Category Archives: opinion pieces

The Last Straw(s)

A crusade against plastic drinking straws?  Huh?

At first glance, it may strike you as frivolous.  But it’s not.  In fact, it’s pretty darned serious.

In California, the city of Berkeley may kick off such a crusade.   In June, the city council directed its staff to research what would be California’s first city ordinance prohibiting the use of plastic drinking straws in bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.

Berkeley is responding to efforts by nonprofit groups like the Surfrider Foundation that want to eliminate a significant source of pollution in our oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water. According to the conservation group Save the Bay, the annual cleanup days held on California beaches have found that plastic straws and stirrers are the sixth most common kind of litter.  If they’re on our beaches, they’re flowing into the San Francisco Bay, into the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately into oceans all over the world.

As City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, a co-author of the proposal to study the ban, has noted, “They are not biodegradable, and there are alternatives.”

I’ve been told that plastic straws aren’t recyclable, either.  So whenever I find myself using a plastic straw to slurp my drink, I conscientiously separate my waste:  my can of Coke Zero goes into the recycling bin; my plastic straw goes into the landfill bin.  This is nuts.  Banning plastic straws in favor of paper ones is the answer.

Realistically, it may be a tough fight to ban plastic straws because business interests (like the Monster Straw Co. in Laguna Beach) want to keep making and selling them.  And business owners claim that they’re more cost-effective, leading customers to prefer them.  As Monster’s founder and owner, Natalie Buketov, told the SF Chronicle, “right now the public wants cheap plastic straws.”

Berkeley could vote on a ban by early 2018.

On the restaurant front, some chefs would like to see the end of plastic straws.  Spearheading a growing movement to steer eateries away from serving straws is Marcel Vigneron, owner-chef of Wolf Restaurant on Melrose Avenue in L.A.  Vigneron, who’s appeared on TV’s “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef,” is also an enthusiastic surfer, and he’s seen the impact of straw-pollution on the beaches and marine wildlife.  He likes the moniker “Straws Suck” to promote his effort to move away from straws, especially the play on words:  “You actually use straws to suck, and they suck because they pollute the oceans,” he told CBS in July.

Vigneron added that if a customer wants a straw, his restaurant has them.  But servers ask customers whether they want a straw instead of automatically putting them into customers’ drinks.  He notes that every day, 500 million straws are used in the U.S., and they could “fill up 127 school buses.”  He wants to change all that.

Drinking straws have a long history.  Their origins were apparently actual straw, or other straw-like grasses and plants.  The first paper straw, made from paper coated with paraffin wax, was patented in 1888 by Marvin Stone, who didn’t like the flavor of a rye grass straw added to his mint julep.  The “bendy” paper straw was patented in 1937.  But the plastic straw took off, along with many other plastic innovations, in the 1960s, and nowadays they’re difficult to avoid.

Campaigns like Surfrider’s have taken off because of mounting concern with plastic pollution.  Surfrider, which has also campaigned against other threats to our oceans, like plastic bags and cigarette butts, supports the “Straws Suck” effort, and according to author David Suzuki, Bacardi has joined with Surfrider in the movement to ban plastic straws.

Our neighbors to the north have already leaped ahead of California.  The town of Tofino in British Columbia claims that it mounted the very first “Straws Suck” campaign in 2016.  By Earth Day in April that year, almost every local business had banned plastic straws.  A fascinating story describing this effort appeared in the Vancouver Sun on April 22, 2016.

All of us in the U.S., indeed the world, need to pay attention to what plastic is doing to our environment.  “At the current rate, we are really headed toward a plastic planet,” according to the author of a study reported in the journal Science Advances, reported by AP in July.  Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, noted that there’s enough discarded plastic to bury Manhattan under more than 2 miles of trash.

Geyer used the plastics industry’s own data to find that the amount of plastics made and thrown out is accelerating.  In 2015, the world created more than twice as much as it made in 1998.

The plastics industry has fought back, relying on the standard of cost-effectiveness.  It claims that alternatives to plastic, like glass, paper, or aluminum, would require more energy to produce.  But even if that’s true, the energy difference in the case of items like drinking straws would probably be minimal.  If we substitute paper straws for plastic ones, the cost difference would likely be negligible, while the difference for our environment—eliminating all those plastic straws floating around in our waterways–could be significant.

Aside from city bans and eco-conscious restaurateurs, we need to challenge entities like Starbucks.  The mega-coffee-company and coffeehouse-chain prominently offers, even flaunts, brightly-colored plastic straws for customers sipping its cold drinks.  What’s worse:  they happily sell them to others!  Just check out the Starbucks straws for sale on Amazon.com.  Knowing what we know about plastic pollution, I think Starbucks’s choice to further pollute our environment by selling its plastic straws on the Internet is unforgivable.

At the end of the day, isn’t this really the last straw?

 

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Looking Back…The Election of 1984 (Part II)

I wrote Part I of this blog post in late 1984.  In Part I, I commented on the campaign for president and vice president that had occurred that fall.

Part II, also written in 1984, offered my thoughts at the time about what might take place post-1984.

During the past 32 years, we’ve seen another major political party nominate a woman to be vice president.  In my view, the selection of Sarah Palin as that candidate in 2008 was John McCain’s replication of Walter Mondale’s unhappy selection of Geraldine Ferraro.  It was perhaps even more detrimental to McCain because he probably had a better chance of being elected president than Mondale had in 1984. Palin was even more untested as a political figure than Ferraro, having served only as a suburban mayor and a recently elected governor of a small state.  She soon demonstrated her lack of experience and knowledge of national issues, making her a genuine liability for McCain, who lost the support of many voters who might have otherwise been inclined to vote for him.

