About webnerbob

A Cleveland and Ohio State sports fan who lives in Columbus, Ohio

The Psychology Of The Two-Urinal Rule

Every guy knows this basic rule about the use of a public bathroom: if someone else is using one of the bank of urinals, you need to choose a location that leaves at least one urinal between you and the other user. It’s one of those social conventions that is so widely accepted that you really notice a breach.

This week The Atlantic has a fascinating article about the psychology of the two-urinal rule and other phobias and taboos about the use of public bathrooms. I was unaware, for example, that there was a formal name for the condition that causes people to have anxiety about using a public bathroom to do “number one” — it’s called paruresis — and that affects about 20 million Americans to some extent or another. (The analogous condition about “number two,” called parcopresis, is far less common.)

IMG_4196Interestingly, men seem to be more troubled about use of public bathrooms than are women, and the free-standing, out-in-the-open urinal apparently is a significant part of the problem. Studies show that men worry that they are being watched while they are standing there doing their business, whereas women — safely seated in a flimsy yet shielded stall as they answer the imperative — tend to worry more about cleanliness and comfort. Some men’s rooms are now being designed with partitions between individual urinals to try to address the perceived privacy problem.

The article notes that, even in our wide-open culture, there are still many taboos and rigid behavioral norms about using a public bathroom — even though the notion of privacy while excreting is a fairly recent development in the long history of humans. We tend not to talk to anyone when we are inside. We don’t make eye contact with other users, and in fact strive to maintain a state of studied indifference to their very existence. And, of course, we do our best to ignore the sights, smells, and physical conditions in the bathroom and the fact that the facilities are being used by complete strangers for unpleasant but essential bodily functions.

If you use public bathrooms all the time, you incorporate these norms and obey them, accept the fact of bodily imperatives, and forget about it. For some people, that’s harder than for others. So if the guy ahead of you in the line for a urinal at the next Browns game seems to be taking a while, give him a break — he’s probably doing his best while dealing with the weight of some deep-seated psychological issues.

The At The Airport At The End Of A Long Day Roundelay

IMG_20140417_211130I’m at the airport, sad to say
I sing the airport roundelay

I left before the dawn’s first ray
Long hours ago, to my dismay

I’m at the end of a long day
At which I’ve had all work, no play

The seating area has a strong bouquet
The guy next door brought Chipotle

I’m hoping there’s no flight delay
Were I religious, for that I’d pray

So don’t tell me of travel’s cachet
I sing the airport roundelay

Elimination Diets And The Value Of Beans

The latest diet trend, apparently, is the “elimination diet.” I say “apparently” because it’s impossible for an average person to stay on top of dietary fads. Is “juicing” still hot, or have we moved on to the “Dukan diet” or some other variation?

An “elimination diet” is one in which the dieter stops consuming entire categories of foods — say, eggs and dairy products — for a few weeks, to see whether the dietary change causes some positive change in their body condition. If you’ve got a chronic sour stomach or embarrassing gastrointestinal tendencies, maybe ceasing your gluten or nut consumption might help. And, as is always the case with this kind of diet topic, there are enthusiastic proponents of the elimination diet concept who swear that it has dramatically changed their lives for the better.

It’s hard for me to believe that any person who is paying attention isn’t aware of the eventual bodily impact of certain foods. I know that if I eat carryout Chinese food it will suck every ounce of moisture from my body and cause me to wake up the next morning with a mouthful of salt. I know that if I eat chili with beans for lunch my co-workers will want me to stay out of elevators for the rest of the day. I don’t think I need to eliminate entire categories of food to figure out the cause-and-effect chain.

Speaking of beans, they highlight one other problem with the “elimination diet.” A recent study has concluded that eating beans, peas, and other legumes lowers “bad cholesterol,” which is a cardiovascular health marker. In view of the fact that we are regularly bombarded with studies that provide us with often conflicting information about the health effects of eating certain foods — and always at precise portion sizes — how are you supposed to know if your elimination diet has cut out the magical food that might help you avoid a crippling heart attack or diabetes?

I’ve lived long enough to have seen the “food pyramid” revised once or twice, been exposed to countless studies about foods, and seen diet fads go from Scarsdale to Beverly Hills and back again. I’m convinced that if you want to stay trim, the formula is simple — consume in moderation, avoid too many sweets, and get plenty of exercise. For most of us, however, it’s not the plan that’s the problem, it’s the execution.

The Burrower

IMG_1907There must be something about beagles and burrowing. Unlike Penny, who prefers to just plop down wherever and snooze, Kasey will find the nearest blanket or comforter and use her head and paws to burrow down deep and wrap herself up, until she’s as snug as a bug in a rug — even if she ends up hanging off the chair, with head and legs akimbo.

