Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fast Women and Exact Change: What Women Really Want

Part 1. Fast Women

In the On-line Dictionary of Etymology the third meaning of the word “fast,” is, “The sense of ‘living an unrestrained life’ (usually of women) is from 1746.”  Modern women are fast in different ways than some of their foremothers in mid-18th century.

The local shopping mall, a stone’s throw from where we live near the intersection of I35W and Hwy 36, north of St. Paul, has a name similar to he Galleria mall in Rosedale California.  We believe ours is the real Rosedale Mall, though theirs keeps mischievously popping up when I key in the name on the Google search engine on my computer. The Mall’s outer doors are unlocked at eight in the morning, but few of the stores actually open until ten, except the Apple Store, that offers early morning classes for the cyber-challenged and ante meridiem caffeine-seekers at the Caribou Coffee shop.  I usually arrive for my morning constitutional at the Mall about the time the stores prop open their doors welcoming customers with nothing better to do with their money.  At ten when the doors open, most Rosedale center visitors are dedicated mall-walkers, older people like me, intent on obtaining exercise in a comfortable environment.

Standing just inside the mall entrance as I fumbled to insert the 3.5mm plug into my IPhone, preparing to circumnavigate the Mall, two women in the midst of animated conversation entered through the Mall’s double glass doors.   One had silvery hair, the other a mixture of dark and grey hair, both cut in short bobs.  They were both strikingly slim and appeared to be in their early 60s, candidates for an advertisement for a health club wellness program. Neither seemed to need exercise.  The first woman was wearing a lightweight sky blue shirt and jeans, the other a dark blue sweat suit, both with spiffy white sneakers. They were half way down the first corridor by the time I had selected the Bill Frisell station on Pandora Radio and began heading the same direction. 

I typically make my way around the mall in about 15-20 minutes.  As I made the first right turn I encountered a lone woman of slender build with short red curly hair, perhaps late 50s wearing shiny blue exercise pants with a white stripe down the legs. She wore a long-sleeved white shirt with sleeves pushed back above the elbows in a no-nonsense fashion, baring the freckles on her arms.  She wore pristine white running shoes, both arms pumping like pistons of a steam locomotive.  She projected an intensely earnest expression, staring straight ahead, oblivious to potentially tempting displays in the store windows. She took two or three steps to every one of mine, apparently determined to hurl herself into a more secure cardiovascular future. 

An older man and woman who had stopped at the Caribou Coffee shop began walking at a more leisurely pace several steps in front of me, with no apparent destination. The man with pearly white hair had a limp in his left leg, and his female partner with salon colored auburn hair and a very fashionable baby blue exercise outfit was doing all the talking, as his head was slightly bowed, seemingly taking it all in, or perhaps not. She placed her left hand on his arm with an air of intimate familiarity to assure his attention as she looked up at him stressing her point. He glanced in her direction briefly as they resumed walking.  As I made the second turn near Borders, I duly noted that the bookstore was featuring The 17 Day Diet by Mike Moreno.  The subtitle read, “A Doctor’s Plan Designed for Rapid Results,” a quintessentially American health solution, only seventeen days to a hale and hearty life!  The two women who had entered the Mall just before me, were already on the opposite side of the mall across the open courtyard, arms thrusting to and fro, yakking it up, urgently weaving in and around other, more leisurely early Mall visitors and occasional employees scurrying as they arrived a few minutes late for work.

The jewelry store was having a special on diamonds, “40% off of selected stones”, as the woman with the curly red hair hurried passed with penetrating intensity, arms working and legs churning like Ichabod Crane’s steed Gunpowder, being pursued by the Headless Horseman.  No diamonds for her, though April may very well have been her birthstone. We will never know, will we?  She had other priorities, having made one entire circuit while I have progressed about half way around the mall. 

I passed the Apple Store, three quarters away around, which is already crowded, and nod to the blue-shirted unbelievably young nerdish greeter, who I recognize from visits to the Genius Bar.  He gives me a smile and thumbs up.  As I completed my first circuit, three men meandered out of the food court carrying paper coffee cups.  One was stocky wearing a baseball cap, a lightweight brown nylon zippered jacket that appeared to have seen better days, and jeans.  Another of medium build wore his blue Minnesota Twins sweat shirt and khakis, with a newspaper tucked under his arm. The third had a ruddy complexion and bushy white mustache, wearning his Vietnam War jacket bearing the name of his unit. His paunch protruded a bit from his unzippered jacket.  The Vietnam guy snickered at something the first guy said.  They appeared to be in their 60s, or older and seemed to be having a good time.  They walked at a leisurely pace, going no place in particular, pausing occasionally during their conversation between sips of coffee, as the Minnesota Twins guy gestured, raising his voice so a few words reached me, as the others chuckled.