In 2016, American voters finally have the opportunity to select a woman as their president.  This time she’s a woman with a great deal of experience in public life and vast knowledge of the issues confronting our nation.  Although, as a candidate, Hillary Clinton hasn’t inspired unbridled enthusiasm, she’s as close to a “woman candidate of national stature” (to use my own words) as we’ve ever had.  In 1984, I predicted that a “woman candidate of national stature” whose position “represents the majority thinking in this country” would be “a realistic candidate,…and she will win.”

Was I right?

Here’s exactly what I wrote in 1984:

 

PART II

How does this leave things for the future?  Putting aside the personal future of Geraldine Ferraro, which is probably bright, what about other women candidates?  And what about the possibility of any woman being nominated and elected to the presidency or vice presidency of this country?  The Mondale-Ferraro defeat should not and must not be read as a defeat for women candidates in general.  Ferraro’s assets, both as a candidate and as a human being, are considerable, but, to be honest, she joined the campaign largely unknown and untested.
Another woman candidate might well fare otherwise.

Twenty-five years ago [i.e., in 1959], Margaret Chase Smith, a well-known and respected Republican U.S. Senator from Maine, announced her candidacy for the presidency.  She never had a realistic shot at it in that benighted era, but she might have had one in the 1980s.  She had established herself through a number of terms in the House of Representatives and the Senate, had climbed up the ladder in the Senate to committee chairmanships, and had become a recognized and admired figure on the national political scene.  A woman presenting similar credentials in the 1980s would bring a credibility to a national ticket that Ferraro, as a relative newcomer to the political arena, could not.  For this reason it’s important that women continue to run for political office on the state and local level, building political careers that will lead to the White House after they have achieved national stature—not before.

In all of the fuss made over Ferraro’s candidacy, something important was forgotten.  It’s not desirable for any political party to nominate a candidate solely or even primarily because that candidate is a woman or a black or a Hispanic—or a white Anglo male, for that matter.  The selection process must be based on the totality of what any given candidate will bring to the office.  The Democrats were wrong to select a woman candidate largely because she was a woman (those who said that a man with Ferraro’s credentials would never have been considered were—however painful it is to admit—correct).  They were wrong because Americans do not, and should not, vote for “symbols.”  When it became clear that Jesse Jackson wasn’t a candidate with a broad-based constituency but had become a “black” candidate and nothing more, that was the death knell for any realistic chance he had of winning the nomination.  But saying that is not saying that no black candidate can ever win.

Women candidates and candidates who are members of minority groups have run for office and won broad-based electoral support where they have been viewed as representing the best interests of a majority of the electorate.  But women and others who are viewed as “symbols,” representing only that segment of the electorate from which they came, will never win that sort of broad-based support.  On the contrary, their candidacies may serve only to polarize voters, leading to strife and bitterness among the electorate, and probable if not certain defeat at the ballot box.

When Mondale chose Ferraro, he already had the votes of the politically aware women for whom Ferraro became a symbol by virtue of his position on such issues as the ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] and [the issue of] comparable worth.  He would not have lost the votes of those women no matter what else he did.  Likewise, Reagan didn’t have the votes of those women and wouldn’t have had them no matter what he did.  Even in the unimaginable event that Reagan had selected a woman running-mate, she would have had to be a woman whose thinking was compatible with his, and if she had endorsed Reagan’s views on the ERA (á la Phyllis Schlafly), feminists wouldn’t have been any more likely to vote for Reagan-Schlafly than Reagan-Bush.  It shouldn’t therefore be terribly difficult to understand why women who were otherwise happy with Reagan weren’t inclined to switch to Mondale simply because of Ferraro.

In sum, women voters are really not very different from men voters, and Democratic strategists who thought otherwise were proved wrong in 1984.  Women vote their interests, and these do not necessarily coincide with what is popularly perceived as “women’s” interests.  Women, like men, are concerned about the economy, our country’s status in the world, and a host of other matters along with the particular concerns they may have as women.

When a woman candidate of national stature emerges whose position on these interests represents the majority thinking in the country, she will be a realistic candidate for the vice presidency or the presidency, and she will win.

Have You Measured Your Face Lately?

I always figured that the way people look has something to do with their success. Let’s face it. We’re all constantly being judged by others, and some of those judgments are based on how we look.

How important is appearance? The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book, Executive Presence. Hewlett asserts that three elements make up one’s “personal presence”—how you behave, how you speak, and how you look. (She also notes that “showing teeth”—being decisive when faced with hard choices—plays an important role.)

Are we short? Tall? In between? Are we slim? Pudgy? Somewhere in the middle? Are we conventionally good-looking? Or would our faces stop a clock (to use a phrase favored by my brother-in-law)?

All these factors come into play when others take a look at us and evaluate our merits. I myself come up short (literally) on at least one of them.

One factor I never took into account is the width of my face. But a recent study has come up with some astounding results, leading researchers to conclude that a wide face is worth more in the business world than a narrow one.

The overall study was run by researchers at the business school at the University of California, Riverside, along with London Business School and Columbia University. The research team, led by a UC management professor named Michael Hasehuhn, conducted a series of studies on business students with different facial-width to facial-height ratios.

According to a July report on this research in the Wall Street Journal, the earliest studies revealed that business students with wide faces were more aggressive, self-interested, and unethical. They were even more likely to lie. The researchers found, for example, that these students were more likely to resort to outright deception to close a sale. They also cheated more in games.

