In Which I Pass on Gossip about a Few Famous People Who May Be Mentally Ill

March 2, 2010 at 5:03 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Famous Bipolar Folks, In the News, Links, The Heath Care System | Leave a comment

Mental Illness Image

Just one of the many sensitive portrayals of mental illness on iStockphoto.com.

Over my Christmas break I read with interest Nicholson Baker’s provocative history of World War II, Human Smoke, in which the author assembles an impressive pile of evidence suggesting, among other things, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the bombing of German civilians for three months before Hitler began his air raids — in fact, there’s a good deal of evidence that the British government used both explosives and chemical weapons on native populations as a sort of dry run for the forthcoming World War. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, to say the least; Churchill is revered partly for his prescient insistence on Hitler’s intransigence. In Baker’s book, he comes across, um, poorly, looking essentially like a bellicose nutjob. Indeed, even his most admiring biographers acknowledge that Churchill relished war and probably wouldn’t have flourished if he’s been named Prime Minister in peacetime.

Baker’s book set off a fascination with Churchill that I’ve just began to explore. My first stop was Gretchen Rubin’s Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, since I thought her recent book The Happiness Project was downright genius. Here’s my thoroughly idiosyncratic take: though Rubin’s biography doesn’t investigate the issue, it provides a good deal of evidence that this British wartime leader was at least as bipolar as I am.

In fact, if Churchill wasn’t manic-depressive, I’ll eat my hat. He suffered from black periods of depression (which Rubin does discuss), and when he wasn’t depressed he seems to have lived a life of mild mania. For example: He was a spendthrift; he drank like a fish; he was grandiose from childhood forward; he had poor impulse control; he couldn’t shut up, and lectured his associates and fellow world leaders for hours at a time (a tendency that he shared with Hitler). I’m not the first to have put two and two together — a Google search on “winston churchill bipolar disorder” draws a whole series of provocative hits.

(By the way, Rubin’s book promises both to introduce the reader to Churchill and to comment through its form on the genre of biography. The latter is the sort of enterprise that might well annoy me, but Rubin’s lack of pretension combined with genuine erudition save the day, and it’s an excellent book.)

So, yes, Winston Churchill, for whom I still feel an irrational admiration.

Once I Googled Churchill in connection with bipolar, I felt moved to check on Peter Gabriel as well. He’s got a new album out, and I’ve long had a vague idea that he has some sort of mood disorder, since years ago he wrote the deceptively simple “Lead a Normal Life,” a moving song about psychiatric hospitalization, of all things. In fact, the untitled album that fans call Melt contains sympathetic interior monologues from a set of thoroughly mad characters — perhaps the best is “Family Snapshot,” which dramatizes an assassination attempt. (I know, I know, that sounds like a misguided subject for a song. That’s what I think every time I start to listen to it. It wins me over every time.) Sure enough, many commentators have suggested that Gabriel is manic-depressive. Ha-ha, I say — we are poised to take over the universe.

By now you may be asking yourself, What on earth is she driving at? Um, nothing really. Churchill and Gabriel have been on my mind lately, that’s all. Naturally Adam Ant is always on my mind, since he’s openly mentally ill and probably as queer as a three-dollar bill (and, no, I don’t mean gay). I’ve played “Friend or Foe” countless times and thought, “Yes, that’s it exactly! I am Adam Ant!” (I am also Marilyn Manson, but that’s another story.)

In other news, The American Psychiatric Association has posted a draft of changes to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) on the APA home page. Readers can comment on these changes through April 20. The diagnoses in the DSM drive insurance reimbursement, among other things, so they are, of course, tremendously controversial. Over the last several days, John McManamy for Knowledge Is Necessity has been issuing a multi-part report card for the sections of the DSM that address depression and bipolar disorder. His analysis is polemic, to say the least. Given the current public debate concerning treating kids with powerful psych meds, yesterday’s polemic post on pediatric bipolar in particular will ruffle feathers. Whether or not you ultimately agree with McManamy’s analyses, he bases his comments on years of reporting on mood disorders, and his undeniable expertise shines through.

