trip to the University of Massachusetts I watched a pair of red and blue flannel Red Sox pajamas stride through the student union building.

I have never before felt the need to introduce a dress code for my classes, and I probably will not do so now. But here is the problem. I recently had a good student start wearing pajama bottoms to a small seminar class, and then midway through the semester he asked me to recommend him for an internship at a prestigious university. To make matters worse, his academic performance—which was usually quite good—had recently dropped off. I told him I would provide the recommendation, but I urged him to consider what effect the pajamas combined with his recent decline might have on my impressions of him. Undoubtedly, the bubble clouded this student's view of the future. He probably had not considered that advancement almost always requires that people who know you be willing to vouch for you to people who don’t. At least in my case, wearing pajamas to class does not enhance the image of students I send forth to future employers.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Taking Group Pictures for Tourists

Amateur snapshot photography has been popular since the introduction of the Kodak Brownie box camera in 1900, but the recent emergence of digital photography seems to have greatly increased the popularity of picture-taking. Most of the developing and printing costs have been eliminated, and pictures can be distributed over the internet with a click of the mouse. Many—myself included—believe the average quality of snapshots has decreased, but this flaw is overshadowed by the benefits of digital pictures. Nowadays, many people seem to bring their digital cameras wherever they go—just in case something memorable happens.

Lately, I have taken great pleasure in a simple act of photographic kindness. Couples and families who are traveling together often find themselves in front of a scenic backdrop, unable to create a photo of the entire group. They go through the ritual of assigning one member after the other to be the photographer, but unless they are assertive enough to ask a stranger to take a picture—and willing to hand over their camera to someone they don’t know—they never get the shot they want. Recently, particularly if I am traveling, I have begun to be much more forward with offers to take photos of couples or families together.

Many of my most cherished family photos were taken at distant locations by strangers recruited on the spot. Naturally, the quality of these photos is quite variable, but having a record of the entire group is very important. For any couple or family, the sights and sounds of traveling are an exciting experience, but encountering them with others is a memorable part of the event. The group photo records that sense of shared travel in a way that separate photos cannot.

In the summer of 2007, I spent a few days in Seattle alone. It was a nice trip. The city is quite beautiful and exciting, but at various points I felt a little lonely. One day I took the ferry to Bainbridge Island and back, an inexpensive excursion that affords beautiful views of Seattle across Puget Sound. This is a West Coast equivalent of using the Staten Island Ferry as an inexpensive Manhattan tour boat. On the return trip, I wandered around the large, modern vessel, and when I arrived at the bow, I found several couples and families taking photographs of themselves with Seattle in the background. Without hesitation, I began to offer to take pictures of several of the groups. Naturally some people were a bit hesitant to accept my offer, but no one turned it down. In several cases the travelers were very appreciative as I patiently took multiple shots when necessary.

It is just a simple act: offering to take a picture. But knowing how much I value my own family photos, made it seem important, and for a few moments far from home and work, taking those pictures gave me a much needed sense of purpose. I stepped off the ferry in a far better mood than I when I got on.

Friday, September 05, 2008

John Gardner's Ghost


When I went to my mailbox at work today I found a book that was sent, as the slip of paper tucked inside indicated, “With the compliments of the publisher.” Textbook publishers send college professors many books we never ask for in the hope we will adopt one as a required text. But this unsolicited book was something different. It was a copy of John Gardner’s novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, originally published in 1982, just months before Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident.

John Gardner was a wildly talented American novelist and medieval scholar, and I was briefly his student in the mid-1970s. At that time, I was a graduate student in English Literature at Southern Illinois University, where Gardner was a professor who had just achieved national acclaim for Grendel, his retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster, and The Sunlight Dialogues, a New York Times bestselling counterculture novel. I have written about Gardner’s brief and controversial career in an op-ed piece “John Gardner’s Lesson about Teaching.”

After Gardner’s death, many of his novels went out of print. Grendel remains very popular because many college professors assign it as a companion to the study of Beowulf, but all his other novels faded away. Because I knew Gardner and took his graduate-level Chaucer seminar, I followed his career long after leaving school, read most of his books, and collected copies of almost everything he published.

I’ve enjoyed many of the Gardner books I’ve read, but for years, I avoided his hefty final novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts. Then in 2006 I read Barry Silesky’s biography, John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, and was inspired to take on Mickelsson. It was wonderful. My favorite Gardner novel to date. In an Amazon.com review I wrote:
This book is a gem. The main character is a troubled philosophy professor who is sometimes difficult to like, but the book itself is one to love. It is philosophical work, but it is also part ghost story, part mystery, and part romance. The pages just keep turning, and the ending does not disappoint.

In the meantime, I learned that New Directions had committed to bringing back into print paperback editions of four of Gardner’s novels. Soon the word came out that three of these titles had been decided. The first would be Gardner’s National Book Critics Circle Award winning, October Light, followed by the bestseller Sunlight Dialogues, and Gardner’s pastoral romance, Nickel Mountain. The final novel had not been chosen, and I took it upon myself to contact New Directions by email to urge them to give serious consideration to Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I pointed out that Mickelsson’s average Amazon readers rating was higher than the other three novels they had chosen to publish. Elsewhere in my Amazon.com review, I wrote:
I am hoping New Directions will choose to reissue this novel, along with the other Gardner books they are bringing back into print. To overlook it would be a big mistake.