She snores like a longshoreman, too.

When Should Newspapers Use Profanity?

Recently the New York Times carried an interesting opinion piece about when the news media should print profanities, vulgarities, and other offensive terms — the actual words, unmistakably spelled out in black and white, and not euphemisms like the “f-word” or “a racial epithet.”

The writer argues that in modern society the use of profanities has become increasingly commonplace, whether it’s in a diplomatic faux pas or on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and often the use of the word itself is what makes the story newsworthy. Why run the risk that the reader might not actually understand what the word is? In addition, because cuss words have even invaded the titles of books and plays and other literary works, what are newspapers supposed to do when they review those pieces? And the writer also notes that journals in other countries, like England and Australia, are not shy about publishing offensive words in full.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. We’re exposed to more than enough vulgarity in our daily lives — and so are our kids. Why shouldn’t newspapers strive to maintain a semblance of decorum? The fact that powerful people use profanities may be a news story, but that doesn’t mean we need to have a full frontal exposure to the obscenity itself. I don’t buy that there is a risk of confusion about precisely what the offensive word is, either. When people see the “f-word,” they’re not going to think that the article is talking about fracking. And in response to the argument that Aussies and Brits publish offensive words, my mother would ask me if I would jump off a cliff just because all my friends were doing so. I never came up with a good response to her argument.

I’m sure this makes me seem like a fuddy-duddy, an out-of-touch codger who is arguing for a senseless fig leaf that has no place in our hip, wide-open modern world. But I’ve seen how our culture has grown coarser, and coarser, and coarser as my adult years roll by, whether it is shock jocks on radio or sex- and violence-saturated TV programming or stand up comics who routinely use the “seven forbidden words” without the wit of George Carlin. I don’t like the direction we’ve taken, and each little modification seems to open the door to more coarseness to come.

So, I’m willing to draw a line. In my view, newspapers should aspire to a higher standard, and should draw the line to preserve a small enclave of decency and taste in an otherwise obscene world. Leave the profanities for the internet.

Impulse Buying And Gun Sale Billboards

Highway billboards are the prototypical form of impulse purchase advertising. You’re traveling down the road, you see a billboard for a restaurant at the next exit, and you decide in a split-second that it’s time to pull off to get a cheeseburger.

IMG_1902That’s why it’s jarring and unnerving to see gun sale billboards sprouting up on the stretch of I-71 between Columbus to Cincinnati. Are drivers really making spur of the moment decisions to buy firearms when they see a brightly colored “Guns” billboard? Unlike the vast majority of highway billboards, which advertise the availability of fast food, gasoline, or a place for the weary traveler to stay for the night, guns don’t seem to have any connection to the routine needs of a highway driver — unless the guns sales are motivated by the aggressive driving of their fellow motorists. If that’s the case, I need to be a lot more worried about the jerk who has been tailgating me for the last five miles.

According to statistics maintained by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which give you a rough sense of gun ownership in American states, Ohio isn’t one of the biggest gun purchasing states in the country. In 2012, there were 45.65 NICS checks for every 1000 Ohio residents; the highest NICS check state, Kentucky, had 535.78 (!) checks for every 1000 people. Still, I’d like to think that Ohioans who are buying firearms are being thoughtful about what seems like a very significant decision, and not impulsively buying a gun because a passing billboard put the idea in their head.

Snow On Tax Day

When I left the house this morning there were blizzard-like conditions, when only a few hours earlier the temperature was in the 60s. “Why not?” I thought. It’s Tax Day.

IMG_1905As I drove down to Cincinnati, the odor of rubbery, overcooked broccoli somehow started seeping from my car’s ventilation system. After I parked my car in the Queen City I was pushed to the ground by an angry nun, then kicked in the butt by a dwarf dressed up like Uncle Sam. “Why not?” I thought. It’s Tax Day.

At lunch a packet of mustard sprayed all over my favorite tie, and the people the next table over got into a loud and aggressive discussion about whether Al Franken was a more compelling historical figure than Ted Cruz. “Why not?” I thought. It’s Tax Day.

After my meeting was over it rained dead frogs on the way to the car, then a thick plague of locusts descended, turning the daylight to darkness. “Why not?” I thought. It’s Tax Day.

As I drove home, the classic rock station on the car radio played the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. “What the hell?” I thought. I know it’s Tax Day, but playing The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is where I draw the line.

Baited Breath

Today as I was driving home I heard a snippet of a press conference given by a police chief somewhere in America. He was talking about an investigation he was conducting in coordination with the federal government, and reassured citizens that no stone would be left unturned thanks to their “duplicitous” efforts. Sounds like the kind of devastating admission that could be used to good effect by the lawyers who defend whoever gets arrested as a result of that joint investigation!

