The New York Times Considers What Will Happen If We Don’t Pass Health Care Reform

February 28, 2010 at 5:10 am | Posted in In the News, The Heath Care System | Leave a comment

United States Capital

I love my country, but fear for our democracy.

This article in the Sunday Times considers what will happen if health care reform doesn’t pass. “Grim” is an understatement. Already health care costs are breaking the bank for individuals, employers, and Federal and state budgets; if current trends continue, premiums are likely to double in the next 10 years, and wages will certainly not keep pace. So, yeah, put your elected officials’ feet to the fire.

I’ve long suspected that we’ll have to stop throwing money at increasingly expensive drugs, devices, and surgery. I’m suitably grateful for the pace of technological advancement in medicine, but it’s clear to me that we need to ration care. If we do, it will be a damn sight cheaper to pay for preventative care than to cover, say, organ transplants.

Which brings us to another point that seems obvious to me, but that commentators rarely mention: In the U.S., we kill ourselves with food. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions, and young people seem to be leading the crowd. Video games, cable TV and the Internet have largely replaced my favorite childhood pastimes, which included scampering around the neighborhood pretending to be a horse, making horrid-smelling “perfumes” and “meals,” and jousting with sticks. I don’t advocate that children follow my example and fiddle with dead birds or use WD-40, Lysol and hairspray to create improvised flamethrowers. I’d probably show them how, though, if that would draw them away from shopping and gazing at screens.

Note to my parents: I’ve never set fire to anything. Never. Though I must say that I found Dad’s demonstration of how to use a magnifying glass to start a fire, um, compelling.

OK, I’ve wandered far off topic, and it’s time to pry myself from the screen.


Tackling the Problem of Motivation

February 27, 2010 at 6:49 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Wellness | Leave a comment

Rock Climber

Would I dangle from a precipice to bring about world peace? Perhaps. Would I do it to develp ripped arms and maintain my six-pack? Oh, absolutely.

It’s easy to come up with good reasons to make major life changes such as starting an exercise program, improving your diet, or sticking to a rigorous prayer schedule. Here’s the problem: Having reasons and being motivated are not the same thing. If your reasons don’t much motivate you, virtue doesn’t stand a chance in the face of inertia.

I’m not the first person to have noticed this, but it hit me with particular force yesterday morning while I was flossing my teeth. Up until recently I’ve slacked a little on the flossing bit (repulsive, I know). I’ve been flossing swiftly and sheepishly before dates and dentist appointments, but that’s about it. Of course, I’ve lied about this to every dentist who has peered into my mouth. However, several weeks ago I became anxious about my breath, perhaps because I’ve been weirdly preoccupied with the act of swallowing. Suddenly flossing seemed less wearisome, and I took it up enthusiastically. I still feel the urge to skip it when I’m in a hurry. All I have to do, though, is think, “Do you really want to feel self-conscious about your breath every day? I didn’t think so. So floss already.” That makes me floss with gusto.

So yesterday it struck me: Vanity is one of my chief motives. If I think that developing a habit will make me more charming and beautiful, I’m more likely to stick with it than I would if I just lectured myself primly about, say, increasing my bone density.

The key to change, then, is not to generate a list of excellent reasons; it is to discover my chief motives and connect them to a change I’d like to make. Here’s a list, then, of my strong motivations:

1. Vanity. Pimples, wrinkle, and sun damage are all unattractive, so my skin has long been my work of art. Ditto manicured feet and hands. Oh, and I will probably go to my death dressed with flair.

2. Feeling productive, and therefore virtuous. This is the only reason that I don’t procrastinate chronically.

3. Avoiding physical or psychic pain. For instance, I will work out to avoid backaches.

4. Consistently feeling better in the short term by, say, chasing a yoga high.

5. Dreading coming across as a blowhard or a name-dropper. When I catch myself thoughtlessly bragging about money, I cringe at my own vulgarity.

There are probably several more, but those leap to mind. You may have noticed that they’re not especially noble. They work nonetheless, and I’m all about doing what works. So I plan to spend time today recording even my most base motives and plotting to apply them to important goals. It’s sad that I don’t respond well to more noble incentives, but I’ll take it.

Love to all.

