Everybody’s already made up their mind

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

The sound of vomiting awakened me. The smell of it assured no return to sleep.

My roommate was coming out of his coma.

“That’s OK, that’s OK,” a woman told the gently groaning man who had just emptied his stomach and, I noticed a moment later, his bowels. “We’ll take care of that. You don’t worry.”

I heard but did not see any of this. A gauzy, cornflower blue curtain on a metal rod trembled from the activity behind it. Between gulps, the man apologized, his words wavering in the air.

“No problem, no problem at all,” said another woman. The pair sounded much younger than the man they were addressing. “Here, just roll over a little this way so we can get – there, that’s it.”

The whisper of changing bedsheets filled the room. The thud of something wet and heavy landed in a plastic bucket, followed by another thud.

My attention span rippled like water in a breeze. The drugs administered to arouse me from surgery were prying me out of a deathly slumber, but a mild grip continued. The analog wall clock said 3 a.m.

As I noticed this, the women emerged from behind the curtain wearing purple smocks, latex gloves, and their frosted hair bound up in small buns. Each clutched a bulging plastic trash bag and a facial expression wrought from a hard night. The air improved when they left.

My roommate coughed and cleared his throat a few minutes, then was silent. When next I heard him, the hands on the wall clock had spun around three times and sunlight dribbled through the window blinds.

I needed to pee – I could not remember the last time that happened – and so began focusing on how to do it. I had come out of surgery without a catheter and without the use of my shoulders. Long, raw, S-shaped scars curved beneath my arms. A tube jutted from the bottom of each scar. Beneath each tube, a plastic bulb collected orange fluid. Concentrating on how to squirm out of bed unaided softened the edge on my urge.

But in fumbling to stand, I brushed the room dividing curtain, causing one side to slide back on the rod. And that is when I met Clarence from Anna, Illinois. His drooping, swollen eyes stared at a muted TV on his side of the room. He had long white and red tubes running the length of his black arms.

“Hey, hi. Sorry about that,” I said as I grabbed at my loose gown with one hand and my rolling intravenous fluid pump with the other. Pain coursed from my shoulders to my ribs. The half-filled bulbs pulled on my scars.

“No, that’s fine,” he replied and waved to me with thick fingers. “Hope I’m not disturbing you. I guess I got a little noisy last night.”

“Nah. I wasn’t really asleep anyway. They kept waking me every hour to ask a question or poke me with something. How are you doing?”

“Better, I think. They tell me I was out awhile, so I’m not sure,” he said, groggily.

“You mind if I asked what happened?”

“Car crash. I was making a delivery and a woman plowed into my side at a stoplight.”

“You remember that?”

“I remember that much, then I woke up here.”

“So, you feeling better?”

“Yeah. I think one of these tubes is morphine.”

As the last syllable dribbled from his mouth, two other women slid past me, nodded acknowledgment, then positioned themselves on either side of Clarence’s bed. He greeted one as Mom.

“Ohh, baby, how’re you feeling?” She knitted the words together in a long, soft musical note.

“Mmm. ‘K,” he mumbled.

At that, I regathered my gown and rolling IV stand to address the business that forced me upright. When I finished and returned to bed in a way as innovative and as painful as I had left it, the conversation behind the re-extended curtain had changed from a lovely tune to legal matters.

“Police say she’s already got a lawyer …” the woman called Mom said.

“… and he’s already talked to them,” the other woman added. Clarence called her a word like “Sulee.”

“She was the one who didn’t stop,” he told her. “I was stopped and moved out a little to see past the car and then she was slamming into the side of me.”

“I know, honey,” Mom said. “And they know it. But she’s got this lawyer now.”

Piece by piece, the puzzle came together before me. Clarence was working his second job, floral delivery, and had pulled up to a flashing stoplight two blocks from his destination. Cars parked close to the intersection interfered with his view, so he stopped then inched and stopped then inched forward to see better.

He remembered flashing lights, a siren, and someone shouting questions at him. That was four days ago.

“Mmm, yes,” Mom hummed.

“But now you gotta get a lawyer, too,” Sulee said. “You gotta talk to somebody at the college. Got a lot of friends there, right? You’ve worked there a long time. Somebody there knows someone who can help, right?”

“Dunno,” Clarence said. “Maybe.”

“Oh, we gotta try,” Sulee said.

“Dunno,” Clarence repeated. “I mean, look at me, look at that town. Everybody’s already made up their mind.”