The more recent research focused on how these students fared in negotiations. The researchers found that men with wide faces tend to take a more competitive approach to negotiations than men with narrower faces. When the students engaged in simulated salary negotiations, the men with wider faces entered the negotiations with a more competitive mind-set and wound up negotiating a signing bonus of nearly $2,200 more than the bonus won by men with narrow faces. In simulated real-estate negotiations, a property went for a higher price to a wide-faced seller but a lower price when that same wide-faced guy was the buyer.

According to Hasehuhn, these findings are consistent with earlier research on attributes associated with wide-faced males and may have implications for all men who enter into negotiations. For example, a narrow-faced man can anticipate a more contentious exchange if he knows he will confront someone with a wider face. At the same time, wide-faced guys can “tweak” their own approach to negotiations if they expect to be perceived as more aggressive.

Because these findings struck me as somewhat sketchy, I sought the opinion of a nationally-recognized negotiator, Ron Shapiro. In his over-forty-year career as a negotiator in the worlds of law, sports, business, and politics, Shapiro has conducted successful negotiations on behalf of high-profile clients like Cal Ripken Jr., negotiating more than $1 billion in contracts, even resolving a symphony orchestra strike. He’s also cofounded the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, where he trains people in a variety of professions how to negotiate successfully. His best-selling books include Dare to Prepare and Perfecting Your Pitch.

Shapiro reviewed the findings of the business school researchers. Although he doesn’t question the findings, he has a totally different take on things. He believes that even if physical characteristics are assumed to have an impact on the outcomes of negotiations, “the real difference maker … on outcomes is how systematically the negotiator goes about his or her negotiation efforts.” In other words, negotiators’ skills outweigh a superficial trait like the width of their faces. He’s seen outcomes “shift markedly” after a negotiator has been “empowered” by learning the right kind of skills. He “will take that over these wide/narrow research findings any day.”

If you’ve noticed that the research findings focus entirely on men, you may be wondering: What about women? The Bloomberg Businessweek review of the research noted that women didn’t benefit from “the perks of a wide mug.” Apparently, when men see their faces in the mirror, a wide-faced man gets a rush of power but a wide-faced woman doesn’t. Hasehuhn told Businessweek he thinks biology plays a role. “Men with wider faces tend to have higher circulating rates of testosterone,” and he claims that this higher level has been linked to feeling powerful.

Where is the support for Hesehuhn’s biological theory? I’m not sure. Maybe he’ll reveal it when his paper is published in an upcoming issue of Leadership Weekly.

In the meantime, as a woman, I’m apparently immune to the wide-faced/narrow-faced dichotomy. But if you’re a man, maybe you should think about measuring your face sometime.

On second thought, you’d be wise (if not wide) to take Ron Shapiro’s advice and focus instead on sharpening your negotiating skills. Women should do the same.

And maybe, when appropriate, you should show your teeth—no matter what kind of face they’re in.

What Shall We Do About Plastic Bags?

The fate of plastic bags is up in the air. While we ponder their future, they’re accumulating by the millions in countless landfills (or worse, in our oceans).

Before plastic bags existed, people wrapped things in paper bags (generally brown ones). My mother stuffed our sandwiches into waxed paper bags (which didn’t work very well to keep them fresh). Retail stores offered their own paper bags featuring stores’ logos. And the paper shopping bag eventually made its appearance.

When plastic bags first came on the scene in a big way in the 1960s, they were a revelation. They were lightweight and could be folded inside your purse or briefcase, allowing you to reuse them. They kept wet things from getting everything else wet. They were useful for wrapping smelly garbage (and, eventually, smelly diapers).

Once I discovered the virtues of plastic bags, I began saving them, and saving them, and saving them. I still do. My deplorable status as a “saver” has led to a huge stash of colorful plastic bags. I justify it by constantly reusing them.

Despite their many virtues, plastic bags have become a menace, and the movement to ban plastic bags is gaining steam. San Francisco led the way in 2007 as the first city to ban them. Initially banning them at chain grocery stores and drugstores, SF extended the ban to all retail stores and restaurants in 2012.

Since 2007, plastic bags have been banned in nearly 100 municipalities in the state of California, and right now Los Angeles is the largest city in the country to enforce the ban. According a recent article in The New York Times, more than 150 communities across the U.S. have embraced some sort of bag ordinance. These include cities like Honolulu, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Even New York City is moving—slowly–towards a ban. In March the city council introduced legislation that would charge customers a fee for both plastic and paper bags at most city stores.

Wherever plastic bags are currently banned, paper bags are available for a small fee. (Most retailers in San Francisco now charge 10 cents.) So here in SF, we rely more and more on paper bags. And that’s OK. They tend to be biodegradable and recyclable, and many San Franciscans use them to store items destined for recycling until we can get to a bin.

We also use even sturdier reusable tote bags in bright patterns and colors. My favorites are large tote bags made from recycled plastic bottles, like those featuring color reproductions of classic Audubon prints, available for a donation to the National Audubon Society.

But plastic bags still offer some distinct advantages. They’re great repositories of smelly wet garbage, they don’t fall apart in the rain, and they can be repurposed as trash-can liners and lunch bags. Banning them completely would mean saying goodbye to all that.

But the winds of social change are blowing through California, where some legislators are now vigorously proposing a total ban on single-use plastic bags throughout the state. A similar statewide ban has been proposed before. But the plastics industry, with millions of dollars to spend on lobbying lawmakers, has so far succeeded in quashing these efforts.