As I turned right to exit by the Food Court doors, a short, fit gray haired woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail passed rushing the opposite direction.  Her grey T-shirt matched the grey of her sweatpants, very definitely devoid of lettering or other frills, emphasizing the serious athletic nature of her undertaking. Nothing colorful for this woman. She was carrying her IPod in one hand with white earbuds in each ear, and a billfold clasped in the other hand.   She was clearly on a mission, with her ponytail bouncing with each quick step.  Her pace made the curly red haired woman look like a rank amateur within the world of women mall-walkers.

I rarely see a lone woman walker or pair of women walkers (as distinguished from shoppers) proceeding at a leisurely pace. Their step is nearly always with a sense of urgency.  There are arteries to clear of offending plaque and heart muscle to strengthen, serious work to do. Time’s a wastin.’  Perhaps my sample is biased by the fact that there are more female than male-mall walkers according to the Mall Walker’s Association of America. Perhaps, but there is something unique about the intensely goal-directedness of women mall-walkers.  As I push open the glass double doors and head for my car, I wonder what makes these fast women tick. 

In a letter to Marie Bonaparte, Sigmund Freud famously posed the question: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is "What does a woman want?” Perhaps it is a resting pulse rate of 45 beats per minute.

"All right have it your way, you heard a seal bark!"

Part 2. Exact Change.

Every week or so, I dig the change out of my various pants, coat and jacket pockets, along with some lint, and the coins that have collected on top of my dresser, as well as those on the little hand-crafted wooden do-hickey were I put stuff I don’t know what to do with, and drop them in a glass jar in a drawer the kitchen. Pennies hardly seem worth the effort, though I save them as well, out of habit. When I lived in England for a year, it was easier to rationalize saving the handsome twelve-sided Thrupenny Bits, bearing the likeness of Elizabeth II, but prosaic American pennies are a different matter. But I do it nonetheless.  Every few months my wife empties the jar into a plastic bag and takes the coins to the bank where she dumps them into a very noisy machine that sorts and counts them, exchanging the nuisances for paper bills, with a few coins left over to seed the next collection of coins.  It is a simple and harmless strategy for dealing with small change and avoiding the tedious unpleasantness of paying each and every transaction with exact change. At least that is the way it seems to me.

Standing at the cash register of a shop at the Orlando airport I was waiting to pay for a copy of the Times and bottle of outrageously expensive Fiji water before my return flight to Minneapolis.  The dark-haired woman ahead of me in line, who appeared to be a professional of some sort in her thirties with a briefcase, was counting out dollar bills, “one, two, three,… and,” she paused and began poking around in a small pocket on the side of her purse.  “Let’s see, twenty five, thirty five, forty, forty one, forty two….” and then she stopped.  She retrieved her billfold, which also had a side pocket and repeated the exercise, apparently to no avail.  She shrugged, as if to say, “Oh, well.”  She didn’t have exact change.  Seconds, perhaps a minute or more had elapsed while the clerk, the person behind me and I had waited for her to attempt to find the exact change, which in the end, didn’t happen. She placed the unused coins back in her purse and fished around in her billfold and pulled out another dollar bill and placed it on the counter, announcing “There,” with a note of finality, which apparently was intended to be reassuring to all within earshot. Within a few seconds the clerk handed her the change and a receipt and turned to me saying, “Can I help you?”

I was next in line at our neighborhood upscale grocery store waiting to pay for my three plastic containers of sliced peaches, a box of water crackers, three Fuji apples and a container of freshly made shrimp tempura sushi from the Sushi bar near the store entrance, since the "Ten Items or Less" cash register was not in service.  An older woman in line in front of me, and I use the term “older” advisedly, since, though being her junior by a decade or so, I am nonetheless not a spring chicken either, was struggling with her handbag that she had placed on the checkout counter. The woman was of diminutive stature, no more than 5-2 or 5-3, and stooped as though from osteroporosis.  She seemed fragile, her hands a bit tremulous and her skin translucsently pale.  As her purchase was being bagged, she had taken out a twenty-dollar bill, a ten, a five and some ones from her billfold. So-far-so good.  The customer looked up intently at the red numbers on the electronic cash register.  That was when the trouble began. 

