Saturday, January 27, 2007

Taking Reality To The Dogs

Snowflake is a bad dog. In disregard of her name, she does not drift or glide or settle gracefully onto people’s knees. Snowflake skitters around like a possessed dust mop, baring her icicle teeth at anything in the way. Judi, the female half of Snowflake’s ownership, is often in the way. Judi sleeps on Snowflake’s side of the bed, occupies Snowflake’s cushion on the couch, and -- worst of all -- cuddles up to Snowflake’s male owner, Malcom. Malcom also happens to be Judi’s husband. Small detail (one might say, snowflake-sized). Judi’s hands show the consequence of Snowflake’s wrath. They are completely gnawed. Most unattractive for national television! Most unbecoming for caressing Malcom! Snowflake wears a jeweled collar.

“Dog Whisperer” is my new Friday-night staple. At 7 p.m. (8 p.m. Eastern), journal articles get pushed under the couch, gray hoodie is pulled on, and Cesar Millan has my attention. Cesar is the eponymous Whisperer -- the guy who melts Snowflake’s icy, cold heart. Only, Cesar doesn’t call Snowflake a “bad dog.” He doesn’t call Judi and Malcom bad owners either, though clearly they’ve given Snowflake several ill-deserved liberties. Cesar instructs Judi and Malcom on how to stare down their alpha female. (That’s National Geographic Channel lingo. In FOX terms, how to “out-bitch their bitch.”) “You must be the pack leader,” Cesar is fond of saying. Judi and Malcom, both thin and 70ish, do not look like pack leaders. They look like the sort of grandparents who own garden gnomes. This doesn’t bother Cesar. On his show, anyone can be a pack leader.

It’s reality television, the way most of us want reality to be -- gentle, not harsh. When Cesar punishes Snowflake, he firmly picks her up by the back of the neck. “I’m not hurting her,” he assures Judi and Malcom. “This is the way her mother would discipline her.” On “Dog Whisperer,” dogs are treated like, well, dogs. They’re treated the way dogs should be treated. Loved, not coddled. Held in check, not abused. Secondary to humans, but not second-rate animals.

Simon Cowell, take note.

Critics of “American Idol” have accused its judges of treating contestants like dogs. These naysayers should be invited to spend time with Cesar. “Dog Whisperer” fans know that Cowell and colleagues don’t give canine handling to their pop-star hopefuls. It’s much, much worse.

I have watched “American Idol” since its second season, but I try to skip the auditions segment. For “Idol” producers, auditions are the freak show that precedes the talent show. It’s evident to anyone who tunes in -- the point isn’t so much to “find a winner” as to ridicule America’s losers. The fat, the freckled, the too short or tall, kids whose ears stick out or eyes bulge, preps, stoners, jocks, drama queens. Picture middle school, where the in-crowd is a trio of clever multi-millionaires. Audience of thousands, of course.

This season, the locker-stuffing is particularly hard core. Cowell called one teen a “bush baby,” in reference to the kid’s lemur-sized peepers. Zing! Next up: a tubby guy with a lisp. “I think you’re wearing Randy’s pants,” Cowell snickered, elbowing fellow judge Randy Jackson. Zap! See you fifth period!

Well, middle school is “reality,” too. And nobody forces the outcasts onto our small screens. They’re “asking for it.” That seems to be the argument of Cowell, and of FOX. Recently, they received support from an unlikely source: the equivalent of getting a go-ahead from the school principal. Psychologist Jennifer Crocker, respected among my higher-ups for her research on social stigma and self-esteem, defends Cowell in this Newsweek interview. Though she concedes that his criticisms are sometimes “harsh,” she speculates that “most of the contestants probably rebound fairly quickly.” It’s namby-pamby Paula Abdul who’s the cold-hearted snake, Crocker states. “Simon is more supportive of people because he is willing to tell them the truth.”

So, take your pink slips and go back to class, kids! No problems here!

I came across this Newsweek interview while reading an article by Crocker and Connie Wolfe (2001) in Psychological Review. For once, the non-academic literature was harder to digest. In the Psychological Review piece, Crocker and Wolfe postulate a model for self-esteem, based on “contingencies of self-worth.” The idea is that people feel good about themselves for various reasons -- they’re popular, or good at math, or crackerjack on the basketball court, etc. Self-esteem is only “contingent” on feedback in these areas. If you tell me I’m lousy at tetherball, I’m likely to shrug it off. Sports ability is (thankfully) not central to my self-concept. But if you diss this post, well, we’ll need to have words.