IMG_1674Of course, the police chief should have said “duplicative” — which is probably what he intended — but he botched it. No doubt he wanted to sound highly educated, but instead he gave people who were paying attention a hearty chuckle at a pretty good malapropism.

I received an even better malapropism recently via email. The emailer said he was waiting for something with “baited breath.” I laughed at that one, and thought of all the witty, fish-related responses that his error made possible. Should I say that when he finally got a response he shouldn’t fall for it hook, line and sinker? Add that I hoped he wouldn’t worm his way out of his responsibilities? Observe that if it didn’t work out there were other fish in the sea? Fret about the possibility that the project might hit a snag?

“Baited breath” — as opposed to bated breath — seemed like an especially succulent metaphor because it conjures up the idea of the speaker eating worms, minnows, and maybe even a little chum and tackle. Alas, it turns out that “baited breath” has become so commonplace that linguists think it might soon become the usual form of the phrase. Horrors! Has illiteracy reeled in and ruined another deft phrase that traces its lineage back to Shakespeare himself?

Books, Books, Authors, Food Trucks, Books

Get out your calendars, your book bags, and your wallets. The 2014 Ohioana Book Festival is less than a month away.

IMG_3700This year’s festival will be held on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at the Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center in downtown Columbus. The doors will open at 10 a.m. and close at 4:30, and in between the readers among us will be able to browse through a wide array of books, meet authors, listen to writers talk about their craft, and enjoy an interesting assortment of food trucks when their physical hunger overwhelms their intellectual curiosity. You can keep track of the authors, and the Festival schedule, here.

If you’re interested in volunteering at the Festival, you can information about available positions and activities here. Book festival volunteers will receive a cool Ohioana Book Festival t-shirt, as well as the undying gratitude of Ohioana staffers and Board members.

My One Visit To A Prison

The other day I drove past Orient, Ohio, the home of the Pickaway Correctional Institution, and I remembered my visit to that facility. It’s the only time I’ve ever been to a prison — and for me that one encounter was more than enough.

It was about 25 years ago, when we were defending a lawsuit brought by a number of siblings. We had to take their depositions, and one of them was in prison at the Orient facility. That meant the deposition would be at the prison. I drew that happy assignment.

I drove down to Orient, which is in a rural county south of Columbus. It’s a basic prison as prisons go, and not one of the maximum security facilities where the most violent and dangerous inmates are housed. Still, there was a lot of security — guard posts and barbed wire fences, going through multiple gates and doors with buzzers and bells and bright lights, showing identification at a series of locations — and I was keenly focused on scrupulously obeying every instruction I received. With the clanging shut of each gate and locked door that I passed through, I felt an oppressive physical and mental impact.

Finally I was inside, in a place where everyone but me, the court reporter, and the other lawyer wore a special outfit. The guards wore their uniforms, and the prisoners wore bright orange jumpsuits. The deposition was in a room off the common eating area, where some prisoners were lingering at tables. We followed a guard to the room, and as we walked through the common area I consciously avoided making eye contact with anyone.

We got to the room, and a guard brought in the deponent. He was a tall young guy, probably around 20, who was in prison for some kind of robbery offense. When the guard escorted him to the room he was handcuffed and wearing the ubiquitous jump suit. I was worried that he would be a glowering, threatening type, but he wasn’t. He answered my questions politely and carefully, without the aggressive attitude I had expected.

When the deposition was over, the guard walked him back to his cell, and the lawyers and court reporter cleared out of there as fast as we could. As I drove through the last gate at the last barbed wire fence, I breathed a sigh of relief. It felt wonderful to be free of that place. I suppose that’s the idea.

Morning Chirps On A Freshening Breeze

IMG_5999Last night it was warm enough for us to risk sleeping with the bedroom windows scrolled open. By the time this morning rolled around, we were treated to a clean, freshening breeze and the delightful sound of birds singing and chirping to greet the new day.

After a long, cold, seemingly endless winter, I’m not sure which was more welcome, but we were glad to have both of them. When you’re cooped up all winter long, the air in the house grows stale, and a morning breeze that brings in fresh air is as much a part of spring cleaning as a broom or a mop. And during the winter our avian friends are nowhere to be seen — or heard. The return of birds, and their birdsong, gives us hope that springtime is here to stay. It makes me feel like going outside, putting my toes on the cool grass, and letting loose with a chirp or two of my own.

Card Sharks

An Atlantic City casino, the Borgata Casino & Spa, has sued a big-time gambler, claiming that he cheated at cards and won $9.6 million playing baccarat in the process. (Those of you who are James Bond fans, like me, will recall that baccarat is 007′s game of choice.)