She began searching in her oversized handbag for her coin purse.  After removing several items from her purse and placing them one-by-one the checkout counter, a pen, packet of tissues and a fingernail clipper, she finally found her burgundy colored leather coin purse, apparently near the bottom of the bag.  “Would you like help with that Mam?” the clerk politely offered, with a tinge of edginess.  “No, I can do it, I’ll be fine,” the lady replied, reminding us that autonomy is important to everyone, including older people.  She managed to open the coin purse snap, and began digging around through the change in her purse.  I glanced at the check out clerk who was attempting to appear calm as her fingers were tightly clamped so her nails were digging into her hands.  A line had gathered.  The older woman customer was counting coins out on the surface of checkout counter, painstakingly, one by one. She lost count and started over.  She needed more pennies and poked around in the coin purse again and found some more.  “Five, six, seven and eight, that should do it,” she said to the clerk.  “Thank you mam,’ the clerk said, “But, you need another one dollar bill.”  “Oh, OK,” the customer replied cheerfully and re-opened her purse, found her billfold, opened it and pulled out another one dollar bill and placed it on the counter.  By now there were four people in line behind me, though I had been the only one waiting initially. 

The older woman’s fragility was obviously misleading, concealing a person of considerable determination.  Waiting hadn’t caused any of us real harm, other than transient hypertension and gushing of hydrochloric acid into our impatient stomachs.  Doubtless it would have been far easier and greatly appreciated by everyone, had the woman simply given the clerk the nearest whole dollar amount in bills, or even a five dollar bill instead of ones, and accepted the change. Apparently that wasn’t in the cards.

Why it was important for the two women, one younger woman at the airport and the other older one in the grocery store, to pay with exact change down to the last penny, eludes me.  I have never, I repeat, never ever seen a man insist on paying for anything, not even once, with exact change in coins.  Men either pay with credit cards or hand the clerk bills, often twenties, tens and fives, and sometimes ones, and hold out their hand waiting for change. I have known men to hand the clerk a single penny along with their bills, to avoid being given 99 cents in change, but never pay for anything with exact coinage.  As nearly as I can tell, insisting on paying with exact change is something only women do. My wife Anneke tells me some elderly men do so as well, so perhaps it has to do with circulating testosterone levels.  I’ll take her word for it, though I haven’t seen it myself.  After the aging lady had paid and departed from the checkout area, I asked the clerk, “Why do women do that, insist on paying with exact change?”  The clerk had an exasperated expression as she shrugged her shoulders and turned her hands upward, “I have no idea, it drives me crazy.”  I took comfort from her comment.

I later asked my wife whether she usually pays with exact change, since I wasn’t sure.  She replied, “Only when there isn’t a line.”  In other words it is her clear preference to pay with exact change, but commendably, she takes care not to inconvenience others. She says she doesn’t like carrying around a heavy coin purse, which she explains is her reason for paying with exact change, i.e. to rid herself of some of the coins. Apparently that is an explanation, I’m not altogether sure.  Neither am I sure whether Freud ever arrived at an answer to such burning questions as: “Why do women insist on paying with exact change?” And “Why are older women fanatically, frenzied mall walkers in comparison with their leisurely, probably overweight and likely more self-indulgent male counterparts?”

I give up.  There are things men will never understand about women.  I know that is not in the least original with me, but I suppose we just keep re-discovering this obvious fact. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath, Alisoun, establishes herself as an authority on marriage in the first three lines of her prologue. She tells the other pilgrims that she has been married five times and offers a history and justification of her numerous marriages.  In Lerner and Lowe’s version of Shaw’s Pygmalion Henry Higgins asks, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” And James Thurber famously created numerous of drawings about misunderstandings between the sexes, of which he also wrote in Is Sex Necessary?

I take some consolation from the portrayal of of Henrik Ibsen’s character, Hedda Gabler, a proto-feminist of whom the critic and essayist Joseph Wood Crutch suggested, “Her aims and her motives have a secret personal logic of their own. She gets what she wants, but what she wants is not anything that the normal usually admit, publicly at least, to be desirable….there is a secret, sometimes unconscious, world of aims and methods — one might almost say a secret system of values — that is often much more important than the rational one.”

Chaucer, Geoffrey (1987). “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The Riverside Chaucer, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 105-116.

Freud, S. (1955) Letter to Marie Bonaparte, as quoted in Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (1955) by Ernest Jones, Vol. 2, Pt. 3, Ch. 16

Hedda Gabler, Wikipedia.  Accessed 4-28-2011

Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler trans. Kenneth McLeish, Nick Hern Books, London, 1995

Krutch, Joseph Wood (1953). Modernism in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 11.

