Feet Off The Furniture!

Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway has come under fierce criticism on social media after a picture showed her perched on one of the couches in the Oval Office, with her feet tucked under her.  Close-ups showed that she was wearing shoes at the time, and her heels were digging in to the fabric.

TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMPGasp!

Critics said she was being disrespectful of the Oval Office through her pose and her treatment of the furniture.  Conway says she meant no disrespect, and her defenders say she was just getting ready to use her phone to take a photo of President Trump meeting with leaders of historic black colleges.  They also cite pictures of President Obama with his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office.  (And, of course, it’s not just any desk, it’s the famous Resolute desk made from timbers of the British vessel  H.M.S. Resolute and presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria in 1880, and therefore presumably has a lot more history going for it than the sofa on which Conway was perched.)

Only one month or so into the new Administration, and already we’ve reached the point of arguing about treatment of furniture!  Hey, I know — let’s call it “Sofagate”!

desk1Maybe some of the angst about the furniture in the Oval Office comes from people whose parents were hyper-concerned about maintaining the condition the furniture in their home, and covered it with uncomfortable plastic slip covers for daily use so the furniture would always look brand new for company.  These were the people whose mothers were always yelling “feet off the furniture!” when you went over to their house as kids.  Other people, like the Webners, grew up in households where furniture was not viewed as a some kind of sacred item and putting your feet up on the coffee table, or stretching out on the sofa to watch TV, was a perfectly acceptable practice and a little wear and tear on the couch and chairs was to be expected.  And still other people recognize that putting your feet up on a wooden desk is different than putting shoe-clad feet up on a fabric-covered sofa.

This is a classic example of the kind of tempest in a teapot that makes Washington so baffling and weird, with people with an inside-the-Beltway mentality consciously trying to blow little things up into huge disputes.  It’s gotten worse in the social media age, where Twitter allows anyone (including our new President) to immediately make snide comments about anything and everything and create purportedly hilarious “memes.”

In the grand scheme of things, shoes with heels on an anonymous sofa, even one in the Oval Office, aren’t that big a deal.  With President Trump in office, there’s lots of meaningful, substantive stuff to argue about.  Can’t we at least focus on that, rather than feet on the furniture?

Changing Over Time

Here’s some welcome, but not especially surprising, news:  scientists have concluded that our personalities change over time.

seniors_teensThe University of Edinburgh did an interesting study that confirms what should be obvious — people in their teenage years are a lot different from those same people as geriatrics.  The study looked at data compiled about the personality and character traits of people who were evaluated in 1947, at age 14, as part of the Scottish Mental Survey, and then tried to track down those same people down years later, when they hit age 77, to evaluate them again.  The study looked a personal qualities like self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to excel, and found very little correlation between the 14-year-olds and the 77-year-olds on the conscientiousness and stability of moods qualities, and no correlation on the others.

Any study of personality and character traits is not going to be as precise as, say, measuring the flow or neutrinos, because of observer bias.  The University of Edinburgh results, for example, rely on teacher assessments of the 14-year-olds — it’s not hard to imagine that your gym teacher might have a different take on self-confidence than your English teacher, for example —  and the 77-year-olds rated themselves and identified a close friend or family member to complete the survey.  I imagine, however, that by age 77 most people are going to drop the posturing and evaluate themselves pretty honestly.

So life, and time, change you.  No surprise there!  It would be weird indeed if a lifetime of experiences, good and bad, didn’t actually alter the way you reacted to other people and the world at large.  I carry around memories from my 14-year-old self, but other than that I don’t really feel a great connection to that awkward, tubby, dreamy, self-absorbed person on the verge of high school — which is kind of a relief, really.  I imagine that if most of us met our 14-year-old selves, we’d find it fascinating, but then conclude that we really weren’t all that likable back then, and give our parents, siblings, and friends a lot more credit for putting up with us.

The key, of course, is to change for the better.  It’s a worthy goal.

My First Phone Number

The other day the Jersey Girl and I were discussing the wonderful movie Lion, and specifically the part where a five-year-old boy, suddenly finding himself in a strange city a thousand miles from home, was unable to communicate his home town or his mother’s name — but nevertheless could fend for himself and survive for months.