In Which I Share My New System for To-Do Lists and Consider How to Avoid Alienation at Work

February 24, 2010 at 5:07 am | Posted in In the News, Productivity, Sociability, Wellness, Work Life | Leave a comment

Alone in a crowd

I've summoned up some strategies for feeling less alone in the crowd at work.

I’m excited by the following development: I’ve hit on a better (or at least different) way of formatting my all-important to-do lists.

My penultimate system entailed highlighting my MIT’s (Most Important Things), as well as any routine tasks that had to be completed by the day’s end (or COB, as we cube rats like to call it). When I would look for a new task, though, I found myself reading over every item and feeling guilty for anything that I knew I couldn’t complete.

Thus the new system. Now I break my to-do list into three shorter lists: MIT’s, routine stuff, and Other. I work them in order without peeking ahead, and so far it’s working well.

Some may say that my systems are unnecessarily elaborate. Whatever works, I say.

I’ve also become aware of exactly how alienated I feel at work. I hardly speak to the other data managers; I can hear them whooping it up in the office next to mine (the one my former office mate is squatting in), which makes me sad or sour grapes, depending on whether I’m depressed or enraged.

I do tell myself that all this will change when I move to my new cube near the test engineers, and that may be true. Even so, I made and began to follow a list of Tactics To Feel More Engaged in the Office. Here goes:

1. Seek out people whom I like. This means chatting with two data managers, Michele and Karen, who work near a manufacturing area that I frequent. So I’ve sworn to visit them whenever I pass. They greet me eagerly. After even a brief chat, I feel less like I’m from Mars.

2. Work to find common ground with people I find difficult, and notice qualities that I respect. This presents a challenge, given that we don’t actually share work, or even frequent each others’ offices. And since my office mate has seceded, I feel awkward addressing her. In fact, I castigate myself every time I see her. Things are bad enough that I need to make a specific effort.

3. I’m taking over one function from my former office mate and I need occasional training, so I make a point of asking her to show me things rather than turning to team members who make me less nervous.

4. Read articles about the industry and relevant government policy daily.

5. Soak up the frequent email updates from the engineers I work with, and ask questions when I’m curious.

6. List my strengths and note how I can use them at work. I got this strategy from an internal marketing campaign sponsored by our HR department. I often feel that there is no overlap between my job functions and my skills, but this isn’t totally true. I can seek out opportunities for writing and public speaking, for example, and when I do, it’s fun to excel.

7. Schedule weekly status meetings with my section head, especially now that she has moved to another building. I’d prefer to stay out of her way, but that’s unlikely to improve my rank and rating.

These steps aren’t easy for me now, and they’ll get more difficult when I’ve finally moved, but I will try.

A final quick note: I’m not at all motivated to make changes that seem trivial, and most of my Perfect Mental Patient project strikes me that way. It isn’t as life-improving as I’d hoped, and seems not to address the fundamental problem. More on the problem I’ve identified and ways to attack it tomorrow.

Love to all.

Oops — last quick note: I’m fascinated by this article from The New York Times. It confirms an idea that I’ve long taken as a maxim. Studies now show that sitting still for hours at a time can undo even the most vigorous daily exercise program. Aside from developing the dreaded Desk Ass, office workers who enjoy few opportunities to move around weigh more than people with more active jobs. They’re also at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses associated with sedentary habits. This is the case even when researchers match the two groups for after-hours exercise. Really, this should be obvious; anything that can give you deep vein thrombosis can’t be beneficial. So now I’ll feel even more justified in springing up every few minutes to pick something up off of the printer or visit the ladies’ room.

I’ve long cherished the idea of starting a Six Sigma project that would set aside a half an hour a day for people in particularly sedentary jobs to walk and do yoga. Maybe this is my cue.

Now I can say it: Love to all.

The Trouble with Control, The New York Review of Books on Health Care Reform, and an Outlet for My Rage

February 23, 2010 at 4:40 am | Posted in In the News, Links, Rage | Leave a comment


Petty criminals who drive down my property values will feel my wrath, dickweed.