Lerner, AJ and Lowe, F. (1956) My Fair Lady: A Musical Play in Two Acts. Based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. New York: Doward-McCann, Inc., 1956.

Thurber, J (1977) Is Sex Necessary?: Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. Ameron Press, Inc.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Gusts of wind shift the pattern of rain pellets tapping against the window pane overlooking the birch tree and bare wet earth beneath, surrounded by an oval of grey and caramel fieldstone.  The southwestern exposure has warmed the soil the past week or two, and in the less protected areas, tender green spears of hyacinth and early tulip shoots have appeared, interspersed with crocus and Snow Drops.  The arched branches of the Paper Birch with its drooping branchlets watches over the emerging bulbs. The tree’s white bark, with its black diamond-shaped patches at the base, sharply contrasts with the brown-black earth.  The Birch has begun to produce tender spring shoots, rough with small warts, and hairless, drooping toward the earth from whence they originally came.

This time of year, I fondly recall Browning’s Oh to Be in England Now That April’s There, and my year in Cambridge walking along the pathway adjacent to the riotous flowering bulb gardens along the Backs of the Cam River, as it meandered through the University’s Colleges arranged along the ancient waterway.  Like other visitors I was smitten by The Bridge of Sighs, a covered bridge belonging to St. Johns College of Cambridge University where I was a visiting faculty member.  It was built in 1831 and crosses the River Cam between the college's Third Court and New Court, designed by Henry Hutchinson. Though it was named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, there is little architecturally in common other than they are both covered.  I traversed the bridge Wednesdays just before 7pm when joining my faculty host for dinner at High Table at St.Johns, Royal Society Professor Robert Hinde, who was a Don in that college.

St John's College was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.  Three hundred fifty plus years later when Minnesota became a state, settlers tilling the soil, discovered some familiar and less familiar flowering plants in meadows and along the banks of rivers and streams.  Notably the spectacular pink and white Lady’s Slipper, a member of the orchid family, which was described in detail in Warren Upham’s book, Northland Flowers in 1883, which chronicled over 1600 Minnesota wildflowers. Minnesota wild flowers are mostly white and yellow, though some radiate pale sapphire, like the Blue Creeping Bellflower and there is the soft periwinkle of Virginia Spring Beauty.  But brilliant white Bloodroot and of course Black Eyed Susan, vivid yellow with a black central “eye” are colors pervading most Minnesota meadows and stream banks.

These harbingers of Spring have been occurring for at least five or six millennia, and will continue evolving despite the anachronistic actions of some American politicians and their patrons, who would like to turn back the clock a mere 100 years to the era of the American Robber Barons. Shakespeare presciently wrote, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York” (Richard III, 1594). Put another way, my father in law Erich Leyens was fond of reminding us all of the Persian aphorism, “This Too Shall Pass,” though some assistance may be required in the process.

I harken back to Percy Bysshe Shelley, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”   

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Life-Style Pick Up Trucks: A Badge of Honor?

Between sips of coffee a couple of mornings ago I was watching a news report of Barrack Obama giving a speech somewhere or other, talking about the importance of reducing our dependency on foreign oil.  Among other presidents who have given similar speeches were George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy (I think Kennedy said something like that).  Over this period, America's foreign oil dependence has increased from 36% to over 66%. That’s another way of saying this isn’t an altogether new idea, and suggesting it isn’t helpful unless it is followed by concrete actions to do something about it.  

President Obama has stated he intended to meet his goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil by one third by 2025, partly by increasing domestic oil and gas production while creating incentives for more alternative energy production and reducing consumption through greater fuel efficiency standards.  He’s offered a carrot to the Republicans (more oil drilling, which will only help the oil companies selling it to India and China and do nothing for the rest of the US) and one to progressives (improved fuel efficiency standards and wind, solar and biofuels).  Better than a sharp stick in the eye, but not much.

One way of reducing the need for domestic as well as foreign oil is by reducing consumption.  We all have our favorite pet peeves about wasted energy, from more efficient light bulbs, to better insulation for our homes.  My bellyache is about something we, you and I, dear reader, can actually do something, that would have a big impact. It does not require action by the hopeless Republicans in the House of Representatives, who are opposed to nearly all governmental institutions, and who are striving to turn the country back to Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding’s policies that produced the first great Depression (oops, shouldn’t have said that!). No, it is about driving gas-guzzling private vehicles, pickups, SUVs and other trucks for no practical reason whatsoever.

