Sunday, June 24, 2007

I found the right thing, and it works


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel June 24, 2007)

It's so satisfying to buy something that actually works.

My husband and I just returned from a weeklong visit to New England, and one of my pre-trip purchases -- a stainless steel Thermos -- not only met but exceeded my expectations.

This inexpensive item kept me in hot tea for hours on end -- an essential element when you're trying to cover 1,500 miles in marathon stretches.

My $12 Thermos is easy to use, large enough to hold several servings of my favorite beverage without being cumbersome or unwieldy, and a cinch to clean.

Those are important features when you need to replenish your caffeine fix while zipping along an interstate, something I found myself doing many times during this recent East Coast excursion.

Despite heavy advertising, wide variety and a multitude of marketplaces, it's not always easy to find the right product to meet your needs.

I purchased and returned two other containers before settling on my current beverage holder. The latch on the first was difficult to undo, and the second turned out to be designed for hands far larger than mine.

Unfortunately, not all unsatisfactory purchases are so easily refunded.

In 2000, I bought a new Plymouth Voyager van in Orlando. I knew I had made a mistake before leaving the dealership. While I sat in the driver's seat, the blinker indicating an imminent turn out of the parking lot, I glanced down at the completely smooth driver's side door panel. Something was missing. Storage pockets.

In my world, front-door storage pockets are as essential as cup holders. A car can never have enough places to stash the necessary accoutrements of modern mobility.

Door pockets hold my maps, a bag filled with plastic utensils, a box of Band-Aids, anti-bacterial hand cleaner, a Soduko puzzle book and any other supplies deemed indispensable for my daily treks about town.

How a car manufacturer can "forget" to include door pockets in a $25,000 van designed for family outings borders on scandalous behavior.

Almost as outrageous was my own inattentiveness in buying a vehicle with such an obvious omission.

A car without storage pockets may seem like a minor flaw, but it's the small details that create large irritations. In the five years I owned that van, I doubt if a day went by when I didn't wish I'd been more observant before signing on the dotted line.

Just last year I made another large purchase that failed to meet all my expectations.

Lured by the marketing gurus to think my life would be better with a flat-screen HD LCD TV, I plunged headfirst into a sea of online data about multimedia options. Several days later, saturated with newfound knowledge, I felt ready to slide my credit card through the scanner at my local big-box store.

Less than two weeks after my swim through the sea of digitized television data began, our outdated viewing room was transformed into a stylish mecca of media. The old square TV set was demoted to the bedroom, replaced by a chic rectangular component that looks more like a piece of artwork than a utilitarian electronic device. While the new television has many features decidedly better than its more portly cousin, the convex model wins out if we want to watch a TV show or movie taped on a VCR. (Remember VCRs?)

For some unknown reason, the HD LCD TV designers didn't think we would have any reason to see the picture while the tape was being rewound or fast-forwarded. Instead of permitting a speeding image to appear as it did on our old TV, the picture on the new set is replaced by a blank screen and whirring noise whenever the rewind or fast forward button is pressed.

This makes it extremely difficult to know when to stop if, for instance, you're trying to avoid watching a commercial and focus only on the show. That design characteristic may satisfy advertisers, but it's a no-go for consumers like me. One small design flaw has rendered an entire closet full of VCR tapes relatively useless in our main viewing room.

I suppose we all find ourselves from time to time on the receiving end of poorly thought-out products. At some point, each of us succumbs to advertisers' claims that their merchandise is the newest/best/sexiest/most desirable product ever created and life would be so much better if we bought it. Right now!

Maybe so. Then again, maybe not.

Newer is not always better, any more than pretty always outperforms practical.

The ideal is when both parts come together in one updated, well-designed, highly functional, attractive product.

That's how it is for my new Thermos, which, four hours after being filled with an aromatic stevia-sweetened brew of PG Tips, remains delightfully steamy and fragrant.

Teatime, anyone?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bottle bills proven to clean up trash

(First appear in the Orlando Sentinel June 10, 2007)

As much as I love living in Florida, I hate the way people here are so careless about litter.

Why is there trash everywhere? What are people thinking -- or not thinking -- when they flick that cigarette butt out a car window or toss an empty bag from their fast-food lunch on the ground?

Litter is ubiquitous. Like an ugly scab that refuses to heal, it's visible along roadsides, at the beach, on bike trails, in urban and suburban areas, in the bottom of lakes and floating in rivers. You're just as likely to find trash in parking lots as you are in undeveloped stretches of forest and fields.

Garbage even mars those few remote sites where Florida wilderness has managed to remain relatively intact -- our parks, recreational areas and nature preserves.

I just came back from the well-maintained boardwalk at Oakland Nature Preserve. After meandering along the raised walkway beneath a lush leafy canopy, the trail ended at Lake Apopka. I looked out over the railing into the murky water expecting to see purple gallinules and maybe a gator or two.
Instead, I saw a couple of crushed cans, a swelled liter bottle of soda and several crumpled fast-food wrappers. It doesn't make sense that people who care about nature enough to wander deep into the woods would spoil the very landscape they came to enjoy.

I'm talking trash here. Crushed cans, broken bottles, Styrofoam cups, plastic bags, cigarette butts and the wrappings from take-out food -- the list goes on and on.
It doesn't have to be like this.

When I lived on Cape Cod, roadside litter was almost nonexistent. That may have been because of the bottle bill, a highly effective incentive enacted by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1983.
The bottle bill put a 5-cent surcharge on the purchase of every beer, soft drink and carbonated-water container sold in the state. For each can or bottle returned to a redemption center -- and centers are in easy-to-reach places such as grocery stores -- the consumer earns back one nickel.

