Friday, October 26, 2007

Efficiencies of Scale

I just got off the phone from a survey about my healthcare insurer/provider, and it left me thinking hard about what we today call “efficiency”. Over and over again, I hear that it saves money and time to gather services into large, “efficient” units, to “standardize procedures and outcomes” and generally impose more rules and details into everyone’s lives. Now, that might have been true at the start, but shall we look at it more closely? To start with the healthcare provider: someone (from somewhere among the multi-levels of “management”) had to decide to give this survey, someone(s) else had to create it, another to test it for accuracy, and then a sub-contractor has to give it to hundreds of patients… to find out how they are doing, because the actual product has now become so far removed from those deciding what to produce that they can’t even see it with a telescope.

Instead of going to your local doctor, whom you knew because he/she lived in your town and had the office in his/her house (no, that is not a myth - I grew up that way and I’m only just going gray), you stand on line in a clinic the size of Macy’s and put your little plastic card in some holder for some clerk to scan and find your record in some computer system that has taken several years to create and takes several fulltime programmers to maintain. Before: 1 doctor, maybe one part-time clerk; Now: a staff of hundreds, a parking lot the size of Rhode Island, more paperwork than would fit in the New York Public Library -- and still there’s not enough staff to actually give you a decent answer.

Or another example: it is more “efficient” to have hog farms the size of the Woodstock Festival (I wonder why that came to mind?), trucking in thousands of pounds of feed every month (week?), generating enough toxic (though mostly organic) waste to fill Lake Mead (no joke: “In 1995 an eight-acre hog-waste lagoon in North Carolina burst, spilling 25 million gallons of manure into the New River. The spill killed about 10 million fish and closed 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing“ -National Resources Defense Council), fouling the air around the farms such that the poor victims - er, neighbors -- have to get air filters, or seal themselves into their houses, or move… (more disturbing facts from the NRDC: “Large hog farms emit hydrogen sulfide, a gas that most often causes flu-like symptoms in humans, but at high concentrations can lead to brain damage. In 1998, the National Institute of Health reported that 19 people died as a result of hydrogen sulfide emissions from manure pits)…. than to have a hundred hogs that require about 140 lbs of soybean meal each for their whole lifespan (my best guess from highly technical online jargon), generate just enough waste to manure the local fields (thus making it a benefit rather than a toxin), do not require antibiotics because they’re not crammed in like NYC subway riders, and need only a moderate size truck (versus a convoy) to take to slaughter… where’s the savings, exactly? Okay, you have to come up with 99 fewer hog farm names, but otherwise…

I think when they talk “efficiencies of scale” they are not at all taking into effect the several added layers of supervision, organization & planning, survey-taking, rule making and printing, network maintaining and just plain getting-lost-in-the-systeming that the modern behemoth system takes these days. How can it possibly be more efficient to spend half of every work day just filling out papers saying what you’ve not had time to do?? (And trust me, in the mental health system, that’s where it’s gotten to). This is barely touching the surface, but since I’m not striving for efficiency, this will have to do for today. By tomorrow I'll figure out why healthcare and hog farms seem linked in my mental train of thought...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Apology Chains

It seems that as our lives get busier, they begin to resemble those dangerous high-speed traffic jams that increasingly clog our highways. I race through my day, depending on every other person to skillfully race through at exactly the same pace such that we don’t crash into each other. And, of course, there are almost daily “fender benders” -- the chiropractic visit where an emergency client means I’m ½ hour late being seen, meaning I have to apologize for being late at my next meeting, and then they have to apologize for being late getting out… an endless chain of apologies, looping and overlooping through our lives. And just as it is dangerously crazy to drive 70 mph with less than one car length between you and the next speeding car, it seems as foolish to drive our lives faster and faster, counting on some Grace or miracle to get us through each day with no “collisions”. The faster reaction-speed required of living in the fast lane are certainly taxing my energy, focus and emotionally resiliency - how about you?