Like just about anything you’ll find in The New York Review of Books, <a href="“>this article on congressional attempts at health care startled me with with its insightful analysis of our nation’s legislative climate. In fact, it’s so insightful that the author agrees with me, arguing that the Democrats should not have taken Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts (Ha! Spelled that correctly on the second try!) as a thumbs-down vote on our pathetic, mired-down health care bill.

Now. I’ve been wrestling in this space with the issue of control, asking again and again whether I can do anything to ameliorate my moods. It came to me that this is bound to be demoralizing: If I can control my moods, then it’s my fault that I’m not well; if I can’t, then my situation is hopeless. Neither conclusion is particularly alluring, so I tend to tell myself that I can control them, but I haven’t figured out how yet. Of course, this means failing again and again at all sorts of self-improvement initiatives, which is demoralizing in itself. To which I say, Grumble!

A month or two ago, I saw a flasher standing in the parking lot behind my condo, and I lamely resolved to give him the rough side of my tongue if I saw him again. Imagine my delight when I spotted him two days ago, this time shining a flashlight down on his penis. I threw a U-turn, rolled down my window, and barked out a couple of profanity-laden threats. He shot me an incredulous look and loped off. My only regret is that my prevailing mood has changed, and I may not have summoned the proper air of psychotic rage. But that incident made me smile for a couple of hours.

How Much Can I Control My Moods? In Which I Turn Back to God

February 19, 2010 at 5:18 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Dealing with Mania, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Wellness | Leave a comment

St. Augustine, Bishop of HippoFor me, the question above torments me at times; the answer seems to change from day to day, whiplashing me from guilt to hopelessness to a fragile hope.

When I did a swan-dive from mania to depression on Sunday, the speed and seeming inexorability of my descent awed me. When I’m depressed, I flog myself to stick to even the mildest wellness routines. When I ascend into mania, everything that I ought to do is effortless, a pleasure. I walk, socialize, and pray without thinking and with enjoyment. I see God working in my life. And just as I’m leading a more or less blameless life, the depression crashes back over me, and I’m like King Canute in the fable, commanding the waves to turn back. Canute wets his feet; I drown. God turns his face from me.

Yesterday, despite withering guilt, I left work sick. I’ve been missing too much work lately, but I felt that I couldn’t stay. To my intense humiliation, when I told my section head, I wept and shook so hard that she escorted my to the nurse’s office and refused to let me drive home until I’d spoken to him. Oh, God. My madness on display for the whole section to see.

As I set off on my commute — so much more pleasant now that I have my lovely and perfect Charger — I suddenly knew what was wrong. On Saturday, when I was still incandescent with mania, I’d had an encounter with a friend that shook my sense of myself. I used him, he used me back, and we both left feeling alarmed and frankly repelled. I didn’t feel precisely guilty, but I know that I had harmed him and the relationship, and that I would have to talk to him about it. This came to me with the force of a religious revelation; in fact, it was a religious revelation.

Typically I will suffer any indignity or commit any crime without apology if either will help me to avoid initiating a Relationship Talk. In connections of all sorts, more than anything I dread finding myself in the role of Demanding Woman. As a result, I am easily controlled. If anyone accuses me of “drama,” I fall right into line. My most recent boyfriend, God bless him, caught on to this quickly and used it remorselessly. At the very end, his sudden, bizarre descent into cruelty would have plunged any rational woman into hysterical rage; he branded my mild attempts at rational communication “drama,” and I cut him off entirely rather than play out the role of Dido.

Imagine my dread, then, when it came to me that in order to ease my depression I would have to call a meeting and express my needs clearly. Yikes.

The meeting itself proved instructive (he was free to stop by immediately, since like every last one of my friends, he’s been laid off). It’s strange — for all that I loathe them, I’m good at difficult conversations of all sorts. I cruise through critical evaluations at work, for example, watching myself respond without a trace of defensiveness and formulate a plan for improvement on the spot. I carry out these plans, too. Accordingly, my supervisors come away with a higher opinion of me, and I become a better employee. So I conducted myself well with my friend, and he responded with relief and similar candor.