A nickel might sound like insignificant change, but they can add up. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, nearly 18 billion cans and bottles were returned under the bottle bill from 1991 to 2002. That's nearly $900 million that went back into consumers' pockets in 10 years.

Florida doesn't have a bottle bill. Neither do 39 other states. But the 11 states that do -- Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon, California, Connecticut, Maine, New York, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan and Delaware -- are where one-quarter of all Americans live. That's a lot of people redeeming cans and bottles for cash.

Canada is also on top of the action -- British Columbia was the first place in North America to enact a beverage-container-recovery system back in 1970. Today, all but two of Canada's 13 provinces have taken similar steps to reduce litter.
And bottle bills do reduce litter. Litter from beverage containers was slashed as much as 84 percent in seven of the states with bottle bills, according to government-funded studies conducted before and after bottle-bill laws were enacted. More significantly, the same studies found that the total amount of throwaway trash was reduced as much as 65 percent. That means bottle bills do more than reduce the number of cans and bottles thrown on the ground and into water; they bolster consumer awareness about the harmful effect of littering in general.

Bottom line: Bottle bills work.
So why hasn't Florida stepped aboard the bottle-bill bandwagon?

It did once, sort of.

Back in 1990, a grass-roots campaign to initiate a bottle bill was waged in the Sunshine State, but it failed to win legislative approval. Since then, the only related legislative action in Florida was an ineffective bill called Advanced Disposal Fees (ADF). Implemented from 1993 through 1995, ADF hardly made a dent in the reduction of litter and bottle recovery.
That poor showing was due, in large part, to the number of containers exempt from taxation.
According to estimates by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, by January 1995, 99 percent of all beer and soft drink containers did not qualify for coverage under the ADF legislation.

I think it's time to try again.

Florida should join forces with seven other states -- Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia -- campaigning to initiate bottle-bill laws -- real, effective laws, not Band-Aid fixes like ADF.

Florida has such innate beauty. Why should we let our state's most precious asset -- its unparalleled landscape -- be blemished by throwaway bottles and cans when a well-documented, proven remedy is available?

This is one of the few times when is not out of line to "talk trash." Contact your legislative representatives today, and let them know how you feel. Ask to have a bottle bill enacted. Penny by penny, person by person, problems get fixed. Solutions don't get any simpler than that.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

So, how many things are you doing now?


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel June 3, 2007)

My ability to multitask is deteriorating rapidly.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I'd think nothing of juggling several activities at once. I was pretty good at it too. My mind could flip from one focus to another with barely a blip on my mental radar.

Not anymore.These days, doing two things at once seems to be my limit. If I try to take on more than that, I become completely unstrung.

Like a recent morning. After dropping off my son at school, I drove on to do errands. First stop -- the bank.

As usual, I pulled up to the drive-through window, leaning against the car's steering wheel to fill out a deposit ticket. But this time, just as I was putting pen to paper, the cell phone rang.

Simultaneously, the teller's melodious voice resonated through the intercom, "Welcome to Wachovia. How may I help you?"

Ah, the answers I could have given her.

What should I do? The phone beckoned. The teller waited. The deposit ticket was still unwritten. And another car had just pulled in behind me.

Without so much as a courteous reply to the patient teller, I jerked the car out of neutral, maneuvered into a parking space and answered the phone call. When that business was complete, I stepped out of the car and went into the bank. No way was I going to attempt the drive-through again.

Inside, the bank employee laughed at my predicament. I'm not the first customer she had seen deal with a multitasking dilemma at the drive-through window, and I doubt I'll be the last.

We live in an era when the ability to handle many chores at once is not just the norm, it's an essential part of modern life. Hardly any of our activities aren't piggybacked on something else.

Consider my typical day.

I get up in the morning and go for a row. Still in wake-up mode, I paddle along methodically as I wait for my mind to lose its sleepy fuzziness. Although my arms are rowing, my ears are tuned to Morning Edition on FM radio. During breakfast, double duty continues as I read the newspaper while crunching my cereal. While driving, I'm serenaded by my favorite musicians on compact discs.

I listen to the radio again while making meals, or sometimes tune into a television program while chopping vegetables. If I walk on the treadmill, a DVD goes into the player. I even fall asleep with the TV on. One of the only times I'm not doing two things at once is when I'm writing, and that's only because I'm of a certain age. My kids think nothing of doing serious work while listening to music or watching a YouTube video on the computer.

The older you get, the less able your body is to function normally. That's a given.

Maybe my dwindling ability to focus on several things at once is just another sign of aging. As the years go by, eyesight wanes, hearing diminishes, bones become brittle, body parts sag and the ability to effortlessly juggle simultaneous tasks falls by the wayside.

If that's how it is, I doubt if this new disability will be much of a hardship. In fact, becoming monotasked in a multitasked world could be empowering. How liberating to fill the day with fewer expectations of accomplishment. What a relief to stay focused on one thing at a time instead of navigating the increasingly murky waters of two, three or four chores at once.

For now, all I can do is recognize the symptoms of MTD (multitask degeneration) and react accordingly. Unless I want to endanger lives while I'm driving, if the phone rings, I know I must pull over to talk. If I'm preparing supper, it's best not to get sidetracked checking my e-mail -- at least not if I want unburned food. And when I'm running errands, I should approach the bank's drive-through window fully prepared. If that means deposit slip filled out beforehand and cell-phone ringer switched off, so be it.

Bottom line: When it comes to multitasking, at some point in life, less is decidedly more.