Need a Hug? Wear the Like-A-Hug Vest

Originally published on the Laughing Stalk humor blog.

I’m a hugger.

I like hugging people when I greet them, assuming I know them fairly well. People I know less well get a firm, but warm handshake. I appreciate physical contact among friends and family. The pat on the back. The reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. The high five.

And the hug.

I believe that nothing can replace the warmth of physical contact, and even in the growing world of social media — online networking, remote relationships, and video phone calls — physical touch is very important. It’s what makes us feel loved and special.

So I was more than a little disturbed by the story in The (London) Guardian about the new Like-A-Hug vest invented by a group of MIT students who apparently never got enough hugs when they were kids.

Like-A-Hug Vest

Like-A-Hug Vest by Melissa Kit Chow, melissakitchow.com

Whenever you get a “Like” from someone on Facebook, the Like-A-Hug vest will inflate like a life jacket and “hug” you. When a friend likes a status update you made, a comment, a photo, or a video, you’ll “feel the warmth, encouragement, support or love that we feel when we receive hugs,” team member Melissa Kit Chow told the Guardian.

The team developed the Like-A-Hug as part of an exercise in tactile shape display, technology that lets you feel a touch normally given in a virtual or online environment. In other words, if someone “touched” you online, you’d feel it in the real world.

“We came up with the concept over a casual conversation about long-distance relationships and the limitations of video chat interfaces like Skype,” said Chow. “The concept of telepresence arose, and we toyed with the idea of receiving hugs via wireless technology.”

The team is still working on what the vest will do for other Facebook interactions, like when your status updates and photos are “shared.” What happens if someone “follows” your status updates? Do you get a tingling up your spine? And what happens if you get “poked?”

If you’re like me, you just started giggling about “poking.”

And with Facebook’s proposed new “want” button, just what exactly would that entail?

Many social media haters have complained that social networking is taking the place of good old-fashioned human interaction, and secludes us from each other. While social media has actually had the opposite effect — by deepening relationships much faster and creating new ones that never would have existed — I have to admit the Like-A-Vest is a big weapon in the haters’ arsenal. A big, warm fuzzy weapon that cradles you in its warm embrace.

It’s not lost on me that the people who developed the hugging vest are probably among the same group of people — computer nerds — who are renowned for avoiding real-world human interaction, and instead flock to their computers for emotional support and human companionship, and end up secretly, desperately craving physical human contact.

So instead of spending time in a coffee shop, bar, networking group, or social event trying to meet real people they can get to know in real life, they instead spent all their time in a lab creating a vest that simulates the warm huggy feeling everyone else gets because they spent their time meeting people in coffee shops, bars, networking groups, and social events.

Irony, thy name is Like-A-Vest.

But while I think the whole idea of getting fake hugs from a puffy vest is silly, especially when I get real hugs from real people, I do like the idea of clothing where the wearers can get tactice feedback remotely.

For example, football players can receive a congratulatory pat on the butt from a coach with their Pat-A-Butt pants, without the coach ever having to actually touch a player’s sweaty butt. Dogs could wear little vests called Pet-A-Dog, which allergic people could use to still own dogs. And mama’s boys could wear it on their honeymoon so their moms can continue to maintain a stranglehold on their man-child, protecting him from that “evil harpy.”

While I would never begrudge anyone a hug — assuming they weren’t, you know, icky or anything — or even the technology to simulate hugs, I would like to encourage anyone who is considering the Like-A-Vest to go outside. Talk to some real people. Make some real life friends who will give you real life hugs.

Because the ones called @HawtPartyGurl93 don’t seem like the kind of people you want to hug in real life.

Confessions of a Frightened 12-Year-Old

This was originally posted on Erik Deckers’ Laughing Stalk humor blog.

I spent most of my pre-teen childhood afraid of almost everything. Afraid of the Cold War. Afraid of rock musicians and their drug-addled fans. Afraid of being eaten by sharks, even in swimming pools. Afraid of being hit by cars (which I was once). Afraid of the song “Hotel California,” the beast they couldn’t kill, and the ghost of the guy’s wife who hadn’t been around since 1969.

