“Cleansing” Versus “Cleaning”

Today I went to wash my hands in the restroom and noticed one of those dispensers of overly scented hand soap. In big bold letters, the dispenser touted the soap as “Deep Cleansing” — which made my teeth grind a bit.

IMG_1880What’s with the trend to replace “clean” with “cleanse”? Virtually any product that approximates the effect of soap and water on human beings now uses “cleansing” rather than “cleaning.” So, you see phrases like “deep cleansing,” or “gentle cleansing.” I’ve even seen an ad in which the actor says she likes “feeling cleansed” rather than “feeling clean.”

Why is this so? “Clean” is a perfectly good word that has been used for centuries. “Deep cleaning” certainly sounds more thorough than “deep cleansing.” So why isn’t it used?

I’m guessing that there are two reasons. First, no doubt advertisers and marketing managers have done studies that show that people will pay more if a product promises “cleansing” rather than “cleaning.” Maybe it sounds more highbrow. Second, “cleansing” has a softer sense to it. “Cleansing” sounds like something that might happen during a gentle spring rain, whereas “cleaning” conjures notions of attacking a dirty item with a stiff wire brush and Mr. Clean. (Of course, “ethnic cleansing” runs counter to this linguistic theory.)

It’s all part of the reason why I like to buy the generic versions of household products. They tend not to be infused with ridiculous scents, they tend not to be packaged in ludicous designs, and if they’re hand soap or hand cleaner, they use those simple, time-honored words. It helps that they’re cheaper, too.

The Obamacare Deadline Arrives

Today is March 31. It’s the “Obamacare” deadline that we’ve been hearing about for months, the end of the open enrollment period on the health care exchanges — although the federal government has extended the deadline for a week, to allow people who claim to be in the midst of applying to complete the process.

How is the process going? We know for sure that a lot of money and effort has been spent in encouraging people to apply by the deadline. The federal government has spent millions on TV ads and social media banners, alerting people to the deadline and encouraging people to “get covered.” President Obama himself has led the charge. Over the past few weeks, you couldn’t go to a website or social media outlet without seeing an ad. It’s been, by far, the largest, most visible, and probably most expensive government-sponsored ad campaign in my lifetime. It’s blown the “click it or ticket” and anti-drunk driving campaigns out of the water.

Has the ad campaign worked? According to information provided by the government, enrollments surged as the deadline neared. By mid-March, the government reported that 5 million had enrolled, then 6 million a few days ago. Some people hold out hope that enrollments might hit 7 million. The 7 million figure has some significance, because the Congressional Budget Office initially forecast that 7 million enrollments were needed during the open enrollment period, although the CBO later revised that forecast to 6 million.

It’s not entirely clear what these numbers represent. There are supposed to be 48 million residents in the United States who do not have health insurance; 7 million is only a small fraction of the uninsured whole. What do we do about the remaining millions of uninsured people? Moreover, it’s not clear how many of the people who have enrolled through the exchanges were formerly uninsured, either. Many of the users of the health exchange websites apparently were people who were insured but whose policies were terminated because they lacked mandatory provisions required by the Affordable Care Act. There are also valid questions about how many of the enrollees have actually paid premiums and therefore have coverage.

There will be a lot of information coming our way over the next few days and weeks about Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act is such a hot-button issue — and the impending elections in November will keep it so — that supporters and opponents of the law are sure to massage and select the data to favor their positions. The average voter would do well to apply skepticism to the messaging from both sides of the Obamacare debate.

If you’re someone who bought a new policy through healthcare.gov, the ultimate question about your fellow enrollees is: who are these people, and how sick are they? Insurance fundamentally involves a pooling of risk, and the cost of health insurance is directly tied to who else is in your pool. If you’re in a group with lots of young, healthy people who don’t need much health care, your premiums will be lower than if you’re in a group with a preponderance of sick people who regularly need expensive medical attention. We won’t know the true actuarial makeup of the new plans until the people who are covered begin to make claims, the claims get processed and paid, and the insurance companies look at the results and decide whether the pricing of the plans needs to be adjusted — and if so by how much. If health care costs increase dramatically, few people are going to consider Obamacare a success no matter how many people have enrolled.

It will be nice to see some new ads once the March 31 deadline passes, but everyone needs to take a deep breath. This initial deadline is just one step in a very long process, and we won’t know the outcome until we are much farther down the road.

The Black Death And The Modern World

In the older cities of the world, any modern excavation could quickly turn into an architectural dig. This happened recently in London, where some railway project unearthed a number of skeletons — leading researchers to believe they have found one of the major burial pits for the victims of the Black Death.