An editor at the press wrote back to assure me that Mickelsson was being given serious consideration.

When Nickel Mountain was reissued last year, I bought a copy and was delighted when I found a page among the front matter with the heading ALSO BY JOHN GARDNER from New Directions. Of course, the other reissued novels were listed, but at the bottom of the page were the words “Forthcoming MICHELSSON’S GHOSTS.” I was thrilled.

Then today a copy of the new edition of Mickelsson’s Ghosts came in the mail. The book is nicely constructed and includes photographs by the author’s son, Joel Gardner, that illustrated the original volume. The US Postal Service envelope containing the book had been addressed to my office by hand, but inside there was no letter of explanation. I did not need one. I am a psychology professor, and although I receive many books “compliments of the publisher,” I am never sent novels. This was one of John Gardner’s ghosts, sent as a thank you.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Adventures in Television Land: Dry Lips and Echoes

Last Monday I appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The six-minute interview was taped the week before, but based on my prior experience (see Adventures in Television Land: Osama bin Laden and Me ), I told almost no one that the appearance was in the works. I thought the taping had gone pretty well, but once your interview has been recorded, you never know for certain that a radio or television show will use the material until they do. Fortunately, this time they did, and the reviews from family and friends have been quite good.

Being a pure talking head—a face in a box on the screen—is a daunting experience. In this case, I was in a small studio in New Haven, CT with bright lights shining in my face, staring at the black eye of a TV camera, and Jeffrey Brown, the correspondent for The NewsHour was in a studio in Arlington, VA. The video and audio of me were going to VA via satellite to be recorded on that end, and Brown’s questions to me were coming north over a phone line. There was no video signal coming back to me from the Arlington studio, so I could not see Brown. I just had his voice in my ear.

To be a successful talking head, you have to learn to make eye contact with the camera eye, or else you look like you are not really paying attention. This turns out to be a somewhat challenging skill, and the technicians at the Yale University studio reported that some inexperienced interviewees have spent the whole time looking at their shoes.

So under the best of circumstances, being recorded for television in this manner is a challenge, but I had two additional problems. First, I got dry lips. This is a problem I had once before while being interviewed for a video, and I learned how deadly it is to get caught licking your lips on screen. But my worst problem did not become evident until it was too late. The interview started very suddenly, and as I listened to Jeffrey Brown’s questions and tried to construct intelligent responses, I discovered that I could hear myself in the earpiece. However, because what I was hearing was my own voice playing in the Arlington studio and coming back to me over the phone line, the sound was delayed. So my powers of concentration, already strained by the demands of the situation (“...stare at the camera; don’t lick your lips....”), were further challenged by having to ignore my own voice echoing in my ear.

Somehow I managed to get through it without looking like a complete fool. After hearing the report of my ordeal, my brother gave me a great piece of advice for the future: lip balm.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Soft Ice Cream


A while back I wrote an op-ed piece (“In Praise of Cheap and Local Eats”) extolling the virtues of eating at local diners, pizza places, and other inexpensive neighborhood eateries. No matter the venue, I consider eating out a luxury, and my appreciation for simple forms of restaurant food has been expressed in earlier blog posts.

Now that summer is well underway, I am reminded of one of my most abiding simple pleasures: soft ice cream. Soft serve is an odd product. I am not sure that the mix it is made from is entirely food, and then there is the wafer cone. What is that made of? I’m not sure I want to know. As a teenager, I worked at a Dairy Queen in Urbana, Illinois, and things went on there that I would rather not describe.

But I love the stuff. Vanilla just plain or dipped in that waxy chocolate coating. Chocolate soft serve or a chocolate vanilla twist is also very satisfying, but I steadfastly resist the new methods of injecting exotic flavors into the standard vanilla cone. This is soft serve trying to be something it is not, and I prefer the simple purity of vanilla and chocolate.

Soft ice cream is a less pretentious dessert than hard or gourmet ice cream, and it is strongly associated with summertime vacations and automobile travel, in particular. Here in the East, most soft serve is found at the roadside seasonal clam shacks and take-out ice cream places that close when the warm weather and tourists disappear. Your cone is likely to be handed to you by a high school or college student working for tuition money, and in my case, each lick conjures up memories of summers past.

Monday, July 21, 2008

More Thoughts on Tattoos

A friend of mine has a small tattoo on the inside of her ankle. She got the tattoo many years ago, and although it is relatively discrete and in the shape of a flower, she now regrets her tattoo. My friend has a young daughter, and whenever the girl remarks on her mother’s tattoo—or anyone else’s tattoo—my friend says, “Big mistake.”

Today I saw a man who had large black tattooed marks all over his arms. It was as if he had painted most of his forearms with a wide brush. It took me a moment, but I soon realized the man had tattooed over older tattoos he no longer wanted to display. It was impossible for me to make out what was underneath, but my mind raced as I imagined all manner of embarrassing or offensive images.

Those who turn their bodies into works of art and make indelible strokes upon that pallet risk growing tired of their creations. No action can be undone, but some decisions are particularly difficult to reverse.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Great Child Divide

Here is my latest op-ed, which appeared in the Providence Journal yesterday. The title I gave it is above, but in the newspaper business, titles are the editor’s prerogative.


Having children: A way to learn tolerance
01:00 AM EDT on Friday, July 11, 2008
STUART VYSE
STONINGTON, Conn.

