dv1453015.jpgLast week, I attended another heart wrenching school board meeting (in Amery this time) where, yet again, people mustered their courage and voices to publically support those that nurture, teach, feed and care for our kids during the day.  I don’t teach in Amery, but I felt compelled to support those who do.

Held in an auditorium for the hundreds of people attending, the speeches to the Amery school board were honest impassioned and . . . becoming way too common.  Three years later, more fallout from Walker’s failed Act 10, another painful meeting, and another community torn apart.

The messages to the board that night all had a common theme: If there is indeed no money and you must continue to cut educator’s wages and benefits, please at least do so in a way that is respectful and empathic.  Please at least protect for these people their dignity.  Please talk with them.  Listen to them.

We know.  New laws no longer require our public education officials to do this–to talk to their employees.  But these are real people, living real lives, with real families to support and plan for.  Many are actually quite brilliant, creative and flexible—but the deep cuts combined with the punishing way they are being delivered are really hurtful and unnecessary—both financially and emotionally.  Public teachers and support staff are not monsters.  Really they are not.

As educators on the front lines, we know, as does everyone, that Wisconsin no longer values its schools.  We see it every day in the increased class sizes and workload carried by an ever-shrinking number of staff.  We know that billions have been cut from the education budget.  We know, even with a state surplus, that those dollars will never be restored.  We know school boards must continue to cut wages and benefits.   We know teaching and learning is only going to get harder in Wisconsin.  We know these things.

And we know also that it isn’t only our educators that are hurting in Wisconsin either.  As the most recent federal jobs report illustrates again, WI leads the nation in new jobless claims.

Our governor and local representatives are great at breaking unions and tearing communities apart. Terrible at creating jobs though.   This from the most recently released federal jobs report:

“The largest increases in initial claims for the week ending February 1 were in Wisconsin (+5,041), New York (+4,830), Pennsylvania (+2,448), New Jersey (+1,853), and Ohio (+1,780), while the largest decreases were in California (-9,631), Georgia (-2,558), Indiana (-2,444), Michigan (-2,411), and Florida (-1,387).”

I know . . .it was the weather.   It’s always the weather.  Or something.  It’s always something.

If we had destroyed our schools in order to create jobs, maybe that would be one thing.  I know that was the argument at the time: “Teachers and other public employees, and their unions, are the enemy–the greedy few.  Punish them.”  But it didn’t work.

All that said, I also know none of it matters.  I realize finally, especially at the local level, that we will continue to support our current representatives and their apathetic destruction of our schools and rural communities.  I know that nobody around here understands the link between strong schools and strong economies.  Strong words, maybe.  Still, I had to get them off my chest.  Because all I see in Wisconsin these days is weakness.

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” –Alfred North Whitehead

The following story about turkeys has been brought to you by the science of ethology—the study of animals in their natural habitat.

Here goes: Mother turkeys are loving and nurturing and protective.  They warm and clean and feed and do all the things that good mothers do.  But there is one very odd thing about turkey mothers.  All of this mothering behavior is dependent upon a very specific trigger—the “cheep-cheep” sound of the chick.  If a baby turkey makes this sound, all is well.  If not, the mother turkey will ignore the chick.  Sometimes she will even kill it.

Of course animal behaviorists found this fascinating, so they took a replica of a polecat, the natural enemy of the turkey, and had a little fun.  First, they presented the stuffed polecat to mother turkey and, as expected, the turkey attacked it.  Next, they put a little recorder inside the fake polecat.  This recorder played, you guessed it, the same “cheep-cheep” sound that the chicks made.  With the recorder on, the turkey accepted the polecat into her flock, treating it as one of her own.  The scientists then turned off the recording and the turkey again attacked it.  Scientists are great practical jokers.

So what have we learned?  Mother turkeys are very silly.  They will kill one of their own just because it doesn’t go “cheep-cheep,” and will nurture a natural enemy just because it does.  The mother turkey’s maternal instincts are on autopilot, and the button or trigger for that autopilot is the “cheep-cheep” sound of her chicks.

These autopilot scenarios, called “fixed-action patterns,” are actually quite common in the animal world.  All that’s needed to engage them is a trigger.  Mating rituals, maternal instincts, migration, hibernation, and nesting are all fixed action patterns dependent on a trigger.  Presenting a trigger is like pushing a button to start a computer a program.

