Ever Pick Your Toes in Poughkeepsie?

There is a poignant scene in the 1971 movie “The French Connection” where Gene Hackman as Detective “Popeye” Doyle chases down a suspect and asks “did you ever pick your toes in Poughkeepsie?” The question wasn’t meant to be funny.  The reason for doing so was to disorient the subject and change the situational dynamic. Next time you have a disagreement with someone, ask a random – unrelated – question (at the right moment of course). And see what happens.   

When you read of the failures of our prison system and the collateral damage of incarceration, you wonder if changing the dynamics of rehabilitation might provide better result.   Breaking the patterns of troubled youth might be just the ticket.  For first and even second offenders, this could include mandatory programs for:

Socialization — Learning to sing, act, dance, debate, do stand-up comedy, counseling others, and so on;

Scholastic — The reading, writing and arithmetic but also languages, computer programming and skills like cooking;

Discipline — Toeing the line.  You’re in the program and you cooperate;

Sports — Learning the atypical:  golf, tennis, skiing, squash, handball (no basketball or football);

Responsibility — Caring for plants and animals; working with therapy dogs; visiting senior centers; getting jobs;

Nutrition — Just that.  Not just eating healthy but learning why you eat healthy. 

You read of boot camps where young offenders are pushed by drill instructors.  They do pushups, lift weights and toe the line — just like they would in prison.  But just think about getting young men to learn ballet, play golf, prepare spaghetti carbonara or perform in a Shakespearean drama.

It seems to me that modifying situational dynamics for a lot of things (marriage, politics, parenting, academics, business) may provide enhanced levels of success.  Creative thinking – inside and outside the box – is usually worth the effort.             

Protecting versus Insulating Children

When I was 10 years old, my parents put me on a train – with 4 other 10 to 12 year old boys including my friend Kurt – headed for Denver, Colorado. We were going to a camp in Estes Park.  Skyline Ranch.  The  five of us were alone.  No adult supervision.  My father admonished “don’t get off the train ’til Denver.”  That was it. 

Once there, every day, I rode horses, shot BB guns, hiked, swam and shoveled sand. Yes – sand. After winning a junior rodeo, I was given the task with Marvin B. (also 10) of rounding up the horses each morning.   We had to rise at 5:30 a.m., walk out past the corral, fence off a dirt road and walk into a high plains pasture of several hundred acres. There were cows, horses and a bull. “Flap your poncho at the bull if he charges you” was our advice. So two 10 year old boys headed off alone on foot into the high grass, looking for horses in the gray mist of dawn.

The cows paid us little mind.  The bull mercifully stayed away (“it’s those punks“).  When the dozen or so horses would see us, they would cock their ears back (“danger”) then forward (“huh”?) then normal (“oh it’s them“) and begin galloping past us toward the corral. They knew we would feed them. So we hiked the mile or so back to the corral with a weather eye on the bull – who kept a weather eye on us. All the horses – Arab, Bubbles, Dakota, Eagle, Indian and the others – would be standing at parade rest in the corral. Marvin and I would put 2 cups of oats in each feed bag and slip it over their ears. Then we’d lead them (“come on Bubbles“) to the fence, tether and saddle them.  No adults were even around. 

It seems that kids today have a little tougher time developing independence.  You don’t need to do it on a ranch – at dawn.  With a 900 pound bull giving you the evil eye.  But I believe there have to be challenges for kids to face or they will have trouble as adults.  Today, we move in the direction of no grades (“oooh – it can damage ego“), helmets for everything, no playing tag (“too rough“), no dodge ball (“too violent“), no pointing your finger like a gun (“eeek!”), teachers cannot raise their voice at or touch a child (“don’t you dare raise your voice to my little Dwarfus”), and of course no – often deserved – corporal punishment (see posts of 11/23/11 and 2/1/12).  It’s one thing to protect.  It’s quite another to insulate.  As I see it, insulating kids from developing independence and resourcefulness has negative result in the long run.     

How Children Succeed

I just finished a wonderful book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, a journalist and former editor of the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Tough addresses the controversial question of why there is an achievement gap between underprivileged students – and those who aren’t. 

The quick answer is that most educators believe that academic success relates to cognitive skills – the kind of “intelligence” that can be measured on IQ tests. However more and more, there is an understanding that non-cognitive skills (curiosity, socialization, character, self control, self confidence and “grit”) are better predictors of academic achievement.  The success of a student has less to do with “smarts” than with more ordinary personality traits such as the ability to stay focused and to control impulses. 

Non-cognitive skills  – such as persistence and curiosity – can actually predict future success.  College graduates who participated in New York’s KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Program”) were not so much the academic stars but the ones who plugged away at problems and resolved to improve themselves.  Grit. 