Resolve in 2016 to stop texting while driving

Distracted Driving

I drive 18 miles of interstate each weekday before sunrise. Ahead of me, lines of fast-moving tail lights stretch into the dark toward the horizon, toward my destination, like glowing breadcrumbs aligned along a well-worn trail.

As I draw near to a set of those tail lights, I glimpse something else: the soft white glow from phone screens as people text or read while they drive. I see even more of them after dusk on the commute home, because traffic is heavier and slower at that time.

The least distracted among these drivers announce their divided attention by veering into other lanes and almost into other cars, or they drive 10-15 mph below the limit amid high-speed traffic with two wheels in another lane the whole time. Those drivers who fail to correct often wind up in a wreck surrounded by emergency vehicles on the roadside.

I see an average of one wreck per day along my short stretch of Interstate 64 in eastern Missouri. Usually, more than one vehicle is involved.

According to the National Safety Council, more than one-quarter of all car crashes result from smartphone use. But that percentage represents confirmed numbers. By my count, 60 percent to 70 percent of the people I can see in the other cars along my 36-mile round-trip commute have their faces angled down at their phones instead of up at the road, so I believe the NSC’s estimate is soft.

What happens when drivers stop looking at the road, even for what they think is only a moment? A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that sending or receiving a text requires an average of 5 seconds – the time it takes to drive the length of a football field at 55 mph.

The overall distance is longer when you consider that few of us on the interstates keep the speedometer at 55.

I admit to being one of those distracted drivers until a few years ago when, along the same stretch of I-64 on a cloudless day, an SUV bounced off the concrete divider and careered across all four lanes into my driver’s side door, totaling my car. (My phone was in my pocket at the time.)

Neither I nor the other driver were hurt, but he resisted giving me his name, address, driver license number, or insurance information for my own insurance records, saying the crash was not his fault. This sounded odd considering the road was dry, the weather was perfect, and witnesses at the scene said nobody was near his vehicle when he lost control.

So, I said, “Fine.” Then I turned to the police officer who was interviewing us for the accident report and said, “Either you obtain his cell phone records for your investigation, or I’ll find an attorney who will.”

The driver’s insurance company cut a check for all damages within 72 hours.

Few things in life are certain except these: death, taxes, and the risk associated with distracted driving. Dozens of studies going back more than a decade confirm this danger, underline it, and yet so many drivers still ignore it. This is why I drive Interstate 64 with a grip on my steering wheel that could strangle a garden hose, and I watch not just the other cars but other drivers as well.

I know, the pressure to look at our phones while driving is great. Driving is monotonous, boring, so we use smartphones as a cure. On top of that, each of us perceives ourselves to be superhuman in some way – like thinking we handle driving distractions better than everyone else.

But nine people die every day in the United States from distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the chief cause is smartphone use. Resolve to not inflate that statistic in 2016, and repeat that resolution – and stick to it – every New Year’s thereafter.

Smoking clouds your financial judgment, researchers find

Smoking was once a major part of my life even though I never lit up.

My parents did, however, and often. So often that I remember clearly how long, brown nicotine streaks stretched down our bathroom walls after each steamy shower; how the burn marks on our furniture multiplied until my mother figured how to hide them with throws and pillows – until those were burned through, too; how the school dean once told me to change clothes because they smelled strong of second-hand smoke.

You’d think all that exposure would carve a similar habit into my behavior; after all, we tend to pick up many of the same habits our parents do. Instead, the constant exposure to cigarettes and their noxious or ashy effluent did just the opposite; I grew up repelled by cigarette smoke and tended to steer clear of its sources.

Over time, however, I wasn’t the one who modified my behavior to meet social demands; the marketplace did. Smoking’s cachet fell away, driven largely by repeated health warnings, to be replaced with a stigma that attached to it like barnacles and pushed persistent smokers outside and away from workplace centers of decision-making.

Now, add a new discouragement to smoking: Research led by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee says habitual smokers tend to make worse decisions regarding their personal finances than people who smoke infrequently or not at all.

The research, buttressed by other economic analysis of smokers and led by Scott Adams, a professor of economics at UWM, surveyed more than 1,000 smokers over a two-year period and found that people who retreat into a cigarette break seeking instant gratification are likely to bridle when their attempts at fiscal gratification do not similarly yield immediate benefits.

The outcomes are reflected in credit scores, Adams says. Among the economic analyses, 41 percent of smokers were denied credit, 30 percent routinely missed credit card payments, and 27 percent had filed at least once for bankruptcy. Across the board, these percentages were twice as high as those for non-smokers. (These experiences were common among the survey group.)