As we spoke, I realized that he had been waiting for me to set the tone for further interactions. If I’d accused him of horrors, he would have accepted the charges; if I’d said that our bad behavior fulfilled me as a woman and begged him to treat me accordingly, he would have made every effort to do that, despite his instinctive revulsion. I approached the incident with calm curiosity, explored the issue with him, then set a new bottom line for our interactions. I expected him to reject my request out of hand, even to end the friendship. We’d discussed numerous times how we wanted to treat each other and be treated, but I’m not naive, and I know that people will often express a desire to change only to reject every opportunity to do so.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when he agreed to my suggestion with relief. I expected him to hate me for telling him what I wanted; I’d behaved as if wanting anything at all was a cruel imposition. He’d done the same, which led to a hilarious-from-the-outside waltz in which we tried to discern each other’s wishes, and to lead accordingly.

So my depression lifted markedly. Somehow knowing that I can control it humbled me as much as the feeling of total helplessness that I’d had earlier in the week. I responded with near-indignation, asking God (who had turned back when I approached him), Wait, does this mean I have to do the right thing, even when it’s hard? And that I don’t need a therapist to tell me what the right thing is? If my mood depends upon conducting myself well, it’s worse than I thought.

Since last week I’d suspected that the my campaign for perfection was trivial. Getting off the Internet and leaving my cell phone at home delighted me independent of mood; whether I dutifully walked, for example, depended entirely on my preexisting mood. The latter is trivial, the former profound.

Another humbling reflection: I know what I need to do to feel better. Typically it’s the very thing that I am sure will leave me a Bad Employee and an unloved outcast. I’ve adopted certain habits because I believe they stand between me and oblivion. As I discovered when I quit my antianxiolytic, the only way I can find relief is to let them go. Hm.

So, yeah, I need to re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions and reacquaint myself with that brilliant and very human saint. Perhaps, in a characteristic burst of irrelevancy, I’ll discuss them here.

Love to all.

I Hereby Declare My Review of Crazy Like Us Complete

February 17, 2010 at 2:26 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cross draped in purple

Have a happy Lent! Or, more appropriately, a repentant one. I'm going to try to make it to Mass for an imposition of ashes.

Then there’s this: According to this survey, 60 percent of Americans believe that universities and colleges are run like businesses, and this is not a compliment. I heartily agree, and wonder what rock the other 40 percent live under. At the same time, I don’t feel tremendous sympathy for the public. That’s what you get when students and parents campaign to turn higher education into vocational training by getting rid of such luxuries as composition.

Well, that should settle their hash.

Book Review Continued: Crazy Like Us

February 15, 2010 at 3:28 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The cover of Watters' bookYesterday I began a review of Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us. I’ll try to conclude today.

Watters’ initial chapter, which concerns the spread of anorexia in Hong Kong, failed to convince me, not, I think because it’s poorly researched, but because the book has a cumulative effect. As I worked my way through his case studies — PTSD in Sri Lanka following the tsunami, schizophrenia in Zanzibar, and depression in Japan — I found myself coming to accept his argument, bold as it is, for two reasons. First, it’s well-argued and researched; second, it squares neatly with my own experience in the mental health system. In this review I’ll often refer to the latter, since I think it puts me in a unique position to evaluate Watters’ work.

Each chapter details a truly appalling abuse of professional and economic power. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his description of hundreds of slavering therapists and researchers descending on post-tsunami Sri Lanka shocked me. I’m familiar with psychiatric and therapeutic abuses, but I had no idea that they exist on a huge international scale; I’ve always said you can never be cynical enough about Big Pharma, and clearly I haven’t been.

Narrative and anecdote appeal to me, and the details the author furnishes dovetailed with my own adventures in diagnosis. For instance, I’ve always felt that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has many of the hallmarks of a socially transmitted moral panic. This is the case even though I displayed classic symptoms for roughly seven years after having been raped. I’ve felt skeptical about my own diagnosis because, eerily, all but one of my psychiatrists has interrogated me about the possibility that I’ve suffered childhood sexual assault, and only reluctantly accepted that I haven’t. Typically they dismiss the actual rape, preferring to spend session after session hunting the chimera of incestuous gropings.