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.

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

Flasher

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.

I Hate the 21st Century Continued, in Which I Reject the Internet and Discuss an Article from The New York Times Concerning An Intriguing Academic Program

February 9, 2010 at 4:29 am | Posted in In the News, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | 2 Comments

Let me begin with bile and end, for once, on a hopeful note.

So. Lately computers in general and the Internet in particular have been driving me nuts. Several times a day I reflect gloomily on how much of my adult life I’ve wasted staring at screens small and large while pages load. I’ve definitely been either hypomanic or unusually irritable while entertaining this train of thought. Nonetheless, I think there’s genuine insight to be had here. Most days, between work and this space, I log a minimum of 10 hours online. Throw in an evening email check, a quick trip to, say, Amazon.com, and time squandered reading The Times on my iPod at lunch and in waiting rooms, and we’re looking at 12 or 13 hours. No wonder I’m still creeping through Victor David Hanson’s remarkable A War Like No Other.

(Digression that makes me wish for footnotes: When I searched Hanson’s book on Amazon, I was intrigued to note that he’s the author of Carnage and Culture, which I’ve long dismissed as a right-wing tract that blindly and possibly ahistorically that argues that a democratic tradition allowed the West to conquer and enslave New World indigenous cultures. Hanson’s book on the Peloponnesian war demonstrates the subtlety and reach of his scholarship; I’ll have to revisit Carnage and Culture.)

Back to the 21st Century, against which I hold a whole variety of grudges. My shoulders are perpetually sore from hunching over screens. Despite the hardware’s laughably superior processing power, the bloated software on my PC at work runs more slowly than the crude programs I installed on the Commodore 64 I had in high school.

To my endless irritation, the Internet has taken over my life. I date, buy books and clothes, correspond with friends, and work exclusively online. I text or email the gentlemen of my acquaintance to the exclusion of phone conversations (I’ll address the evils of cell phones presently). I’ve initiated, consummated, and ended key romantic partnerships via email (though never by text or instant message). This is crazy, and it has to stop.

Before you all begin to bristle at my Luddite ways, I will note that I reap benefits from it, too. Before online shopping no brick-and-mortar store carried my absurd clothing sizes (a 00 in jeans and a 30DD in bras). I’ve met some lovely people online. I adore Skype’s largely free VOIP service. So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t I brim with gratitude and plunge into every technology developed?

Overall, I think we’ve suffered more than we’re willing to admit. I’ve often joked that the Internet and smartphones are Gen X TV — that is, they destroy relationships and culture with their inexorable spread. Every now and then, I remind my office mate that Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or in its entirety in eight months using quill and ink. I’m here to tell you that hand-written 19th Century German philosophy beats the hell out of even the most learned contemporary discourse.

A few more examples:

1. Cell phones substantially reduce the quality of communication. Digital sound quality invariably muddies conversation. Everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear, yet complains about everyone else’s poor manners (phones ringing during sermons and seminars) and reckless behavior (talking and texting while driving).

2. Constant availability sucks. It also inspires complete submission. My life illustrates this neatly, since I carry two cell phones (company and personal) and a pager, and answer to a work landline, personal and business email, VOIP services like Skype, and instant messaging, which I loathe. Oh, and I text on both of my phones.

I hate, hate, hate this way of living, and I’ve resisted the innovations that irritate me most. It’s a radical step even to cut back on one medium, though. My coworkers, for example, rise indignant when I limit my emailing to two hours in the morning and afternoon; the evil minions of Mission Planning pestered me to get IM, and I gave in. Ever since, I’ve been subject to trivial and distracting interruptions throughout my work day.

3. As availability grows, so does the downpour of trivial requests. In their excellent book Send, David Shipley and Will Schwalby astutely point out that email and other forms of instant communication encourage people to ask for things that they could easily find for themselves. I’m as bad as anyone, demanding documents and contact information that’s easily searched out on our company intranet. This phenomenon causes everyone to fritter away precious work hours hunting down each others’ silly stuff and emailing it back and forth. Worse yet, we expect to get it now, and condemn people who fall behind in this insane environment. (I haven’t, but I’d like to.)