I have attempted on some days to stay in the “slow lane” (which is itself speeding up) and leave “sufficient braking space” between appointments, and yet those spaces seem to attract (just like cutting-in cars) little tasks that will “just take a moment” and of course nearly or in fact lead to a appointment fender-bender or at least another frantic adrenalin moment, swerving to avoid some mistake or crossed-purpose. And how many times have I acted based on very insufficient information, only to find I’d over-reacted as a gut response to a non-danger (tree shadow rather than obstacle, friend feeling cranky rather than angry at me) simply because I‘m moving too fast to make a more considered response?

I wish I could say I had some answers; I don’t (except the usual safe driving hints, which seem applicable here), but I am intrigued with the pattern. Isn’t it interesting that we have this parallel between racing around physically and racing around virtually, organizationally, intellectually and even emotionally? Perhaps Someone’s trying to tell us something? Is there a “safe speed” for being human, and have our cultural super highways exceeded that? I am tending (obviously) toward “yes” as the answer to both questions, and hence I will be moving soon to a much small town, planning to have much more open schedule and much less real driving; hoping, in fact that there is indeed still some “byways of humanity” where I don’t have to live with one foot on the gas and one on the brake.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fine Print

I’m becoming more and more worried at the various “agreements” we are forced to sign or click on in the course of our basic lives. Can it really be an agreement if 1) we don’t have any viable other choice, and 2)we can’t take the time to read and understand every word? I think that would be called coercion and fraud even a generation ago (and don‘t we have some memorable “Snidley Whiplash“ cartoons depicting just that?). I have been told that there is now a clause in the contract I agreed to for this blog that can cancel my access to it if I complain or make them look bad. That may actually seem like a logical request at the level of policy (I suppose if I had to deal constantly with tens of thousands of “partners”, I’d get a little unilateral in my policy statements, purely from nerves), but someone pointed out the tragic consequences for free speech and community. I agree. There is a difference between sliming someone or thing, and complaining. We seem to have lost the ability to determine that boundary.

I also found a clause within this blog’s terms that allows them to use any image uploaded here -- for free, for any use anywhere to promote themselves, for as long as the image is up on the web (and for a certain “reasonable” time after that). I don’t know if that clause was in the old agreement, but it has stopped me from sharing my photography with you (you can check it out on I am strongly reminded of the 1980’s when the idea of e-books was just being conceived of -- and the publishing houses wasted no time in slipping clauses, granting them total rights, into all of their book contracts! I was in SFWA at the time, and there were workshops at the conferences for us to learn whether/how we could either eliminate or negotiate those clauses out of the contracts… the publishers were basically using their muscle to keep us minor authors from having a chance to say no before we even realized what we were saying no to… isn’t that what’s happening now? And without “unions” such as SWFA, there was no ability to push back… is it time for a blogger’s union? Some group that will threaten to pull all the bloggers (big and small, famous and unknown) off a site if the conditions get too autocratic? I know unions have gotten a bad name recently (and some of that is, of course, the opposition smearing them, but some is their own greed or foolishness), but as someone whose grandfathers were in the carpenter’s union during the Depression, I have heard enough stories to understand the need for some group that can represent the “work currency” that the corporations basically bank and then turn around and charge the workers for creating. I’m not a Marxist, but I believe strongly in balance. It’s the only healthy way to live, and unbalance is actually as bad for the corporations as for the workers. Because what happens (we all know) is that those who have the ability to leave a corporation (including the smartest, most capable) will leave if there is a stifling, autocratic regime, and eventually the corporation collapses under the weight of toadyism and mediocrity. Simplified, but true. So in fact the dynamic balance between benefits for workers and for owners is good for both sides. So I choose to believe that when the workers (or bloggers in this case) push back, they are in the end benefiting all.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

