TV & Film

Ask the Experts

Need the skinny on love, money, lawn care, pets, and more? We’ve got answers.

We live in a do-it-yourself world (there’s even a cable channel devoted to the DIY movement), where information is as close as your smartphone. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get reliable answers to common questions, despite what the latest covers of magazines scream from the newsstand.

Here at On Wisconsin, we knew we didn’t have to leave the UW–Madison campus to find a wealth of practical expertise on all manner of queries. We talked to a dozen experts, asking about topics many of us ponder at some point in our lives — or on a daily basis.

We were thrilled to find their answers are more practical than professorial, and they offer some welcome bits of wisdom for our complicated times. We can’t promise that they will solve all of your dilemmas, but they will help you survive the next heated political debate at the dinner table and give you an unexpected suggestion for a family pet.

Jenny Price ’96

Should I get a pet?

The idea of a pet can be more appealing than the reality, says UW animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell ’81, MS’84, PhD’88. The good times are fun, but it’s crucial to weigh the whole package, which may include time, trouble, and expense for medical care, scheduling around an animal’s needs, arranging care when you’re away, and coping with illness or injury.

Consider the worst-case scenario, she suggests, recalling her own recent midnight adventures involving a lot of diarrhea and one very unhappy pooch. “If you can deal with that, then continue your thinking about what kind of pet,” she says.

The best pet fit is highly personal, depending on the type of interaction and time commitment you want. Some parrots can live sixty years and often outlive their owners, for example, and dogs need daily mental and physical exercise.

But there are many options, and some are often overlooked. Want the social nature of a dog in an easy-care package? “People often laugh at me when I say get a rat,” McConnell says. “Rats are great pets — they’re highly social, interactive, really smart, and they love to cuddle. And yet you can be gone all day and not feel guilty about needing to take them on a walk when you get home.”

Jill Sakai PhD’06


Should I believe the stories about good foods and bad foods?

With headlines such as “Study Finds Java Drinkers Live Longer,” “A Cup of Confusion: Is Coffee Healthy or Not?” and “Is Coffee Fattening?” how can consumers separate truth from fiction? Donna Weihofen ’63, MS’67, a senior nutritionist at UW Hospital and Clinics, has a simple answer: look for consistency.

It’s easy to conclude that something such as coffee, which has no calories and can taste delicious, can’t possibly be good for you. But consumers need be concerned only if studies pop up out of the blue, Weihofen advises. Research about foods and their healthfulness should have similar themes; when this information is interrupted by an outlandish claim in a single study, consumers should be skeptical. The best strategy is to look for reliable facts about the food and whether it is healthy.

New studies about coffee, for example, have found that it prevents diabetes, lowers risks of heart disease, and helps to maintain better cognitive function overall. If amid these positive findings a study claimed that coffee is a carcinogen, it’s time to be wary of its accuracy.

“In the past, experts truly believed that coffee was detrimental to health,” Weihofen says. “Now studies have come out on a regular basis explaining how coffee adds years onto your life — pay attention to those!”

As for all those claims about magical weight loss, she says, “The only miracle diet is getting the nutrients you need and finding an eating pattern that will help you live a healthy life.”

Aimee Katz ’13


Should I give my child an allowance?

Allowances are a good idea for children starting around first or second grade, says J. Michael Collins, faculty director of the UW Center for Financial Security, an expert on financial literacy, and the father of two children under age eight.

Start with $1 or $2, and hand it out systematically on the same day and at the same time each week. Most important, Collins says, the money should be in exchange for doing small chores, rather than a no-strings-attached cash flow for buying candy in the grocery store line. “That’s how it works in the real world, right? We usually don’t just get things,” he says. “It can be something as simple as picking up your toys or making your bed.”

One other tip: forget the piggy bank. Collins says it’s better for kids to stash the money somewhere they can watch it grow, yet still get their hands on it to work on their math skills. “For kids, I think a glass jar is the best thing because they can see it, they can play with it, they can count it,” he says.

If kids save rather than spend, and the amount becomes too much for the jar, Collins suggests setting up a custodial bank account, which most banks offer at little or no cost to help kids continue to learn about banking and saving.



Is there any truth to “feed a cold, starve a fever”?

Or is it “starve a cold, feed a fever”? Either way, there’s not much evidence to back it up. “I frankly have never understood what it means, because a cold does sometimes have a fever,” says Bruce Barrett, a UW Health family physician.

The saying probably developed through hundreds of years of folklore, and “cold” and “fever” may have had different meanings over time. Today, a “cold” typically refers to a rhinovirus infection, regardless of symptoms, and most respiratory infections cause neither chills nor fever.

“There are thousands of home treatments for colds and fevers,” Barrett says. “Each culture has dozens, but using food to change the outcome of a current illness is unknown.”

His own research suggests that any benefit is more likely due to the power of positive thinking. In a recent study of Echinacea, people who believed in its effectiveness recovered from a cold more quickly and had milder symptoms, whether or not the pills they received contained the herb.