The Times reports that one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bags, Hilex Poly, spent more than $1 million in California lobbying against a 2010 effort that, not surprisingly, failed. According to The Times, this South Carolina firm later donated to every Democrat in the California Senate who joined Republicans to defeat another bill proposed in 2013.

This year support for a statewide ban has new momentum. The Los Angeles Times has endorsed it, and several legislators who opposed the bill last year have made a U-turn and announced their support.

Another manufacturer has even jumped on the bandwagon. Command Packaging has started increasing its production of heavy-duty reusable bags, made from recycled agricultural plastic, and now supports the current bill. The California bill would allow stores to offer these more durable plastic bags—for a fee–alongside paper ones.

Not surprisingly, environmental groups are in hot pursuit of the ban. The California League of Conservation Voters recently recited the grim statistics: Californians still use an astonishing 20 billion plastic bags every year. Because they aren’t usually recycled, they contribute to marine pollution as well as urban pollution. California has a long coastline, and many of its rivers and streams lead right into bays like San Francisco Bay and the ocean. CLCV estimates that most plastic bags ultimately end up in the ocean, where 60 to 80% of all marine debris is plastic. Captain Paul Watson, executive director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, estimates that 7 million tons of plastic are currently floating in our oceans.

The result is horrific. Birds, fish, and animals like sea otters drown, suffocate, or are strangled by plastic bags. Sea turtles, whose diet is largely made of up jellyfish, frequently mistake plastic bags for their favorite food and die when they consume them.

The long-term solution to plastic bags may lie in composting. In San Francisco, where composting of food scraps and items like food-soiled paper plates and cups has been mandatory since 2009, we can purchase biodegradable plastic bags in which to stuff our compost. As the rest of the country moves toward composting, this kind of bag will become more readily available, and the problem of non-biodegradable plastic bags will largely disappear. Unfortunately, the increasing use of composting won’t happen very soon.

I strongly support the proposed statewide ban in California–although I admit it’s easy for me to support it, thanks to the immense supply of plastic bags lurking in my closet. Because of the new momentum favoring a ban, plastic bags appear to be on the endangered list, at least in California. And let’s face it, once it happens in California, it will begin to happen elsewhere in the U.S. Someday our great-grandchildren will gaze in wonder at the colorful plastic bags displayed for their amusement in the museums of the future.

But in the meantime, are there are any new uses for plastic bags that would justify their continued existence?

A Nigerian artist has come up with one. Ifeoma Anyeaji, a Nigerian artist visiting at the Godown Art Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, was the focus of a profile in the Daily Nation last September. (The Daily Nation is an independent and influential Kenyan newspaper headquartered in Nairobi.) According to a Lonely Planet publication on Kenya, the Godown Art Centre is “a hub for Nairobi’s burgeoning arts scene.”

Once she arrived there, Anyeaji (known as Ify) began collecting discarded plastic bags. As a visual artist, she could use commonly used media like oil and acrylic. But she chose to work with plastic bags and bottles to promote the reusability of discarded materials. She sees plastic bags as “a global issue,” polluting the environment, “and so I thought of a way to make use of them.” Her technique? Threading and weaving the bags, ultimately creating colorful structures. This technique resembles the traditional hair-braiding and fabric warp-weft weaving popular in Nigeria. As a little girl, Ify was good at threading, the art of weaving hair with threads, “and this is the technique I wanted to incorporate into my work.”

Preparing the bags isn’t simple. After collecting the bags, Ify cleans and shreds them. Then she wraps them into strings, like ropes, and works them into intricate patterns. The patterns are then shaped into structures, including furniture, some of which is functional as well as works of art.

Ify sees herself in a broader context, noting that the world is mainly composed of recycled ideas, where one concept is borrowed and then embellished to be used elsewhere. Her view of the art world, and of herself as part of it, may have been influenced by her time studying in the U.S. After receiving her degree in painting at the University of Benin in Nigeria, she studied art at Washington University in St. Louis, receiving a graduate degree in environmental sculpture.

So…until we see the total demise of the single-use plastic bag, we can treasure creative people like Ify and hope that these bags will be repurposed, becoming useful and perhaps even beautiful objects. Unfortunately, Ify will almost certainly have an ample supply for many years to come.

Hey There, Handsome!

Hey, handsome!  You know who you are.  You’re a charitable donor to at least one worthy cause you support.

Say what? 

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur C. Brooks, the head of a nonprofit organization, accumulated a wealth of data to support the conclusion that giving to charity makes us happier, healthier, and yes, even better-looking.

First, according to one study cited by Brooks, happiness and giving are strongly correlated.  A survey by the University of Chicago showed that charitable givers are 43% more likely to say they are “very happy” than non-givers.  By contrast, non-givers are 3.5 times more likely to say they are “not happy at all.”  Wow!

But is it really charitable giving that makes us happier, or is it the reverse?  Another study provided one answer.  Researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia found that the amount of money subjects spent on themselves was “inconsequential for happiness,” but spending on others resulted in significant gains in happiness. 

In another study, University of Oregon researchers asked people to divide $100 between a food pantry and their own wallets.  The researchers used a brain-scanner to see what happened.  It turned out that choosing the charitable option lighted up the brain’s center of pleasure and reward, the same center that lights up because of pleasurable music, addictive drugs, and a mother’s bond with her children.

Are we also healthier when we act in a charitable way?  Brooks cited several studies that say we are.  A University of Buffalo psychologist recently studied more than 800 residents of Detroit and found that volunteering for a charity significantly lowered the association between stressful life-events and death. 