4. The data managers in offices adjacent to mine text me rather than sticking their heads around the door. Forget walking several blocks to the closed area to find me. When I get back, they whine that they needed me immediately. To which I say, then trot over to the next building and stop complaining about your expanding desk ass. They know perfectly well that cell phones aren’t permitted in labs and closed areas.

5. Sure, there’s Google. But that’s created three problems. First, it’s eliminated other sources of information, at least in my life. I don’t go to university libraries, and I have no phone book. I haven’t opened an atlas in years. This isn’t just nostalgia on my part. Each of these information sources carries distinct advantages over its online counterpart.

This trend becomes pernicious when writers argue, as Nick Bilton does in this New York Times article, that Twitter — Twitter! — is now mandatory. His arguments? Without Twitter, you might miss out on a coupon. Never mind that those very coupons will cause you to spend more money overall. Besides, everyone else is doing it, and you might fall behind. Being less available and connected than others is, in his world, perverse, irresponsible, and self-destructive.

This is idiotic. I hate Twitter, if only because it encourages illiteracy (as do texting, instant messaging, and email). For many people, it may be an excellent medium. I hold it in contempt, though, and I will not send or receive tweets.

Finally — and this sickens me — corporations sell Internet connectivity on the basis that it will allow you to find out anything, anytime, anywhere. You may ask, what’s wrong with that? I’m beginning to suspect that this has become a universal excuse for ignorance. Why know that capital of Peru when you can Google it with your smartphone? Why learn Japanese when their are translation programs? I’m serious about this — I think it contributes to our general contempt for education.

6. For all that people are connected, they’re no more available. It’s impossible to know which medium prompts the fastest response from any given person, so in a genuine emergency you have to take the time to page them, leave a voice mail on cell and landlines, send an email, and even tap out an instant message. I’ve done this in a pinch, and it’s an irritating time-waster to both sender and recipient.

So there.

But seriously, we’ve gotten to the point where we regard technology not as helpful, but as mandatory. Rather than scrutinizing and selecting among the various available media, we’ve created a regime under which we adopt everything on pain of being left behind.

There are holdouts. For instance, a couple of prominent bloggers have decided that email doesn’t serve their needs, and they’ve given it up. Others take a more passive-aggressive route, slacking off on their email in-boxes until they’re forced to declare electronic bankruptcy. (Two coworkers are near this point, and I’m annoyed that they never answer my plaintive emails.)

On the whole, though, we’re screwed. That’s why I’m launching an offensive to stay offline.

Starting tomorrow.

Moving along, I can’t stifle my ongoing interest in higher education. As a result, I’d like to share this article from The New York Times about programs that send at-risk high school students to community college early, allowing them to begin earning a two-year degree before graduating from high school.

I regarded the whole thing with skepticism when I first read the headline. Oh, Lord, I thought. Just what every college needs: A further surge of unprepared students. The article impressed me, however. The students go to community colleges (that’s not clear from the headline), which are much better prepared than four-year universities to tutor them in basic academic and study skills.

The numbers show that high expectations work. Not one participant in the North Carolina has dropped out; compare this to a 62 percent graduation rate at its feeder school. The students were far from being overachievers, but they still manage to outperform their older college counterparts. This interests me because community college students are often highly motivated. Two of the best students I know began their careers at a community college — my mom, who earned straight As through her college career, and a former colleague who earned a doctorate at the world-class graduate school where I got my graduate degree. The latter absolutely shames me with his erudition; he reads Homeric Greek and recently mastered Italian. He has a smattering of French, German and Russian (in which he was once reasonably fluent), and is studying contemporary Greek. Not to mention having one edited volume published and another in press. My teaching experience suggests that this applies to community college students in general — by the time they reach a four-year university, they are often well-prepared, and certainly mature.

So, yeah, on the whole community college students can be a force to be reckoned with. They’re often much more hungry for their degrees than the average student at a four-year university, and though many are less prepared when they begin (admittedly, my two examples were not), they can go on to whip more privileged students who go straight into a four-year program. The fact that troubled high school students can outperform an older, ambitious population speaks well for the North Carolina program.