Could we have done the same?  As five-year-olds, would we also have been unable to communicate to the authorities about how get us home?

rotaryphone-jpeg-size-custom-crop-755x650I’m quite sure that, at the age of five, I didn’t possess the kind of hardiness, stoicism, and long-term survival skills “Saroo” showed in Lion.  (After all, he and his brother were out stealing coal from trains and using other techniques to try to help feed their family, and I was just growing up in a small but tidy house in Akron, Ohio.)  But, I did have one thing that Saroo apparently lacked — my mother drilled all of the little Webners relentlessly, so we would memorize our names and our phone number.  Even as a small boy, I knew my name, my street, my city, and that seven-digit number that someone could call to let my parents know where I was.  And, in fact, when I went wandering around the block on one occasion, I told the nice people who found me my phone number, and they called and Mom came and got me.

Even now, 55 years later, that same phone number comes immediately to mind.  I can’t remember the phone numbers I had in my college apartments, or when Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C., or in our first homes after moving back to the Columbus area, but I remember that first phone number with ease.  It’s as if the drilling with Mom at the kitchen table as I ate another bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter morning engraved that phone number into the deepest synapses of my brain, where it can never be erased.

Of course, it’s totally useless information now — but still, it’s kind of comforting to know that I still remember something from so long ago.  Mom did a pretty good job.

End Of The Circus, Start Of The Circus

The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced that it will make its last performance in 2017.  Home to acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns, high wire acts, men fired from cannons, ringmasters, jugglers, elephants, bareback daredevils, and lion tamers, the self-described “Greatest Show on Earth” has been thrilling Americans for 146 years.

11036258_903260603028849_2049055517179799220_nIt’s another American institution clanking to an end.  Once, people in America were excited when the circus train rolled into town, with a circus parade down Main Street to let everyone know that it was time to come out to some nearby lot, sit under the Big Top, smell the sawdust, eat some peanuts, and watch the spectacle.  But tastes change, and the organizers of the circus have cited those changing tastes, reflected in declining attendance, as one of the reasons for the end of the circus.  Other reasons include high operating costs and the impact of a long dispute with animal rights advocates about using animals in the circus — a fight that ended with the decision in 2015 to cease using elephants in the show, which itself caused a significant drop in attendance.

I remember going to the circus when I was young.  I wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed about running away to the circus and romanticized the itinerant life of circus performers, but I did enjoy the show, and so did UJ and my grandparents.  I remember the bustle of the place, and the constant activity in the three rings, and the awesome sight of the people way up on the flying trapeze so far overhead.  I also remember the distinctive smell — a wild, heady combination of animals, dust, and human sweat, all charged with a kind of electricity running through the crowd when one of the more hazardous acts was being performed.  Now, though, kids apparently don’t have the same attention span; they won’t sit still for the hours needed to watch the full run of the circus show and end up fiddling with their cell phones and texting their friends.

It’s ironic, too, that the real circus is announcing its end just as the Trump Administration is getting ready to take office.  Based on what we’ve seen in the run-up to Inauguration Day, from both the new President and his Administration, its protesters, and its diehard opponents, American politics is going to be a wild, death-defying ride, full of surprises and unexpected actions at every turn.  Who knows?  Maybe these days we can only deal with one circus at a time.

Square Dancing

The educational training I received from the American public school system included civics, algebra, English, and . . . square dancing.

At some point in my late grade school/early junior high years, the kids in my class were told that we were going to learn square dancing.  School administrators, apparently taking seriously the rampant boy talk about girls having “cooties,” concluded that the boys and girls in the class needed to interact in a social setting.  I suppose we could have learned ballroom dancing, or formal etiquette, but given the fundamental awkwardness of all boys that age, school administrators wisely decided to aim low.

3b2dea14b304989b0e9860ee74e27605So we were trooped into the school gymnasium, boys lined on one wall and girls on the other.  The male and female gym teachers then showed us what we were supposed to do as another teacher called out the steps.  Bow to your partner.  Bow to the corner.  Do si do.  Allemande left!  Allemande right!  Swing your partner.  Promenade!