One thing that scared me were the drug scare films they showed us in 6th grade to keep us from using drugs. These had been made in the early 1970s to show kids what would happen if they took drugs.

You would die.

Drugs, said the films, would make you freak out and have horrible screaming fits about psychedelic monsters trying to steal your face. Or they would make you think you could fly, and you’d climb on top of a building to try it, only to realize halfway down that things weren’t going according to plan.

These films filled me with a sense of dread that stayed with me for weeks after watching them, and I spent a lot my 6th grade year worrying that I was going to die from accidentally injecting myself with heroin, and becoming another statistic for drug film makers to use in their next round of scare films. (Okay, this one isn’t that scary.)

Or being eaten by sharks.

You can imagine my terror when I was 12 years old, and I found out my best friend, Doug, who was 13, had started smoking pot. I was convinced he would be dead soon.

After all, that’s what the drug films said would happen. Take drugs, think you can fly, and jump off a building.

This was not really a problem in Muncie, Indiana, because the tallest building in my part of town was my elementary school. We also didn’t have sharks. There was the Muncie Mall, which is 30 feet high, but it’s nearly impossible to climb.

However, as the drug films taught us, if kids even smoked pot, they would ride their bike the five miles to the mall, find a way to climb on the roof, and jump, much to the horror of their classmates who had all gathered to watch what would happen.

And yet, there was my friend, Doug, smoking pot with his druggie friends, completely oblivious to what awaited him. We called anyone who smoked pot “druggies,” convinced they were dirty hippies who wanted to get kids to try drugs so they could be turned into Communist hippies and undermine the American way of life.

I’m proud to say I refused all marijuana that was presented to me, turning down any offers of bongs, joints, pipes, or other paraphernalia. (I didn’t try pot until much later, when I was in college. Unless my parents are reading this. Then I never tried it in college either.)

For one thing, it smelled awful, like someone had stuffed a dead skunk into a tire, and set the entire thing on fire.

Not that his parents would notice the smell. His mom drank and smoked a lot, and never even smelled when the family dog had crapped on the floor. And I was convinced his dad was crazy and out of touch with reality. I based that on the fact that the only time he smelled anything we did was when we tried to set a chemistry experiment on fire in his basement.

All I knew was that I had to be hyper-vigilant, ready to wrestle my friend to the ground if he showed any signs of wanting to fly.

His disreputable, druggie friends could go jump in front of a bus for all I cared. I just didn’t want my best friend’s last words to be, “No, really! I can do it!” before he leapt off his ranch house into the muddy back yard, yet another victim of the pot that had cut short or ruined so many young lives, like the drug films said would happen if I ever smoked it.

After a couple of years of Doug and his pot-smoking friends not trying to kill themselves, I began to wonder if the drug films had exaggerated just a little bit. I still wasn’t trying it, but I began to relax and decided to let down my guard against anyone trying to fly.

I also decided that many of my other fears were probably unfounded as well, and that the things that had frightened me before were nothing but the product of a kid’s overactive imagination.

And then Friday the 13th came out.

Zero Tolerance Bullying Withers Under Scrutiny

Zero Tolerance is a festering mold that’s destroyed when its putrid nature is exposed to the disinfecting power of the sun.

We saw that festering mold destroyed this past week here in Central Indiana, after an outrageous suspension of more than 50 high school students was lifted, following protests, laser-guided media scrutiny, and national mockery of the situation.

This past Tuesday, in the town of Clayton, west of Indianapolis, six Cascade High School students were suspended after a prank of decorating their school with 11,000 Post-It Notes the previous night.Post-It Notes fill Cascade high school door

District superintendent Patrick Spray, who has apparently forgotten what it was like to be in high school, was outraged — OUTRAGED! — that students would pull such a prank. So he suspended the kids, including the valedictorian, salutatorian, and senior class president, for trespassing, entering the school without permission, and for being unsupervised while on school grounds.