US roadways are clogged with over 251 million private motor vehicles, including automobiles, pickup trucks, SUVs and vans and truck-like vehicles.  Around 41% of them are pickup trucks, vans, SUVs and other larger truck-like vehicles (   Until some time in the late 1960s, pickup trucks and coveralls were mainstays of farmers and other people in rural America. Rural Americans needed them for their daily farm work. City slickers like most of us tended to look with amusement at such icons of country culture.   

Interestingly enough, it was the Hippie counter culture movement beginning in the late 1960s that changed that, making wearing coveralls, especially without shirts, extraordinarily cool, and driving old used vehicles, including colorfully painted Volkswagen vans and rusty pickup trucks, a badge of honor.  Young people with beards and long hair and peasant dresses and sandals stood on main street in a small town in rural Minnesota gawking at a farmer in coveralls chewing on a piece of Timothy as he filled his gas tank, and whispered, “Hey, look at that guy, he’s way cool! I bet he’s living off the land.”

The 1970s spawned “Life Style” Pickup Trucks.  Don Bunn of Pickup Truck.Com, defines the term "1970s Lifestyle" pickups as being those designed to cater to Americans who were immersed in travel and camping (the dreaded first energy crisis did not hit until late in 1973). Pickups, SUVs and station wagons served as tow vehicles for the family's travel trailer or camper trailer.  That was followed shortly by the Glamour Pickup Era, in which Chevrolet pickups made the transition from being merely utilitarian, to high-styled "personalized" pickups.  This was followed by the even more outlandish “Life Style” pickups of the 1980s, like the hot Shelby Dakota pickup, powered by a 318, which was capable of tearing up the asphalt in style.  Think Macho.

By the 2000s pickups had changed again. Making a lot of money and greed had become fashionable.  Showing off your affluence by the vehicle you drove became a necessity.  But instead of Caddies and Porsches, lots of upper middle class Americans chose fancy pickup trucks as their version of peacock display.  Almost half of light truck and sport-utility vehicle (SUV) sales are called “cross over vehicles”, ¼ are large pickup trucks, SUVs account for 15% or, small pickup trucks and large vans accounting for around 10%.  Men in business suits and women in dresses with brief cases were driving shiny “fashionable” pickup trucks to work. It became cool to climb down out of a very uncomfortable vehicle without falling while wearing high heels when you arrived at work.

According to the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association, there are two types of pickup-truck buyers: the mainstream consumers and the enthusiasts. Mainstream consumers typically purchased pickups for work or utility purposes, such as tradesmen (carpenters, plumbers, roofers), businessmen who need to haul and deliver products and farmers.  The remainder are called “enthusiasts,” who tended to buy pickups simply because they loved trucks. Enthusiasts are more likely to own toys that need to be towed to the deserts, lakes and race tracks, and are most interested in accessorizing their vehicles with chrome wheels and exhausts and decorated Tonneau covers on the back. My interest is in the “Enthusiasts.”

According to Mike Accavitti, Director of Dodge Brand Marketing and Communications for Chrystler, “The biggest problem for truck sellers is that a lot of truck buyers never needed trucks in the first place…. these truck buyers used their mighty 4x4s for the crucial task of “hauling air,” …. That means they never tow, they never haul, and they never go off-road,” he said. They might occasionally haul a load of mulch or shuttle a kid off to college, but that was the extent of their truck use. 

When I park my Camry Hybrid in the parking lot by Borders Bookstore or Walgreens, I do my best to peer over and around the huge trucks that surround me on all sides as I negotiate my way into a parking space,  which is all but impossible.  Parking has become a nightmare because of these behemoth vehicles parking in places meant for automobiles.  As I exit my low profile Camry, I peer into the truck beds on either side expecting to see bales or hay or maybe a steer trussed up.  They are usually empty, but occasionally one contains a flat of daisies for the garden and a bag of soil mix, or depending on the season, their kids’ soccer gear.  Those SUV’s?  Right, the family drives them up North to the cabin or over to the St.Croix River a couple times each summer pulling the boat.  That’s right a couple of times. The rest of the time, it’s trips to the Cub store and schlepping the kid to speech therapy once a week.

While some men buy cars solely with the hope that their ride will get women to look at them, other guys buy machines designed to make everyone stare. Whether it’s an uncorked Harley, a Maybach or a Fly Yellow Ferrari some vehicles are purchased only for their ability to turn heads. [Soda Head: Top 10 Reasons to Buy a Pick-Up Truck]

Then there are women pickup truck and SUV drivers.  Sport utility vehicles are quickly becoming women's cars -- 40% of all SUV sales are to women, and the proportion is growing.
-(Mother Jones Magazine, 1999).  "A lot more women are buying a pickup truck for themselves, for their lifestyle," said automotive journalist Courtney Caldwell, of American Women Road and Travel…. "l have guys that wave to me and I don't even know who they are," she said. "They just wave because they see the truck and they see who's driving it and they're just amazed." "That's what it is. It's about lifestyle."  Actually it’s about getting guys to look at you.  [Dean Reynolds, Ford Marketing Trucks to Women. ABC News].