The Black Death had an unimaginable impact on medieval Europe. It first arrived in England in 1348, but resurfaced periodically for many decades. There was no medical science, and no one understood how the plague spread — but they did know that it was incredibly deadly. In England, the plague is estimated to have wiped out 60 percent of the population. People died by the thousands, and in places like London were buried in common mass graves. The railway project workers apparently found one of them.

It’s hard to conceive what the world was like during the plague years. One of my favorite books, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, brilliantly captures the impact of the Black Death. Many people concluded that the plague was some form of heavenly retribution for earthly wickedness, and different religious cults adopted different approaches — such as self-scourging — to try to erase the sin that they believed was producing such horrible punishment. Others concluded that they were doomed anyway and adopted lives of carefree hedonism. As the death toll mounted, social order broke down. Priests refused to give absolution to dying plague victims. Families abandoned stricken relatives. Long-cultivated fields returned to wilderness because there weren’t enough serfs to tend to them. Gangs of robbers and mercenaries patrolled the countryside. And explicit representations of death and dying, complete with worm-eaten corpses, became commonplace in art and literature.

The 14th century was long ago, but the discovery of the mass grave in London makes me wonder — if a terrible pandemic struck the modern world, decimating the population and making death a constant, everyday reality, would our reaction be so different?

The Last Snowfall

IMG_5986Yes, it snowed again last night — after we first got freezing rain and hail. Yes, it’s the end of March. Yes, I know there’s a good chance that we’ll get still more snow in April.

I don’t care about any of that. I’m tired of seeing our back yard shrouded in whiteness. I’m tired of wondering whether I’ll ever be able to sit outside on our patio again. I’m fed up! I’m declaring it, and I don’t care if it’s a jinx. I’m saying that last night was the last snow we’ll get during this winter that won’t go away. At least, the photo above will be the last time I take a picture of snow until we live through a real spring, a real summer, and a real autumn — whenever that might be.

Shakin’, Bakin’, And Earthquakin’

There was an earthquake in southern California last night.

The earthquake was a 5.1 in magnitude, causing merchandise to fall off the shelves of stores — and, no doubt, causing Californians to wonder whether it was the first little tremor in the Big One that every resident of the Golden State quietly fears may someday be coming. The precariously lodged tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault shift, the ground moves, and as the world rumbles, for a cold split second, everyone wonders how long it will last and how bad it will be. Then it is over, and life goes on.

I’ve only felt an earthquake once, and it was small tremor that touched Columbus from a epicenter that was far away. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel the ground slithering and grinding before my feet. It must be a strange sensation — and also one that you just come to accept as a risk of living in California or one of the other earthquake zones in the world. Some of the world’s most beautiful places pose risks of hurricanes, or mudslides, or earthquakes, or floods, or other natural disasters. If you live there, it’s part of the tradeoff.

If you go to the earthquake page of the U.S. Geological Service, you see that earthquakes and aftershocks are commonplaces in California. Each of those incidents would be deeply memorable, long-discussed events for those of us in the solid-grounded Midwest. How many of our friends in California even notice all of them?

Falling Nightmares

Normally I don’t remember my dreams. Since I’ve started using crutches, however, I’ve started to have vivid nightmares about falling.

If you accept the standard explanation of dreams — that they are a kind of post-day brain dump, when the conscious brain is out of it and the subconscious brain riffles through the images of the day just ended — my falling dreams shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know that I can’t put weight on my left foot, because it would painfully bend the steel pins in my toes and make them harder to extract. So, even something routine, like a short trip to the bathroom, becomes a cause for careful attention and concern about a slip and fall.

But there’s more to it. I scrabble up the stairs on hands and knees, dragging the crutches up the stairs with me, then use a chair at the top of the stairs to rise, balance, and get the crutches under my arms so I can move along. The transfer from chair to crutches is inherently unsteady, and I’m doing it balanced on one foot at the top of the stairs, wondering if a loss of balance will send me tumbling down the steps. The same process occurs when I go down the stairs, of course. And then there’s the silly worry about somehow falling out of bed and landing on my bad foot. I’ve never had that happen before, but now the possibility nags at me.

I don’t ever remember having falling dreams before, but they aren’t very pleasant. They’re not limited to the bed or stair scenarios; just about any falling context will do. I awaken with a lurch, arms flailing and grasping for a hold, heart pounding, hoping that the startling experience doesn’t itself cause me to tumble to the floor.

I hate these dreams. For years after I finished any form of schooling, I still had the occasional “failure to study for an exam that’s happening today” dream, and they never failed to get my pulse pounding. Now I wonder: long after these pins are removed and I’m walking normally again, will I continue to have these scary falling nightmares?