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Sunday, June 25, 2006


What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

June 25, 2006
Modern Love

AS I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. "Have you seen my keys?" he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human's upset.

In the past I would have been right behind Dixie. I would have turned off the faucet and joined the hunt while trying to soothe my husband with bromides like, "Don't worry, they'll turn up." But that only made him angrier, and a simple case of missing keys soon would become a full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog.

Now, I focus on the wet dish in my hands. I don't turn around. I don't say a word. I'm using a technique I learned from a dolphin trainer.

I love my husband. He's well read, adventurous and does a hysterical rendition of a northern Vermont accent that still cracks me up after 12 years of marriage.

But he also tends to be forgetful, and is often tardy and mercurial. He hovers around me in the kitchen asking if I read this or that piece in The New Yorker when I'm trying to concentrate on the simmering pans. He leaves wadded tissues in his wake. He suffers from serious bouts of spousal deafness but never fails to hear me when I mutter to myself on the other side of the house. "What did you say?" he'll shout.

These minor annoyances are not the stuff of separation and divorce, but in sum they began to dull my love for Scott. I wanted — needed — to nudge him a little closer to perfect, to make him into a mate who might annoy me a little less, who wouldn't keep me waiting at restaurants, a mate who would be easier to love.

So, like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and set about improving him. By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse: he'd drive faster instead of slower; shave less frequently, not more; and leave his reeking bike garb on the bedroom floor longer than ever.

We went to a counselor to smooth the edges off our marriage. She didn't understand what we were doing there and complimented us repeatedly on how well we communicated. I gave up. I guessed she was right — our union was better than most — and resigned myself to stretches of slow-boil resentment and occasional sarcasm.

Then something magical happened. For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.

I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an exotic animal. Enlightened trainers learn all they can about a species, from anatomy to social structure, to understand how it thinks, what it likes and dislikes, what comes easily to it and what doesn't. For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy. It cannot jump, but can stand on its head. It is a vegetarian.

The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn't so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He's an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.

Once I started thinking this way, I couldn't stop. At the school in California, I'd be scribbling notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, but I'd be thinking, "I can't wait to try this on Scott."

On a field trip with the students, I listened to a professional trainer describe how he had taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and shoulders. He did this by training the leggy birds to land on mats on the ground. This, he explained, is what is called an "incompatible behavior," a simple but brilliant concept.

Rather than teach the cranes to stop landing on him, the trainer taught the birds something else, a behavior that would make the undesirable behavior impossible. The birds couldn't alight on the mats and his head simultaneously.

At home, I came up with incompatible behaviors for Scott to keep him from crowding me while I cooked. To lure him away from the stove, I piled up parsley for him to chop or cheese for him to grate at the other end of the kitchen island. Or I'd set out a bowl of chips and salsa across the room. Soon I'd done it: no more Scott hovering around me while I cooked.

I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer introduced me to least reinforcing syndrome (L. R. S.). When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.

In the margins of my notes I wrote, "Try on Scott!"

It was only a matter of time before he was again tearing around the house searching for his keys, at which point I said nothing and kept at what I was doing. It took a lot of discipline to maintain my calm, but results were immediate and stunning. His temper fell far shy of its usual pitch and then waned like a fast-moving storm. I felt as if I should throw him a mackerel.

Now he's at it again; I hear him banging a closet door shut, rustling through papers on a chest in the front hall and thumping upstairs. At the sink, I hold steady. Then, sure enough, all goes quiet. A moment later, he walks into the kitchen, keys in hand, and says calmly, "Found them."

Without turning, I call out, "Great, see you later."

Off he goes with our much-calmed pup.

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn't care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers' motto: "It's never the animal's fault." When my training attempts failed, I didn't blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can't stop a badger from digging, and you can't stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

PROFESSIONALS talk of animals that understand training so well they eventually use it back on the trainer. My animal did the same. When the training techniques worked so beautifully, I couldn't resist telling my husband what I was up to. He wasn't offended, just amused. As I explained the techniques and terminology, he soaked it up. Far more than I realized.

Last fall, firmly in middle age, I learned that I needed braces. They were not only humiliating, but also excruciating. For weeks my gums, teeth, jaw and sinuses throbbed. I complained frequently and loudly. Scott assured me that I would become used to all the metal in my mouth. I did not.

One morning, as I launched into yet another tirade about how uncomfortable I was, Scott just looked at me blankly. He didn't say a word or acknowledge my rant in any way, not even with a nod.

