Thursday, November 14, 2013

A man's appeal for a special kind of bra

(From the November 14, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

This column started out as a joke. I mentioned to my wife that I should write a column about bras. I was only half serious.

But then I saw an article about bras in the Wall Street Journal last week. This seemed like more than a coincidence. So I thought maybe I should actually write about bras.

I should stress that I don’t have a personal interest in bras, and I’m not writing about “man bras” or anything funny like that. This is a serious column about the need for businesses to manufacture bras for women who are breast cancer survivors. If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that my wife is among those women.
Like a lot of men whose wives have breast cancer, I try to be very supportive. I go to most of her medical appointments. I try to comfort her and make things easier for her in any way I can. I know all of her complaints. And one of them has to do with bras.

Even before my wife had cancer, she would complain about how difficult it is to find the right bra. I would normally just nod when she said this. Now I listen with more attentive concern because this is related to the many issues related to her disease.

The problem of finding the right bra for breast cancer survivors is even more acute. Women who have had mastectomies need to go to a special boutique and purchase a “post-surgical garment” immediately after surgery. There is a limited number of styles for these bras. They come in white only, and look like they were designed for old women. They hook in the back, which is hard to deal with after surgery. They also can be very hot.

After surgery recovery, women have to find a mastectomy bra. This is a bra designed to accommodate a prosthetic breast to fill in for what was removed in surgery. These also have limited options in terms of colors, styles, and sizes. Often the design includes a band that goes right over a sensitive surgical site, and is tight and painful. Even so, these bras are expensive, and insurance only pays for three per year. They also don’t make bras for younger, active, even athletic women. My wife is a runner, and knows other survivors who are runners and have the same complaint.

My wife did find a bra made by Jockey that is not designed for breast cancer survivors but she has been able to adapt it to her needs. She has even mentioned to staff at Jockey stores that they should improve and market these bras to breast cancer survivors. She knows it would be a success because she herself has shared info with other women who went out and bought several for themselves.

I would think companies that make bras would jump all over this. That Wall Street Journal article I mentioned earlier was about three start-up companies that each raised between $5 million and $8 million to make a better bra and compete with Victoria’s Secret. So it seems they sense a market for bras for all women.

But if they want to consider market opportunity, they should consider the huge market of breast cancer survivors. They are more of a secret than Victoria’s Secret to clothing manufacturers. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. There are more than 232,000 new cases each year. There are currently 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. I’d call that a market opportunity. It would also be a great opportunity for companies to show their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or engage in some cause-related marketing.

I tell my wife all the time that I will love her no matter the size or number of her special feminine body parts. I know she appreciates that. But I also know that every day brings a little despair at the situation. She doesn’t want to be a movie star. She just wants to be comfortable. I want that for her too. I can do a lot, but I am no feminine undergarment designer.

That’s why this man is appealing for a better bra. I want a bra that is not better in the way it conforms to our culture of enhanced sexuality. I just want one that suits the needs of legions of women who are valiant and beautiful in their fight against a disease that robs them of so much. If there is a clothing company that truly cares about women, it will offer something that provides comfort and dignity. It will make a lot of women happy. The men at their side will be smiling too.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Voting No on Spring Lake Schools Bond Proposal

I wrote in an earlier post about the issues involved in considering a $60 million bond proposal by the Spring Lake Public Schools. Decision day is next Tuesday, November 5. In the three weeks since I attended an information session, I've noticed an equal number of "No" and "Yes" signs popping up, and read with interest the letters to the editor. I've also talked with a lot of other residents. Ultimately, I've made my decision to vote no on the current bond proposal, for the following reasons:

