Archive for May, 2010


by Ruth Minshull

I listen to a local radio host who often precedes a break by saying, “We’ll be back in a couple of moments.”

Now, I’d like to know just how long that is.

My dictionary says that a moment is a tiny portion of time.

So, does that mean that a couple of moments are twice as tiny or twice as long?  In any case, how exactly do you halve or double a tiny indefinite portion?

I’m left to ponder why anyone would want to modify an already indeterminate amount?

People also like to improve on superlatives.  I used to know a woman who would say that something was “very excellent.”  The dictionary claims that excellent refers to an item of the highest or finest quality.  When I try to envision anything that is finer than the finest, my head starts to spin.

I think the hair spray makers have carried this “topping the top” thing farther than anybody.  Many years ago, they started out with only one kind of spray.  Then they offered greater and greater degrees of holding power, to which they gave ambiguous names such as “EXTRA HOLD,” “ULTRA HOLD,” “SUPER HOLD” and “MEGA HOLD” (in some order or other).  When they ran out of hefty synonyms, they began showing a number on each canister, starting with “1” (that’s the weakest–and very hard to find) and going on up.  I don’t know what the highest number is right now (INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH HOLD?) but it’s for people who never plan to comb their hair again.  They’ll probably have to saw it off when they’re done with it.

Then, we’ve all heard the commercial that calls its product the “very best.”  Since best means “excelling all others” how much better is the very best?  Maybe these people are in on a secret that the rest of us missed.

Could it be that you can also get bigger than the biggest? more than the most?  Is there something beyond infinity?

If so, then I’d better restate my goals so that they are more perfectly clear.

I would like to have an ultra, super, magna, mega life with the very very most of more than everything–and I want it all in half a moment.

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©2010 by Ruth Minshull

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By Ruth Minshull

We constantly hear about the many forms of insanity and aberration.  We toss the descriptive phrases around as if we’d learned them in kindergarten:  paranoia, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Type A, B and AB behavior.

And, of course, there’s a phobia to match half the words, objects, varmints and moon beams on the planet—and we don them proudly.

It’s enough to make you wonder if anyone is truly sane.

What is the opposite of loony?  Have the shrinks ever taken time out from cataloging our derangements to study and define sanity?

One dictionary asserts that sanity is “the lack of insanity.” Another was equally bereft of facts:  “the quality or condition of being sane.”

These revolving definitions leave us with the question:  would we recognize sanity if we saw it?  How can we strive for it if we don’t even know what it is?

Well, I think one person has recognized and defined the ultimate sanity:  Al Siebert, PhD in a book called The Survivor Personality.  While he doesn’t use the word “sanity,” his book describes in detail the characteristics of people who are stronger, smarter and more skillful at handling life’s difficulties and challenges.

If asked “What do you really want?” we might say we want a jazzy sports car, to start a rock band, to run away and join the circus, to hit a home run out of Yankee Stadium, star in our own reality show or be as thin as Calista Flockhart.

But senior to all other desires, the strongest motivation of every life form (from amoebae to parsnips) is simply to survive.

Well, duh.

I know, it’s so basic, so tacitly understood, that most of us wouldn’t even enter it on our want list.

Yet, survival isn’t something we should take for granted.  Some are better at it than others.  Two people might be exposed to the same devastating experience.  One may endure it and emerge with a positive outlook, having benefitted from the challenge.  Another might die or, years later, be still crouching in the corner mewling, “Why me?”

The Survivor Personality was published in 1993, but its information is as pertinent today as it was then.

As a psychologist, Dr. Siebert spent over 40 years studying people who were survivors of torture, accidents, life-threatening illness, losses, disasters, prison camps, plane crashes and other distressing experiences.  In each case, they had overcome traumatic hardships by their own personal efforts and emerged with newly discovered strengths and abilities.  Afterward these people, every one of them, said that the experience had been valuable to them.

The book is a compilation of their stories and the characteristics these remarkable people have in common.  More than anything, The Survivor Personality is a guidebook, a study in sanity.  What could be more sane than surviving against great odds?

Of course, a turtle or a turnip might be satisfied with merely surviving, but we mortals want more than that.  We want to thrive.  We want some laughs, some thrills, some challenging work, some triumphs, some warm-hearted companionship.  Some stuff.

Dr. Siebert’s book is more than a manual on how to cope if your plane has to make an emergency landing in the middle of the Amazon forest.  It’s a guide to living a good life in general.  At some time, most of us are faced with emergencies, setbacks and disappointments.  The important thing is that we don’t give up.  We take a deep breath and look for solutions.  It also helps to know the characteristics we need in order to be more capable when we encounter reversals—major or minor.

Dr. Siebert says that the qualities of the survivor can be learned, but they cannot be taught.  An intriguing distinction.