I quickly ran out of steam and started to walk away. Then I realized what was happening, and I turned and asked, "Are you giving me an L. R. S.?" Silence. "You are, aren't you?"

He finally smiled, but his L. R. S. has already done the trick. He'd begun to train me, the American wife.

Amy Sutherland is the author of "Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers" (Viking, June 2006). She lives in Boston and in Portland, Me.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Middle Class splits for the outer suburbs!

U.S. Losing Its Middle-Class NeighborhoodsFrom 1970 to 2000, Metro Areas Showed Widening Gap Between Rich, Poor Sections
By Blaine HardenWashington Post Staff WriterThursday, June 22, 2006; A03
INDIANAPOLIS -- Middle-class neighborhoods, long regarded as incubators for the American dream, are losing ground in cities across the country, shrinking at more than twice the rate of the middle class itself.
In their place, poor and rich neighborhoods are both on the rise, as cities and suburbs have become increasingly segregated by income, according to a Brookings Institution study released Thursday. It found that as a share of all urban and suburban neighborhoods, middle-income neighborhoods in the nation's 100 largest metro areas have declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000.
Widening income inequality in the United States has been well documented in recent years, but the Brookings analysis of census data uncovered a much more accelerated decline in communities that house the middle class. It far outpaced the decline of seven percentage points between 1970 and 2000 in the proportion of middle-income families living in and around cities.
Middle-income neighborhoods -- where families earn 80 to 120 percent of the local median income -- have plunged by more than 20 percent as a share of all neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. They are down 10 percent in the Washington area.
It's happening, too, in this prosperous, mostly white middle-income Midwestern city where unemployment is low and a vibrant downtown has been preserved. As poor and rich neighborhoods proliferate, the share of middle-income neighborhoods in greater Indianapolis has dropped by 21 percent since 1970.
"No city in America has gotten more integrated by income in the last 30 years," said Alan Berube, an urban demographer at Brookings who worked on the report.
"It means that if you are not living in one of the well-off areas, you are not going to have access to the same amenities -- good schools and safe environment -- that you could find 30 years ago," he said.
The decline of middle-income neighborhoods may also be a consequence of increased economic opportunity and residential mobility, especially for upper-income minorities, said Joel Kotkin, an urban historian and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
"This is about upward mobility and class. Until the 1970s, middle-class blacks and other minorities often had little choice about where they could live," said Kotkin, the author of "The City: A Global History." He added: "They usually had to live close to lower-income people of their own race. Now, if they can afford it, they can move to higher-income neighborhoods. Dollars trump race. Many choose not to live around poor people."
The Brookings study says that much more research is needed to better understand why middle-income neighborhoods are vanishing faster than middle-income families. But it speculates that a sorting-out process is underway in the nation's suburbs and inner cities, with many previously middle-income neighborhoods now tipping rich or poor.
Several urban scholars who had no role in the Brookings study said that its findings are consistent with what they have seen in cities from Los Angeles to Cleveland, as the middle class hollows out and as an economic chasm widens between rich and poor neighborhoods.
"We are increasingly being bifurcated on an economic basis," said Paul Ong, a professor of public affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It has taken a big chunk out of the middle."
In Los Angeles -- the most hollowed-out metropolitan area in the country over the past three decades -- the share of poor neighborhoods is up 10 percent, rich neighborhoods are up 14 percent and middle-income areas are down by 24 percent.
The Brookings study says that increased residential segregation by income can remove a fundamental rung from the nation's ladder for social mobility: moderate-income neighborhoods with decent schools, nearby jobs, low crime and reliable services.
Alice McCray used to live in just that kind of neighborhood, a postwar suburb on the far east side of Indianapolis. She has not moved since 1971. It's the middle-class character of her neighborhood that has moved away and left her three-bedroom ranch house behind. With higher-income residents gone, McCray's neighborhood has tipped poor in the past decade. A third of the incoming population lives below the poverty line. Crime is up, and schools have deteriorated.
"I had nine block captains on our neighborhood watch group, and seven of them have moved, said McCray, 61, who owns a cleaning business. "They said they were not going to put up with this."
For people who do not want to put up with aging, troubled neighborhoods and have the means to do something about it, escape is remarkably easy -- in Indianapolis and across much of the country.
The housing industry in the Midwest and the Northeast routinely floods local markets with new, ever-larger houses. In greater Indianapolis, more than 27,500 houses were constructed between 2000 and 2004, even though the population grew by only 3,000.
In the process, older houses and many older neighborhoods -- such as McCray's -- have become as disposable as used cars.
Such overbuilding is rampant across the Midwest and Northeast, where the number of new houses -- almost always at the edge of metro areas -- swamped the number of new households by more than 30 percent between 1980 and 2000, according to a study co-written by Thomas Bier, executive in residence at the Center for Housing Research and Policy at Cleveland State University.
"As upper-income Americans are drawn to the new houses, neighborhoods become more homogenous," he said. Echoing the Brookings study, he said: "The zoning is such that it prevents anything other than a certain income range from living there. It is our latest method of discrimination."
In a pattern that is the mirror opposite of what is happening in the Midwest and Northeast, there is a chronic undersupply of housing in many cities on the West Coast. But it, too, has contributed to a decline of middle-income neighborhoods, said Berube, the Brookings demographer.
He said rapid population growth in cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle combines with rigid geographic and legal restraints on construction to limit housing supply. In Los Angeles, for example, the population grew by 11 percent between 1990 and 2002, but the number of housing units increased by just 5 percent.
That has pushed up the price of housing in mixed-income neighborhoods. Gentrification often pushes the poor away to less-desirable suburbs.
In Indianapolis, it is an abundance of housing that lures the middle class out of established neighborhoods.
Until last month, Jim and Lynn Russell lived with their 1-year-old son, Adam, in a middle-income neighborhood called Irvington on the city's near east side. The area of restored historic houses is 20 minutes by car from downtown, where they both work as bank executives.
But the Russells, who have another baby due in the fall, were worried about mediocre test scores at nearby public schools. They were also concerned about safety. A mass killing -- seven people shot in their home -- took place this month not far from their former house.
"Things like that don't happen in Carmel," said Lynn Russell, 31, who grew up in Indianapolis, as did her husband.
Carmel, where the Russells just bought a house, is not a close-in suburb. About 45 minutes north of downtown at rush hour, it is one of the fastest-growing communities in greater Indianapolis. Schools are among the best in Indiana, and housing is abundant and, by national standards, extremely affordable for professional couples. The Russells bought their four-bedroom house on half an acre for $230,000.
Urban planners complain that exurbs such as Carmel are bleeding cities of the middle class. But Jim Russell said he and his wife have made "the logical choice" by moving to a upper-income neighborhood that is safe, comfortable and better for their growing family.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Cheering the summer solstice at Stonehenge