The casino alleges that the gambler used a method called “edge sorting” that took advantage of defective cards with patterns on the backs that were not uniform. The lawsuit claims that the gambler noticed the defect and got the dealer to arrange and shuffle the cards in a way that allowed him to use the non-uniform patterns to identify which cards were coming out of the dealer’s shoe.

$9.6 million is a lot of money — but it’s got to be embarrassing for a casino to admit that they didn’t detect that they were being provided with defective cards and were duped by this alleged scheme. Don’t casinos, as a matter of course, take steps to make sure that the cards they are using have uniform patterns on the backs?

It reminds me of my high school days, when boys would gather in the “student lounge” during free periods and play euchre. We didn’t gamble for money, but I remember one of my classmates bringing in a deck of “marked” cards and showing us how you could decipher the marks on the back. I never would have noticed the difference — but then I’m not a casino where gamblers have the opportunity to win millions of dollars.

The Bright Universe Below

IMG_1898Astronomers bemoan the amount of light produced by cities and suburbs at night. The bright glow from below interferes with their ability to see the stars above.

I saw a good example of the “light pollution” as I flew into Newark on a clear night earlier this week. Ironically, the light from the houses, parking lots, and shopping centers on the ground reminded me of the stars and constellations of the evening sky.

Let’s Go, Jackets!

Let me say at the outset that I am not a hockey fan. I don’t put an “eh” at the end of every sentence. I don’t know the difference between the red line and the blue line, and I’m lost when someone starts talking about “putting the puck in the five-hole.”

Nevertheless, over the past few weeks I’ve found myself regularly checking the ESPN website for hockey results, and on Wednesday night I actually listened to a hockey broadcast as I drove home from Cincinnati. The Blue Jackets won that game and clinched a playoff spot for only the second time in franchise history. With two games left in the regular season — included tonight’s matchup against Tampa Bay — the CBJ now are hoping to improve their playoff position and avoid a first-round series against either Boston or Pittsburgh, which are the two powerhouse teams in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.

Why do I care? I have a lot of friends who are Blue Jackets fans and season ticket holders who have suffered through some dismal, disappointing seasons since the team first started playing in 2000. I’m happy for them. I’m happy for Columbus, too. Nationwide Arena, where the CBJ skate, is the cornerstone of the Columbus Arena District. We need the team to be successful and prosperous for that area to continue to be a growing, vibrant destination. Playoff games will bring excitement, visitors, and tax revenues that will help fill city coffers. And if the Blue Jackets could make a playoff run, all of those positive benefits would be compounded.

Of course, the only time the Blue Jackets made the playoffs they were swept and out in three games — but that’s ancient history, right? Let’s go, Jackets!

Politicizing The IRS

Ask Americans which federal agency they fear the most, and many are likely to say it’s the Internal Revenue Service. Every year, Americans send in their federal tax filings by the April 15 deadline — which is only four days away, folks — and we’ve all heard stories about tax liabilities, painful audits, and the IRS taking people’s houses on those urgent tax-preparer and tax-problem-solver radio and late-night TV commercials.

That backdrop of angst is what makes the current issues about a politicized IRS so troubling. On Wednesday, the Office of Special Counsel, which is responsible for investigating allegations that federal employees violated federal law that bars them from engaging in partisan campaign activities, announced that it had found improper political activity by IRS employees. The activities included official telephone calls with taxpayers in which IRS employees explicitly promoted President Obama’s reelection and criticized Republicans.

Also on Wednesday, a House Committee investigating allegations that the IRS targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for special scrutiny released emails showing that former IRS official Lois Lerner mentioned the possibility of getting a job with Organizing for Action, an offshoot of President Obama’s reelection campaign. Lerner’s email statement may have been an ill-advised joke, but we can’t know for sure because she has invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify about her activities beyond making a general statement that she has done nothing wrong. Another unanswered allegation is that the IRS leaked a conservative group’s application for tax-exempt status to an investigative website. The IRS targeting allegations have caused the House Ways and Means Committee to recommend that the Justice Department prosecute Lerner, and Lerner’s refusal to answer questions has caused the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to vote to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress. The actions of the two House Committees, it should be added, were taken on straight party-line votes — which only adds to the partisan odor.

Has the IRS become politicized? That’s an important question for everyone, regardless of their political inclinations. Through their tax filings, Americans provide the IRS with huge amounts of otherwise highly confidential information each year — about what they own, what they’ve earned, the charities they help fund, and the causes and candidates they support. Americans need to be able to trust that that information will be kept private and won’t be used for political purposes or to single out people or groups for adverse treatment. The disclosures about political activities by IRS officials and line employees, and the fact that Republicans and Democrats can’t agree about how to investigate the targeting allegations, are bound to erode that essential trust. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you are a taxpayer that is a very unsettling development.