Actually that’s not true, said the students. They got permission and a key from a school board member, who’s also one of the students’ mother. And they were supervised by a school janitor, who’s also the mother of one of the students.

Oh really? said Spray, and then fired the janitor, Kim Rouse.

Dude, it’s Post-It Notes. It’s 11,000 Post-It Notes that the kids paid for themselves. They even made sure to pull a prank that wouldn’t damage school property. It sounds like he was just upset because he looked like an idiot when the kids pointed out that they never actually violated those rules.

The following day, after 57 more students peacefully protested the suspensions, Spray realized he overstepped his bounds and behaved irrationally, so he apologized to everyone, and promised Rouse she could have her job back.

Just kidding. He suspended every protestor. And with 460 students in the high school, Spray — an education professional who probably uses phrases like “disrupting the educational process” — disrupted the educational process of more than 10 per cent of his students, thus ensuring the rest of the school wouldn’t pay attention either.

Even on my best day as a fourth grader, I could only disrupt the educational process of 20 other kids. This guy managed to do it to an audience 23 times the size of mine with slightly less dramatic histrionics. Trés impressive.

Because if there’s one lesson we want to teach our children, it’s that the only way you can assert your power is to be a petty little tyrant who throws a big hissy fit when he’s made to look like a bigger idiot than he was the day before.

But bullies, like festering molds, cannot stand the harsh sunlight of public scrutiny and awareness. And as the outrage grew, and a lot of media people and concerned parents began to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions — like “Really?” and “Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” — Spray backtracked, and lifted the suspension of the Post-It Six. He also removed the suspension from their academic records, and they were allowed to return to class.

He was originally going to reduce the suspension of the remaining protestors from two days to one, and let them serve it during school. But by Thursday, Spray said he would vacate their suspensions as well, and the suspensions would not be placed on their academic records either.

Do you remember that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when Principal Rooney was facing complete and utter failure to catch Bueller skipping school, and instead had to ride the bus home with a bunch of mouth-breathing kids?

Yeah, I’ll bet it was kind of like that for Spray. I can’t imagine the bitterness he had to swallow when he met with the concerned parents who thought he was a bullying little tyrant overstepping the bounds of decency and sanity.

Spray has said he will still recommend to the board that they fire Kim Rouse, the janitor, but from all reports, the board has indicated they won’t go along with that, which will be one more feather in Spray’s Big Cap O’ Failure.

While all hindsight is 20/20, it looks like Spray should have just forced a grudging smile, lectured the kids about respect for property, and let them clean up the mess, like they originally offered. Then none of this would have ever happened.

Instead, for the next several years, Patrick Spray will be remembered as the Zero Tolerance despot who was beaten by a small group of thoughtful, committed high school kids who did the one thing that many schools still don’t teach:

To stand up to bullies on behalf of those who can’t.

Schools Cancel Bake Sales, Fun

School after school are overstepping their bounds, interfering in people’s personal lives and liberties, practicing the dark art of behalfism.

Behalfism is when a small vocal group tries to speak on behalf of another group that really doesn’t want or need it.

In this case, schools are canceling their bake sale fund raisers, because administrators are concerned about childhood obesity. According to a recent story on National Public Radio, schools are so concerned about childhood obesity, they think that if they can cancel their once-a-year bake sale, they can somehow overcome it. In fact, schools in California, Texas, and New York are limiting bake sales to only healthy food.

Collection of cakes

Aww, I can't stay mad at you.

Because if there’s one thing parents want to buy to help their child’s school, it’s a low-fat vinaigrette salad and organic gluten-free organic soy milk muffins. With raisins.

Before I go on, let me say that I recognize the seriousness of childhood obesity. I’m not “for” it, or arguing that it’s not a problem. I believe kids should go outside and play, not eat junk food, and limit their TV and video game time. So I believe it’s serious.

But I don’t think one bake sale a year, where parents will buy one cake or one plate of cookies, is going to result in obese children.