The teachers acted like they were having fun, but the boys in the class viewed it all with doubtful suspicion.  Couldn’t we just go outside and play tackle football?  But then, before we knew it, the boys and girls of the class had to actually line up and do the square dancing themselves.  The boys, faces burning because they were holding a girl’s hand, stomped around in a grim exhibition of poor coordination, trying not to step on the girl’s foot, trip somebody during the “allemande,” or stumble during the “promenade.”  Of course, it really was kind of fun, but no kid was going to admit that.  So the boys groaned whenever the next square dancing class was announced, and then secretly hoped that they got to dance with the girl they kind of liked.  And then some wisecracker in the class said “Swing your partner round and round, put her in the toilet and flush her down,” and everyone laughed and the spell was broken.

Do they still teach square dancing to kids?

The Donald And The Towel-Snappers

Donald Trump has apologized for incredibly crude and offensive comments that were recorded when he made a cameo appearance on a soap opera in 2005.   The recording was released by the Washington Post yesterday.

If you haven’t listened to the recording, I encourage you not to do so, if you want to maintain some semblance of respect for the American political process.  Just know that Trump’s statements were lewd, coarse, demeaning, appalling, and just about every other adjective you can think of that describes the crass end of the behavioral spectrum.  In his apology, Trump described the recorded conversation as “locker room banter.”

martynelson“Locker room banter.”  I suppose that accurately describes it . . . if we’re talking about a high school locker room.  Any male who lived through those years remembers the high school locker room, when the boys showering and changing clothes were divided into two groups — the loud talking, preening, strutting, arrogant assholes who were trying desperately to establish themselves as alpha males, and the rest of us who just wanted to get the hell out of there.  The first group included the towel snappers, and the “prank” pullers, and the bullies who thought it was hilarious to torment the uncoordinated, the short, the skinny, and the tubby kids who hated gym class for that very reason.  And it was the same guys who bragged incessantly about their claimed, probably imaginary, sexual conquests in the most vulgar terms you can possibly imagine.  The rest of us were forced to listen to the bullshit, knowing and liking the girls who were being so crudely described and feeling sorry that our classmates apparently were going out with complete jackasses.

So now we’ve confirmed that Donald Trump was one of the towel snappers, and he’s really never moved on.  When the situation presents itself, he can sink to levels of boorishness and grossness with the best of them.  No surprise there, really.  Throughout his career in the public eye, Trump has repeatedly been willing to dip into the muck when he thinks the situation calls for it, whether it’s talking about his romantic exploits or concluding that it’s perfectly acceptable to make veiled references to his sexual potency during a presidential debate.  When you identify him as part of the alpha male locker room brigade, it becomes all too predictable.

God help us!  Election Day can’t get here soon enough.

Two-Cent Milk

Yesterday I had oatmeal for breakfast, and the waitress at the hotel restaurant brought me a small carton of milk along with some raisins, brown sugar, and blueberries.

Looking at the small milk carton immediately reminded me of my earliest days in the cafeteria in grade school.  Sometimes Mom would pack my lunch, and sometimes if she was too busy I would eat a hot lunch at the school cafeteria.  Either way, a staple of the lunch hour was paying two cents for a small carton of ice-cold whole milk.  It tasted good with either a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Twinkie from a paper bag or a hot plate of Johnny Marzetti on a plastic school cafeteria tray.

img_2891The two-cent milk was an important rite of passage in two ways.  It was my first real use of money and — equally important — my first real experience with being entrusted with money.  Mom would give me two pennies and I would walk to school with that cold, hard cash burning a hole in my pocket, knowing that I couldn’t lose it or I wouldn’t be able to get my milk with lunch.  In those first-grade days I didn’t have much of a conception of how the world worked, or how much things cost, but I knew that my milk at lunch cost two cents.

And, of course, the carton itself was a key test of young kid small motor skills.  You had to manipulate the carton just right to achieve the optimal milk-drinking experience.  The first step, of gently separating the container opening, was easy.  It was the second step, which involved applying just the right amount of pressure so that the carton would pop open in one clean motion, that was the challenge.  If you did’t get it on the first try, with each new effort the container would lose structural integrity and stay frustratingly closed, and you might have to use your fingernails to claw it open, leaving the milk drinking hole looking embarrassingly mushy and torn.

When I was presented with the small container of milk with my oatmeal yesterday, I felt my inner first-grader deep inside, focused on the task of opening the milk as cleanly and proficiently as the big kids did.  Alas, I still don’t have the knack.