A Chillingly Realistic Portrayal Of Sibling Relationships

Yesterday I read a news story that reminded me of the most chillingly realistic portrayal of sibling relationships I’ve ever seen on network television.

The story was about a man named John Spinello, who cannot afford needed oral surgery.  There’s nothing remarkable about that — except that 50 years ago Spinello invented the game “Operation.”  The news story was that the inventor of “Operation” can’t afford an operation.

You no doubt will recall “Operation,” one of the greatest game inventions ever.  Players drew cards and, using tweezers, had to remove humorous plastic pieces — like a piece of bread from the “Bread Basket” or a bucket from “Water on the Knee” — from a guy lying as if on an operation table.  If the tweezers touched the electrified sides of the slot where the plastic piece was placed, a buzzer sounded and the guy’s red nose lit up.  (Removing the pencil from “Writer’s Cramp” was the hardest.)

The strikingly accurate depiction of sibling relationships, of course, was found in the famous commercial for “Operation” — shown below — where a brother and sister are playing the game.  The clumsy brother hits the metal side and gets the buzzer while his sister howls with laughter.  She successfully removes the wrench from “Wrenched Ankle,” taunts the brother with it, and says, with an air of crushing superiority, “ha, ha, ha!”

In our house, the little girl’s “ha, ha, ha” became part of the family lexicon — because the Webner kids, like the children in every family, knew intuitively that a large part of life was figuring out ways to torment your siblings.  Whether it was playing unfair practical jokes, smirking in the background while they got disciplined, devising mean-spirited nicknames, telling kids in the neighborhood an embarrassing story, or setting things up so that your sister always got the dirty tramp on the game “Mystery Date,” pranking your brothers and sisters was a crucial part of growing up.  The “Operation” girl’s “ha, ha, ha” captured the whole process perfectly.

15 Minutes Early

Lately my standard commute to work has been torturous.  Whether it is random accidents, or increased congestion due to the new homes and apartments being built in New Albany and points east, I am consistently enduring traffic jams on my way to the office.

I’m not a happy camper about it.  There are few things more irritating than crawling along in stop-and-go traffic, trying to figure out which lane might have the accident or be most likely to start moving.  It’s intolerable, and I inevitably reach the office in a foul mood as a result.  It’s not good for my car, either.  The interior has been severely scorched and some of the plastic fixtures partially melted by my more heated traffic jam epithets.

So, it’s time for a change.  Living in the ‘burbs, that means I have two options:  take the other route (because there really are only two options) or leave early.  There are a bunch of homes being built on the other route, so I’m going to shoot for leaving 15 minutes early.

This is not as easy as it sounds, and there are risks.  As Kish would tell you, I’m a creature of habit, and I like to follow my morning routine of walk, coffee, blog posting, get dressed, drive.  I’m going to have to speed up the schedule.  And all those accidents I’m encountering obviously have to happen before I leave at my standard time.  Who knows?  Perhaps the early departure time will put me squarely into the bad driver/accident zone.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take, because the traffic jams just suck.

Friday Night Pizza

Driving home from the airport tonight, the road was clogged with pizza delivery vehicles.  Jet’s Pizza, Donatos, Papa John’s . . . the pizza armada was out in full force, brutishly hogging the thoroughfares and (literally) feeding America’s insatiable appetite for that boxed, lukewarm combination of crust, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings.

IMG_3482It seems like Friday night is the biggest night for pizza delivery, in Columbus at least, and the “fun facts” section of pizzadelivery.com supports that hypothesis.  It states that half of all the pizzas sold in American are sold on Friday and Saturday night.  (Super Sunday is the biggest pizza delivery night of the year, of course, but that’s a Super Special Occasion.)

Why is delivery pizza so popular on Friday night?  I’m guessing that most of that pizza is eaten by families.  Mom and Dad are exhausted by the time Friday night rolls around, the idea of fixing some kind of sit-down meal is anathema, and pizza at least allows the family to do something together.  Mix in sleepovers, football games, and the other activities that command the activities of kids these days and you end up with a night where a food option that people can slam down on the go makes sense.

I’d also bet that Saturday morning is the biggest time for consumption of cold pizza.

“Man-Oh-Manischewitz!”

“Man-oh-Manischewitz!” is one of the standard catchphrases in the Webner household.  It’s an all-purpose comment that may properly be used in a variety of situations to convey surprise, delight, or satisfaction, or even as a deft substitute for a minor obscenity.  (Another oft-heard statement in Webner House is “one man’s family,” usually muttered with a sad shake of the head and heartfelt sigh while looking at a mess created by the dogs.)

Every successful relationship or team has these kinds of verbal stand-by references, whether they be secret nicknames, punchlines from old, long-forgotten jokes, a lyric from a song that was popular during college, or the tag line for ancient TV commercials about really tooth-curlingly sweet kosher wine.  You could reasonably argue that such utterances are, in fact, part of the reason why the team or relationship is successful in the first place.

These comfortable catchphrases usually provoke an inner, if not outer, smile among the members of the circle.  They reflect a deep and lasting familiarity and tradition that makes people feel special.  Often they have been used for so long that the first relevant use of the phrase has been lost in the mists of time — although in our case we can reasonably guess that one of us blurted out “man-oh-Manischewitz!” after taking a good slug of an adult beverage that unfortunately turned out to be too strong, too sweet, or otherwise unpotable, everyone laughed, and it became memorialized in the family lexicon.

“Man-oh-Manischewitz!” is a pretty good catchphrase that has come in handy over the years, and it’s also part of a very interesting story with an Ohio connection.  If you’re looking to develop your own family traditions, I commend it to your attention.