SCREAMING BABIES on airplanes don’t bother me anymore. It’s an odd thing. Years ago my teeth would clench, my blood pressure rise, and, more often than not, I would turn to the person next to me and make a malicious comment about the bratty kid, the irresponsible parent, or both. But today I remain calm. If anything, I am filled with a sense of relief in the knowledge that, yes, that kid is making a terrible racket, but it isn’t my job to do anything about it.

The difference between the old me and the new me is, of course, that I’ve done my time. I’ve had my own children and suffered the stares of irritated fellow travelers who were hoping for a quiet airplane, train, or bus ride. I’ve scurried out of restaurants, grocery stores, and theaters carrying an infant who suddenly and inexplicably decided to erupt into shrieking peals of terror. These are humbling experiences, and once you’ve had them, you have a far more understanding attitude toward those who carry on the tradition.

Years ago when my wife and I were considering whether or not to have children, a friend gave me a small gift. This woman had a daughter who was the center of her world, and yet when I told her what was on my mind, my friend said being a parent had not been the measure of her worth. This woman believed that had she chosen not to have a child, her life could have been equally meaningful and valuable.

Hearing this from a devoted parent, just when I was considering becoming one myself, was somewhat liberating. This mother was saying, “Either decision is fine. Just find the right one for you.” In the end, we had two children before we were through, and looking back, I like to think that my friend was right. Being a parent may be one of the most important and difficult jobs you can take on, but it isn’t the only way to give your life purpose.

But having kids changes your life forever. I did not have much money when I was young, but what I had could be spent freely, with little concern for anyone else. Once the children came, huge sums of money, time, and energy went to them. Entering into the parental contract commits you to a certain level of selflessness. You are forced to accept the principle that you are not the most important person in the world.

Parenthood also makes you a member of a unique society. When parents socialize, the conversation invariably turns to kids. Non-parents sometimes ask me about my children, but I often feel like a foreign correspondent, doing my best to communicate with someone who doesn’t quite understand the language and customs. In contrast, speaking to another parent means you can adopt a familiar short hand without concern for losing your audience.

The different dialects of the parental divide can subtly but powerfully alter the course of your life. Looking around me I notice that many of my closest social relationships are with people whose children are about the same age as mine. In some cases, these are not people I would have otherwise sought out. Our kids chose each other first, and eventually the adults also became friends. Now, as my children get older and leave home, I can see that many of these friendships will carry on. What we shared during our children’s formative years continues to provide momentum in our adult relationships.

In addition to cherishing the children themselves, I am thankful for what parenthood has taught me. There are other ways to learn to be more tolerant of other people, to learn the value of service to another, and to learn that friendships can grow across any number of barriers. But being a parent has done it for me, and every time I hear a screaming baby, I am grateful.

Stuart Vyse, an occasional contributor and a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, is the author of the new book Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money (Oxford University Press).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Folding Clothes and Washing Dishes

I am a lover of simple domestic life, and two of its common chores are favorites of mine: folding clothes and washing dishes. Interestingly, I am not particularly good at either one of them. I regularly discover—or more embarrassingly, someone else discovers—smudges on glasses and bits of dried food on plates that I am supposed to have cleaned. When I am folding, oddly shaped clothes, undergarments, and smaller items often resist my efforts to flatten them.

Over the years, I have known two women who were very skilled folders. In their hands, piles of t-shirts looked like neatly stacked playing cards, and laundry that was naturally inclined toward chaos and entropy was soon molded into cloth monuments to order and efficiency. One of these women taught me how to fold one of the the laundry worker’s biggest problems: the fitted sheet. I stand in genuine admiration of people who show such masterful command over clean laundry. I have tried, but I am unable to match their skills.

Particularly in light of my meager abilities, it is curious that I like these activities as much as I do. I can think of several reasons. First, they are domestic chores. Daily chores. Small parts of the business of making a home. When you live—or, at least, eat—with others, these chores also represent service to another, which can be very gratifying. In addition, dish washing and folding have something in common. They both involve dipping your hands into something warm and clean: dry—and often warm—clothes from the dryer and wet, sudsy water in the sink. These are very pleasant sensations for me. Finally, both these chores are most often done alone, which allows the worker to recede into his or her own thoughts while engaged in a mantra-like, repetitive task. If there is a window at the sink, the dish washer’s contemplations are accompanied by scenery.

My habit of daydreaming while washing and folding is undoubtedly part of the explanation of my poor performance. If I gave greater attention to the job at hand, I might produce cleaner dishes and more neatly folded clothes. True enough. But I am not likely to change. Daydreaming is a large part of the appeal, and I am unwilling to give it up.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Kakutani, Canin, Judaism, & Me

Ethan Canin is a wonderful writer. Along with Alice Munro and Tobias Wolf, I think he is one of the great short story experts working today. The Emperor of Air is a dazzling collection to which I often return, and the story “Where We Are Now” is one of my favorites of all time. Some of the longer stories of The Palace Thief are also breathtaking.

Canin has a new novel out, and Michiko Kakutani reviewed it in the NY Times today. As usual, Kakutani pulls no punches. Although she praises Canin’s many talents, she again criticizes his skills as a novelist. This is Canin’s consistent fate. His short pieces are gems, but his novels receive relatively cool reviews. In this case, Kakutani points to unskilled plotting and “tired tropes” about social class and paternalism.

