Chanticleer Calls #3

I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up. 

Henry David Thoreau


October 1, 1999

“Chanticleer* Calls”, a twice-monthly newsletter for discriminating readers, thinkers, feelers, speakers, listeners, and cogitators.

Recalling Olivia Newton John’s modest ’70s hit, “Physical,” the theme of this issue: Let’s Get Conditional

From a recent Dilbert desk calendar cartoon:
[Dilbert, lying on the therapist’s couch]: On weekends, I’ll feel my pager vibrate … but when I go to check it out, I realize I’m not wearing it.
[Therapist]: It’s a classic case of “Phantom-Pager Syndrome”. It’s common among technology workers. There’s no treatment for it.
[Dilbert]: I don’t want to treat it. I want to relocate it.

I attended an Open House at my daughter’s high school recently. Her Psychology teacher told us that they would be studying Pavlov, who conditioned his dog to salivate at the sound of a bell. He did this, of course, by ringing a bell when he fed the dog, until the dog associated the bell with the food. Then Pavlov rang the bell without giving the dog food, and the dog – expecting food – began to salivate. The teacher said that the kids thought it was pretty neat that you could train animals like that.

I’d like to comment on how we train – or condition – ourselves to respond to the ‘stimuli’ (events, people, words, etc) we encounter everyday. And how, in many cases, we may not recognize this conditioning, or consider its implications.

I recently drove up to Bridgeport (TX) to visit my sister and her family. I took my Sony minidisc player and headphones so I could jam to Santana’s awesome new CD, Supernatural (with Rob Thomas and Dave Matthews), on the road.

About halfway there, I ran into heavy traffic due to a thunderstorm. I went to turn down the music to better concentrate on the challenging road conditions, and reached to turn down the car stereo. But of course, nothing happened, because I was listening to my minidisc player sitting on the passenger seat.

I ‘always’ listen to music through the car stereo, so when the music volume needed to be adjusted, I did what I ‘always’ do – which at this moment, in this context, was not the appropriate thing to do.

So I nodded to myself that I had ‘learned’ a little lesson in awareness. And then I proceeded to do the same thing at least four more times during the one-hour drive.

Hey, Steve – conditioning calling.

I saw the movie The Sixth Sense last week. I won’t give away anything significant, but there’s a scene in which a little boy gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

As he walks down the hall, the camera focuses on the thermostat – which shows the temperature dropping rapidly from about 70 degrees down into the 30s. Then you see the boy, and you can clearly see his exhaled breath.

As I watched this scene, and noticed the thermostat, I immediately got chills all over my body.
Now mind you, I sat in a theater auditorium in 70-degree comfort. The temperature in the theater didn’t change. I responded to a ‘stimulus’ that consisted solely of two-dimensional images projected onto a lighted screen about sixty feet away. I so closely identified with the images on the screen that I responded to the images as if the actual temperature of my environment had changed.

Hey, Steve – conditioning called.

Lyrics noted this week: “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.” – The Eagles, “Take It Easy”

I’ve struggled internally in the aftermath of the tragic shootings at the Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth on September 15th. It hit very close to home, literally and figuratively. I live about 30 miles from there now, but in 1978 my wife at the time and I tried to buy a house in that neighborhood. My great-grandparents were founding members of another church in the Wedgewood area. My daughter attended a similar “See You at the Pole” event at her high school that very morning.

To those outside of this area, with no emotional ties here, the Wedgewood shootings probably don’t represent much more than the next item on a seemingly never-ending list: Arkansas shootings, Oregon shootings, Columbine shootings, Wedgewood shootings, — TBD — shootings next month, — TBD — shootings next year, etc.

However, for me, this one is more personal. What I’ve tried to notice in particular is, how do people respond to an event like this? (At least, to the extent those reactions are communicated via the broadcast news.) How have I responded? Because those responses reflect how they, and I, have been conditioned to respond. And while I realize this may touch an extremely sensitive nerve with some, I would like to comment that perhaps we need to question, reassess, validate, modify, update, etc., the premises or beliefs we hold in light of how we react to tragedies like this.