It’s long been established, most notably in the New York Review of Books, that supposedly therapeutic techniques popular in the 80’s and 90’s convinced countless patients that they’d suffered everything from incest to ritual satanic abuse; the diagnosis of PTSD grew in part out of just these techniques. I’ve witnessed these psychological abuses myself. In a therapy group I attended in the early 90’s, a woman became wholly convinced that a beloved uncle had fondled her repeatedly even though she couldn’t remember a single incident. Far from acting intentionally or out of spite, the victim was horrified at the very idea that her uncle, who had just died, could have done such a thing. Though she’d discovered the abuse during a highly suspect group process of “rebirthing,” during the months that I belonged to the group, she never doubted that it had happened. It saddens me deeply to think of the damage that these almost certainly manufactured memories must have caused her and her family.

Following that experience, I’m not at all surprised that self-styled and mostly well-meaning American PTSD counselors imposed their own model of trauma on Sri Lankans, undermining the more suitable style of coping that they learned from their own culture. Article after article in The Times and elsewhere attests to the international spread of PTSD; the consequences may be debatable, but the fact of its growth is not.

The third and fourth chapters, which concern schizophrenia in Zanzibar and “The Mega-Marketing of Depression in Japan” deal with diseases that Western medicine considers to be purely biological. Watters demonstrates convincingly that though the most devastating mental illnesses transcend culture, their expression and treatment vary to an extent that took me by surprise. When you think about it, though, it makes sense that sufferers in different cultures should experience widely different psychotic delusions, and that their families and society should understand them as, say, spirit possession rather than the expression of a broken brain. Western psychiatric history holds that the former belief is much more stigmatizing than the latter, but Watters demonstrates through anecdote and research studies that the opposite is true; people who attribute mental illnesses to genetic causes fear and shun the mentally ill more than their counterparts who hold to earlier models.

Given our perverse health care system, our recent romance with a medical model of mental functioning condemns many people to lives that ought to appall us. As David A. Karp demonstrates in The Burden of Sympathy, which I reviewed in this space, American families with mentally ill members receive no meaningful social or financial help from either public or private sources. Without extensive family support, seriously mentally ill people in America risk ending up either homeless or imprisoned. In my case, with my family’s support, I earned a Ph.D., hold a demanding job, and own a home (and, no, they didn’t buy the latter for me); I would not have been able to house myself or hold a job for all these years without their help.

You may ask, What about psych drugs? Surely the benefits of American medical treatment outweigh the risks of our fragmented culture, at least for those who can afford it. More than one shrink has told me with a mystified air that the prognosis of Third World mental patients is much better than that of their most privileged American peers. In other words, even if it’s factually true that genetics and brain chemistry cause schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we’re unable to turn our scientific understanding into treatments that work.

More on that later, though. I’ll return to the issues Watters raises in Crazy Like Us tomorrow.

Briefly noted: The longest hypomanic stretch in my life may be ending. Every day for the last 10 days I’ve been dreading the return of my depression and hoping that I’ve finally recovered the real Dr. RandR. I wish so much that I could shed the drooping self that irks me so and claim my feisty, temperamental pre-Klonopin existence. I am trying to tamp down hope, since I know perfectly well that mania is marked by a sense that you’ve morphed into your better, true self. In the meantime, I’m savoring this thrilling clarity of thought and sense of the incandescent web that interconnects words.

Book Review: Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us

February 13, 2010 at 6:33 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

I resisted Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us long before I picked it up. In essence, he argues that mental illness is socially constructed, and for the last 20 years, Big Pharma and mental health professionals have evangelized for a pernicious and peculiarly American flavor of madness. Oh, Lord, I thought, another author earnestly “undermining discourse” by pushing a bastardized version of Foucault and postcolonial theory. Ho-hum. When rigorously supported, arguments based on social construction can be illuminating. However, the ideas behind it have become so pervasive that few authors feel the need to support them — instead, they rely on shared assumptions about causality to make the argument for them.

Since Crazy Like Us does, indeed, take social construction as a given, I’d like to begin with a brief overview the concept. I’m not going to prose on and on (I hope), but understanding what Watters means may head off some of the more obvious objections to his claims. This should help us to predict the book’s strengths and weaknesses alike.

Many people bristle at the phrase “social construction” because it seems like a trendy equivalent of its baggier sibling, nurture. Laypeople assume that socially constructed traits stem from individual neuroses, and that, through psychoanalysis, we can control them to some extent. Or, more absurdly, even sociologists may assume that groups choose how they mold members. (To my disgust, the entry in Wikipedia on social construction engages in just such oversimplification.) However, in its strict sense, “socially constructed” does not equal faked or chosen, whether by the individual or a group.