  • The elementary school buildings are old. But so is the one I teach in at GVSU. It was built in 1960, has been upgraded several times, and there is no talk of replacing it. Some of the classrooms I teach in are hot, my office gets cold. We endure. My wife and I were in Holland and Grand Rapids recently and noticed several elementary schools that pre-date the construction of Holmes and Jeffers.
  • Renovation over re-construction is possible. My dad was a plumber. He told me over lunch recently that they used to do lots of jobs in old buildings to update boilers and to put plumbing and heating in places where it had not been before. It would be interesting to see the consultant and architect reports that insist the building needs to be redone, or to have some other independent inspectors give a report.
  • Many in the community seem opposed to locating two elementary schools in one building. It's an interesting suggestion, but creates problems ranging from culture to traffic.
  • The sports facility portion of the proposal is supposedly "only" 8% of the total bond. But as one reader of my online column pointed out, 8% of $60 million is still a lot of cash. Plus, the principle of it matters--a neighbor of mine points out that support for public education is a social responsibility even for those who don't have kids in the schools, but athletics is extra-curricular and such funding should be raised privately or separately from a public bond. If the amount is so trivial as the superintendent indicated, then raising it outside of a bond should be possible.
  • One woman investigated the financing seriously and noted that the bond rate and the millage are not fixed. So there is the potential that over the life of the 30-year bond the interest rate could increase, or as has happened in other communities, if home values decrease the millage could increase to cover the difference. In some west Michigan communities, an initial millage of 7% was raised to 12% for this reason.
  • The final reason comes down to attitude. I witnessed and have heard the superintendent being aloof, defensive and arrogant in public meetings. Some people talk of being cut off, not being allowed to ask a second question, rudely told that their comments were disruptive. It would seem that a leader of a public institution would not only want to but would feel obligated to listen to the public whom he proposes to saddle with a 30-year obligation. One wonders if he will even be in the district for the duration of 30-years, or if he will use this "achievement" to seek employment in another district for even higher compensation. 
All of the above is not just my opinion, but repeated comments from many in the community. I think the concerns have merit. The school board did not put forth any alternatives, and when asked about a plan B, it seemed to be of no concern or consideration. No clear plan was expressed for what would happen to the buildings or properties at the current Jeffers and Holmes sites. Everything has been simply put out there in take it or leave it fashion. So, let's leave it. They can come back to us later with another proposal. It would be wise if it reflects the comments and concerns of the actual public who pays for public education.

Considering School Bond Proposal is Tough Homework

(From the October 10, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s been hard to know how to vote this November 5 on the Spring Lake Schools bond proposal. I’ve been torn about the prospect of another increase in taxes.

I’m an educator at the college level and value education. I recognize the civic responsibility to support public education, even though my wife and I don’t have children. These initial thoughts would make me favorable towards a proposal that would improve local schools and help them maintain their good quality.

But there are also certain realities that trouble me. One is that I do not make a significant amount of money. So, even though the proposal would cost most homeowners in the Spring Lake School District “only” about $40-50 more per year, that is on top of annual property taxes that exceed $2000. A few “onlys” add up quickly.

Because of this conflict in my head, I attended a public forum in which the Superintendent Dennis Furton gave a presentation and answered questions. Attendees were also given a considerable amount of literature to digest about the proposal. About 25 people attended the event at Jeffers Elementary earlier this week, and stayed nearly two hours.

Here are a few points that I consider most relevant that I think are worth considering as all of us contemplate a vote next month.

The proposed facility upgrades are not a wish list of things that would be nice to have. Engineers did a facility assessment on the 60-year-old elementary school buildings and determined upgrades to facilities and technology that are needed are so expensive in the older buildings that new construction makes more sense. One key take-away from teachers at the meeting is that their classrooms can not be temperature controlled by outdated thermostats and boiler systems that are beyond repair. Rooms typically are near 80 or even 90 degrees. Even in winter some teachers open classroom windows to make the classroom more comfortable.

New buildings also would enable more space and furnishings that are conducive to modern teaching styles, which involves more collaborative learning activities vs sitting in rows of desks. As a college professor I hear from employers who say that is how the workplace is changing also, to more collaborative work styles. Facilities that allow for educating children in this manner will better prepare them for college and the workplace.

Some residents complained that the proposal includes funding for athletics, which could possibly more appropriately be funded by private fundraising. But the athletic-related projects account for only 8% of the total proposal. Also, improvements like artificial turf actually will save the district money over time in maintenance costs.

Some were concerned about having one elementary school and causing many children who now can walk to school to need to be bussed. It was pointed out that when the current schools were built about 90% of the students lived in Spring Lake Village, in walking distance to Holmes Elementary. Today that number is 10% or less.

With regard to the increase in taxes, it was helpful to compare Spring Lake to other school districts in Ottawa County. If the proposal passes, the total millage would be 7.0, 8th out of 11 districts in the county. The highest is Coopersville at 8.69 and the lowest is Saugatuck at 3.0.There was also a sense of urgency to the proposal. The Michigan legislature capped the School Bond Loan Fund at $1.8 billion, and the fund is nearing the cap. If the proposal passes this year the taxpayers will have a .569 mill increase. But if not, the same proposal without being able to benefit from the School Bond Loan Fund would require a nearly 5 mill increase.

When asked about plans should the proposal fail, the superintended said there is none. They may come back to the voters with an alternate or scaled down request. Some in the room seemed surprised that there was not any thought given to contingencies.

There were a lot of other issues discussed at the recent meeting. Perhaps voters have even more thoughts in favor of or opposed to the proposal. I’d be interested to read them in letters to this paper or comments on this column. I know I appreciated the presentation by the Superintendent, and his response to questions and comments of taxpayers in the room. The proposal is a big decision, affecting us all for three decades. I’ve done my homework, and will continue to study the issue, before the proposal meets the test of voter approval in November.

A collection of Tim Penning’s columns is available in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays.”