Parental Due Diligence

Jacksonville, Florida is the largest city in America in terms of land area encompassed within the city limits.  It covers more than 840 square miles, and within its borders is the largest urban park system in the country, with 80,000 acres of parkland.

Initially known as Cowford — because it was the spot where cattle crossed the St. John River — Jacksonville is now the most populous city in Florida, with more than 840,000 residents, and is the 14th largest city in the U.S.  It is also the youngest city in Florida (no surprise there!) with a median age in the mid-30s.

Jacksonville was the birthplace of one of the greatest American rock bands ever — Lynyrd Skynyrd — and also hosts the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival, the second-largest jazz festival in the nation.  It has a big-league sports team in the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

Why the sudden interest in Jacksonville?  Just a little parental due diligence.  We learned a few days ago that Richard has gotten a job at The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s newspaper, and will be moving down to The River City to start his professional reporting career in earnest in the next few weeks.

Jacksonville sounds like a pretty interesting place to cover and we’ll look forward to learning even more about it through Richard’s reporting.  Congratulations, Richard!

Why Are Marriage Rates Hitting New Lows?

The latest census data show that the rate of marriage in America is still declining.  In fact, the marriage rate has hit an all-time low, and the number of Americans over 25 who have never been married has hit an all-time high.  In 1960, nine of ten Americans over 25 had been married; in 2012, half of that population segment had never been married.

Why is this so?  The article linked above discusses three possible reasons, two of which seem totally off-base and the third of which may be looking in the wrong direction.

The first is the economy and issues of “financial security,” which some young people cite as reasons to defer marriage.  There no doubt are people who want to be settled, in terms of their jobs and careers, before they get married, and the current economy is making that settling process more challenging.  However, the decline in marriage is a long-term trend, not a temporary blip that tracks economic performance.  Moreover, data shows that married couples, with their pooled resources and shared expenses, are far more likely to be wealthy than their unmarried or divorced counterparts.  No one should get married for purely economic reasons, of course, but if you are in love, getting married and staying married is far more likely to produce financial security than any other course.

The second is whether the increasing availability of same-sex marriage has caused rates of marriage to fall.  I think it is far more likely that the opposite is true.  As a mathematical matter, the fact that couples who previously could not marry are now part of the potential marriage pool is bound to increase marriage rates, and the zeal with which loving gay couples have pursued their right to marry assigns a value to the institution that should encourage more people to make that commitment, not the other way around.  It also seems implausible that those people who vigorously resist any change to “traditional concepts of marriage” are going to eschew getting married simply because gay people now have that right.

The final potential reason is the eradication of taboos on unmarried cohabitation and having out-of-wedlock children.  Those taboos, too, have been gone for a long time and therefore wouldn’t explain recent changes in marriage rates.  I think other, less noticeable long-term social forces provide an explanation.  It’s not the eradication of sex-related taboos that is at work, but rather increasing acceptance of the concept of being alone, both by the individuals in question and society as a whole.  Whether it is because they enjoy their private, internet-focused lives, or because they find their work far more rewarding than awkward social interaction, or because they don’t want the pressure of a permanent relationship, more people are perfectly comfortable with being single.  Decades ago, their families and friends would have put enormous pressure on them to get married; now those forces don’t exist.

Student Loans And Shrinking Choices

We’ve all heard a lot lately about college students graduating with crushing amounts of student loan debt.  A recent Washington Post article brought home the grim and spiraling reality of student loan debt — and made me wonder what its long-term ramifications are for the families of those students and the economy as a whole.

The Post article compares consumer debt loads in 2005 to those in 2014.  Nine years is not a long time — less than a decade and only one presidential administration ago — but the changes are dramatic.  The percentage of 20-somethings with mortgage debt has fallen from 63.2 percent to 42.9 percent, and the percentage with student loan debt has almost tripled, from 12.9 percent to 36.8 percent.  In short, fewer are borrowing to buy a tangible asset and more are borrowing to acquire an intangible asset with uncertain value.

We don’t know how far up the age scale this exchange of mortgage debt for student loan debt extends, but the homeowners among us should consider what a shrinking pool of potential buyers means for the value of our property and our chances of selling it.  Banks won’t view young people who owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans as good candidates for hefty mortgage loans, and young people who can’t find the high-paying job they need to make debt payments won’t want to be saddled with a house that might interfere with their freedom to move to where jobs are more plentiful.  The upshot is shrinking choices for debt-addled 20-somethings and shrinking options for the rest of us.

But the impact goes even farther.  The Post article shows that people in their 60s also have increased their student loan debt, and that more families in every income bracket are borrowing to pay for college.  The cost of a college education thus affects entire families, with credit-worthy senior citizens taking out loans to help their children and grandchildren pay for that diploma.  The acquisition of new debt by 60-somethings runs counter to the most fundamental rule of retirement financial planning, which is that people nearing retirement should pay off debt rather than taking on more.  How many older people are deferring retirement to pay off student loans — and in the process hanging on to jobs that might otherwise be available to those recent college graduates?

For too long we have viewed a college degree as a kind of holy grail that will inevitably produce a successful career and have geared national policy to make college more “affordable” by increasing the availability of student loans.  That approach has removed any incentive for colleges to hold down costs, and the result is sharply increased tuition costs funded by long-term consumer borrowing that affects entire families.  I’m as much of a fan of a college education as anyone, but isn’t it time to challenge our colleges and universities to figure out a way to provide that education at lower cost?