What I do object to is when the very group of of people that cancel a bake sale to keep kids from getting fat also cut PE classes and recess, which also kept kids from getting fat. While most schools still have PE classes and recess, many of them are reducing the amount of time they last, and are not allowing kids to ride their bikes or walk to and from school.

When I was a kid, we had two recesses a day, PE class two to three times a week, and I rode or walked to school nearly every day. There were no rules about riding or walking (not like the schools where I live), gym was considered an important part of our education, and we played outside without any rules against running or playing certain types of games.

It’s rather disingenuous of a school to cancel a bake sale in the name of childhood obesity, when they also eliminated and overturned the opportunities for the kids to get exercise.

“Oh, but the kids can exercise at home,” say the childhood obesity behalfists. “The parents should be encouraging their kids to play and get exercise.”

Yes, they should. They should also be the ones to tell their kids not to eat an entire cake or plateful of cookies. The schools either need to butt completely out of kids’ personal lives, or they need to be completely involved. They can’t pick and choose based on the hot button issue of the day.

When you look at the number of times parents take their kids to McDonald’s, let them play video games for three hours a day, and don’t let them play organized sports because they’re worried their precious snowflakes might get hurt, I don’t think an extra piece of cake is going to do much harm. It’s a veritable drop in the lard bucket, and they’ll be no worse off than they were beforehand.

On the other hand, the kids whose parents actually make them eat healthy food and play can afford to let their kids have a once-in-a-while dessert, even if said dessert is not made with wheat germ, low-fat yogurt, and carob.

What makes matters worse is that these bake sales are a direct benefit to the schools that sponsor them. According to the NPR story, a school in Maryland was able to generate $25,000 in sales, while a New York mom usually raised $50,000 through bake sales.

That’s enough to pay a PE teacher’s salary to get all the fat kids outside running around for 30 minutes a day to work off the piece of cake and the Big Mac they had at dinner the night before.

If a school wants to get involved in whole child growth and development, which is the argument for sticking their fingers in their students’ pies, then they need to do two things: 1) teach the kids that dessert, like anything else, should be consumed in moderation; and, 2) they should use the money raised from a proper bake sale to fund more physical activities, which will teach the kids physical wellness.

Until then, school officials need to find a new way to raise the lost funds. Maybe a casino night with a cash bar.

Photo credit: tannazie (Flickr, Creative Commons)

The Pains of a Writer’s Rejection

No writer likes rejection. It’s so personal. It’s not just our work that was rejected, we were.

Most adults build their identity around their work and its results. A carpenter doesn’t just say, “I hammer nails.” He says, “I build houses. Do you see that house? I built it.” A doctor doesn’t just say, “I prescribe medicine.” She says, “I help people. Do you see that kid? I saved his life.”

It’s that way with writers. We don’t just type, we create entire bodies of work that inform, entertain, and persuade. Having that work rejected means we have been rejected as people. Our thoughts, ideas, and experience, which made up our words, are not good enough to be read by others.

“Remember, it’s not personal,” say the veteran professional writer, smiling in that annoying, knowing way. “It’s just business.”

Sad puppy

When you reject us, this is how we feel.

He remembers all too well the last time his work was rejected. He remembers, because if he’s a real writer, it was last week.

The new writer looks at the old pro like she wants to stab him in the eye with a pen. He remembers that look too. It’s the same one he gave his mentor 20 years ago, when he wanted to stab that cranky bastar in his eye. He smiles, but prepares to defend himself. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the dictionary makes a better club.

Anyone who wants to be a writer will learn to deal with rejection. Real writers eventually get used to it, and sigh resignedly the next time they get a rejection letter. They all have the same low opinion of editors: slack-jawed mouth breathers who wouldn’t know good writing if it whacked them with a dictionary.

(Note: This does not apply to my editors, who are salt of the earth, cream of the crop, princes and princesses among men, and can recognize sheer genius when it stands sobbing outside their offices in the rain, swearing it won’t go away until you just give me one chance.)

Writers have many coping mechanisms to deal with rejection: they rage and curse against know-nothing editors. They scream into their pillows. They weep silently on the bathroom floor. They entertain wild fantasies where they win the Nobel Prize, bump into that editor at the valet station outside, and ask him to bring the car around. But they mostly drink.