Two studies conducted in California lent further support to this notion.  When researchers at Stanford and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging tracked nearly 2000 older Americans over a nine-year period, they found that the dedicated volunteers in the group were 56% more likely to have survived all nine years than non-volunteers who started out in identical health.  A study of teenagers yielded even more support.  In 2008, the University of California reported that altruistic teenagers were physically and mentally healthier later in their lives than their less generous peers.

And now we get to our most intriguing question:  Does being charitable do anything for the way you look?  Dutch and British researchers recently showed women college students one of three videos featuring the same good-looking actor.  In the first video, he gave generously to a man begging on the street.  In the second, he appeared to give only a little money.  In the third, the actor gave nothing to the panhandler.  The result? The more he gave, the more handsome he appeared to the women in the study.

Brooks concluded that this finding explains why men loosen their wallets in an attempt to impress women.  And he uncovered one more study to support his conclusion.  A 1999 experiment conducted by the University of Liverpool showed that “eager men” on first dates gave significantly more to a panhandler than men who were already in comfortable long-term relationships.

In short, giving generously to the causes we support really does appear to boost our well-being and our esteem—even our appearance–in the eyes of others.  Although I have reservations about some of the techniques used by charities to pry money from us (see “Why Am I Suddenly a Member?” found elsewhere on this blog), I wholeheartedly support charitable giving and volunteering on behalf of worthy causes. 

The charitable men in my life have always looked good to me, and as I’ve gotten older, I find they’re looking better and better.

As for me, in addition to my feeling good about giving, I now know that it helps me look good, too.

That reminds me…where’s my checkbook?

 

 

The Demise of the Granada

When they tore down the Granada movie theater, a large chunk of me crumbled with it.

As the wreckers began dismantling the magnificent old movie palace on Chicago’s Far North Side, other moviegoers must have felt the same sense of loss.  For those of us who came of age in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a wrenching reminder of the idyllic world we inhabited back then.

I grew up at the Nortown Theater, two or three miles west of the Granada.  It was the theater we could walk to, and nearly every Saturday afternoon we made our way to the Nortown to sit beneath its dark-sky ceiling filled with scores of glittering stars, our eyes glued to the larger-than-life stars who glittered on the screen.

Saturday afternoons at the Nortown expanded my otherwise limited horizons.  I learned about the Wild West from John Wayne, criminal pursuits from Bogart and Mitchum, romance from Taylor, Monroe, and Bacall, song and dance from Garland, Kelly, and Astaire.  But when our parents finally consented to our taking the Devon Avenue bus alone, a whole new world opened up:  the world of the Granada Theater.

Life became more complicated on the screen of the Granada.  At one remarkable double-feature in 1956, I encountered both the happiness and the sorrow of a woman’s search for love.  Katharine Hepburn’s spunky heroine, in love with a very-married Rossano Brazzi in “Summertime,” and Jennifer Jones’s strong woman doctor, in love with war journalist William Holden in “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” bravely returned to their careers when their doomed love affairs ended.  An early portent of women’s liberation?  Judging from the masses of wet Kleenex we produced, I doubt it.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” introduced me to the heart-pounding suspense stirred up by Hitchcock.  I watched “Anastasia” aware of the firestorm Ingrid Bergman’s scandalous love affair had ignited in Hollywood.   And a powerful statement about the criminal justice system, “12 Angry Men,” forced me to think about the possibility of injustice in America and whether I might someday do something about it.

As I grew older, the Granada became a place to go on dates.  Teenaged boys in that era liked taking dates to movies, where their eager sweaty hands would reach out in the dark in hopes of touching something soft, warm, and female.  They had limited success, at least with me.  My date and I once watched a shockingly bad movie with Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood, “The Burning Hills.”  It was so awful that we laughed too hard to do anything else.

In the ’60s, I rarely patronized the Granada.  I left Chicago for college and grad school, and when I returned, I lived in another part of the city.  On my last visit, just before leaving Chicago once again in 1970, the theater seemed rundown and much dirtier than I remembered.  Was the Granada on the skids?

Five years later, I returned to Chicago with a husband and a baby.  Living in a suburb north of the Granada, we passed it now and then, but my busy new life left no time to seek out old haunts.  Then one day it suddenly closed.  No warning, no notice announced in the newspapers, allowed its former patrons one last chance to see it.  The doors were locked, and entry barred.

Repeated efforts to save the Granada failed, and the wrecking ball finally arrived.  As I drove by the theater on my way to teach a law-school class, I saw the wall behind the screen fall to pieces and the two-story terra cotta columns crash to the floor.  The balcony seats were exposed to view, then destroyed.  At the end, a sodden ugly mass of tangled beams and columns, entwined with an array of aging construction materials, became a hideous pile awaiting disposal.

An era had ended.  TV, VCRs, and the proliferation of movie theaters in the suburbs all played their part.  Most of the opulent movie palaces that once thrived in American cities had become dinosaurs.  And so, in 1990, the Granada died.

But like the best of the movies that appeared on its screen for more than 50 wonderful years, the memories it created have never died.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

 

“Paper or…?” Drying your hands has unexpected consequences

We’re all familiar with the following question:  Paper or plastic?

For decades, every purchase in a supermarket or drugstore has led to this question.  And for decades, many of us have wondered:  Is it better—for the environment, for my pocketbook, for my overall well-being—to request paper or plastic?  The answer hasn’t always been clear.

Never mind.  Today, in San Francisco and an increasing number of other cities, the question is moot.  Local ordinances ban plastic bags and require customers to pay for paper ones, thus encouraging shoppers to carry their own reusable bags.  The “paper or plastic” question is fast disappearing.