In general, smokers accept the risk of poor health to pursue their habit, Adams stipulated. That risk-taking can be considered reflective of an overall willingness to take chances – an appealing quality in business.

But risking a smoke is met with the immediate gratification nicotine provides. Rewards gleaned from taking financial risks are neither readily apparent nor readily available, and hurrying toward those perceived rewards tends toward recklessness, Adams said.

“(A) smoking habit has an important and independent ability to predict behavior even after we control for variables that might be considered the true source of the poor performance in personal finances,” he wrote. “… We find that there is residual information in smoking status that can help predict credit score, and the size of this residual information is substantial.”

Adams acknowledges that other factors not measured by this study may clarify the relationship between smoking and personal finance but gave no indication that his research group would investigate them.

3 reasons to avoid copying TV reporter’s F-word rant

GIF of Charlo Greene

Courtesy of PerezHilton.com

Until last Sunday, few people outside Anchorage, Alaska’s TV news audience knew of KTVA-TV reporter Charlo Greene.

She changed that in one second on a live broadcast and became a prime example of what not to do when leaving an employer.

In signing off from the CBS affiliate on Sept. 21, Greene acknowledged playing a key role in the story she was reporting on medical marijuana and announced that she was switching allegiance from journalism to the cause of legalizing marijuana use in Alaska by telling viewers “As for this job, well … f**k it. I quit.” She then walked off camera to leave a stunned news anchor stumble through damage control.

From Anchorage to Albany, N.Y., the Web went wild over Greene, known off-screen as Charlene Egbe. Links to her flameout appeared on hundreds of sites. A YouTube clip of it posted by the Alaska Dispatch News had 12 million hits by the following Thursday.

She did what many people dream of doing.

But the backstory makes her cavalier farewell far from heroic or enviable. Greene had opened her own medical marijuana dispensary in the months before producing a five-part news report for the station on Alaska’s legalization initiative. She also had legal trouble related to her advocacy. KTVA’s news director said in a public statement that Greene never disclosed her conflict of interest to the station.

The station has reason to be embarrassed, but so too does Greene. The Dispatch News reports that advocates for the initiative found fault with her reporting and that Greene says she went rogue mainly to reverse waning support for the legalization movement.

In a post-meltdown interview with Vice.com, Green ended with this:

“If you’re going to quit your job, do it big. Why not? Your job probably sucks, so go ahead and get whatever you can out of it.”

Sage advice perhaps for inconsiderate nonconformists but toxic for everyone else. A truly effective workplace exit impresses both ex-employers and potential employers and preserves the shine on one’s own reputation.

By leaving KTVA the way she did, Greene badly bruised herself and the people around her in three ways:

By using vulgar language — We hear the F-word all the time in music, movies and casual conversation, but a stigma sticks to it in most professional and public venues, and usage is discouraged in workplaces, schools and stores. Greene demonstrated how the centuries-old F-word still cuts through our social sensibilities. However, the F-word is a one-trick pony; the second use lands a weaker punch than the first, and continued usage implies the user has a limited vocabulary — which undercuts anyone who works in communications.

By being unethical — Green apparently continued acting like a journalist even though in her mind she stopped being one. She told Vice.com that KTVA gave her a platform “to draw attention to the (marijuana legalization) issue” and hinted that her outburst formed sometime between Sunday and April 20, the date Greene says the advocacy group she heads received its business license. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” When professional ethics waft out the window with the pot smoke, credibility in all things likely follows.

By harming others — Greene obviously had her own interests in mind when she paraded her petulance. She neglected to consider, or was indifferent to, the impact of her actions on others, and that could rebound in her face. The Federal Communications Commission has levied fines on broadcasters who permitted even accidental on-air uttering of F-words. KTVA is apologetic; still, accusations by supporters of the initiative that Greene let bias and inaccuracy seep into her reporting have raised questions about why KTVA considers Greene’s activities surprising. Meanwhile, marijuana-use advocates in Alaska and Colorado say Greene’s profane exhibition potentially weakens their efforts to advance the issue with maturity.

Had Greene remained professional and objective, KTVA lacked a reason to probe her work behavior or her privacy. Digging too deeply amid the latter risked violating her civil rights. Personal responsibility, not an employer, determines an individual’s credibility.

Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This week, Charlo Greene received quite a bit more attention than that. Next week, nobody will take her seriously for even half as long.