My coping mechanism was probably the stupidest of all: I went into sales. I thought it would be much safer, because no one gets rejected, and everyone is friendly and respectful in sales, right?

If you want to learn about real rejection, try dialing for dollars for a living. You’ll realize that the occasional editor’s “no” every couple of weeks is a walk in the park compared to the 20 “no’s” you’ll get every day in sales. For the next seven years.

Other than going into sales, the only way to get over rejection is to write more and get rejected more. A lot more.

Because the only way you’re going to get better is by developing a thick skin. And fantasizing about handing your editors a copy of your latest New York Times best-selling book, and they promise to read it, but then their manager yells at them to get back to the fry station.

And then one day, you won’t be Rejected. You’ll be Accepted.

Accepted!

It means you’re Somebody now. You’re that dorky kid in high school who got invited to sit at the cool kids’ table, and they all listened in rapt attention to your story about your little sister and the time she got a popcorn seed stuck up her nose.

You’re no longer just a writer, you’re a Professional Writer. (Because getting a $10 check and two copies of the magazine makes you a Professional.)

You’ll celebrate with a $20 dinner, and you’ll promise yourself that you’re going to remember this feeling forever. That this is the beginning of a long and distinguished career, that started with this one step.

Until the next day, when another rejection letter arrives.

Eventually you’ll learn to accept the rejections. Even welcome them sometimes, because you don’t have enough time, what with your next book and three speeches you have to give next month.

That’s when some new writer will come to you, asking what’s the best way he can deal with rejection, because he just got his first one, and he wants to quit writing.

You’ll look at him, knowingly, searching for the right thing to say, to let him know that it will work out in the end.

“Remember, it’s not personal,” you’ll say. “It’s just business.”

Just make sure you have a dictionary handy first.

This post was originally published at Erik Deckers’ Laughing Stalk blog.

Photo credit: hackett (Flickr)

Life, Liberty, and….. Higher Education?

On May 4, 1980, the Board of Trustees of Presbyterian College, on the advice of the President of the College and the Academic Dean, bestowed upon me a Bachelor’s of Science degree in the area of Business Administration.

To my credit I had successfully completed the necessary curriculum for said degree, but I have no doubt that the Board et al heaved a collective sigh of relief when I departed the hallowed halls of academia for life in the real world.

Sadly, my Daddy, holder of a Masters Degree in Education, felt that my participation in the commencement exercises should signal an end (on my part) to stupid ideas, dumb questions, mindless screwups, common errors, and public displays of ignorance.  He was wrong.

I could usually tell when I did something that fell beneath Daddy’s standards because he would invariably ask one of two questions.  It would be either, “Son, why in the world did we ever bother sending you to college?” or “Son, what in the name of blasphemy-after-blasphemy did you do for four years while you were in college?”

Even though I had been toting a pistol since the age of 16, I knew that a jocular response to one of these questions was ill advised unless I already had my pistol in my hand, preferably with a round in the chamber.

I may not have been above making simple mistakes, but I had learned when to keep my mouth shut, and I didn’t learn that at Presbyterian College.  I learned it where most other people learn it, at the dinner table.  Eventually, though, I was able to turn the tables on Daddy so that, no matter his opinion on my intelligence quotient, he at least learned to keep his opinions to himself.

This was back when we were still in the irrigation business together, and we spent the better part of two years working in Reidsville, Georgia, either on the Durrance farm on for one of their neighbors.

I spent a lot of nights camping in a field on the Durrance farm but I also spent a lot of time driving back and forth.  In the mornings, I usually drove so Daddy could read the paper. At night, I usually drove so Daddy could devote his entire attention to critiquing the days accomplishments.

One night Daddy was more vitriolic than usual in his attitude towards our partnership.  He quickly went to questioning my performance at college.

I had enough.  “All right, you’re so bleeping smart.  I’ll bet you anything you want to bet that before we get home, you can’t answer correctly one question on one final exam I had to take to graduate.”

