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.