New Beginning

As usual, there is no clear line of “beginning” - like the edges of objects that we imagine but are nothing more than a shift of light, or tone, in a colored image, -- like the “moment of dawn” that is instead a gradual awareness of a slow shift in light -- the start of something emerges incrementally from the overall landscape of our lives. For me, this move and shift of job tasks has actually coalesced slowly, over time, as one thing after another fell apart in my life; as I found “the usual” to be like a death sentence and didn’t know why. Now, after an incredibly painful two years, I find some clarity and some deep response inside to my decision to settle in the country, work from home and live as frugally as possible. It’s amazing how many strands go into weaving this pathway: the environment -- political, economic and physical; my own aging and limitations; relationships that have outlived their vibrancy and withered before my eyes; and some inner push that -- I see now -- has been urging me all my life. There are moments when I wonder if this is all ephemeral, a delusion, and moments when I wonder how I could have missed this clear calling for so long. Naturally, this leads me to feeling fairly schizoid; how can one person have two such clear and mutually exclusive points of view?? But perhaps that’s a cultural bias: we are trained to believe that “I” am one/single and as such would have one point of view, subject to changes, yes, but only one real way of seeing things. Anyone who struggles with really split POVs are referred to therapy. Yet now it’s starting to seem more natural that there is always a push-pull, a light/dark rhythm to the way we see and live life. Dynamic balance seems to demand that we move back and forth, ever correcting our excesses. How else to do that but by holding two points of view and comparing/contrasting? For some, I think this comes more as feelings and sensations, for me it’s definitely ideas and concepts. In any case, the balance has tipped and I am moving forward with another chapter in my life; one that I hope will allow me more time to observe, to think and to write.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Last night, I dreamt I tried NonViolent Communication on George W. Bush. You know, that form of communication where you don’t point fingers, where you assume that your perspective is no better or worse than the other person’s -- that insane belief that any person can be “connected to” as “an authentic human being” if we just stick to identifying our feelings and needs.

I was sitting with him over a light dinner of veal medallions and pretzels, and I am not sure what our previous conversation had been, but I just started in:

“ George, when you tell me that Iraq has nuclear weapons and that they were involved in 9/11, and then I find out it’s a lie, I feel hurt, angry and frightened. What I need is security and a sense that my leader is telling the truth or trying hard to. What I want from you is to get out of Iraq.”

He leaned back and grinned wolfishly; apparently he’d done Cheney-training in recent days - the wolf was quite impressive. And someone had taught him non-violent ju-jitsu.

“When you elect me president and tell me you want me to lead, and then reject me in the polls, I feel hurt, angry and proud of myself for standing tall. What I need is your confidence in me as a leader. What I want from you is admiration, trust and silence.”

I blinked, and tried again. “George, when you continue to swear to me that you are acting responsibly and truthfully, after so many reports and facts have been uncovered that prove otherwise, I feel scared. When you continue to ignore mine and others’ requests that you stop the spying on Americans and the illegal, unethical torture of other nationals, I feel angry, scared and frustrated. What I need is to feel respected and to have a mutually honest relationship. What I want from you is to honor your promises, for a start, and also to listen to the overwhelming worldwide chorus of protests against your fear-mongering to cover the illegal, unethical actions that you have decreed.”

He laughed and reached over to pat my hand. The “I’m just a feller” face came over his features, and he smiled roguishly.

“Honey, when I hear you parroting the words of gutless liberals and Democrats with an agenda, I feel frustrated but also amused. What I need is to lead, because God wants me to. What I want is you to get off my back.”

At that moment he grinned, popped a pretzel in his mouth -- and choked on it. While he was gasping, I threw another couple in his mouth and left. Better the pretzel in the president than being pretzeled by a president. Using NVC against denial is like trying to sop up the ocean with a Kleenex.

But seriously, this tongue-in-cheek dialogue shows all my objections to this new craze of non-violent communications. The flaw in it is that it only works on rational people who have integrity.. and the vast majority of our communications problems stem from those who don’t. If you try to use NVC on those who are in denial, who are manipulating (consciously or unconsciously) or who are irrational, you end up “speaking your truth”, having to leave it at that and often being retaliated against! So what’s the point?