Immediately $100 was on the table, so I gave him an example of Dr. Clinkscales’ statistics exam:

“At a local county fair, you play a gambling game where you draw from a standard deck of 52 playing cards.  If you draw an Ace, you win $5.  If you draw a face card, you win $2.  How much does it cost to play the game?”

Of course, he couldn’t answer the question and I won the money, but only after I gave him the answer and showed him how to work it out on paper.

If you ask me sometime, I might even tell you.

Google IDs Newspaper Editor Jon Flatland as Serial Plagiarist

It’s a weird badge of honor in the humor writing world to be stolen from. To have someone else take your work, stick their name on it, and claim they wrote it. To tell the world they thought of that story, spun the words together, and made those jokes about the Mayor’s wife’s nose job.

It’s a strange mix of emotions when it happens.

On the one hand, there’s red-faced anger. Many of us make a mere pittance from our work and to have it stolen by someone who financially benefitted from it is an outrage.

On the other hand, there’s pride. Pride that someone thought my work was funny enough to steal. That, of all the humor columnists to rip off, my work made them laugh enough to declare, “THIS! This column is so good, I must steal it.”
We get special privileges when this happens, like openly mocking humor writers who were not ripped off.

I got to experience all this last Thursday, when I received an email from another humor writer, David Fox, telling me and several other writers, that a newspaper editor named Jon Flatland, of the Blooming Prairie Times in Blooming Prairie, Minn., had been stealing our columns for several years.

Jon Flatland, former editor of the Blooming Prairie (Minn.) Times

Fox had contacted Flatland’s boss, publisher Rick Bussler, and let him know what had happened. In the meantime, one of the writers contacted Flatland directly, and told him we were on to him. According to Bussler, Flatland resigned via email and admitted to the plagiarism, all before Bussler got to the office that day. Last we heard, he had left town almost immediately.

As we started searching for more evidence, we added more victims to the fold. At our latest count, at least 12 of us had been ripped off.

My friend and fellow humorist, Dick Wolfsie, wrote that his wife had said, “Are you telling me that he could have stolen from any of hundreds of humor columnists in America and he picked you?” which helped him experience a new, third emotion.

To make matters worse (or better) Flatland had won a few humor awards from the North Dakota Newspaper Association over the years. The author of one award-winning column has already been identified as blogger Jason Offutt. The rest of us are holding our breath to see if we won any others.

The “real” winners will get to re-experience the joy and anger of having his column ripped off yet again, but secretly we’re more worried about what might happen if it wasn’t ours. Or worse, if our columns were used in the years he lost.

The Internet has already started exploding with stories about Jon Flatland’s thievery. Minnesota Public Radio and some area TV stations are reporting the story, as are several newspapers around the Minnesota and North Dakota area. I was even interviewed by the Poynter Institute, a well-respected journalism school in Florida, and the story was online less than 18 hours later.

If you’re interested in seeing the fallout, you can Google Flatland’s name and see pages and pages of stories about his shameful acts.

And that right there — the ability to go online and find this information in mere seconds — is what’s most surprising about this entire story.

We live in the 21st century. We have technology that lets you find things on the Internet. Type in a word, name, or phrase, and you can find nearly every web page that contains it.

That’s how David Fox tracked Flatland down. He Googled a phrase from a column, and found it had been stolen. He Googled some of “Flatland’s columns” from the Blooming Prairie Times, and found that they had all been stolen. And that’s when everything fell down around Flatland’s ears.

How someone can steal from other writers for years and years without thinking he could be caught is astounding. It’s second only to the fact that it took years and years for the rest of us to figure out he did it.

The end result is that the same tool he ignored is now doubly responsible for making sure he never works in journalism again: it’s how he was caught, and it’s the first place potential employers are going to check when they search for his name.

Guess what they’re going to find.

But maybe he won’t even look for a job. Maybe he’ll turn to novel writing instead, and make a living writing books. I can just imagine it:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

This post was originally published on Erik Deckers‘ Laughing Stalk blog.