Oh, then there is the little matter of fuel economy.  Most pickup trucks get 15 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway, while some like the GMC Yukon and the Chevy Suburban LT2500 have much worse mileage.  Let’s not even consider the basic Hummer that gets 12/18 miles per gallon.  But I guess mileage isn’t every thing.  You’ve seen all those ads on television showing these rough and tough vehicles like the Chevy Silverado heavy duty pulling a freight train, a Toyota Tundra towing a trailer over a giant see-saw and a Ford F-150 stopping a landing C-123 cargo plane.  Or maybe you’ve seen the Dodge Ram careening wildly across an untamed desert or a creek bed with mud flying in all directions, you know, just the kind of stuff you typically do on Saturdays between dropping your kids off at dance lessons and a trip to the dry cleaner.

My Camry Hybrid gets about 32 MPGs in town and 36-38 on the highway.  I know that’s backward from what Toyota says should happen, but what can I say.  That pales alongside the Ford Fusion’s mileage is 25/45, the Honda Insight gets 29/45 and and the Prius is 45/48, about 2-3 times better gas mileage than the “Life Style” guzzlers. Within the next 5-10 years there will be at least a dozen electric cars available in the US.  It isn't as though American drivers have no good options. 

About 41% of all motor vehicles driven by individual drivers in the US are pickup trucks, SUVs, vans and other larger trucks, all of them getting appalling gas mileage. Read that: dismal, awful, terrible, , grotesque, inexcusable or worse.  A lot of those gas-guzzlers are driven by city slickers or suburbanites like me, who don’t need them for any real practical purpose. I’m not a carpenter or roofer, like that woman over there in the pickup wearing a frilly dress and pearls who is driving her daughter to school. I’m sure she needs her pickup for her job at the boutique in the Galleria. 

The time is long overdue that it becomes socially fashionable to drive a vehicle that gets reasonable gas mileage.  Self-indulgence is no longer a badge of honor in a country in which 16.8% of the people are unemployed or underemployed.  

There are better ways to get a woman or guy to look at you than driving a pickup truck.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

What Has Uncle Sam Done For You Lately?

According to Republicans in Congress, your tax money supporting federal programs is being poured down the drain with nothing to show for it.  Baloney. Worse than baloney, lies.  Consider the following examples

Environmental Protection Agency: The Koch Refining Co./N-Ren Corp toxic disposal site in Minnesota’s Pine Bend area covers 50 square miles.  EPA made an extensive investigation of wells in and near the site indicating persistent seepage from holding ponds, lagoons, and spent bauxite piles on property owned by Koch and N-Ren that was contaminating ground water with lead and phenols. About 1,600 people, as well as a school serving 2,600 students daily, used wells within 3 miles of the site as a source of drinking water.  The site was cleaned up with money from Koch/N-Ren and from the EPA Superfund. Now the kids aren't being poisoned any longer. Hundreds of more examples like this.

Center for Disease Control:  CDCs Outbreak Response Branch responds rapidly to outbreaks of infectious diseases, including food-born illnesses.  Recently, more than 500 million eggs were recalled after dangerous levels of Salmonella were detected in the eggs of two Iowa producers. Two thousand illnesses related to this outbreak were reported between May and October 2010. People infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, vomiting and abdominal cramps12 to 72 hours after infection. In most cases, the illness lasts 4 to 7 days and most people recover without specific treatment.  However, in some people's cases the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient becomes dangerously dehydrated and must be hospitalized where they receive intravenous fluids, and medications for the and painful symptoms. In severe cases, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites, and can cause death. The Tea Party folks want to slash the CDC. 
Food and Drug Administration:  The FDA Foods Program has identified E. Coli, the same bacteria that is in fecal matter, in lettuce from Arizona, and in Hazel nuts, resulting in very serious illnesses and food recalls in seven cases including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Food destined for human consumption, including meat and poultry, are also known to harbor intestinal bacteria. These bacteria include organisms such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli, and Enterococcus.  In a Joint project with the CDC, FDA identified such contamination in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee and removed the products from the market and cautioned farmers against the use of antimicrobial agents that lead to resistant strains of these toxin-producing bacteria.