But now we’re confronted with a new but even more troubling question:  When we use a restroom in a public place and we wash our hands (as we’re repeatedly urged to do), should we use paper towels or an air blower?

In this case, we usually don’t have a choice.  Restaurants, stores, theaters, museums, and other institutions with restrooms for their patrons generally confront us with only one way to dry our hands:  paper towels OR air blowers.  A few establishments offer both, thereby giving us a choice, but most do not.

I’m a strong proponent of paper towels, and my position recently garnered support from an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic, Rodney Lee Thompson.

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal last December, the Mayo Clinic has published a comprehensive study of every known hand-washing study done since 1970.  The conclusion?  Drying one’s skin is essential to staving off bacteria, and paper towels are better at doing that than air blowers.

Why?  According to this study, paper towels are more efficient, they don’t splatter germs, they won’t dry out your skin, and most people prefer them (and therefore are more likely to wash their hands in the first place).

Thompson’s own study was one of those included in the overall study, and he concurs with its conclusions.  He observed people washing their hands at places like sports stadiums.  “The trouble with blowers,” he says, is that “they take so long.”  Most people dry their hands for a short time, then “wipe them on their dirty jeans, or open the door with their still-wet hands.”

Besides being time-consuming, most blowers are extremely noisy.  Their decibel level often strikes me as deafening.  Like Thompson, I think these noisy and inefficient blowers “turn people off.”

But, he adds, there’s “no downside to the paper towel,” either psychologically or environmentally.  Thompson states that electric blowers use more energy than producing a paper towel, so they don’t appear to benefit the environment either.

The air-blower industry argues that blowers reduce bacterial transmission, but studies show that the opposite is true.  Much to my surprise, these studies found that blowers tend to spread bacteria from 3 to 6 feet.  To keep bacteria from spreading, Thompson urges using a paper towel to dry your hands, opening the restroom door with it, then throwing it into the trash.

A recent episode of the popular TV series “Mythbusters” has provided new evidence to support Thompson’s conclusions.  The results of tests conducted on this program, aired in June 2013, demonstrated that paper towels are more effective at removing bacteria from one’s hands and that air blowers spread more bacteria around the blower area.

In San Francisco, many restrooms have posted signs stating that they’re composting paper towels to reduce waste.  Because San Francisco has embarked on an ambitious composting scheme, we’re not even adding paper towels to our landfills or recycling bins.  Other cities may already be doing the same, and still others (like New York City, where composting has already been proposed) will undoubtedly follow.

I strongly advocate replacing air blowers with paper towels in public restrooms.  Political leaders, including those who’ve already compelled their constituents to abandon plastic bags for the sake of the environment, should carefully review this issue as well.  If they conclude, as overwhelming evidence suggests, that paper towels are better both for our health and for the environment, they should enact local ordinances requiring that public restrooms use paper towels.

Paper or…?  The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.  The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

“One” Small Step for Humankind

Eliminating gender-bias in the English language has been a preoccupation of mine for many years.  During the 1980s, I came up with an idea that I believed would be a useful remedy for one kind of gender-bias rampant in English nouns.

My hopes that this idea would gain wide acceptance escalated when the Chicago Tribune in 1986 published a piece I wrote that advocated this change.

But despite my hopes that this idea would catch on (and although a number of people told me how much they liked it), it went nowhere.  During the intervening 27 years, everyone (including me) has moved on and dealt with this issue in some other way.  But I still think my idea is a good one.  Here’s why.

Back in 1986, I observed that few people were concerned with gender-bias in our language. Those who preferred gender-free language were using “person” instead of “man,” and “he or she” instead of “he” alone, and pretty much leaving it at that.  Others had refused to make even those substitutions and continued to use traditional parlance, much of which had an undeniable male bias.

Maybe the underlying problem was sexism, pure and simple.  But I preferred to have a more generous view and came up with another conclusion.

The fundamental question, then and now:  Why do so many people continue to use words like “man” to mean men and women?  I think I know the answer.  The persistent use of the word “man” and all of the words that use “man” as a suffix—policeman, fireman, repairman, deliveryman, Congressman, and all the rest—can be blamed on a simple fact:  It’s easier to say “man” than to say “person” or any other word or suffix of more than one syllable.

Why haven’t words like “Congressperson” caught on?   Because it’s easier to say “Congressman.”  (I’d be satisfied with “Member of Congress,” like “Member of Parliament” in the U.K., but that hasn’t caught on either.)

Let’s face it.  Even the most dedicated feminists among us would prefer to say mailman instead of mail carrier or repairman instead of repairperson–IF the shorter versions were gender-neutral–because they’re easier to say.  But any word that includes the suffix “man” cannot be gender-neutral.

People can tell me that “man” includes both men and women until their faces turn blue, but I don’t believe it for one second.  Why?  Because the word “man” conjures up the image of a man.  Just think back to your childhood.  Do you remember when you were being taught the meanings of the most basic words?  Who did your parents point to when they said the word “man”?  A woman?  C’mon!  All of us were taught that “man” means a man, not a woman.  No wonder we’re confused a few years later when we encounter writing or speech using “man” that purports to mean both men and women.

It’s almost impossible to say “businessman” and envision a woman.  The same goes for every other word using the suffix “man.”  But if we balk at such infelicitous terms as “businessperson,” what substitutes can we use?

I propose using the suffix “one.”  This suffix is commonly used as part of our everyday speech.  Think of the words “anyone,” “everyone,” “someone,” and “no one.”  No one quibbles about those.  On the contrary, the use of “anyman” or “everyman” would be comical (they sound downright medieval to me).  Why not, then, extend use of the suffix “one” to other words where we have traditionally used “man”?