The concept of social construction offers two powerful theoretical advantages: it offers an alternative to deterministic arguments for genetics and allows thinkers to avoid the American sin of psychologizing, and thus pathologizing, individual expressions of, say, gender. Theoreticians (I’m thinking here of Judith Butler’s early work here) do this by arguing that social construction begins from the cradle and involves attributes that people experience as fixed. In fact, genetics may be more mutable, since all but a few traits that people regard as “biological” or “hard-wired” amount to strong tendencies rather than fate. Twin studies bear this out in the case of mental illness; the greatest concordance I’ve read about for even manic depression and schizophrenia is roughly 60 percent.

Further, the concept of social construction pushes philosophers to consider systemic causes rather than falling back on stigmatizing and scapegoating individuals who deviate from the norm. I’m big on systemic causes, particularly economic ones, so I tend to favor anything that jars us out of our national obsession with the individual.

One important objection to vulgar genetics also applies to social construction. In many people’s hands, the latter seems as deterministic as the former, and determinism raises both practical and philosophical objections. For one thing, some people, myself included, feel that they have molded their gender or sexuality through their actions. If the culture is generally homophobic, it seems unlikely that it would routinely construct lesbians and gay men any more than our genes would lead us in that direction. Finally, for many thinkers social construction becomes an unquestioned premise; whole communities of academic tend to take it as gospel and use it as a handy explanation for every behavior that call out for an explanation.

Oh, Lord. I just spent 30 seconds battling the conviction that “explanation” can’t possibly be a word. This is far from perfect, but I’ll run with it. More later.

I Like the 21st Century Better When I Limit My Role in It

February 12, 2010 at 3:50 am | Posted in Productivity, Work Life | Leave a comment


Unless you'd like to see my head explode, don't page me if nothing's on fire.

I’m not the Unibomber, and I don’t live in a cave, but, man, curtailing my computer time has improved my sense of connection. Today I will take that as my topic, on the theory that it’s not only interesting but a huge mood boost.

Where to start? I’ll begin with my scheme for improving communications at work. Two days ago I acted with remarkable audacity for the mouse-me, approaching our crusty Program head with a suggestion: Why not ask everyone to make a list of the media they use, ranked by preference and average response time? I also thought we should each explain how to contact us in a true emergency.

My reasoning should be familiar by now. To wit, the best way to reach people depends on their circumstances and preferences. Those with BlackBerries like emails since they can read them in meetings. For the IT folks, paging makes sense since they’re never at they’re desks, and they can’t carry cell phones in the closed areas and labs. I “only” check email three times a day, and reserve my pager for emergencies. In fact, I rarely carry the latter during business hours, since it makes sense to call me at my desk for hot assignments.

He immediately saw what I mean. He could rattle off the preferences of all the people he called regularly, but had no idea about how to find most of us quickly. He also agreed that nothing is more irritating than being pestered with trivialities in a medium that you reserve for emergencies. In fact, he hates to be paged, too. So I sailed off to set my plan in motion. I can’t tell you how much this delighted me. My section head only calls me to castigate me for an error in corporate protocol or drop work on me, in that order. I positively adore the Program now.

What’s next? Suggesting email-free Fridays, of course.

I continue to reap the benefits of face-to-face communication, too. Yesterday presented more of a challenge, because I had tease out a series of potentially production-stopping issues, which entailed trotting from office to office and building to building to gather facts and opinions. It still worked charmingly, though, and as before, I ended up having a series of valuable incidental conversations.

More later — my alarm went off, which means it’s time to wrap it up.

Love to all.

Get Thee Behind Me, Internet

February 11, 2010 at 3:38 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | Leave a comment

Yesterday, just for fun, I limited my time on the computer at work to about two hours. Before I got in, I would have sworn to you that six hours was a stretch, and that even that would risk curtailing my productivity. Not so. In fact, it looks like I’ve accidentally discovered a striking way to boost my mood.