The National Institutes of Health based in Bethesda, MD is the backbone of American medicine and health care.  The basic research that led to development of nearly every medicine sold by a pharmaceutical company in the US, was originally conducted by research sponsored by NIH. Among NIH-sponsored medical breakthroughs have been new treatments to reduce the risk of heart and vascular disease, effective treatments for some kinds of cancers and new treatments for diabetes. Researchers using funds from NIH have developed vaccines to prevent chickenpox. Since the vaccine was introduced, the number of hospitalizations and deaths from chickenpox has declined more than 90 percent.  The hepatitis B virus (HBV) attacks the liver. Chronic (long-lasting) HBV infection increases a person’s risk of liver disease, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer, liver failure, and death.  In 2006, about 4,700 new cases of acute hepatitis B were reported, a decline of about 75 percent of reported cases since the vaccine was introduced in 1981. Polio was the scourge of the 1950s.  Of people who become paralyzed, about 2 to 5 percent of children and 15 to 30 percent of adults died from the disease. Before the Polio vaccine was introduced 13,000 to 20,000 cases of paralytic polio were reported each year in the United States alone.  Due to the widespread use of the Polio vaccine, only 2,000 cases were reported worldwide in 2006. 

NIH researchers discovered that Toxoplasmosis is an infection contracted from contact with cat feces, insects and birds.  Pregnant women who contract the disease are at high risk of giving it to their unborn babies via the placenta.  Up to half of the fetuses which become infected with toxoplasmosis during the pregnancy are born prematurely, and have damage to the baby's vision and brain, resulting in seizures and intellectual disabiltity, skin problems, and deafness.  NIH has sponsored a campaign to inform obstetricians and family doctors to warn women about the dangers of exposure to these sources of contamination during pregnancy, as well as a public health campaign to alert pregnant women.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issues weather forecasts state by state and county by county including hurricane, tornado, blizzard, flooding and maritime weather forecasts and warnings to ocean going vessels.  NOAA monitors over 4500 water level gauges throughout the US to provide flood warnings to cities, smaller communities and rural areas, constantly updating flood estimates hour by hour in high risk areas.  In the past three years NOAA has issued an average of 1376 tornado warnings throughout the US per year.  Thanks to increasing accuracy in warnings the number of deaths have declined.  NOAA tracks shrinking of polar ice caps, which the Republicans especially hate because it confirms the planet is gradually warming due to excess carbon emissions. They are like the three monkeys with their hands over their ears, eyes and mouths (no talking about it either!).

Social Security:  Republicans claim younger workers would have more money for retirement if they invested their Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds.  The Social Security is remarkably efficient, with overhead costs of only about 1%. Private accounts have an overhead cost of 15%, which comes directly out of earnings. T.Rowe Price’s stock investment return calculator projects a 10%, return, of which you pay 15% in overhead.  So you invest $1000, earn $100 for a total of $1100, but you pay 15% to the brokerage firm for handling the transaction, so you end up with $935.  Nice.
So when you hear Boehner, Canter or McConnell belittling the accomplishments of your federal government's agencies,  ask them what planet they've been living on.  Better yet, recommend they try telling the truth. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Board Certification: What Does it Mean?

Professional certification involves being able to competently complete a job or task, usually demonstrated by the passing an examination after specified educational experience.  In first-party certification, an individual or organization, such as a training facility providing the service offers assurance that it meets certain claims. In second-party certification, an association to which the individual or organization belongs provides the assurance.  Third-party certification involves an independent assessment declaring that specified requirements pertaining to a product, person, process or management system have been met.  In medicine and psychology, second party certification is conducted by national bodies or organizations, such as a professional society.  Third party certification is used in psychology licensure. Board Certification is common in medicine and less common in psychology.  Consider four examples:

Mary Smith*, MD has a certificate on her office wall that says she is a Board Certified Child Neurologist.  That means she has successfully completed four years of premedical education in an accredited college or university with a 3.86 grade point average, four years of medical school resulting in doctor of medicine degree, one year internship in internal medicine, 1 year of training in clinical adult Neurology, 1 year of training in the principles of neurophysiology, neuropathology, neuroradiology, neuroophthalmology, psychiatry, rehabilitation, neurological surgery, neurodevelopment, and the basic neurosciences and one year of training specifically in clinical Child Neurology.  She also completed a two-year fellowship in Neurodevelopmental Behavioral Pediatrics. Her total college and post-graduate training was 14 years.