But as I read the review I found myself searching for something else. I found myself asking, “Yes, yes, but how Jewish is this book?” When I first started reading Ethan Canin, I was probably unaware of his Jewishness. This is not surprising because Canin describes himself as an atheist and seems to have deliberately avoided the Jewish literature category. This quote is from an interview in the Atlantic:

I've been conscious of not being a Jewish-American writer or a Young Urban Male writer. In a way I wish I were, because it seems easier. I grew up all over the country, moving from town to town when I was a kid, so I never felt a very strong sense of place. My parents were Brooklyn and Queens Jews -- and I was a child in Ohio. I didn't live in a ghetto and yet I had ghetto history in every word my parents said. I remember the first time I set foot in New York: I was twenty years old, and the first time I heard a New Yorker open her mouth I thought, Oh my God I'm home. I realized I'd never been truly comfortable with the outside world before I got to New York. I still think New York is the friendliest city in the country.

Of course the irony here is that I am not Jewish. Indeed, I am not, in any conventional sense, religious at all. But the love of a Jewish woman has made Jewish things important to me. I have learned the pleasures of shabbat; I have worn a kippah; I have learned to bake challah; and I am becoming familiar with the annual cycle of Jewish holidays. I have always had a sense of affinity for the Jewish people, based on their minority status and their long history of oppression, and as an academic, I came to appreciate the traditions of study and debate. Although I remain a goy, I have several Jewish friends who say I am now more Jewish than they are, and I smile when they say it.

So I find myself in the funny circumstance of being a non-Jew and a fan of Ethan Canin who wishes Canin’s writing were more Jewish. I find myself wishing that a man of his enormous talents would display his Jewishness a bit more. And, oddly enough, I see nothing contradictory in this. Perhaps I am more Jewish than I think.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Adventures in Television Land: Osama bin Laden and Me

My experience as a television personality is quite limited. I have appeared as an expert on various cable television documentaries about superstition, and I had brief talking head stints on a book show on CBC Newsworld (described to me as “Canada’s CNN”) and a CNN International news program that was beamed to Europe and beyond but not seen in the United States.

However, my experience with television has been sufficient to expose me to one of this fast-paced medium’s particular disappointments: being bumped. Yesterday it happened again in the classic manner. At around 11:00 AM I received a call asking me to be on a local newscast to comment on the current epidemic of personal debt. A film crew would come to the college to tape me at 3:30 in the afternoon for air later that evening. It was a very sunny day, humid and in the 90s, and at the moment I got the call I was headed to a lunch date in a pair of shorts and a ragged polo shirt. I quickly grabbed a dress shirt and a pair of khakis to change into later and jumped in the car. As luck would have it, I got a call just as my lunch was ending: a large fire had broken out in a condominium complex somewhere in the state of Connecticut. The reporter was very sorry but her film crew had been diverted to this breaking news story. If it bleeds it leads. I felt a little like one of those Tonight Show guests who was last in line and never made it to the couch.

But my most heartbreaking bump experience was at the expense of what would have been my greatest media achievement. In October of 2000, the thirteenth day of the month fell on a Friday. This was three years after my book on the psychology of superstition was published, and the paperback edition had just been released. I got a call from CBS inviting me to appear on The Early Show on Friday the 13th as a live guest in the New York studio. Arrangements were made. CBS booked a hotel room for me for the night before, and a limousine was scheduled to take me to the studios, where I would meet Bryant Gumbel (recently recruited from NBC), Jane Clayson, Mark McEwen, and the rest of the gang. It was all very exciting.

When Thursday the 12th arrived, I planned to leave for New York relatively early in the day. It is a three-hour trip, and I hoped I would have time for some meandering and a nice dinner in the city. But an hour before I was to leave, the phone rang. The USS Cole, a destroyer harbored in Yemen had been bombed, killing 17 crew members and injuring 39 others. The CBS people were very sorry but the following day would be devoted to coverage of the Cole. I was disappointed at being bumped—my segment was never rescheduled—but I understood completely. This is the nature of the news media. They were doing their job, and periodically we should acknowledge how important a job it is.

Looking back, the USS Cole bombing was an even more momentous event than we realized at the time. It was later discovered the suicide mission was conducted by al-Qaeda, the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden, and it would be less than a year before Osama bin Laden next attacked the United States—in a much more disastrous fashion.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Humor in the Physical World

Tonight I closed a kitchen cabinet door after fetching and replacing a box of tea. For reasons inexplicable, the door would not close again.
Earlier in the evening, while preparing dinner, I’d been rummaging around in the cabinet, and I must have subtly rearranged the tightly packed contents. Now, each time I closed the door it popped open. I couldn’t readily see what was causing the problem, and because I was in a hurry, I just kept trying to close the door. No luck. Each time I closed it, it just popped open.

So, still in a hurry and unwilling to devote much attention to this problem, I hastily reshuffled a few items at the front of the cabinet, closed the door, and turned away. For a moment, things seemed fine, but after what felt like a five- or six-second pause, I heard the click of the latch. Turning quickly, I watched as the cabinet door slowly swung open again.