There is a large chunk of wishful thinking in the whole NVC movement and I am sorry to say that I have only seen it used by those who were lying to themselves or others -- those who refused to take accountability for their own actions but instead were trying to “excuse” their actions under the guise of “my perception is as valid as yours”. Anyone want to say that the Hutu warriors who are systematically raping women and girls in the Congo have a “valid” perception?? Yes, that’s extreme, but whenever anyone says NVC can be used on “anyone”, that and good ol’ Dubya are the two examples I think of… There are times when people need to be confronted -- bluntly -- on their bad behavior, and it needs to be called bad, and it needs to stop. What NVC emphasizes is our lack of control of others’ behavior -- granted, that is true, but as in any society, we do have control over our own behavior and response, and sometimes it’s just denial to keep talking gently to monsters… or even flakes.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Solitude and False Community

Like many old concepts, the idea of community is being dusted off and revamped for the new millennium. The word is in everyone’s mouth, and yet it seems everyone has a different idea of what it means. Having just been burned by several years in false community, I have a few of my own ideas.

Community comes from the idea that we are all interdependent; that none of us is really living a life completely self-sustained. It is supposed to recognize our common needs and to honor our individuality while creating a group connection. That is far easier to write about than to live. Jungian therapist Helen Luke cautioned against “the false peace that engenders violence in the unconscious”. I have seen this much too often lately: an attempt to “keep the peace” by covering over conflict, by not saying what one is truly perceiving, as if that might make the perception disappear. Of course it doesn’t, and like a sore tooth, its poison seeps into the blood. Soon there is a noticeable tension between the two people (or groups), and little details get tinged with “this is more of your crap” resentment. The urge to forgive gets swallowed up by the urge to “even the score” or “right the balance“ (depending on how honest you are being with yourself). There is a slim possibility that you can truly become conscious of your resentment and let it go completely (as the New Agers assure us is the “right way“, ignoring any accountability of the other person), but it’s much more likely that the relationship becomes strained and eventually sours, and often by the end there is a confusion as to what exactly ended it. I would say “dishonesty did”. False community is no more healing or supporting than empty calories are nourishing. The form is not the substance. Better to be alone than to be surrounded by false friends.

And as helpful as it is that one person own their own shadow, it is still a two-way relationship -- eventually it becomes obvious the other person (or group) is in denial, is unable/unwilling to see their own falsity, and then there is no more honesty in the relationship. Unless the conscious person accepts the burden of understanding and “holding” the unconscious person(s) (thus creating an unequal relationship), there will be continued conflict, defensiveness, distrust, resentment, until it becomes unbearable. And falsely, blithely “forgiving” (which I see a lot in well-meaning people) is just more of the falsity: you can’t forgive a hurt until you experience and acknowledge exactly how you’ve been hurt. And that’s too painful for many people; they try to skip right over to the forgiveness, but it “doesn’t take” -- the resentment is still there with the hurt, and now it’s even harder to go back and discuss that problem. The proof of whether there is honesty and accountability in a relationship (whether in a two-person relationship or a community) is in how open, honest and trusting the actions are. No amount of verbage will cover the actions, the instinctive defenses that we all put up when we start to distrust. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But what is very obvious from the outside may take quite a while to recognize from the inside.

Conversely, solitude is also a very popular topic; the need for solitude to renew and recharge, the value of being alone in nature, etc. Yet for all the discussion, I believe that it’s a very small part of the society that actually spends “quality time” alone. Many associates and friends tell me how much they want to, but “can’t find the time”. Yet they spend hours watching tv or shopping. I find it puzzling, when it’s easy to turn off the tv and take a walk or even sit in a room alone (if you’re a parent of young kids, that’s a bigger challenge, to be sure). I sometimes wonder if those who have a reluctance or fear of solitude, of getting away alone, have that because they are already living so “solitarily” in their groups, in their false communities. They already feel isolated by this “stranger culture” where we see more strangers each day than people we know, and perhaps this causes the subconscious sense that no more solitude is wanted or needed. It is a paradox that in some ways we can only be honestly in community or relationship if we can stand alone, if we understand solitude. And most of us may only be able to stand solitude if we believe that somewhere there is a community that embraces us.