Thursday, January 31, 2013

30 Days of Correspondence (Repost)


This is a heads up for something that is coming down the pike.  This is going to be a reposting of blog project I did about two years ago.  It was pretty sobering in retrospect.  So I am tossing it out there again.  It is harder than you might think.

I see a lot of folks online that do 30 days photo projects or 365 day photo projects, but trust me....this is much harder.

I am going to be experimenting with a writing exercise during the month of February. I am going to be writing 30 letters, which will be posted on this blog. One letter a day for the month of February.

They won’t be terribly lengthy and their recipients will vary. Some will be to myself and others will be to people I know or have known in the past. Each letter will have a theme, but I won’t be posting what all the themes are until the exercise is over.

This will be a lot of writing and some of the letters will be written in advance and set to post on specific days due to holidays and weekends.

It is bound to be interesting, if not somewhat entertaining.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Great Blue Heron (Repost)

The more I write on here, the more it becomes apparent that there are two things that we all share.

a) The long term experiences that tend to get pounded into your brains day after day and only sink in over time.

b) The unexpected revelations that come out of no-where and are burned into our minds that force us to pause and question everything we have learned.

Most societies tend to apply repetitive education to their citizens. We are trained to repeat things over and over until we have them memorized and they become part of our daily routine. We recite multiplication tables, memorize the alphabet and read about the noble deeds of our forefathers. Some of it is propaganda while some is just standardized social skills. It makes us more homogeneous, more of a collective instead of a bunch of individuals. Collectives are more likely to pay taxes and not question things.

But there are times when we stop and start asking questions. When we say to ourselves, "Wait a minute, is everything I've been told really true?". These questions aren't necessarily about science or skills. They are about the way we have been trained to perceive our world. Questions about religion, reality, our souls and our purpose.

It is these experiences that keep coming back to me in these blogs. The recollection of questioning what infinite really is on a dark forest path and wondering, if just for moment, if there were unseen doors that no one every told us about.

As a small child I took a train trip from the west coast to Iowa with my mother. We had a sleeper car and the clickity-click of the rails lulled me to sleep at night. I had a small bunk that folded down by the window. In the middle of the night I felt the train come to a stop. I rolled over and parted the curtains to look out. There was a snow covered station platform illuminated by a single overhead light. Someone from the train walked down the platform, hugged a waiting relative and they both exited into the darkness. As the snow continued to whirl in the night breeze, the train slowly pulled away into the inky blackness. I went back to sleep and the next day I wondered if it was all a dream. I still do. How much of what we perceive is real or just imagined?

As a young man attending Oregon State University, I was able to take a single skull out on the Willamette river. A skull is one man oared boat that can do 14 mph in calm water. They are barely a foot wide and sit only inches above the water. One cold spring morning I checked out a skull and launched into the fog shrouded Willamette for an early morning workout. About a mile downstream, I stopped rowing and just listened to the world around me. Because of the fog I couldn't see more than 20 feet in any direction and the only sound was the water rushing beneath the hull. My mind told me I was about a hundred feet from shore. But my thoughts said I could be in the middle of a vast ocean. I was alone and surrounded by water. As I pondered the silence a shape appeared out of the fog. A Great Blue Heron, with a five foot wingspan, flew out of the mist and floated directly toward me. He swooped over my head and disappeared into the fog from which he came. He was visible for about 5 seconds. If I hadn't stopped to ponder and listen, I would never have seen him.

Just like nature shows us glimpses of the world before we arrived on the planet, our fellow man can sometimes shows us the darker side of the human experience. This is something that isn't usually pounded into our brains. Text books and teachers don't usually emphasize what the ramifications of fear and failure are and how it is perceived by others. The emphasis these days is to focus on the 'positive'.

I spent the summers of my youth in Fort Dodge, Iowa with my paternal grandmother. There was a park at the end of the street that had a miniature steam train. You could ride it for 10 cents and to a small boy it was the coolest toy in the world. One summer, when I returned to the park, the train was gone. For the next 10 years, I would return to that park in hopes that the train would have returned, but it never did. The path in the ground where the rails used to be was still there as a reminder. The last time I visited the park as a young man, a building had been erected on the site. I wondered if I am the only one that remembers it even existed. If no one else remembers it, was it really there? Are we just ghosts in the machine?

My paternal grandmother used to save stale bread so we could take it to the park and feed the tame deer that were in a large enclosure there. It was a traditional thing. The deer would come up to the fence and eat the bread out of our hand. As an 8 year old boy we thought of them as huge pets. I would rather go back and feed those deer for 10 minutes than spend hours playing video games. In my mid-thirties, I learned that some drunken teenagers had jumped the fence and killed most of the deer. They probably never knew how many memories they erased that day or how much innocences was lost.

During Christmas as a little kid, my parents always made me leave a glass of milk, some cookies and some carrots out for Santa and his reindeer before I went to bed. When I awoke the next day, I always noticed the glass was empty, the cookies where gone and only the stub of the carrots remained. I suppose the key to making a child believe in the impossible is to not leave out the details. Back then I believed that a man could actually fit down a chimney and deliver gifts (and we didn't even have a chimney).