So, in the midst of all the whackos, fruitcakes and ding-a-lings around us on this planetary funny farm, we find a few exceptionally sane individuals who have undergone extreme tests of courage and endurance to emerge as level-headed, capable individuals—exemplary people.

The survivors.

Primarily, Dr. Siebert discovered, such people are flexible and resilient.  They can adapt to a given situation.  They’re well-adjusted, have a sense of humor and enjoy life.  They are not the drama queens who squeeze every gasp of histrionics out of a situation, rather than facing reality and finding solutions.

Some lazy writers like to pigeonhole people:  the baby boomers, hippies, yuppies, the “me” generation, the “now” generation, Generation X, Generation Y (or Millenials or Echo Boomers) and now Generation Z.  They seem to think we’re all born in pre-programmed clumps every ten years.

Survivors defy such simplistic classifications.  They may be strong yet gentle, mature but playful, humorous and serious, extroverted and introverted, proud and humble, creative and logical.  They are not likely to be hard-core conservatives or bleeding-heart liberals.  While they may vote for a certain party, it’s likely that they will share many viewpoints with the other side.  They are neither too dependent nor too independent.

Labels don’t describe them.  They are not comfortable with a magazine quiz that queries:  Are you a pessimist or an optimist?  Are you critical or non-judgmental?  Are you confident or self-doubting?

Where most dichotomies are concerned, survivors may be either, both or neither—at any given time.  They’re flexible.

“Ugh!  I would never do that—no matter what!”  My friend, Julie, was emphatic.  I had just told her about World War II POWs who had to eat food containing maggots and weevils in order to survive.  Some of those POWs died because they refused to eat.

Now, maggots and weevils are not my idea of haute cuisine.  And if the queen should drop in for dinner some evening, I’m not going to offer her an appetizer of creepy crawly things (even if she begs for them).

But if it comes down to raw survival, I won’t say “never.”  I think I would opt to survive.  In my mind, it sure beats the alternative.

Charles Darwin, who knew a lot about the subject, summed the matter up quite well when he said:  “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent—it is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

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©2010 by Ruth Minshull

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By Ruth Minshull

Both cats eagerly circled around my legs as I dished up their morning treat.  I placed the bowl on the floor and they began munching enthusiastically.  There was nothing unusual about the dry food I gave them—except that it was a different brand than their regular fare—and I gave them a small amount every morning after my breakfast.

I could probably reverse the procedure.  That is, give them the “special” food regularly and reserve the “regular” food for “treat” time.  It wasn’t the food that mattered; it was the routine.  The ritual.  And, most of all, the significance.  It’s treat time!

As a child I played make-believe with two playmates.  We used scraps of paper for money; marbles became gemstones; and certain flowering weeds were transformed into rare orchids.  I remember passionately bargaining over the “moonstone”, the “cats-eye” and other coveted jewels.  I can’t recall just how we managed to get extended play out of this commerce, but we did.  When we finished for the day, the box of gems became mere marbles; the money was again useless paper; the wilted blossoms were tossed aside.

Their significance was gone.

Today we still play the game of attaching importance to objects.  Sometimes it’s meaningful only to us as individuals—a keepsake, a reminder of good times.  Perhaps it’s significant to a group or a nation (a flag, a monument, the location of a past event).  And often the significance is more universal: gold, diamonds, money.  These are valuable because we all agree that they are.  We assign this significance to them.

If we found ourselves alone on a deserted island, a pocketful of money would be worth nothing (except, perhaps, to use with kindling for a fire).  Our “currency” would become food, shelter, survival skills.

But in our affluent society today we assign great significance and value to all sorts of inanimate objects.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of collectibles.

I work part time as a Website analyst for a large auction house, and I am repeatedly amazed at the value collectors place on items such as old books, manuscripts, coins, currency, comics, paintings, decorative art, furniture, sports memorabilia, political artifacts, stamps, antique jewelry, timepieces, movie posters, entertainment and music memorabilia.

Different degrees of significance are attached to each lot.  Condition, rarity, demand and provenance all play a part in determining the value of any collectible.

Between the 1970’s and 1980’s you could buy movie posters for $10 to $20.  Theater owners often threw them out.  But in more recent times, Hollywood collectibles have been discovered.  Last year a Carole Lombard poster (purchased in 1994 for $4,600) sold for $47,800.  But that’s just pocket change if you consider that another poster, a rare one for “Bride of Frankenstein,” went for a $335,000.

A serving bowl from a set of china once owned by James Madison went up for auction.  The service was purchased in 1806 when Madison was Secretary of State and was believed to have been used in the White House following reconstruction (after the British burned it in 1814).  The bowl sold for $17,925.  One bowl!