It felt like I was in a movie or a comedy sketch where a haunted house is bent on tormenting the main character. It was just a moment in the physical world, where objects do what comes natural to them, but because I am a human being with a certain history, it made me laugh. The delayed opening of the door after several previous failed attempts seemed deliberately designed to frustrate me. As if I was experiencing something more than just Newtonian objects in space. So I laughed. No one was there to share my enjoyment, but I took pleasure in the moment nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Adventures in Radioland III

Two more radioland episodes:

In my previous reports from radioland I omitted one of the classic problems encountered while appearing on the radio: gasping, choking, or otherwise losing your voice. I was reminded of this today as I heard Steve Roberts, guest host of the Diane Rehm show, coughing in the background as he let a guest go very long with an answer. On a few occasions I have had a cold or a dry throat while doing a live radio interview. In my recent series of interviews for Going Broke I had only one difficult moment, and in that case, I was lucky enough to have a host who, upon hearing my voice begin to fail, launched a long monologue that allowed me sufficient time to get a drink of water and recover my composure. A shaky moment averted.

The other adventure was actually in audioland, not radioland. A surprising number of sites on the Internet are little more than content shells put up to provide a vehicle for advertising. Almost all the material on these pages is pulled from other sources on the web, often news sites, and recently I discovered that an op-ed piece I had written for the Providence Journal was posted on a page called PE.com (The Press-Enterprise). Stranger still, a “podcast” of the op-ed was included, but clicking the play button released a bit of music and then....what is that sound?...a robot! A computer voice, admittedly a pretty good quality computer voice, was reading my op-ed back to me. Strange. Here is the page if you want to listen for yourself.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More Adventures in Radioland

My name is not a household word. There is no Stuart Vyse entry in Wikipedia. I have never been a guest on Larry King Live, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, Face the Nation, or Access Hollywood. My photo has never appeared in Time, Newsweek, People, or Us magazine. I have been quoted in the New York Times, but my books have not been reviewed there, my opinion pieces have never appeared in its pages, and no profile of me has been published in the New York Times Magazine. Mine is not a face many would recognize, and I have not been the subject of much water cooler conversation outside of my little corner of the world.

But today I got to pretend I was a celebrity.

After taping two recorded segments about my book Going Broke for a satellite radio channel, I was asked to do a “celebrity promo” to be aired before newscasts. I was given a number of script options to choose from. One was the following:

”Hi, this is Dr. Stuart Vyse author of Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold on to the Money in New London, CT, and every chance I get, I listen to [satellite radio station].“

Because this statement would have been close to—or, in fact—a lie (I have no access to satellite radio and had not heard of the channel in question before being asked to appear on the show), I chose something more benign: ”I’m Dr. Stuart Vyse...and you’re listening to [satellite radio channel].“

What a kick! The enormous fragmentation of the media today—hundreds of cable TV channels, thousands of radio stations, and untold numbers of internet outlets—has made it possible for a humble psychology professor from a small liberal arts college in Connecticut to become—yes, it's true—a celebrity. Andy Warhol was right. If you have any toothpaste you’d like me to hawk, just give my people a call.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Going Broke Traders Nation Interview Video

This lively video was recently posted on the Blip.tv site. I was interviewed on the phone and was unaware that the show was being videotaped at the time, but I had a great time. The host, Kurt Schemers, is a hoot.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Old Friends, Lost and Found

This is an op-ed piece written last summer that never found a home:

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest I tested a classic  
controversy in the field of psychology: how stable is personality  
across the life span? Many psychologists believe our unique traits-
the qualities that make us extraverted or introverted, anxious or  
calm, open to new ideas or resistant to change-are stable across time.

In a variation of the perennial nature-nurture debate, they propose  
that personality is primarily genetic and therefore largely unchanged  
throughout life. When placed in different environments, we may adapt  
to fit the surroundings-our work persona may be different than our  
out-on-the-town persona-but the characteristic dimensions of  
personality are consistent. Similarly, as the passage of time brings  
new demands, we may change in subtle ways, but the central qualities  
that make us distinct individuals remain. Other researchers believe  
that personality is more malleable, nurtured by our experiences  
throughout life. According to this view, any stability we see in a  
person is the result of exposure to unchanging environments.

My experiment involved a reunion with two long lost friends. The  
three of us were very close in college. One was my roommate, and both  
were part of my inner circle-and I part of theirs-for several years.  
We were fast friends, buddies who shared many memorable adventures, but after college we went in different directions and soon lost track of each other.

Eventually, thanks to the Internet, we found each other again, and  
for some time there has been talk of getting together. By  
coincidence, my friends are now both employed in the high tech  
industry and living in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon. They get  
together occasionally, but I never found a time that was right-until  
this summer. Hit by a nostalgic impulse, I booked a flight and headed  
west. It had been thirty years since I was in the same room with one  
of the pair, and I shared just a single evening with the other,  
approximately ten years ago.

I had a great time, and there was a strong sense of continuity and  
connection. These were the same two people I left behind so many  
years before. Each of us has a divorce and children under our belts.  
Jobs and residences have changed a number of times. So much has  
happened in thirty years-much more than could be conveyed in a single weekend visit-but somehow nothing had changed. I felt as comfortable with these two as I did three decades before. We shared personal information unhesitatingly, with a deep sense of trust and caring. The two are very different. One is quiet, hard-working, with a natural confidence, and the other is highly verbal, somewhat disorganized, with a subtle and sharp sense of humor. But these  
traits have lasted across the years. I don't know whether they looked at me with the same sense of recognition, but I was instantly at ease, walking on familiar ground.