Jane Roberts*, PhD, has a certificate on her office wall that says she is a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist.  She completed four years of undergraduate school at an accredited university majoring in psychology with a 3.8 grade point average, four years in an American Psychological Association Accredited doctoral training program.  In her last year she completed supervised clinical rotations in three settings, 20 hours per week in a child guidance clinic, an inpatient hospital unit for severely disturbed children and in a community residential program for youth with substance abuse problems. In each she was supervised by an experienced licensed psychologist. During her rotations she had practice doing interviewing, administering and interpreting examinations and some experience with therapy.  After completing her PhD, she devoted a year in an approved Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers program. She then passed the Examination for Practicing Professional Psychologists (EPPP) which is a national exam required of all licensed psychologist.  She worked as clinical psychologist for several years at a university hospital outpatient clinic, then applied for Board Certification as a Clinical Psychologist. The Association of Board Certified Professional Psychologist certification process included 1) Credentials Review, 2) Peer-reviewed Practice Samples and 3) Oral Examination conducted by board certified psychologists.  She completed all of these hurdles and is now a Board Certified Professional Psychologist.  Her total college and post-college training and practicum experience was 14 years.

Jan Green*, MA is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She completed a four-year degree in education at an accredited state college, including one course in psychology, one in child development, courses in curriculum, educational inclusion and diversity, literacy and classroom management as well as completing the other liberal arts distribution requirements, with a 2.7 grade point average.  She enrolled in an on-line MA/BCBA course offered by an established brick and mortar state college.  She completed four on-line behavior analysis courses and one elective in Kinesiology. She worked in a public school special education classroom as a paraprofessional aide that included several students with autism.  The school psychologist for her district, who is a BCBA, supervised her practicum experience, which consisted of performing observational assessments concerning a child with ADHD, designing an intervention for one student with Asperger Disorder and conducting a functional behavioral assessment for another labeled emotionally disturbed. She passed the Behavior Analyst Certification Board examination and is now working for a private company as a BCBA consultant to other community agencies.  She has a total of four undergraduate years of college in elementary education plus four post-graduate courses on behavior analysis, and practicum experience with three students.

John Jones*, MS, has a certificate on his wall that says he is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.  He completed two years in a community college enrolled in pre-business classes with passing grades, then transferred to a commercial on-line college where he studied to be a dietician. He had difficulty with some of the chemistry classes.  To pay his way through college he worked at a group home for adults with Intellectual Disabilities, two of whom had autism.  He became interested in autism, and enrolled in a commercial on-line university where he completed four required classes in behavior analysis and took an additional elective class in personnel practices, and was awarded a Masters Degree.  He purchased a BCBA exam preparation pack for $295 dollars and read Heron, Cooper and Heward’s textbook Applied Behavior Analysis. He continued working in the group home, and a certified BCBA who consulted for the group home “signed off” on his work at the group home as supervised behavior analysis experience while he assisted with several residents with behavior challenges.  He spent six weeks one summer volunteering for a summer camp for children with autism.  He passed the national examination offered by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board.  He is now is in private practice providing Early Intensive Behavior Intervention services to 2-7 year old children with autism and billing Medicaid and private insurance for his services. He has hired several high-school graduates to work for him conducting most of the hands-on intervention which he supervises. His total college and post-college training was 2 years at a community college, two years at a commercial on-line dietician’s college, and four on-line courses in behavior analysis.  Most of his supervised experience was with adults with developmental disabilities, not children with autism.

The meaning of Board Certification varies enormously with the specific field of specialization.  Fourteen years of in depth classwork in basic medical and clinical sciences, and years of supervised clinical training on differential diagnosis and a wide range of treatment strategies on one hand, versus two years of business class, two years of dietics classes and four 3-credit behavior analysis classes, and assisting with behavioral intervention clinical services to several adult clients with developmental disabilities, on the other. Even the person who graduated from a college of education had limited relevant coursework to prepare her for a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis. The two types of Board Certification are obviously worlds apart, meaning very different things.

Some Master’s Degree/BCBA programs in Behavior Analysis offered by recognized bricks-and-mortar universities are more demanding and involve closer, hands-on supervision by commendably experienced mentors, as in Jan Green’s case above.  Some integrate face to face with on-line instruction.  But there is nothing in the Behavior Analysis Certification Board requirements that mandates that adequate supervised experience is obtained. The amount of supervised experience received by many BCBA's appears to be minimal.

While Gertrude Stein may have been right that a rose is a rose is a rose, regrettably it isn’t the case that board certification is board certification is board certification.

[* While the names are fictitious the descriptions are representative of training experiences of varying types of board certified individuals.]