It sounds, then, like solid academics and high expectations can do a lot to counter even a poor K-12 education. That gives me some hope for the future.

I’m finally signing off now after two and a half hours spent writing. I still have to answer my personal email, read my blogs, and look at the newspaper. Then I”l go to work.

Heaven help me.

A Couple of Political Notes, and the Virtue of Underreacting

January 28, 2010 at 3:41 am | Posted in In the News, Links, The Heath Care System | 1 Comment

Obama's Inauguration

A crowd shot from President Obama's inauguration. He called us to action on that day; let's unite to answer his call.

Here are the words that most struck me in President Obama’s State of the Union address:

Every day, Americans meet their responsibilities to their families and their employers. Time and again, they lend a hand to their neighbors and give back to their country. They take pride in their labor, and are generous in spirit. These aren’t Republican values or Democratic values that they’re living by; business values or labor values. They’re American values.

Yup. I’ve talked about the importance of a work ethic in this space before. So often, genuine. pressing work needs call me out my self-absorbed misery and into a common enterprise. I was pleased to see President Obama (how I love those words!) reaffirm those crucial American values.

Here’s another crucial point: “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone.” At every campaign stop, Obama the candidate drove home the point that citizens can’t just vote and sit back. I admit, I’ve been guilty of this approach. It’s been a tremendous relief to go to bed at night knowing that I won’t wake up to be deprived of another civil right, or shocked by the news that our economy is teetering on the brink of total destruction.

But I need to get on the stick. You need to get on the stick. No matter what our ideological beliefs, we all share a belief in decency and hard work. So let’s get to it. We need to insure health care for all Americans, whether by the government or by private efforts. So I challenge each and every one of you to work for the reform you support, and may the better man win.

Along those lines, kudos to the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, who has the sense to oppose an ideological test that would determine whether the Republican Party could support a candidate financially. The mean-spirited side of me cheers at anything that would weaken the Republican Party, and believe me, this proposal would. But let’s face it: at this moment in history, we don’t need another divisive battle about ideological purity.

Back to bipolar news. Apropos of a post on Mentally Interesting, No Spam writes, “Lack of control sucks to cuz even when I’m doing it I know I’m gonna regret it.. yeah I have that insight but it does me no good, it just makes me feel more guilty.” I know exactly what he means. Most people do. It sucks to know that you’re exercising poor judgment, and unfortunately mental illness often leaves the bipolar among us in that position.

I really like how Gretchen Rubin on The Happiness Project urges us to Underreact to a Problem, which, as you might expect, is the opposite of overreacting. Underreacting — that is, not throwing a fit to which you are perfectly entitled to — allows you to evaluate a situation calmly and and assign tasks instead of blame. I highly recommend this approach when others have made a mistake and gotten you into a fix.

Here’s an example: I used to see a gentleman who was as intrepid a hiker and climber as I am. On one particularly ridiculous occasion, we got his truck stuck in the mud in an isolated spot. We had, of course, been off-roading, although his truck did not have four-wheel drive.

Now, there was plenty of blame to go around. I had navigated us down a series of unpaved roads. He had accepted my suggestions. Neither of us had thought to turn back when it started raining, or to load boards and shovels into the bed of his truck (something we remembered to do roughly half of the time when rain threatened). As usual, one or both of us had behaved in a foolhardy fashion or forgotten some key element of preparation. This raised alluring opportunities for tears and recriminations of the “You never,” “You always,” and “You promised” variety. Neither of us indulged. Instead, we deliberately underreacted, treating each absurdity as an adventure, evaluating our resources, devising a plan, and implementing it briskly. I’m still proud of having taking that approach in that particular relationship, and I intend to behave similarly in the future.

One last thing: A series in The New York Times on errors in radiation therapy demonstrates two things. First, you absolutely must take responsibility for and control of your own medical treatment. At the same time, medical technology has become so complicated that even doctors and technicians can make life-threatening errors. I hate living with this sort of bind, but I’m not sure there’s any way to put an end to it.