Self-esteem isn’t exactly the Paula Abdul of psychological endowments. Usually, it can withstand an attack. For people with healthy self-esteem, insult to a contingency provokes a dismissal of the feedback source (“Eff you, Simon!”), redoubling the validity of the contingency (“I really can sing!”), or providing an excuse for failure (“I was nervous!”). Self-esteem is “resilient,” Crocker explains in Newsweek. “I really do think you can construe the criticism as a gift.”

A gift. Hmmm. Public flogging! Just what I always wanted!

I’ll give this to Jennifer Crocker -- she has been out of grad school for awhile, so she has no reason to procrastinate with hours of reality tv. Maybe she hasn’t actually seen the “Idol” episodes on which she theorizes. Perhaps she’s engrossed in SPSS while Cowell and friends systematically tear down every contingency these teenagers might hold dear. Because it isn’t just the singing that gets scorned. Contestants with acceptable levels of self-worth might recover from assaults on their vocalizing. (Let’s not think about those who are less sure of themselves.) But “American Idol” goes for the jugular, if it sticks out in an unattractive way. Or the pigeon toes. Or the zebra-pattern shirt. No contingency is safe, and America gets to watch as squared young shoulders slump lower...and lower. Please, Dr. Crocker, switch to National Geographic. I’ll meet you there.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Who Dat?

It could have been a great showdown.

If the Saints had marched in, Super Bowl XLI might’ve hailed Battle of the Blogs I: New England vs. NOLA. I blame the snow. Cold, white stuff is foreign matter here, and it makes us stop and look. It’s cruel to take our football while our heads are turned. Who are you, Chicago? Lucy from Peanuts?

It’s okay, Drew and Reggie. I was distracted, too. Football hasn’t held my attention since Super Bowl XXXVIII -- and I only focused on that game when someone at our Honesdale party yelled, “Woah! Is that her boob?”

But this time, I cared. Nevermind I don’t know a fullback from a backpack. NOLA needed me. If you haven’t noticed, things have been rough in my city lately. N’Awliners are becoming experts at uniting against -- against crime, bureaucratic neglect, stormy weather. The Saints provided a good “for.” Next year, gentlemen.

In the meantime, I’ll throw my “who dat” to the Patriots, since my may-un favors them. Who dat! The full version of this NOLA war cry, according to Wikipedia, is “Who dat? Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?” Apparently, the chant originated “in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts of the late 1800s and early 1900s,” though Wikipedia adds that it was “adopted by New Orleans public schools in the 1960s.” Er, let’s keep that last bit of information on the down-low, shall we?

“What’s the New England football catchphrase?” I asked Murky on IM this afternoon. He couldn’t come up with any, so I hospitably typed a few. “WICKED GOOD,” I offered. No smiling emoticons. If silence is stony, M. Words was Plymouth Rock. “HAVAAD YAAHD!” What about that? Click and Clack would have chuckled. “LOBSTA LOBSTA!!” I cheered. Finally, a response. “Not bad.” Granted, LOBSTA is more Maine than Boston, but it’s fun to say.

So, here in the fourth quarter of the Patriots vs. Colts game, I shake my gold and black beads and yell “LOBSTA LOBSTA!” Just don't tell Peyton.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ode To First Day Of School No. 18

In first grade I got brand-new Crayons;
In second, I wore a new blouse.
Third: a recorder to play on,
Or to squeak, as it were, like a mouse.
The first day of fourth grade meant stencils
To write cursive letters in fifth.
Slap bracelets made great utensils
For trading with neighbors in sixth.
Seventh and eighth were “between” years,
Stuck in the middle school pits,
New looks of scorning from seniors
And, thanks to the hormones, new zits.
High school turned quickly to college
With new buildings to find my way ‘round -
Lost in a new sea of knowledge
If it weren’t for the News, I’d have drowned.
My eighteenth full year as a student
Has started with nary a quirk
But newness? Well...maybe it’s prudent
To look for a new line of work.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Close Encounters Of The Short Kind

If the gods are good (and by “gods,” I mean university administration), by the end of this semester I will have my master’s degree in developmental psychology. Test my knowledge today: give me the name of any celebrity, and I will tell you the names of his or her children. Kate Hudson? Please, you can do better. Ryder -- named after a Black Crowes song. Reese Witherspoon? Two kids, Ava and Deacon. Ricki Lake? Throwing down the gauntlet, eh? Milo. Same as Liv Tyler’s kid. And if you think I looked this all up on, you are so wrong. (Although I’ll admit to checking the spelling on Ricki’s name. I had “Rikki” first.)

So, I procrastinate a bit. Today I abandoned my thesis for a somewhat noble cause. More noble than memorizing Tara Reid’s “True Hollywood Story.” (Tara has no children that I know of, though she has repeatedly proven herself well equipped for feeding.) I took advantage of the pre-apocalyptic January heat and went for a walk. My destination was the gym, where I could kill at least 30 minutes jogging/fact-checking US Weekly. Julia Roberts is expanding Hazel and Finn’s nursery -- be prepared.