The goal was simple: To stay not only offline, but off the computer entirely. When I needed to see people, my default setting was a face-to-face visit. If that didn’t work, I resorted to a telephone call. This resolution alone wrought enormous changes, and demonstrated the limits of electronic communication.

Surely, I thought, personal visits will take too long. What’s more, how likely is it that people will actually be at their desks? I was cast down early in the morning, for example, when I trotted the quarter mile or so to see IT regarding server access for two other data managers; my target had popped out for a smoke.

On a whim I stopped by my section head’s desk, and found out that I would be able to have lunch with the customer (who was visiting) despite a crucial teleconference I’d mistakenly scheduled from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. If I hadn’t seen her face-to-face, they almost certainly would have gone without me, and I’ve done enough damage to my career through social avoidance, thank you very much.

Next I poked my head into the cube shared by two women whom I find congenial. Since they’re in a distant building and on a different program, I typically see them only in meetings. We had a most excellent time chatting about nothing in particular, and strengthened a promising bond substantially.

I returned to my desk strengthened in my resolve. Within minutes, the IT guy who had ignored two days of plaintive voice mails called and asked what he could do for me. Granted, this gentleman is more “responsive,” as we say, than our usual Program IT people. Even so, it set a land speed record for IT service.

The trend continued. An engineer visited my cube to compliment me on my presentation two days ago on disability awareness; we enjoyed an enlightening chat about his reaction to a sudden, invisible disability, and he expressed interest in attending a brown bag seminar that I’m planning on behalf of the disabled employees resource group. I stopped by the office of the program manager, whom I fear and revere, to suggest a way of improving team communication (more on this revolutionary notion in a later post). I didn’t find him, but, again, he called back promptly, allowing me to stop by a second time. I pitched my idea, which he loved, then we discussed my presentation and problems that disabled employees face throughout the company. I wandered by the office of the gentleman who handles security for Mission Planning. He wandered back and took the time to explain a complicated issue connected with the Program’s telemetry data, which I process and store.

You get the point. These are just examples — I started dozens of valuable face-to-face interactions throughout the day, and I largely stayed off the computer. I also left my beloved iPhone at home. I started out downright alarmed — What if my car breaks down? Oh, yeah, I’ll call AAA on my company phone — but was converted by lunch, since I avoided spending my lunch hunched over a tiny screen reading The Times. You couldn’t pay me to take the thing today.

I had no idea how completely I relied on the computer to communicate, and how much time I frittered away sending and receiving terse, functional emails. That single activity apparently accounts for more than two-thirds of my terminal time. So what did I do online? I looked up people in our online employee directory and did some word processing — that’s it.

The key question is, was I productive enough? Yes and no. I sent fewer messages, certainly, and I did have less time to write. Even so, I’m positive that I came out substantially ahead: In one day I learned more about my colleagues and management than I had in the previous year, and they got to know me. This may prove to be a secret weapon: If I can strengthen my bonds with the Program, I stand to gain significant status and influence. And, of course, the Program gains from spontaneous brainstorming sessions and improved communication. I gathered and shared a tremendous amount of work-related information through spontaneous, free-form conversation, and this sparked ideas that wouldn’t have come to me had I sent even the most eloquent email. Hot damn.

Further radical steps: I’ve resolved to thank people specifically and honestly for their help once a week, and to cut out emails and IMs reading “Thank you,” or, more often, “Thx.” Visiting will be my default mode, followed by calls to people’s landlines. Only if those methods fail will I send an email. After one revolutionary day, I’m certain that email works well for broadcast communication, but is otherwise of marginal value. It turns out that people instinctively accord more importance to a face-to-face visit.

Three caveats: First, I’m still hypomanic, and I may find it tough to keep this up when the inevitable depression crashes over me. I suspect, though, that I vibrated with energy partly because the social contact lifted my spirits. We’ll see. Second, if others take my lead, the magical expediting effect of my visits may dwindle. I’ll take it — the detailed conversation alone pays off one hundredfold. Finally, for all I know, others may already be visiting each other and chatting away, of course. I may simply be catching up. I doubt that they conduct business face-to-face, however — I think that their face-to-face contact is purely social.

So, wow. I’ve got a lot more to tell, but my alarm went off, and it’s time to shut down my laptop.

Love to all.

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