June 21, 2006
Revelers Ring in Summer at Stonehenge
Filed at 9:17 a.m. ET
STONEHENGE, England (AP) -- Thousands of dancing and drumming revelers cheered the summer solstice at Stonehenge as an orange sliver of sun rose Wednesday. Cloudy skies, dense fog and spurts of rain did not seem to dampen the energy of those who bobbed and swayed to cheerful beats with arms outstretched and shouts of ''Feel the solstice!''
About 19,000 New Agers, present-day druids and partygoers gathered inside and around the ancient circle of towering stones to greet the longest day in the northern hemisphere as the sun struggled to peek out against a smoky gray sky.
''This is the nearest thing I've got to religion,'' said Ray Meadows, 34, of Bristol, England. The solstice ''is a way of giving thanks to the earth and the universe.''
Meadows, wearing a wreath of pink carnations over long pink hair-wrapped braids, identified herself as a fairy of the Tribe of Frog.
Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain 80 miles southwest of London, was built between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C. The lichen-covered rocks are a major tourist attraction and have spiritual significance for thousands of druids and New Age followers.
The crowd was generally peaceful. Wiltshire police arrested two people for drunken and disorderly behavior and two for public order offenses, spokesman Dave Taylor said.
In 1985, revelers clashed violently with police at the solstice ceremony, resulting in a ban on the celebration. Following years saw clashes between riot police and revelers determined to welcome the solstice among the stones.
English Heritage, the monument's caretaker, began allowing full access to the site again in 2000.
Crowds of partygoers stumbled toward their cars an hour after sunrise, some clutching nearly empty bottles or beer cans.
One described the crowd as 5 percent pagan and 95 percent partygoer.
''Some people here are really spoiling it,'' said Chris Sargent, 37, of Bournemouth. ''Once upon a time it was really spiritual.''
Sargent, clad in a long black jacket and pants, top hat and fighter pilot goggles, drank vodka and Coke from a two-liter soda bottle and confessed he was ''really stoned.''
Jeanette Robinson, 71, of Burton-upon-Trent, England, was cold and tired as she watched the celebration from a low hill near the monument, but said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
''I don't suppose I'll be here to do it again at my age,'' she said.
Groups of tourists, some from France, Italy and Spain, joined British revelers. Daniel Estera, 25, flew from Barcelona for one night at the solstice with 15 friends.
''It is part of a family tradition to see a solstice monument from around the world,'' Estera said. ''It is about respect for ancient cultures.''
How and why the monument was built remains unknown. Some experts say its builders aligned the stones as part of their sun-worshipping culture, while others believe it was part of an astronomical calendar.
On the Net:
Stonehenge, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.876