When the 4-year-old started running at me, I did what any Piagetian-trained scholar would do. I stepped aside. This one-kid stampede occurred one block away from campus, in full daylight, with an eyewitness parent watching from a nearby porch. I figured if the kid wanted to mug me, she would have chosen a more clandestine set-up. And if she wanted to chat -- say, to quiz me on Vygotskian theory -- she would have approached more calmly, perhaps sneering slightly. Children like to exercise for no reason, right? They also avoid naps. Fools.

But this child charted my movement and changed her course. She halted inches in front of my kneecaps. “Who are you?” she exclaimed. The emphasis was on “are,” as in “What’s your purpose on this planet?” Had she stressed “you,” I probably wouldn’t have gotten so flustered. “Who are you?” is a question posed by big-eyed, fuzzy creatures in storybooks throughout history. It is usually followed by the statement, “You’re not my mother!,” at which point the inquisition stops. “Who are you?” stopped me.

I’m not sure why I didn’t just give my name. It seemed irrelevant, I guess. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in school, and I expect every piece of information to have “background/significance” and “future implications.” I forget that when I was a kid, I wedged a peanut halfway up my nose simply because I could.

At first, I deflected. “What nice pink shoes you have!” I said. My tone was high enough to bust canine eardrums. Parent On The Porch did not look up from her magazine. “And pink socks too! Wow!”

Tell me, Mr. Piaget, if toddlers are egocentric, why don’t they soak up compliments? My three-foot supplicant didn’t so much as smile. “Who are you?” she demanded, toying with my keys.

“I’m...walking.” Well, this was true. It didn’t take an advanced degree to see that I was walking. For my next act of scholastic greatness, I will describe self-obvious activities! I am...sitting at my computer! I am...typing words! Hold your applause!

The child sighed. The sigh can scientifically be described as a “Not Another Dumb Adult” sigh. “Who are you?” she shrugged. She knew who I was. None of her kind.

“I am...a person...who walks,” I stuttered.

Then I demonstrated by walking away.

Attachment theorist John Bowlby might have been shamed by this act. But Bowlby doesn’t know jack about the Jolie-Pitts, does he?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

'07 from T-N

Our James Bond year is off to a good start. This morning, I bingoed in Scrabble. The word was P-A-N-C-A-K-E-S. 20 points as a stand-alone, plus an extra 50 for playing all seven of my letters. How could I do such a thing to my own mother? Well, she should know better than to leave the 5-point K vulnerable. Trounce and trounce A-L-I-K-E.

The next Scrabble challenge is yours, Murky. To reference a “three-toed sloth,” I only have A-Is for you. I was fortunate to spend my waning ’06 days in Boston, flitting from sushi to the New England Aquarium (zut a lors!), mostly on Mr. Words’ dime. Not only did he wait patiently while I gawked at the short bigeye, he happily viewed my top-ten favorite comedy, The Three Amigos (Los Tres Friends, if you prefer Spanish subtitles). Would you say I have a plethora of reasons to be grateful?

Resolutions . . . not so many. This year, I propose switching Thanksgiving Day with New Year’s Day. Think about it. Resolutions are revolutions, and revolutions take planning. Washington didn’t ice-skate across the Delaware. I need two weeks’ notice to change my sheets, at least two months to change my life. But I can be thankful in two seconds: Mom, Dad, Murky, Scrabble, W. and HTS, Ro-tel and DVDs, PDAs and charm bracelets. Thank you, thank you.

Last year, I resolved to do one (1) thing that nobody expected of me and one (1) thing I’d always wanted to do. If only I’d taken Behavioral Assessment at the start of ’06, instead of at the end. According to Pavlov et al., behavior change requires careful operationalizing of goals. Since I held few expectations in January ’06, I’m not sure how I envisioned the “one (1) thing nobody expected of me.” Driving blind into the California desert crossed my thoughts, but this would’ve been in violation of resolution #2. I’ve always wanted to cook twice-baked potatoes, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? I gave up.

Truth, I’d just as soon not make resolutions at all. If the idea is to alter my life for the better, then wouldn’t it be a solution, not a resolution? Re-solving has little appeal. When you come up with the definitive answer, let me know.

For now, I’m content to take a recent piece of advice and “resolution” from day to day, not year to year. Tomorrow I will tell my parents how glad I am to have begun 2007 in a cozy house in Tennessee. I’ll thank Murky for making the last week of ’06 one of the best. And I’ll play S-Y-R-U-P on a triple-word. 30 points.