Silly animals.  We humans never do anything so ridiculous, right?  Actually, we do it all the time.  In fact, many people seek special training and build careers in order to trigger these automatic behaviors in us.  These careers are in sales, or marketing, or politics. Others just have a talent for it.  They know how to push our buttons, load up the programs, and suddenly we’re standing at the checkout counter with a fistful of flowers and a guilty feeling in our gut.  He who knows the most buttons wins.

Consider the following story, brought to you by social psychologist Ellen Langer of Harvard.  Langer and her team have become quite famous for what has come to be known as “The Copy Machine” study—an ingenious experiment created to measured students’ willingness to allow someone to cut in front of them in a line at a library copy machine.

“Excuse me,” she’d say.  “I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine?”  Put this way, the students allowed her to skip ahead 60 percent of the time.  Not bad, but Langer found she could do better stating it this way: “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”  Put this way, the students allowed the intrusion 94 percent of the time.

At first, Langer and her team thought the key persuasive trigger was the reason, “because I’m in a rush.”  Just to be sure, they tried one more phrase–one without any real reason: “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”

“Because I need to make some copies”?  What the heck! That’s just restating the obvious.  Still, 93 percent complied with her request.  The persuasive trigger was not the reason at all.  The trigger was the word “because.”  That’s it.  Science of influence technique #1: Push button labeled “because” to run compliance program.

This experiment has been repeated and the results verified hundreds of times, proving that people can be triggered to run on autopilot almost as easily as mother turkeys.  Which begs the question: Who’s pushing your buttons? And is that button driving you into the big box stores to comply mindlessly yet again this holiday season?

“Jingle-jingle.”

“Cheep-cheep.”

Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

A quick fill-in-the-blank exercise if you will:

Vikings/Packers fans are __________.

Republicans/Democrats are _________.

Public/private sector employees are ______.

Union members are _____.

Rich/poor people are  ______.

Liberals/conservatives are _______.

Homosexuals are _______.

Your dander up at all?  If not, try a different combination, and consider the following excerpt from a very real sports blog I changed just slightly in order to make my point:

“. . .we Packers/liberals/republicans get to bask in the joy and ecstasy of not just a victory, but also in the delicious Schadenfreude that comes from a debilitating Vikings/conservatives/democrats loss. That makes it twice as sweet!

Their loss and pain is our gain. Why? Because the Vikings/unions/conservatives and their fans/supporters are our enemies. They and so many of their fans/supporters epitomize all that is soulless and wrong, albeit inept.

Given the good nature of most Packers/liberals/private sector employees, the importance of this is sometimes lost. We know how to love our Packers/republicans/union members, but sometimes we forget how — or why — to hate the Vikings/liberals/public employees and those who support them.”

Now, relax.  This propagandizing is just all in good fun right?  To be fair, surely Vikings/democrats/conservatives use this sort of language too.  And so do Bears fans and Pistons fans, and Minnesota drivers, and deer hunters, and loggers, and DNR officials, and business owners, and city council members, and terrorists, and hate groups.

The key step here–and it’s amazing how easy this is to do–is to separate or distance oneself from another in order to create an “Other”: an entity that different from you. Once that distinction has been made, this “Other,” just naturally becomes less human, more monstrous and much easier to hate or fear.  This “Other” then easily becomes the enemy, and the more pain and misfortune he or she suffers, the better.

In any contest, we prefer the side that is more like us.  Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the Association Principle.  The distinguished and prolific author, Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that YOU are better than the other person.  Whomever you root for represents YOU; and when he (or she) wins, YOU win.”

The ego-self is clearly at stake.  Our prestige rises when our side wins, and it falls when our side loses.  We feel real and escalating emotions of joy and pride the higher the perceived stakes.  Just listen to the language fans use after a victory.  We say, “WE won!” and “WE’RE number one!” not “They’re number one!” or “Our team is number one!”  Unless, that is, our team has just lost, in which case we will often distance and protect our fragile ego-self by saying, “They lost. . . the bums.”  The devil is in the pronoun.

Looked at objectively, this is insane.  Seen through the lens of a sports fan or political junky or religious fanatic however, not only does this make perfect sense, it’s an admired trait!  The more emotionally invested a person—the better fan or voter or follower he or she is.  The more pain they feel after a loss, the more euphoria they feel after a win.  We call these people true and diehard fans/constituents/believers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I am Viking fan/public employee myself.  Over the years, this association has given me the unique opportunity to feel very real and physical stress responses during the course of any game, political contest, and professional career—muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms—as well as the emotions of joy and agony—lately, mostly agony.