In recent years, some gender-neutral terms, like “firefighter,” have caught on, and for that I’m grateful.  But many people still cling to the old descriptions, like policeman and Congressman.  If we adopted my proposal, the word “policeman” could become “police-one.”  “Congressman” could become “Congress-one.”  (I’ve added a hyphen for clarity until people become accustomed to the new usage, but that hyphen could disappear as the usage became second-nature.)  Adding “one” instead of “man” or “person” is both gender-neutral and easy to say.

These new words sound strange at first (and in print they look even stranger, especially if we omit the hyphen).  But after you use “one” a few times, it begins to trip off your tongue as easily as “man” because, like “man,” it’s only one syllable.  It also doesn’t sound very different from “man” (“person” does), and you don’t have to stop to think about which suffix to use every time you want to describe someone.  Instead of trying to remember “mail carrier” and “police officer,” you could just use “one” for all of them.

Why don’t you try it?  Try saying mail-one, police-one, sports-one, Congress-one.  Even…snow-one!  It might take a bit of getting used to, but I think it could work.

In my view, it’s never too late to do the right thing.  So even though we’ve come up with ways to get around sexist language, using awkward words like “spokesperson,” it’s not too late to make things even better.

Do you agree with me that we should stop using language that excludes half of humanity?  If you do, we could try this new approach.  If each of us tries it, maybe we can start a trend that changes the English language in this small but important way.

Why don’t we do it?  Let’s be bold.  Let’s target one day to try this experiment in gender-free language and see what happens.  I propose trying it on the first day of the first month of 2014.

Please join me.  On January 1, 2014, let’s try using this short and easy way to include absolutely everyone.

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Audrey Hepburn and Me

I never thought I had a single thing in common with Audrey Hepburn.  She was tall and decidedly slim.  I’m short and, uh, not exactly slim.  She was a brunette with enormous brown eyes.  I’m a redhead with almond-shaped but not-so-enormous hazel eyes.  She was a famed film star who won an Oscar at 24 (for 1953’s Roman Holiday) while my adolescent dreams of becoming an actress never became reality.

So I never saw myself as having anything in common with this glamorous star of the ’50s and ’60s.  But a quick glance at a recent magazine article has convinced me that I have a few things in common with Audrey after all.

The article, appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair, is based on a new book, Audrey in Rome, written by her younger son, Luca Dotti.  Luca lived with Audrey in Rome from the time of his birth in 1970 until she left for Switzerland (and he went off to a Swiss boarding school) in 1986.  As the magazine cover proclaims, in his book he recalls “the secrets of her iconic style.”

What were some of these secrets?  Well, for one thing, she was “fond of kerchiefs tied under the chin (not wound around and fastened in back in the French manner).”  Her love of sous-chin kerchiefs is apparent in a 1970 photo showing Audrey in a fabulous Givenchy coat and a scarf tied under her chin.

According to Luca, Audrey’s scarves were “a bit of a vice.”  Although she wasn’t “like Imelda Marcos and shoes,” she had “maybe 30 or 40” scarves.  In Rome, she often wore them along with big sunglasses as a disguise, enabling her “to do her shopping without having…crowds” following her.

This is one style-revelation I share with Audrey Hepburn.  My love of scarves, like hers, could be called a vice, but in view of the small amount of space they occupy and the small sums of money they cost, they’re a pretty harmless one.  I have a colorful collection in every possible fabric, suitable for every season, some bestowed on me as charming gifts, others purchased by me in a weak moment.

I admit I’ve never had crowds following me.  But I wear scarves (usually tied under my chin) for my own reasons.  In chilly weather, they keep my head warm.  On warmer days, they shield my curly hair from humidity and wind.

Childhood photos taken by my father show me, like Audrey, wearing scarves tied beneath my chin.  Ever since then, I’ve worn scarves no matter where I’ve made my home—from Chicago to Boston to Los Angeles.  Now, living in breezy San Francisco, I almost never leave home without a scarf in my jacket pocket, prepared to withstand whatever breezes the ocean blows my way.

Some have ridiculed my penchant for wearing scarves.  A friend once muttered that I liked to wear “babushkas.”  That hurt.  But now I can point to Audrey Hepburn as a scarf-loving style icon who, like me, wore scarves tied beneath her chin.

Another secret revealed by Luca is Audrey’s choice of footwear.  Generally basing her style choices on “simplicity and practicality,” she preferred to wear ballerina flats and low heels.  Vanity Fair claims that she wore them partly to accentuate her long feet, “adding to her elegant attenuation.”  (Huh?  Do you know any women with long feet who want to accentuate them?)  But even VF admits the far more likely reason:  she wore them so she “could walk comfortably.”

So here’s another preference I share with Audrey.  Long ago I gave up wearing high heels.  Like Audrey, I like to stride purposefully through the city, and wearing anything but low heels makes that impossible.  Every day I see women struggling with high heels that inhibit their freedom to move through life with ease.  I ache to tell them to forgo those high heels, and like Audrey and me, walk comfortably and safely wherever they go.

[Please note:  I’ve written another post on this blog, “High Heels Are Killers,” explaining at greater length my opinion of high heels.]

If truth be told, when I was younger, I wasn’t a big fan of Audrey Hepburn.  Maybe it was the way Hollywood portrayed her that was to blame.  After Roman Holiday (in which she fell in love with reasonably age-appropriate Gregory Peck), she was paired with male leads who were far too old for her.  At 28 she was supposedly smitten by Gary Cooper, then 56 (and looking even older), in Love in the Afternoon and by 58-year-old Fred Astaire in Funny Face.  I found these pairings simply baffling.  Why would radiant young Audrey fall for men twice her age?  At the time, I was unaware of the way Hollywood worked back then.  It’s clear to me now that she was complying with the demands of the movie moguls who dictated most of the roles she played.