“So if you believe in chicken soup, it will be helpful; if your mom believes in ginger tea, it will be helpful for her,” Barrett says. “But that’s probably through some positive-outcome psychological process that’s not well understood.”

Jill Sakai PhD’06


What’s the greatest source of conflict in a relationship?

The big three? Money, sex, and kids — not necessarily in that order — says Darald Hanusa ’75, MS’81, PhD’93, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Work and a therapist with a full-time mental health practice that includes couples counseling.

“I don’t worry so much about where the fight’s coming from,” he says. “I worry about how it’s dealt with once it’s there.”

Even minor issues can lead to bigger problems without positive communication on a daily basis. “If you want to have a healthy garden, you have to tend to it on a regular basis. Maybe not every day, but pretty close,” he says. “Relationships are the same way. Oftentimes after the initial romantic phase is over, people forget that they have to keep doing all the positive things that attracted them to one another in the first place.”

Couples who successfully weather the inevitable conflict in relationships show tolerance and acceptance for individual differences, he says. “Unfortunately, we get in the relationship — and we know that there are differences — [but] the first thing we try to do is force the other person to be just like us,” he says. “It doesn’t work.”

What defeats most relationships is a desire to win. “If you want to win, and you want to prove your partner wrong, go ahead, you can do that,” Hanusa says. “But just know it always comes at the price of closeness.”



Do my kids need to learn math?

When it comes to math, you and your kids are studying it whether you want to or not, says math professor Jordan Ellenberg.

“When it comes down to it, everyone — including university math professors — is formalizing, classifying, and dividing things up according to rules,” he says. “If you’re looking at part of something, and guessing what the rest of it looks like based on what you know, that’s math.”

A math class at school is just a formalized version of a natural kind of problem solving, he says. Although it’s fair to ask whether certain things should be in the classroom curriculum, that’s probably not a debate you want to have while a pile of math homework awaits. A better argument could paint a mathematical approach to problem solving as a basic cognitive skill, such as writing well, says Ellenberg, who has written a popular novel and a column about math outside the classroom, and regularly reviews books for several publications.

“I think most students could see that being able to write a clear English sentence is a necessary skill,” he says. “If you don’t have the sense of a mathematical way of thinking, there are things you won’t be able to do.”

Chris Barncard


What is the hardest language for English speakers to learn?

The U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute classifies languages for difficulty based on the length of time it takes its students to reach general proficiency in speaking and reading. The ranking lists Japanese as exceptionally difficult, and that’s primarily due to the structure of the language, says Junko Mori MA’92, PhD’96, director of the UW’s Language Institute and professor of Japanese.

It is easier to learn French or Spanish because, like English, European languages have a parallel word order: subject-verb-object. But Japanese word order is subject-object-verb. “You have to reassemble the order of the way in which you express the idea,” Mori says.

There are also fewer shared cognates and characters (rather than letters) to learn. Japanese, however, uses two sets of phonetic symbols, plus about two thousand characters borrowed from Chinese. “We have to develop [a student’s] oral proficiency at the same time we have to introduce this whole new writing system,” Mori says.

That’s the same challenge English speakers face when learning other East Asian languages, including Chinese and Korean.

Japanese also contains a lot of grammatical markers for politeness or deference toward other people or groups in the social hierarchy. The cultural value systems embedded in languages, Mori says, “give students the opportunity to look at the world differently, and in comparison, they can also then reflect on their own language and culture, too.”



What aspect of U.S. history is often misunderstood?

The role that religion plays in government, as settled during the Revolutionary War era, was a fundamental departure from what had come before — and is often misunderstood, says Charles Cohen, professor of history and religious studies.

In fact, the oft-cited division between “church and state” is a misnomer, says Cohen, who also serves as director of the UW’s Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions. The settlement occurred in the context of a culture friendly to religion, even as it divorced civil and ecclesiastical authority at the federal level.

“The idea that you sever religious practice from the state is in the larger Western historical trajectory a radical step,” Cohen says. “The First Amendment says that Congress can make no establishment of religion, and for more than two centuries, people have argued what precisely that formulation might mean. But the constitutional formulation of the late eighteenth century occurred in the context of a cultural understanding that the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant, and that religion is absolutely necessary for the betterment of civil society.”

That arrangement has produced a middle ground in which the alleged “wall of separation” has never been as stout as some would want it, nor the foundations of the nation as “Christian” as some would prefer, Cohen says.

Greg Bump


Do I need a will?

Yes, you do — although “no one likes to talk about dying,” says Howard Erlanger JD’81, Voss-Bascom professor of law.

Certain assets, such as life insurance, are automatically transferred to the beneficiaries you’ve named, and a will won’t change that. But for the rest, he says, a will is your way to make sure property is distributed in the way you want it to be.