Are we surprised that children who grow up in abusive or dysfunctional environments statistically have more trouble concentrating, sitting still or rebounding from disappointments?  There is neurological/medical reason for this.  The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which regulates thoughts and behavior.  When this region is damaged, a condition that often occurs in children living in the pressures of poverty, it is tougher to suppress unproductive instincts.  Studies show that early nurturing from parents combats the biochemical effects of stress.  The prefrontal cortex then becomes more responsive to intervention and the learning of essential non-cognitive skills.

While throwing money at the problem is always viewed as a solution, psychological intervention may be a better remedy.  KIPP is now experimenting with “character” report cards – designed to show students that such traits can improve with time.  For any educator, this 197 page book is a must read.   

Symmetrical Socks

Over the years, I have gotten so many different pairs of socks. All colors. Different styles, some high, some low, different shades of black, blue and whatever.  I have them all in a single “sock drawer” in my closet.  I get up in the dark of morning.  I have my cereal, blueberries and coffee then stumble up to shave and shower.  Then the challenge begins.  Finding two socks that match.  Now mind you, Donna and/or I will both fold laundry and squinch two socks into what seems to be a pair.  Great effort is expended in this regard.  Holding them up to the light.  Waiting until it’s sunny.  However, when I put on two socks in the morning, I sometimes find that I have a knee length sock on one foot and a sock that wouldn’t fit Tinkerbell on the other.  Great.  So I unsquinch another pair that looks similar only to find that one is dark blue and the other a mid-length black.  After several rounds of this, I come up with two socks that look alike.  And put them on.  My feet silently complain – they ain’t the same smart guy.  But I put on my shoes and go off to work.  I leave the unsquinched socks laying in the sock drawer waiting for the weekend for rehabilitation.   

Enough is enough.  This morning, I told Donna I plan to give all my socks to the Church rummage and start from scratch.  Go buy all new socks.  All the same kind, the same size, same style.  And with clearly discernible colors.  Black is black.  Blue is blue.  Pink is pink.   Anyway, I took the first step.  Mental resolution.  To “fix” this situation.  Buy new socks.  Donate the old ones.  It may take a while.  Maybe years.  But at least I now have a plan.     

The New Testament

In my post of June 11, 2012, I talked about having finished reading the Old Testament.  I referenced some of my favorite verses therein (especially a quote from my father of the bride speech at Lauren’s wedding).  Well I’ve just finished reading the New Testament.  Again.  Quite a trip.  The Gospels are interesting and inspiring as they have been forever.  But there are some verses which I just had to write down.  Because sometimes one needs “special” inspiration.   

I Timothy 5:23 gives sage counsel:  “Drink no longer water but a little wine for thy stomach’s sake. . . .”    So who doesn’t feel obliged to have a little red wine (maybe a nice Bacio Divino cab) now and then? 

I Timothy 4:8 admonishes that “. . . bodily training is of some value.”  So I (sigh) feel the push to go to the fitness center a few times a week.

Which leads to the whole reason for a personal trainer.  I mean it’s right there in Hebrews 12:12 “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees. . . .” 

But let me be serious too.  There is one very special chapter – that I discovered on a particularly gray day in 1969.  It is I Corinthians 3.  I’m no theologian and you will rightly conclude that I am unqualified to offer incisive comment on the subject of faith.  But for me, most everything in Christianity distills in these 23 verses.  I can read this chapter over and over.  It is an old friend.  I find peace.  And I find calm.  And faith.  If you read it, I hope you will too.

“Scott’s Knees”

As a follow up to my “Personal Trainer” post of a few days ago, this is probably a good way to describe what’s going on. 

“Scott’s Knees” — A Play in One Act

Right Knee:  What the heck is he doing to us?
Left Knee:  He’s a nut.  He’s pushing me to the limit.  I’ve had enough.  Enough!   
Right Knee:  Who is it that’s pushing him? 
Left Knee:  It’s that “personal trainer”. . .
Heart:  (Enters)  Hey guys – cool it.  I’m okay with this.  I really feel for you but knock it off.  You’ve caused enough trouble.   
Left Knee:  But Boss (thinking) . . . . it’s the feet.  It’s their fault.
Feet:  (From offstage)  Huh?  Whuh?   
Heart:  Take it easy guys.  I’ll talk to . . .
BrainAhemmm . . . . Is there a problem here? 
Heart:  No – we’re just kinda talking, Sir.
Left Knee:  (Filling with fluid from fright)  Yeah . . . I mean yes.  I mean yes Sir.
Brain:  (Angrily)  I want him to exercise you two troublemakers.  And don’t give him any problems.  Remember – you can be replaced.  Capisce? 
Left Knee:  Okay okay. . . Sir.
Brain:  Right knee? 
Right Knee:  Yessir.  I’ll be good.  Promise. 
Brain:  Okay.  ‘Nuf said.  And Heart – you keep pumping and keep those two weaklings happy.
Heart:  (Pumping vigorously)  Will do.  Sir! 
Brain:  Thank you.  Now if you don’t mind, I have got work to do.  I have to help cook dinner (exits).
Curtain