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Fake Families for Model Homes

From the Los Angeles Times:

Hanging out with a make-believe family on Windfall Drive.
Meghan Daum
June 17, 2006

I USED TO THINK I had to live near the action. No long commutes or good school systems for me. I liked to be able to stumble out of bed and walk directly to a coffee shop in my flip-flops and my Ramones pajamas. I thought I'd die if I couldn't get to the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood in less than 10 minutes, even though I'm afraid to ask what it is. But all that's in the past now because I'm seriously considering moving to Milestone, a new community I discovered out past the farthest reaches of the San Fernando Valley last weekend. I took along my friend Alison, who writes about real estate but also was eager to visit the Wal-Mart in nearby Valencia. To be honest, we thought Wal-Mart would be the main event, but as soon as we arrived at Windfall Drive, still under construction in Santa Clarita, we saw the future and it was beautiful. We knew it was beautiful because a 2,321-square-foot model home was occupied by a very beautiful family baking cookies with the Kitchen Aid stainless steel "appliance package" and opening and closing the European frameless stained-finish cabinetry. They were wearing nametags — "Mom," "Dad," "Son" and "Daughter" — which, given the state of the American family these days, you really wish people would do more often. But these were no average Joneses. This was "Homelife," the brainchild of Milestone developer Centex Homes and the public relations firm Roddan Paolucci Roddan. Billed as an "improvisational theatrical model home experience," Homelife takes the technique of home staging a step further by employing actors to play the roles of people living in the house. "Audience participation is encouraged," says a snazzy brochure featuring multiracial models laughing with their kids in the laundry room. "Maybe you have a great cooking tip for our 'family' — we want you to take part in the action."As it turned out, Dad was not only master of his surround sound and central vacuuming systems, he'd played lifeguard Logan Fowler for three years on "Baywatch." (They call it Windfall Drive for a reason, ladies!) After chatting with the family — "my room's much bigger than in my old house!" Daughter said — Alison and I strolled outside to take in the view of the bulldozers across the street. It was then that a New York Times reporter approached us and asked, with an enthusiasm that made us wonder if she thought she'd stumbled upon a "nontraditional partnership," why we were interested in Milestone. Her face fell when she discovered we were on assignment too. In fact, there were probably more members of the media there than home buyers. A CNBC reporter was so taken by Homelife that she joined the family as "Aunt Jane." Alison and I decided to call ourselves "Jehovah's Witness" and "Jail Bait From Next Door," respectively. But we're not the nametag type. Upstairs, we discovered a master bedroom, huge walk-in closets and a laundry room that, in Venice, might sell for close to a million dollars. There were three kids' bedrooms, which was strange because there were only two kids. A publicist explained that the older daughter was at camp. This was news to Mom and Dad, who didn't know they had another daughter. There were, however, plenty of other family members, including Centex marketing director Amanda Larson ( "Aunt Amanda")."There certainly are a lot of you," I said to Dad"Do you ever watch that show 'Big Love'?" he asked.So that elusive land off the 14 Freeway is not so boring after all! There might not be any comic book stores within walking distance of Milestone, but after my interactive theatrical model home experience, I could see myself living there, and not just for the tubes-in-the-wall pest defense system. God knows, I've been to plenty of open houses in my day. But like most looky-loos, I find there's usually something incomplete about the experience. You can only learn so much about a family by checking out their bookshelves and rifling through their file cabinets. The Homelife clan didn't have files, and the only reading material I noticed was a copy of "Teen People" in Daughter's bedroom. But none of that mattered because they'd done more than open up their home, they'd shared their lives, their passions (they like Jenga!) and even a little bit of their hearts. "So how's your marriage working out?" I asked Dad."It's great," he told me. "But we're only here for three hours. That's about the right amount of time to be married and have kids."This neighborhood is going to be hot.

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