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Mundane Behavior mag spotlights everydayness

Sunday, July 22, 2001

You know you're running a new kind of magazine when readers complain that an article seems way too interesting.

That's life at the Journal of Mundane Behavior, however. Many of its readers argued that the Internet mag betrayed its name by running a two-part interview of a smart, vulgar and funny ex-convict named Cesar Dominguez.

Managing Editor Scott Schaffer insists that Dominguez's story was plenty mundane, however. In a commentary on the magazine Web site, http://mundanebehavior.org, Schaffer wrote, "Even for those who run afoul of the law, there is mundanity." Yes, even burglars, drug users and prisoners have routines.

As a man who considers watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" a big night, I was naturally drawn to this magazine. I was doubly interested when I discovered its founder just bucked the national trend and moved to Pennsylvania. (State motto: America Once Lived Here.)

Schaffer, 30, who established the Journal of Mundane Behavior two years ago, recently took a job in the appropriate setting of Millersville, a small college town in Lancaster County. I called him at Millersville University, where he is assistant professor of sociology.

He said the inspiration for this magazine came when he was reading an article by another sociologist, Wayne Brekhus, who argued: "Although there are many deviance journals to analyze socially unusual behavior there is no Journal of Mundane Behavior to explicitly analyze conformity."

That was an epiphany for Schaffer, who confesses, "I was a nerd for a long, long time." He got permission from Brekhus to use the title and soon launched a journal with a colleague at California State University, Fullerton. The magazine is purposely less stodgy than most academic journals.

"It's almost a cocktail-party voice," Schaffer said of its tone. "It's not small talk, per se, but it's more accessible than an academic conference."

"I'm proud of every article that we've done," he added mundanely.

When I first turned to it, I guess I thought I'd get stories with headlines like "America's Funniest Checkbook Balancing Stories" or "Man Goes Swimming Less Than an Hour After Eating and Vows: Never Again." But these people aren't so much after the boring stuff as the everyday. That ex-con in the most recent issue, for instance, seemed downright ecstatic to be just another beast of boredom.

"I can absolutely guarantee that I have a finer and deeper appreciation for the most mundane and minimal things than any of your readers know," said Dominguez, a recovering drug addict, burglar and punk rocker. "I like doing laundry. I love cooking and doing the dishes. Grocery shopping is a great time."

Somebody cue the tape of "Born To Be Mild," willya? Who needs sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll when you can cruise Giant Eagle?

The next big issue of JMB in February 2002 will feature "Mundane Sex." Schaffer drafted Kim Mahaffy, another Millersville sociologist, to edit that. Potential topics include a look at women who routinely go to male strip clubs, sex talk in sexual paraphernalia stores and a study of whether sadomasochism is more commonplace than we might expect.

For a journal dedicated to the commonplace, the Dog Bites Man stories, those topics seemed a bit too much like Man Bites Dog. But Mahaffy, who thinks sociology is overly intrigued by the exceptional and the marginal, doesn't think it will be hard to keep the Journal of Mundane Behavior on course.

"There's so much of our life that's just sort of routine and everyday," she said. "We don't look at it as closely as we should."

I asked Schaffer if he ever thought of doing a "Person of the Year" thing like Time magazine. I saw my little brother, The Incredible Dullboy, as an obvious choice. After giving it some thought, though, Schaffer said if they didn't go with President Bush, "It would have to be someone from the center of the country, just some random name out of the phone book: Bob Gleason from Ada, Okla."

I couldn't find any "Gleason" or "Gleeson" in a computer search of Ada, Okla., so I figure Dullboy still has a shot at the JMB cover someday.

Meantime, here's hoping Gov. Tom Ridge gets busy promoting the commonwealth as the place where the ordinary and the commonplace are not just welcomed, but revered. Ridge is always trying to get native Pennsylvanians to return, and there are a lot more of us mundane types than there are of anyone else.

Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is boneill@post-gazette.com.

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