Love me or hate me, it is clear that somewhere deep within in our warped and fragile psyches, we believe that the Vikings and public servants everywhere really are me.  For many, this makes me less human, more monstrous, easier to kick when I’m down.  The enemy.

Perhaps however, bigger questions loom, like: Who are you? Are we really that much different?  Do our associations really make us winners and losers?  And, what is it, exactly, that you win, when I lose?

6:30 A.M. June 10

The Public Trust.

Tiny drops glistened in his beard like amber sap on the frosty needles of an evergreen. “Black as night and sweet as sin,” Gary said, lifting another soggy hunk of pancake from a pool of syrup–a sticky wisp of maple sweetness following it all the way to his lips.

Fran poured the coffee and set the pitcher on the table.  “Sugar and cream’s on the table, hon. Black and hot and that’s as far as my job description goes,” she said. “Last time I checked anyway,” she added, glancing back over her shoulder.  “You’ll have to take it from here.  Think you can handle it?”

Gary ripped the tops of three sugar packets and dumped them in. “Ah . . . perfect.  Thanks Fran. People think I come here for the food.  But you and I–we know better, don’t we?”  He winked.

Fran rolled her eyes and turned back toward the kitchen.  Gary tapped his spoon and looked up at the county sheriff across from him poking at a pile of greasy hash browns.

“Jim.”

“Yeah.”

“Not hungry or what?”

The sheriff pushed a sausage link through the grease and from one side of his plate to another.

“Jim.”

“Yeah, go ahead Gary.  I can read your mind.  Spit it out.  My coffee’s gettin’ cold.  Wipe your chin.”

“Shoulda had Fran warm it up while she was here.”  He turned toward the kitchen, “Fran!  Fran!  You’re needed back here!”  Then back to the sheriff, “That woman can warm me up any time.”

The sheriff looked up.  “Anyway . . .”

“Anyway . . . How long we been havin’ Sunday breakfast together, Jim?”

“Long enough to call it a habit, I guess.”

“Little over ten years.”

“Ayuh.”

“I never bring work to the table, Jim.”

“Nope.  I know.”

“But this time . . .”

“No,” the Sheriff said.  “Fran!  Could we get a hot pitcher over here?”

A shout from the kitchen, “Whatcha got there is hot enough!”

“What do you mean, ‘No’?”

“There’s no evidence this was a serial kidnapping.”

“I’m going to run the story anyway, Jim.”

“Yep,” the sheriff said.  “I figured you’d get around to it sooner or later.”  He put his fork down and met the editor’s eyes.  “I don’t think it’s right, though.  If you ask me, which I know you’re not. I think it’ll just end up scarin’ a bunch-a-folks.  I don’t have any answers yet.

“It’s all off the record at this table, Jim.  Okay?  You know that.”

He knew.  “Yeah, ‘course I thought of it.  But far as I know, killers don’t usually have the patience to wait one whole year between.  Shit, though Gary.  I’m just the son of a cranberry farmer.  I ain’t no profiler.”

Gary said, “Four years now–first part of June.  Ages ten to twelve.  Not that many missing children reported in this county Jim.  But when they are, it’s always June.

“Can’t argue with you.  But that don’t make it the same guy.  More kids turn up missing in June than in any other month.  That’s a statistical fact.  Look it up. There’s somethin’ about spring that jumps sickos’ motors.”  The sheriff dropped his spoon into his empty coffee cup.  “Fran!”

Somewhere deep in the belly of the kitchen, the waitress ignored him.

“There’s an ancient idiom chiefly describing the effects of slinging excrement into the blades of a motorized fan.”

“What?”

“That story hits the press and shit’s gonna hit the fan, Gary. The phone.  The whole thing.  I wish you wouldn’t do it.  I ain’t got the answers for this one.  And I ain’t got the staff to handle all the calls either.”

“That’s not an idiom.”

“Well what is it then?”

“An urban slang phrase, I think is what you’d call it.”

“Whatever it is, it’s gonna make my job a living hell.”

“I know,” Gary said.  “I know.  And I’m sorry.  Really.”

4:30 P.M. October 31

Giggles and Grief.