It isn't always this way. Many of us have known people who changed  
over the years and became opaque. Addictions or traumatic events  
rendered them somewhat alien—still recognizable, but not the  
comfortable companions we once knew. Sometimes the movement is in the other direction, people who were untrustworthy misfits in their youth, somehow right themselves. We don't recognize these reclaimed  
lives, but we are happier with the people we encounter today than  
with the ones we remember from the past. Although dramatic  
transformations are not the rule, it is good to remember that under  
some circumstances they are possible.

My experiment didn't prove anything. Big personality changes are most likely the effect of powerful experiences, but when we see consistency in the people around us, it is more difficult to  
determine the reasons why. Stability is caused by a mixture of nature  
and nurture-our behavior is always a mixture of nature and nurture-
and because there are no controlled experiments in the real world,  
for any given person we can never know what that mixture is.

But my trip to Oregon did teach me something important about  
friendship: it can sometimes last a very long time. Under the right  
circumstances, people whom you loved and trusted in the distant past  
can remain loved and trusted today. If you are very lucky, even  
prolonged separations will not change the basic qualities that once  
drew you together. Given how valuable and rare such friendships are,  
this is a lesson I was very happy to learn.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fond Memory: Water Bath "Slider" Coke Machines

Driving down Route 1 in Stonington, CT with my daughter, I saw an old Coke machine being used as a planter in front of a store and was blessed with a memory unrecalled for decades.

I am old enough to remember a kind of soda machine that was in the shape of a tall cooler. Lifting the lid revealed glass soda bottles submerged in chilled water, their necks protruding from horizontal slots in a metal plate. Buying a coke involved depositing coins and sliding the chosen bottle to the left and into a little bay where the bottle could be pulled up through tipping doors unlocked by the money in the slot.

As you can imagine, old Coke machines are a booming collectors’ preoccupation, and you can find every kind ever invented on eBay and websites devoted to Coke memorabilia. The kind of “slider” machine I was remembering was made by companies called Glasco and Ideal. The photo below shows the lid and innards of a typical machine.

I remember two wonderful features of buying soda from a machine like this. First, the soda came out very cold and wet. On a hot day, it was great to hold the bottle in your hand or press it to your forehead or cheek. Second, buying a soda from this kind of machine had a game-like quality. Often different kinds of soda were mixed together in the slots of the machine: Coke, Hires Root Beer, Orange Crush. To get the soda you wanted, you sometimes had to play a little Rubic’s cube game of sliding unwanted bottles out of the slot and into another row so that you had a clear path to the exit bay. This was a much more participatory form of soda purchase than today.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Of Tattoos and Misimpressions


Sometimes we are just wrong about people.

My daughter and I recently visited a sandwich shop, a national chain where submarine sandwiches—or what New Englanders call grinders—are constructed to your specifications by minimum-wage workers. The early part of the process, where you choose the sandwich and the kind of roll, was handled by a young white person whose behavior was typical of many people today in low-paying service jobs. By this I mean, he appeared bored. His thoughts were somewhere off in the distance, far away from his job and his customers. This chain of sandwich shops offers a choice of five kinds of rolls, and after telling me that my first two choices were not available, the worker offered no apology and seemed unaware my sense of disappointment. Of course, working as a “sandwich artist” at a place like this is a job, not a career. Almost everyone who takes a position like this considers it temporary, a mere paycheck to help them get by until something better comes along. But not everyone has this kind of distracted, uncommitted attitude.

When we moved down the line to the worker whose job it was to finish the sandwich assembly, we met a very different kind of person. This young man had tattoos up and down both arms, as well as the kind of neck tattoos that are designed to extend upward above the collar line. He was a thin but well-muscled man who looked like he might be Puerto Rican.

Based on what was immediately visible about this man, many people might guess he was a gang member and someone who might have spent time in jail. Expansive tattoos on a healthy non-white man often provoke fear, and they certainly got my attention. But a closer look soon contradicted any stereotypical first impression. This young man was very quiet, saying nothing more than “What would you like on your sandwich?” But he listened attentively, and the careful movements of his hands were very revealing. Without asking me to repeat my choices, he collected the peppers, tomatoes, and condiments, and quickly but skillfully arranged them across the surface of the meat. After asking me if I wanted anything else, he deftly folded the spongy bread, cut it in half, and wrapped the sandwich neatly in paper.

The young man’s construction of my sandwich was quick and efficient, and although I would not say the he was particularly warm, he soon won me over. His every movement spoke volumes, and any initial apprehension was replaced by admiration. His was a low-level, poorly paid position, but his mindfulness and attention told me that doing this job well was important to him. In today’s consumer-driven world, having a job like this is shameful. Most people who are stuck in these positions survive in the manner of the tattooed man’s co-worker, by tuning out the work environment and passing the hours on a mental vacation somewhere far away. But this tattooed man was different—so different that he stood in stark contrast to most other minimum wage workers.

In hindsight, I realized the man’s eye-catching external features—his tattoos, his muscles, and his ethnicity—told me nothing about him. At first glance, they were his most notable features, but they reflected nothing of the man within. In contrast his general demeanor and his deliberate actions communicated much more clearly. A picture is said to speak a thousand words, but in judging character, actions speak louder than words or images.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Coffee in a Paper Cup



It occurs to me that an entire blog in praise of simple pleasures might be a wonderful thing. I am somewhat reluctant to take on another project, but I promise to devote much of this blog to the simple things that bring happiness—to me, at least. Many of them run along a gustatory theme: I have already shared my love of Postum and my fond remembrance of fish sandwiches at The Deluxe in Champaign, Illinois. For those who want to learn more about my philosophy of simple foods, I humbly recommend a piece I wrote a couple of years ago entitled “In Praise of Cheap and Local Eats.”

