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.

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