Love to all.

In the Absence of a Super-Majority, 10% Will Rule the Country

January 20, 2010 at 3:40 am | Posted in In the News, The Heath Care System | 2 Comments

The headline says it all. According to The New York Times, Republican Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts, and will fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat. On the campaign trail, Brown promised to be the 41st vote that would block health care legislation by threatening a filibuster. As a result, 41 senators who represent 10% of the nation’s population will be able to derail health care reform.

Make no mistake: they will derail it, and do so loudly and righteously. The Republicans will hold ranks, and conservative Democrats will work tirelessly to lard any remaining bill with more pork and greater concessions. Ultimately, we won’t get a damn thing. By God, I’m sick of this. Citizens of the United States are dying by tens of thousands annually for lack of health care coverage. If you can remain placid in the face of that fact, consider this: The current system is a gigantic anchor to industrial progress. Countries with universal health care enjoy a huge competitive advantage in the “global marketplace” (a phrase I hate). So my industry in particular, one of the few areas of manufacturing remaining partly in the U.S., will see business go to European competitors.

Let me mention a few especially annoying points.

First, when the Times interviewed Brown supporters in Massachusetts, again and again they said that they didn’t want health care reform “rammed down [their] throats.” In what alternate universe has anything been rammed down anyone’s throat? The House and Senate bills in conference were, in the words of one Democratic senator, “the compromise of a compromise.” It’s not like they mandated universal, single-payer coverage for all; they didn’t even allow people 55 and older to buy into Medicare. Nope. The Senate version was a feeble, washed-out compromise more or less dictated by that smarmy turncoat, Joseph Lieberman. Its net effect would actually be a giveaway to insurance companies and Big Pharma. But even that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy conservatives, apparently.

Second, Massachusetts already has near-universal health care mandated at the state level. So 52 percent of the voters in a tiny state — one of 20 states with tiny populations — will deprive the rest of us of a shot at a decent, workable system.

And for some reason it really bugs me that Republican Senators don’t actually have to filibuster — that is, hole up on the Senate floor reading aloud from their home state’s phone book until the majority gives in out of sheer impatience. They can just threaten to do it, and if Democrats call their bluff, everyone will just take their marbles and go home. I want to hear the phone book, damn it.

Finally, the current procedural rules came into effect in the late 19th Century, so they weren’t exactly drafted by the Founding Fathers. They are protected primarily by Senate tradition, and of course jealously defended by The Minority That Rules.

I’m genuinely pissed off about this. What does it take to implement even the most feeble change in this country? Tea Baggers were already roaming the country promising to lynch President Obama at the prospect of adopting solidly centrist changes. The previous administration assembled a lawless Praetorian Guard, held people in preventative detention for years without bringing charges against them, and formally authorized torture. With the exception of that latter, these policies are still in place. Hell, they tap phones without judicial approval. What’s next?

Ironically, for all of my complaints about incipient fascism, recent events have destroyed my faith in democracy. It’s still the worst system of governance except all of the rest. We fancy ourselves leaders of the Free World and latter-day Athenians (those of us who remember Athens); in truth, we struggle to educate the next generation in basic scientific principles, let alone to produce the engineers we need to compete militarily. With the exception of material riches, we live in ignorance and squalor. We are the Athenians, folks — the Athenians at the end of the Peloponnesian War, when eternal wars with Sparta precipitated what historians call the Greek Dark Ages.

Grr. Okay. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Help Out Haitian Earthquake Victims

January 15, 2010 at 4:24 am | Posted in In the News | 1 Comment

The news from Haiti is terrible. I studied the country and wrote several papers on it as an undergraduate, back in the day when it was my life’s ambition to be a foreign correspondent. I can tell you, their history is no less tragic than the current earthquake. Try to pitch in some cash, beginning with the International Red Cross.