I hear a lot of “conventional wisdom” along the lines of:

  • It was meant to be
  • It just wasn’t meant to be
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • If it’s meant to happen, it will happen
  • This wasn’t supposed to happen
  • Don’t tempt Fate
  • It was destined
  • Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be

And yet, when something happens like these shootings, a lot of people will still immediately ask others (and themselves), “Why did this have to happen?”, and “How can we prevent this from happening again?” And the conventionally-wise answers listed above will be sprayed about faithfully, and reassuringly, like an emotional air freshener that (temporarily) masks a lingering stench.

I think it’s worthwhile to really contemplate how we condition ourselves to respond to what happens in our lives. Do you believe that:

  • everything happens for a reason, everywhere?
  • everything happens for many reasons?
  • everywhere everything happens for a reason in some places, but in other places things happen without reason?
  • everything happens for many reasons in some places, but in other places thing happen without reason?
  • some things happen for a reason, but other things happen randomly?
  • in all places some things happen for many reasons, but other things happen randomly?
  • in all places things just happen?

What implications logically follow your beliefs?

Personally, I’m glad that Edward Jenner didn’t believe that whoever’s supposed to die from smallpox is just gonna have to die.

And I’m thankful that Jonas Salk didn’t accept that some school kids were just going to have to live with polio because it was meant to be, although by the time he invented his vaccine my aunt had already contracted it.

And I hope that the scientists and doctors engaged in research for AIDS, ALS, cancer, scleroderma, and other diseases are not deterred by Fate, or shrug their shoulders in resignation, take off their lab coats, and sigh, Well, we tried, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Where we going for lunch?

What’s the condition of your conditioning?

Early one morning a few weeks ago, I walked around the track at a nearby high school. I watched as, on the football practice field, a small group of about ten students marched around, directed by a guy my age wearing a uniform. I assumed it was a Junior ROTC group in the early stages of learning their Yo’ leffff from their Yo’ righhh after beginning their Forward … harch!

As I circled the track at the other end, near the alley behind the neighboring houses, I noticed three girls, each with very long straight hair, each wearing all black. They harched briskly around the corner of the fence, out of sight from the school, dropped their backpacks, and lit up cigarettes.

Compare and contrast … the Junior ROTC drill team, learning how to march before school starts, probably to present the colors at the next Friday night football game – and the girls in black sneaking around the alley to catch a quick smoke before 1st period.

Would you expect the individuals in the two different groups to behave differently in class? Which do you expect make the better grades? Which probably have better relationships with their parents? Which group would you prefer to have your child hang with? Which group would you most likely have hung with?

What life experiences have conditioned you to answer as you did? How much stock would you put in your inferences? How certain are you of your expectations in terms of what futures each of these teenagers might face?

Do you listen to “the sound of your own wheels”?


In the September 15th edition, I related the experience of watching a young girl learning how to ice skate. As she progressed, she repeated, “Mommy, watch me. WATCH ME!” I commented, with feigned rhetorical wisdom, “I was just wondering at what age we outgrew that desire to show others how we progress in learning how to do something.”

I discussed this yesterday with someone I had just met. She challenged my conclusion that we outgrew it – “Oh, we never outgrow it. We all want to be noticed and recognized. We just do different things to get noticed now, than we did when we were kids.”


( …thinking… )

You mean … like publish newsletters and create new web sites?


I stand (or sit) corrected.


“I’m right there with you on the school prayer issue. Why on earth people are spending time on this issue when there are so many others more important? Even though I enjoy prayer as an activity that doesn’t mean that I feel that everyone else should enjoy everything else that I do. After all I put mayo on my peanut butter sandwiches – so all of my other activities should be suspect. As Bill Maher says on “Politically Incorrect” – why does everybody have to be able to do everything? And in response to your quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, there is a saying among bluegrass musicians – “That’s how that song goes today”.