Alone this time, Mari stepped from a crisp afternoon sun and into the shadows of the haunted house. She hadn’t rounded the first corner before she felt it.  A presence.  She stopped–waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness–listening to the sound of her own heart . . . and something else, someone else.  Behind her, a figure rose from the shadows, a bloody stump reaching for the back of her neck.

Mari turned. “Hi Mr. Hanson.”

The ghoul, who was also suffering severe head trauma, stepped closer.

“Who’s . . . (heavy breathing) . . .Mr. Hanson?” it growled–somewhat like Christian Bale in the Batman movies, thought Mari.

“Only you, silly,” she said.  “What is that stuff on your head?”

An appendage popped from the gory stump as the undead fingered the hole in his head, probing a clump of glop hanging there like sap coagulating on a wounded pine.

“Mari!” said the flustered zombie.  “How did you know I was back here?  How did you know it was me?”

“Heard you breathing.”

“Huh.  It’s syrup and brown sugar. . . and a little ketchup I think,” said the dejected spook.  “Mrs. Johnson put it on.”  He slunk back to his corner.

“Don’t worry Mr. Hanson; you’ll get the next kid.  Maybe try holding your breath next time.”

“Whatever, Mari.  Better move along now.  Have fun.”

Mari turned, but she didn’t think she would.  Nothing was much fun anymore.  Not really.  Not without Kelsey.  Everything seemed to bring thoughts of her friend these days.  Inseparable, last year they had walked this very PTA sponsored haunted house together–Mari jumping and screaming and Kelsey frustrating the spooks with her uncanny senses.  Both of them giggling, shushing, and poking the other.

“Kelsey?”  Mari had asked after stumbling down the exit ramp and back into the low autumn sun.  “Didn’t any of that scare you?  Even just a little?”

“Nope.  Not really,” Kelsey had replied, tickling Mari in the ribs with the stump of her middle finger–a finger she had cut off as a toddler on an exercise bike chain.  Blind kids have more accidents.  “Want to get a caramel apple?”

“Sure, but why not?  I mean, why weren’t you scared?” Mari said.  “And stop poking me with that.  I hate that.”

“I know,” Kelsey said, giggling.  “That’s why I do it.  What was the scariest thing for you?”

“The vampire, I think.”

“Would it have been as scary for you if the lights were on?”

“Well, no.  Probably not.” Mari said. “Not as much anyway.”

“So think of it that way.  I’m blind, stupid.  Remember?  The dark doesn’t scare me.”

“Oh, yeah.  Forgot.”

“Again,” Kelsey said.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be.  That’s what I love about you.  C’mon, lets get an apple.  Then let’s check out the Pumpkin House.  I love pumpkin guts–especially Old Man Drake’s.  You know what they say.”

“Yeah,” Mari said.  “He totally weirds me out.”

“I know,” said Kelsey.  “Me to.  Let’s go.”

Kelsey had been the coolest person Mari had ever known.  It had been five months now, and sometimes she still couldn’t breath.  The middle school counselor said that was normal.  It was grief.  Still, none of that made it hurt less.  The counselor said that was normal too.  It was grief.

Today, Mari stepped from the ramp and into the sharp sunlight alone.  She squinted, blinking tear onto the matted grass at her feet.  Mari thought she might find a caramel apple next.

5:30 P.M. October 31

The Pumpkin House

The Pumpkin house was the mutated brain-child of one Allen Franklin, master gardener.  It wasn’t originally called the Pumpkin House either but Squash Alley.  Allen thought it would be a nice way for local gardeners to show off their fall harvests.  What better time than during the Halloween festival at the fairgrounds?

Kyle Drake changed all that with his first entry: a pumpkin the shape of a water-cooler jug.  Since then, Drake had done nothing but improve.  It was simple enough to do.  Just stick a small, young squash into a mold and let it grow, filling up the space allowed it and whala! Richard Nixon.  That explained the shapes.

The legend though, that was different.  Nobody knew how the stories got started.  Still, every year kids swore they knew someone who knew someone who found things while carving pumpkins they’d gotten from Old Man Drakes pumpkin patch.  Disturbing things.  Icky things.