I love coffee and drink more of it than the average Joe (sorry), but this piece is not really about the coffee. It’s about the cup. Styrofoam may be lighter, but it is a stiff and squeaky substance that—when assigned to carry liquids—is far too clunky and slippery for the task. Furthermore, styrofoam’s fossil origins and virtual indestructibility add a heavy moral burden.

Paper cups are also very light, but I find them much easier to hold. I also like the cup’s comparatively ancient origins. Indeed, this year marks the centennial of the invention of the Dixie cup, the first paper cup, which was born out of concerns for the spread of disease, particularly in schools. The paper coffee cup’s only drawback is that it can burn your hand, but even before the introduction of insulating rings, this problem was quite manageable and always temporary.



For me the paper cup has a democratizing effect on coffee drinking. I love a fine cup of coffee like those purveyed by Peet’s of Berkeley or the Coffee Exchange in Providence, and when making coffee at home, I tend toward the gourmet varieties. But out in the world where coffee comes in paper cups, my coffee drinking transcends class barriers. I do my best to avoid the pretension of Starbucks and the drive-thru car culture of donut shop coffee. I also drink my coffee black and never order lattes, cappuccinos, or Coolatas. I often buy relatively good quality java at independent coffee or bagel shops—especially my local haunt, The Yellow House, in Stonington, CT (shown above). But to me, any kind of coffee in a to-go cup is something of a treat, and often the standard Maxwell house brewed at a 7-Eleven, XtraMart, or Cumberland Farms is perfectly acceptable. In exchange for a little more than a dollar, you can have a stimulating, warm drink in a compact and highly portable container. A simple pleasure indeed.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Adventures in Radioland

For the author promoting a book, there is a distinct hierarchy of radio outlets. At the top are the nationally syndicated NPR shows, such as All Things Considered, The Diane Rehm Show, and Fresh Air with Terri Gross. Just below this are a host of regional NPR outlets, like Wisconsin Public Radio, KQED in San Francisco, or New Hampshire Public Radio. Both these levels of interview are typically done in a studio with high tech equipment, so there is little that can go wrong. You can, of course, be really boring or make some dreadful mistake, but because you are in a controlled environment, technical problems are kept to a minimum.

However, once you drop below these upper levels of radio, there is a great sea of less stellar outlets. Slogging your tome could involve trying to summarize 300+ pages in a 10-minute interview with a morning drive host from Wyoming or having the luxury of forty minutes to talk about your book with someone whose podcast may not be heard by more than a dozen people beyond his closest relatives. These lower-tier interviews are usually done by phone, at home or in the office, and this is where the high jinx can ensue.

The most important thing is that your surroundings be quiet. We have all heard the radio caller whose dog starts to bark incessantly or whose child begins screaming in the background. These hazards do not pose a problem for me because I have no pets or young children at home, and since I am a college professor, you might imagine my office would be quiet enough for radio interviews. Not so. Several times a day in the winter months, the radiators in my office bang so ferociously it is difficult to think, much less talk on the phone. As a result, I arrange to do most of my phone interviews at home. Unfortunately, recent scheduling problems have forced me to do a few interviews in the office, and because we are still in the heating season, I risked sending banging sounds out over the airwaves. Furthermore, my luck has been rather poor lately. So far during the promotion of my new book Going Broke I have done three phone interviews in the office, and the banging pipes have managed to make an unwelcome appearance for two of these.

When the pipes bang, I can never decide the best course of action. Of course, I am trying very hard to concentrate on what the interviewer is saying and what my next response will be. Meanwhile the pounding is getting louder and louder, and I am cupping my hand around the mouthpiece of the phone in an effort to block the sound of the pipes while retaining the ability to talk on the phone. Should I apologize to the interviewer? There is always the slim chance that the phone is not picking up the sound of the pipes and I will be apologizing for something that the listeners cannot hear. So usually I just carry on without mentioning anything, and so far, the radio hosts have done the same. However, in one case the radio host ended the interview rather abruptly. It is possible he had run out of time or was not getting as much out of the interview as he had hoped, but I had the distinct impression the loud clanging sounds in the background had something to do with it.

In contrast, home is usually a very safe environment. However, sometimes I am my own worst enemy. Last week I had a long podcast interview, and earlier in the morning I had been baking muffins. I used a digital kitchen timer, and I had taken the muffins out of the oven just minutes before the interview. Things were going great. The host liked the book and posed many thoughtful questions, but about twenty minutes into the interview, the digital timer began to beep. I thought I had turned it off, but instead, I must have restarted it. I always use a wired phone for interviews because wireless phones have poorer sound quality, but this means I am tied to my spot. As a result, there was no way for me to get to the timer to turn it off without leaving the phone behind, so there was nothing I could do.