Generally, the older a person is, the greater the assets (or the more complicated the family relationships) — and the greater the need for a will, Erlanger says. Some property, such as a family heirloom, may not have great monetary

value, but a will ensures that it will go to the person you’d like to have it.

Parents need a will to name guardians for their children. Wills should be reviewed when there are major life changes, such as marriage, divorce, the births of children, or the deaths of beneficiaries. And if you’re doing anything out of the ordinary in your will, tell family members beforehand so it doesn’t come as a surprise, Erlanger recommends.

“As soon as it gets the least bit complicated, you really should have a lawyer,” he says. “If it’s absolutely straightforward, it might be okay to do it on the web.”

Käri Knutson


How can I maintain my lawn in tough weather?

Even when a severe drought — such as that of summer 2012 — leaves many lawns looking more like deserts, homeowners can bring grass back to health, says Doug Soldat ’01, MS’03, assistant professor of soil science. Soldat’s department has done extensive research on do-it-yourself lawn care, and has found that the best approach during unpredictable weather is picking a smart grass seed to plant.

And planting, he says, can begin when forsythia bushes start blooming, a sign that grass seeds are starting to germinate. He recommends renting a slit seeder from any gardening or home store, using it to cut tiny slits in the soil, and then dropping the grass seed inside. Small slits mean less exposed soil so weeds can’t get a foothold.

The best grass for lawns is debatable, but Soldat recommends planting tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass. “Tall fescue did well in last summer’s drought,” he says. “Deep roots make it great in droughts, but you have to watch out in the wintertime, because cold temperatures and ice accumulation will kill it.” Kentucky bluegrass varieties, on the other hand, perform well in winter.

Last, he says, mowing grass to three or four inches, along with providing nutrients and ample water, will make lawns stand out and stay healthy.



What’s worth watching on TV?

“TV is an experience,” says Myles McNutt, a PhD student in communication arts and author of Cultural Learnings, a blog that weighs in on television shows from different genres.

Watching great actors perform on TV and finding a way to “use your brain and think” is one of the best things you can do when sampling different shows, he says. Viewers can use Netflix, Hulu, or other online streaming to try out shows and decide what they like to watch.

The idea of “high-concept television” — meaning shows that explore more complex themes — is becoming more popular, McNutt says. He points to ABC’s Nashville, which premiered last fall and pushed the meaning of a soap opera beyond Days of Our Lives by portraying the struggle of a singer wanting to reinvent herself. For something lighter, McNutt wholeheartedly recommends NBC’s Parks and Recreation, starring former Saturday Night Live star Amy Poehler. A sharp political satire, the show depicts the daily happenings of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. McNutt says its viewers can relate to the group of colleagues and friends working together to achieve their dreams, with a few bumps along the way.

“Learning for yourself is easier than ever,” McNutt says. “We all should value high-concept TV. Shows with heart, and shows that are morally complex and thrilling, are worth your time.”



How can I calmly talk politics with people I don’t agree with?

Kathy Cramer Walsh ’94’s advice is to do less talking and more listening.

“There is a time and a place for political debate, but if we’re trying to get along with each other, the way to do that is not to figure out how to win the fight, but to actually listen to the other person and figure out what insight [you] can take away from that,” says Walsh, an associate professor of political science. “In the end, by listening to what someone you disagree with has to say, you should be able to better understand your own opinions.”

Walsh has traveled across the state to coffee shops, restaurants, and churches — wherever Wisconsinites gather — to listen to regular folks for the Wisconsin Public Opinion Study.

Sometimes, she says, it’s best to walk away when you feel yourself getting angry. “It doesn’t hurt to sort of step away for a moment before you get too mad,” she explains. “Get up, go to another room, and come back and say, ‘This is what I really meant, and I just want to understand why you think what you think.’ Ask directly about whatever it is that is getting to you, and then just listen.”


Published in the Summer 2013 issue


  • Eleni Otto January 19, 2014

    ‘Should students continue to major in the Humanities?’ Or, perhaps the following version of the sentence fits better with Ask the Experts: ‘Are the Humanities still a relevant field of study in our technology-based, money worshiping society?’

    The following is not part of the question, it is a comment on why I am asking the question.
    I did not expect a specific career when I graduated with a B.S. in Art (Philosophy minor), 1977. I found my way and worked in many jobs/ professions, and I eventually earned an M.Ed. from WWU. Now, 45 years later I am working as a technical writer and editor. The ‘B.S.’ part of my degree helped me get through the doors of the scientific lab where I currently work.
    These days, I often hear about the need for college degrees to be focused on specific skills for job attainment – in other words, less wandering and exploring, more career-mindedness. I notice the studies that have served me well – Art, Philosophy, and Education – are deemed, of late, as ‘useless degrees.’ I don’t agree. ~What do you think?~ (What would Socrates or Simone de Beauvoir have to say! 🙂

    Thanks. Signed, Fan of ‘On Wisconsin’ – Eleni Otto

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