My Office Mate Hates the 21st Century, Too (But She’s Not Sure Why)

January 15, 2010 at 3:59 am | Posted in Goal Progress, In the News, The Heath Care System | Leave a comment

My office mate began her own odyssey with CVS Pharmacy yesterday, which spawned a certain amount of schadenfreude in my breast. After wrestling with their website for 45 minutes, she burst out, “Wait a minute, I have to go to CVS? For everything? Isn’t that, like, socialism or something?”

I didn’t think to say, “No, that’s capitalism,” so I satisfied myself with remarking, “And they charge you the whole cost of a prescription if you don’t use mail order for maintenance medications.”

I wanted to launch a rant about single-payer health insurance, but I know from experience that even the brightest of my coworkers couldn’t tell you how a bill gets signed into law — they wouldn’t know to call it a bill. It’s been decades since I’ve made a scolding remark like, “Didn’t you take Civics in high school?” but, boy, the temptation lingers.

So, yeah, I’ve given up on debating politics at the office. After all, in an awe-inspiring example of false consciousness, my Hispanic office mate listens to country music. As I sit at my desk, I can hear the engineers in the office next door demanding of each other, “And if he’s an American, then why is Obama hiding his birth certificate?”

While we’re on the subject of my coworkers’ peculiar political ideas, here’s a joke that the company president told in a speech yesterday. He said that an Afghan told it to a soldier from the U.S.

An American, and Afghan, and a Russian are sitting and gazing out over a lake. Suddenly the American takes off his watch and tosses it in. The Russian says, “Are you crazy? Why did you throw a perfectly good watch into the lake?”

The American says, “Oh, I was getting kind of sick of it. I have plenty more at home, and I can always get another one.”

The Russian thinks about this, then tosses his Kalishnikov into the lake. The Afghan says, “Are you crazy? Why did you throw a perfectly good weapon into the lake?”

The Russian replies, “I was getting kind of sick of it. I have plenty more at home, and I can always get another one.”

The Afghan looks down. He has nothing.

So he throws the American and the Russian into the lake.

Our company president’s account of the joke’s origins were probably apocryphal, but it does make for a nicely ambiguous story.

In other news, my plot to become The Perfect Mental Patient is coming along well. I’ve walked for 20 minutes every day this week, and though I haven’t managed to smile at 10 people a day while looking them in the eye, I have averaged seven or eight grins. And it’s true — people do grin right back. In fact, they match your grin. If all you manage is a vague tightening of the lips, then they’ll do that, too. If you flash a broad, genuine smile, then you will have the pleasure of sharing a happy little exchange with all but the most grim folks.

I haven’t been doing as well using my conversational ice breakers. I’ve enjoyed a couple of nice chats, but I’m still all too likely to fall into a morass of uncertainty and self-consciousness, which can bring any conversation to a sputtering halt. Having mastered the winning smile, for the next three days I will devote myself wholly to chatting people up. We’ll see. When my resolve falters, I ask myself, “Do you want to live in complete isolation, going for days without hearing anything beyond, ‘Plastic OK with you, ma’am?'” That usually startles me into compliance.

That’s enough for now. I love you all tenderly.

Senate Passes Limited Health Care Reform

December 20, 2009 at 4:14 am | Posted in In the News, The Heath Care System | 1 Comment

Yes, after placating assorted holdouts and clearing a host of procedural hurdles, Senate Democrats have passed health care reform.

I have mixed feelings about the bill. On the one hand, if they don’t pass anything this year the political climate may worsen to the point where a bill may not come up for another 20 years. On the other, the Senate bill doesn’t include a public option, which originally was a compromise designed to win votes from progressives who support a single-payer system.

One progressive Senator remarked that “We’ve compromised the compromise of our compromise,” and it does feel that way. The current Senate bill makes a few incremental improvements, and for those I’m grateful. On the whole, though, requiring everyone to buy insurance without including significant cost-cutting measures seems like a giveaway to insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. In fact, I wish I’d bought stock during the negotiation period, because this is sure to give insurance companies a boost on the market.

I’m tempted to speculate on what could have been if Obama had taken a more active role in the debate by giving a series of major speeches framing the issues. He’s a centrist, though, and may be more or less pleased with what passed.

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