After a moment the beeping stopped. This must have been the 5-minutes-to-go warning feature. Unfortunately, I was not finished with the interview, and five minutes later, the beeping returned. This time the sound kept going and going, as if shouting to tell me my muffins were burning in the oven. I knew there was nothing I could do, so I cupped my hand over the telephone mouthpiece and dove behind a couch to shield myself from the sound. Eventually the timer gave up, and the interview ended. Perhaps as a result of clever editing, the final podcast showed no evidence of interruption by kitchen timer, but I will never forget cowering behind the couch while I tried to speak intelligently about my brilliant new book.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Monday, March 24, 2008

Disturbing Subliminal Messages



Lori Blinderman has pointed out an interesting phenomenon. The pictures of Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright taken from this Time Magazine story appear to have been chosen to make them look as similar as possible. Both are using microphones, and the posture and facial expressions are very well matched.

The not-so-subtle subliminal message is that Obama = Wright. They are the same, and their ideas are the same. This is a kind of yellow journalism that we expect from tabloids but not from Time.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

New Hope for Postum


It turns out that the disappearance of Postum has not gone unnoticed. NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday ran a feature “Postum Postmortem,” and many bloggers have been waxing poetic about the lovely warm grain elixir. A Yahoo group aimed at saving Postum has been established, and the recent Christian Science Monitor story “Can Postum Fans Revive Their Beloved Beverage?” suggests a miracle might be possible. The goal would be to have some smaller company acquire the rights to the formula from Kraft. Popular opinion has spurred this kind of resurrection in the past. Many brands, once orphaned, have been saved, including my favorite candy: Good & Plenty.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

New will.i.am Obama Video

On the eve of the hugely important March 4th primaries (Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont), will.i.am has put out another brilliant video that captures the spirit of the Obama campaign.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ode to Postum



My partner and I began our relationship with Postum about six months ago. The caffeine-free roasted grain coffee substitute was invented by C.W. Post in 1895, and we two, one a coffee drinker and one not, found the slightly sweet instant beverage was a nice way to end the day. So in the Fall of 2007 we started buying it on a regular basis, often sharing a cup over the phone from our respective abodes. But in December and January we began to have difficulty finding Postum in our local stores. In early January, I found a few jars at the C-Town grocery in New London, CT, and bought three. I recall that there was at least one other jar on the shelf--maybe more--and I now wish I had bought out the entire stock.

It seems that in December of 2007, over a century after it was introduced but just a few months after we became enamored of this hot drink, it was discontinued by Kraft foods. A cruel turn of events for two true Postum lovers. As I write this, there are several jars of Postum being auctioned off on eBay for $20 and up. Also as I write this we are both enjoying mugs of Postum, some of the last few we will have. We are savoring every sip.

Postum, you will be sorely missed. You left us far too soon. We are now forced to search for a surrogate, but so far no suitable substitute has appeared. Wish us luck.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Remembering The Deluxe, Champaign, Illinois

Tonight I had dinner at a bar in Providence, RI, and after ordering a beer battered fish sandwich, I was moved to put ketchup on it. Not malt vinegar or tartar sauce, both of which were delivered with the meal, but ketchup. This choice of condiment may not have any particular meaning to you, but for me it was a nod to my high school years in Urbana, IL.

On Green Street, in the heart of the University of Illinois campus town and just across the dividing line between the twin cities of Urbana and Champaign, was The Deluxe, a slightly seedy bar and billiard hall famous for its fish sandwiches, served on a hamburger bun with onions. The tradition—which no one ever questioned—was that a Deluxe fish sandwich was always garnished with ketchup. This was cheap eats at its best, a meal that always went well with a bottle of Bud.

Now long gone, the Deluxe was frequented by working stiffs, college students, and faculty, many of whom still remember it fondly.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Going Broke Release Party

video
We had a wonderful gathering at the art gallery in the Velvet Mill in Stonington, CT to celebrate the release of Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money. Many friends and family were in attendance, as well as Connecticut College colleagues. The video was captured by my former student Dustin Wielt (now a PhD student at the University of Rhode Island) on his digital camera.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Yes We Can Video

I am off to Hartford this afternoon to see Barack Obama speak at the Civic Center on the eve of Super Tuesday.

SV

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Disturbing Data on Obesity

This table comes from a January, 2008 report from the Congressional Budget Office on technological innovation and health care costs, and it tells a troubling tale. Between 1987 and 2001, the percentage of obese adults in the US increased from 12.3 to 20.7, but to make matters worse, controlling for inflation, during the same period per capita health care costs for obese adults increased by 50 percent. Health care costs have increased for all weight categories, but the increase from 1987 to 2001 is a direct function of weight. The lowest increase is for the underweight group, and the highest increase is for the morbidly obese group. The cost of health care for the 1.3 percent of Americans who are morbidly obese has gone up almost $2000.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

This is My Other Blog

I launched the SV Blog in January of 2008 as my book Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money was being released. On that blog I will post comments about our economy and the difficulties consumers face in the contemporary marketplace.

I will use this blog, which bares my full name, for more general comments and personal reflections.

I will begin by making an unsolicited and unremunerated plug for a piece of software. For several years now, I have kept a personal journal using MacJournal, a program written by Dan Schimpf and published by Mariner Software. It is a wonderful way to compose and organize daily journal entries. What I did not know is how simple MacJournal makes blogging. Entries can be easily composed and edited and then sent to your blog in seconds. No need to start up your browser at all. Obviously you don’t need MacJournal to become a blogger, but for those who can afford the $35 price, it is worth it.