No wonder she confided to friends that her favorite role was that of the nun in The Nun’s Story.  No superannuated men were slobbering over her in that role!

My view of Audrey Hepburn evolved as I learned more about her.  In her later years, she became an activist on behalf of UNICEF, traveling to more than 20 countries around the globe to advocate for the world’s most vulnerable children.  Her advocacy has endeared her to me, a fellow advocate for the underprivileged.

Moreover, during those years, she openly chose to welcome growing older.  Luca remembers that she “was always a little bit surprised by the efforts women made to look young.”  By contrast, “she was actually very happy about growing older because it meant more time for herself, more time for her family, and separation from the frenzy of youth and beauty that is Hollywood.”  She saw aging as part of the circle of life.

Audrey liked to say that “true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman only grows with passing years.”

Some may remember Audrey Hepburn as a stunning style icon, but in my view, she should be remembered for much, much more.

“All in the Family” Revisited

Are you old enough to remember the TV sitcom “All in the Family”?  Or have you managed to catch an episode or two on late-night TV?

This sitcom was a number-one hit on TV in the 1970s (it debuted in ’71 and lasted till ’79), and it became an honest-to-goodness phenomenon.   Produced by Norman Lear, it featured movie and TV actor Carroll O’Connor as the irascible Archie Bunker.  Archie was a working-class bigot, openly racist and sexist.  Sitting in his favorite living-room chair (now enshrined in the Smithsonian), chomping on a cigar, he belittled gays and intellectuals and anyone else who lived outside his narrow world in Queens, New York.

Why did a sitcom revolving around this character become an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning hit?  Probably because audiences felt comfortable laughing at Archie’s appalling antics.  Audiences could watch Archie clumsily try to maneuver through a rapidly changing world, feeling smugly superior to him while we grappled with many of the same troubling issues in our own lives.

Archie was surrounded by a memorable family, notably his long-suffering wife Edith, whom Archie called “the dingbat.”  Edith was played by Jean Stapleton as a somewhat flaky but kind-hearted helpmeet who tolerated her husband’s offensive behavior because she truly loved him.  Archie’s daughter Gloria, portrayed by Sally Struthers at the outset as a miniskirted twenty-something with corkscrew blonde curls, and Gloria’s husband, college student Mike, played by Rob Reiner in much slimmer times, completed the family circle.  Without enough money to afford their own place, Gloria and Mike lived with Archie and Edith, creating a situation rife with conflict.

Archie and Mike (dubbed “Meathead” by Archie) constantly clashed, their different world-views colliding on a daily basis.  Gloria was caught in the middle, sometimes siding with Archie but usually backing up her husband Mike.  This dynamic provided considerable comic fodder for the audience.  When, later in the show’s run, Mike and Gloria left Archie’s house and moved to their own place, a lot of the comedy went with them.

A few years back, someone asked me which TV show I would choose to inhabit if I was suddenly transported into a TV sitcom.  My choice was easy:   “All in the Family.”

I knew precisely where I wanted to go: 704 Hauser Street, Queens, New York, plunked down in the Bunker household as a newly minted version of Archie’s daughter, Gloria.

In my version of the Bunker family, Gloria would no longer be Archie’s relentlessly cute but somewhat uncomplicated daughter, declaring “Oh, Daddy!” whenever Archie did something that baffled or annoyed her.  I’d be a smarter, savvier Gloria, bringing a dose of common sense and a measure of sensitivity to the Bunker household.

Instead of running off to Mike, as Gloria was wont to do, I’d give Archie a hug, then sit down with him and offer him my empathy.  I’d let him know I understood how hard it was to be a blue-collar white male in a world that was spinning around him, changing by the hour.  I’d try to reassure him that he still had his place in that world, and that nothing would ever change my daughterly love for him.

I’d empathize with Edith, too, trying to reassure her as well.  I’d let her know it was okay for her to be content–for the moment–in her current role, that of a housewife whose focus was cooking, cleaning, and helping her husband deal with his daily defeats at home and at work.  At the same time, I’d encourage her incipient efforts to become more assertive, no longer entirely dependent on Archie and therefore no longer the willing target of his insults and disparaging attitude.

As for the Meathead, I’d struggle to keep our marriage intact, constantly reminding myself how much he loved me, calming him down whenever Archie was on the warpath, serving as a buffer between the two of them more effectively than Gloria ever did.

In sum, I’d bring tranquility and order to the Bunker household, thereby transforming the Bunker family into the kind of family I always tried to create in my own home.

There’s just one problem: “All in the Family” wouldn’t be funny anymore.  The Archie that I loved to laugh at would be buried under a cloak of rationality, with only bits and pieces of funny stuff breaking through now and then.

My family shared a house much like the Bunkers’, but our dynamic was nothing like theirs.  We bounced ideas off of each other, not always in total agreement but open to what each of us had to say.  As my children grew and the world evolved, we evolved, too.  We shared a home full of love and a minimal amount of conflict.

So, although we had loads of fun together, we were pretty boring compared to the Bunkers—not at all the stuff of a successful TV sitcom.  I guess I would have liked to see the Bunkers become more like us, but let’s face it:  The result would have been much closer to “Little House on Hauser Street” or “The Waltons of Queens,” and nothing like the very funny “All in the Family.”