A hat worn by Babe Ruth fetched $131,000, and a jersey worn by the Babe went for a whopping $657,000.  A comic book sold for $179,250.  An astronaut’s flight suit patch was purchased for $56,750.  A fielder’s glove used by Sandy Koufax brought in $74,688.  A rare Michael Jordan baseball card realized $7,170.

Recently I read the words:  “The soft rosy glow feathers out of the delicate lavender and melts into shimmering gold near the border…”  Was this the description of a gorgeous sunset?  No.  It was the catalog listing of a rare coin and its colorful patina.  In plain words, it was an old, tarnished piece of metal, originally worth one dollar, but would now sell for several thousand.  Incidentally, if the coin had been cleaned of its oxidation by some clueless ignoramus, it would be valued at only a fraction of the toned example.

Rare coins range in market price from a few dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the condition, demand and rarity.  Now and then, however, one coin will have a special significance attached to it.  Such a coin is the 1804 Silver Dollar, called the “King of Coins” which sold recently for $2.3 million.  While other coins are rarer (This one has a population of 15 known.) and a few have fetched more money, this is the most famous coin ever struck at a U. S. mint—a fact that has been documented for more than 150 years.  B. Max Mehl (a well-known numismatist) once wrote: “In all of numismatics of the entire world, there is not today and there never has been a single coin which was and is the subject of so much romance, interest, comment, and upon which so much has been written and so much talked about and discussed as the United States silver dollar of 1804.”

Why?  Well, significance, I guess.

Civil War memorabilia are highly prized.  The personal battle flag of Confederate General Jeb Stuart sold at auction for $956,000.00.  While some might see it as a tattered old rag, others, obviously, do not.

A Bobby Hull championship ring is being offered for an expected $2,000-$4,000, even though it has a “faux” diamond.  In fact, it’s a faux ring—made up as a salesman’s sample.  Mr. Hull never wore it.  (Note:  as the price of an object goes up, “fake” turns to “faux”.)  Still, it’s considered a steal at that price.  The real champ rings generally go for around $100,000.

When it comes to a game-worn jersey, condition (as with most collectibles) is the major issue.  In this case, however, we’re not looking for pristine or “uncirculated” (as we would with a coin).  No, we want to know it was worn.  “Wear is light, but definite” denotes the optimum acquisition.  One jersey is expected to sell for $8000-$12,000.  The description enthuses: “Wear is fantastic…turn the jersey inside out and you’ll find a dozen little patches of team repairs…”  For hockey players, the jerseys that show signs of blade cuts and scuffling add considerable panache (and fetch a better price)—especially if worn by a well-known player, such as Marcel Dionne.

While perusing a historical auction site, I was looking at various fossils when I learned that even dung is worth something—if it’s old enough.  They were offering “fossilized excrement,” although it had been sanitized by a new word:  “coprolite”.  I managed to restrain myself from exploring all the possible comments I could make on this subject.  That is, until I came to the next lot, which offered:  “massive dinosaur droppings.”   How could anyone resist a bid or two on such a treasure?  That would certainly give you bragging rights among your friends.   How many people do you know with such a coffee table “conversation piece”?

Most of us have some things to which we have attached great significance.

One summer my son and his wife brought up a huge box of toys for their boy’s entertainment while on vacation here.  My grandson, however, found a piece of driftwood that he employed in countless make-believe games.  “Don’t throw that away, Grandma,” he warned, “that’s my gun.”  He played with that driftwood every day of his stay.  Abandoned on the day he left, it lost the special significance, and once again became a lowly piece of driftwood.

Some years ago, I was helping my mother-in-law pack for a major move.  As I was cleaning out a buffet drawer, I picked up a battered pencil stub and prepared to throw it away.  “Oh, don’t throw that out!” my mother-in-law cautioned.  The ugly little stub, it seemed, had belonged to her uncle, a composer, and he had used it in writing music.  Oops! I guess one woman’s rubbish is another woman’s precious memento.

I saw a TV drama about a wealthy man who purchased a costly painting and had a skilled painter make two duplicates.  The painter placed a tiny clue in each of his creations, which allowed him (and only him) to identify the fakes.  As the various plot twists centered around the paintings being stolen, recovered, switched and fought over, I marveled at the manner in which the same painting could be considered a treasure one minute and rubbish the next—depending on whether it was believed to be the original or a mere duplicate.

In real life, it seems, some museum curators have been fooled by fake “masters”.  To their chagrin, they ultimately found that their priceless acquisitions had become worthless overnight.  So, even when it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it could be only a cheap decoy.

I should have saved those old marbles.  They’d be antiques now, and that “moonstone” could be worth more than the real gem.

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©2010 by Ruth Minshull

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