Always, somebody’s cousin’s, neighbor’s, brother’s, friend found something—and they always swore it was true.  Katie’s aunt’s cousin’s neighbor’s twelve year old niece found: a slimy piece of an ear, the upper half of a nose, the gristle of a thumb knuckle, a rotting eyeball–all buried within the stringy orange slime of a pumpkin . . . a pumpkin purchased from none other than the dubious Old Man Drake.  True story.  Swear to God.

Mari was thinking of this very legend when she stopped–her hand caressing the back of the Abe Lincoln’s head.  She touched everything now–Kelsey had taught her to look with her fingers as well as see with her ears.  And so Mari had learned that Kelsey was right.  The haunted house wasn’t so scary when you could hear Mr. Hanson’s asthmatic lungs squeaking in the corner.

Five minutes later, Mari, out of breath herself now, found her mother and insisted on buying the Abe Lincoln pumpkin. It was ten dollars, but she absolutely had to have it.  Her mother didn’t understand.  Her mother couldn’t read braille.

6:30 P.M. November 2

Fertilizer

The sheriff ate his breakfast quickly and asked for the check.  He implored the editor to do the same.

“What’s the rush Jim?  C’mon, what gives?”

“Might be nothing.  Hurry up.  You’re coming with me this morning.

“Where?”

“Check out a lead on those spring kidnappings.”

Gary stopped.  “Okay, spill it.”

The sheriff said, “You know Mari Clausen?”

“Yeah, her parents own the drug store.”

“She brought in some evidence Halloween night.  Said she pulled it from Drake’s garden.  Said she read a message in braille on the outside of one of his Pumpkins.”

“What?”  Gary said.  “What did it say?”

“Not sure.  Can’t read braille.  Got an expert looking at it right now.”

“Alright, wise-ass–what does she say it says.”

“She says–you’re not gonna believe this–she says it’s a message written specifically for her.  She says it says, ‘Mari, come find me under Drake’s Pumpkins.’”

“Shut! Up!” Gary said, incredulously.

“No, really.”

“And why do you believe her.  How did you ever get a warrant?”

“She brought in a decomposing human hand.”

“A hand.”

“Yep.”

“So makes you think its from our spring kidnappings?”

“It was missing a finger.”

 

 

2:00 a.m..

Waiting for clarity, John glanced down from the steam softened image in the mirror to a sink full of whiskers and the letter outlining the exhilarating debauchery of this night.  He closed his eyes.  It was the letter that did it. Decision made, John touched his reflection and turned. His dignity, he believed, he took with him. His ideals however, he left dripping in the symbols traced in the glass behind him.

Meanwhile on a Horror Writing Discussion Forum

Name:  Ridley

Date/Time: 3/12/2001 8:23 pm

Subject: RE: The Course

Body:

Give Up Your Day Job and Stick To Writing.  It’s not often I tell someone this; after all, most non-published writers (and especially those who’ve invested with PODs for the privilege of belching out “my novel” to anyone who will listen) suck at story-telling.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: When you find something at which you are talented, you do it until your fingers bleed or your eyes pop out of your head.  I suggest starting out by submitting to small town magazines.  Get a few under your belt, then find yourself a reputable agent.  You have talent.  Enough said.

Name: 1dra

Date/Time: 3/13/2001 1:40 pm

Subject: Do it ’till your fingers bleed . . . eyes . . . pop out . . .

Body:

. . . Hmmm . . .

I’ve heard that before . . . somewhere . . . or read it . . .  just recently . . .

. . .Hmmm . . .

Could be just my imagination.

Anyway, gosh and golly.  Thanks for the encouragement!  I printed that one out and will tape it up when those doubts start start to crawl back in from their dusty corners, like they so often do.  You speak with so much authority. So much confidence. . .

. . . Hmmm  . . . Could it really be?

Would someone go to such lengths to imitate?  Guess it wouldn’t be that difficult to use the lame language–give the same advise  . . . in the same way.

But  . . . what if.

Naw.

Thanks again,

1dra

Name:  Ridley

Date/Time: 3/13/2001 5:48 pm

Subject: RE Men do what men do . . . and usually it’s for a woman

Body:

Life is full of many questions.  They’ll edge at your mind until it explodes.  If you read it in some book, then good for you.  Sales are up.  Good for me.  I suggest you browse through it once and then throw it away, burn it in the fireplace, give it to your neighbor, or use it to wipe your whatever clean.  It’s not a bible; it was never intended for that purpose.  You either have what it takes or you don’t have it at all.  No book will ever change this fact.

Ridley