During my honeymoon, my wife and I were visiting all the places in the Midwest where we had grown up as children and visiting all the cemeteries where our ancestors lay. While walking through a cemetery with my video camera I spied my new wife lost in thought and focused the camera on her. As she stood in the setting Midwestern sun, bathed in light and surrounded by trees, the breeze blew through her hair and made it appear to float around her face and shoulders. I thought to myself, "Damn, what a beautiful woman." Almost anyone can be more beautiful than we ever imagined, if we just take the time to see them in a certain light.

The older I get, the more these memories and questions haunt me. Most of the things I was taught growing up have been slowly chipped away by experience. We weren't put here to be trained to do repetitive tasks and be homogeneous. We are supposed to wonder about and question everything. It is our gift. We need to unwrap it more often.

(this is a re-write / expansion of a previous blog that I wrote over 2 years ago entitled Home....) It is also a prelude to an upcoming blog...stay tuned.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Educating Mr. Rubin

"I'm Sorry Dave, I'm Afraid I Can't Do That..."

Change is a slow has to be managed and planned, but it is going to happens sooner or later. Change is inevitable. Some folks didn't get this memo.

Way back in my career path, I had a job. It was with a Government Agency. The work was regulatory law enforcement. Citizens would complain about a specific individual or institution that the State licensed and we would investigate to see of there were any statutes that had been violated. If there were, we would forward the case on to the State Attorney Generals office for possible prosecution. (I say possible, because the Attorney Generals office rarely prosecutes anyone in this State, unless you are willing to plead guilty.)

This job entailed a lot of paperwork. I mean tons of paperwork. A single investigation file could take up a whole filing cabinet and we had thousands of ongoing investigations. Since the State does not pay very well, we usually didn't get the cream of the crop when it came to job applicants. Most of our investigators were either retired police officers or folks looking to change their career from bartender to something better.

When I entered this land of regulatory hell, I quickly realized that a majority of my time was spent answering the phones and trying to find the file that the caller was asking about. It usually took about 5 minutes to search through all the files in my office and then read it to figure out what the status of the case was.

When I started the job there were computer terminals sitting on everyone's desk. I inquired about them and no one seemed to know what they were for. They had just appeared one evening and there was no training on how to use them. Seems there was a tax imposed on licensees that paid for this automation, but there wasn't any real thought about how it was going to be used or how we could be trained to use it.

Thinking that there had to be a better way to do the job, I started investigating the automation setup on my own in hopes of finding a better way to catalog and track all my investigation files. I quickly learned that the automation setup was a mid-size IBM AS/400 office server running IBM Office-Vision. This was a fairly standard office operating system before Microsoft took over the world and converted everyone to Windows. Office-Vision is basically a document creation and cataloging system that also has limited calendaring, database and e-mail functionality. It didn't take me long to work up a framework for inputting all of my files in the system and instead of shuffling around thousands of files and pieces of paper, I was doing most of my work on the terminal. This gave me instant access to all the information in my files. It was pretty sweet. With about 3 months worth of work, I had cut the time it took to do my job in half. I was pretty proud of myself.

After fine-tuning the whole setup, I thought it best to go to the boss, the Division Director, and show him what I had done. If I could do this, it would take about 6 months to train everyone else how to do it.

I scheduled a meeting with Mr. Rubin, the Director, to show off what I had done. In his corner office, I explained the problems I had run up against, what I had come up with as a solution and showed him on his terminal all the things I could do.

There on his desktop monitor, I was able to show him the total number of investigations I had open. The average time each investigation had been ongoing. All of the calendared dates that I had subpoenaed documents set to arrive. All of the case notes on my files were at his fingertips. All the addresses for the interested parties, complainants, licensees and companies involved in each case were indexed. There were summary reports on all my files showing any number of statistics and totals. This was all ground breaking. This information wasn't available on anyone else's investigations.

"Think of it, Mr. Rubin. If we implemented this, you could know exactly what every investigator in the Division was doing right from your desk! The Agency Director will think you are a genius once you start providing these types of numbers and statistics. We won't have anymore lost files or irate consumers."

Mr. Rubin paused for a moment and sort of squinted at the terminal screen. What he said next will remain with me for the rest of my life. "Why?" he responded.

"Why do this?, he said. "The current system works fine. This would be too much work."

I must have sat there for a few seconds in stunned silence. The awful feeling that I was sitting in front of a mental pygmy that was in charge of a State Division painfully sunk in. I realized that everything that I had told him had shot way over his head and landed somewhere four blocks away. I thought that it wasn't a matter of convincing him, it was just a matter of showing him the obvious. I was very, very wrong.

He didn't like the idea of change, especially if it meant that he was going to have to learn something new. He was on the downhill slide toward retirement and he didn't want to start re-learning his job at that point. He also made the decision that no one else wanted to learn how to be more efficient either. The status-quo was just fine for the time being.

If the rest of the office wants to work in the stone age, let them. I am going to continue to find a better way to do this job. (I was still idealistic back then). Unfortunately, I had let the cat out of the bag.

Since others knew that I had automated my files and could work them more efficiently, the "Law of Jungle" took over. Or maybe that should be the "Law of the Office". It states: "If you can do twice as much work, they will give you twice as much work." I quickly found out that my average case load was almost 400 investigations, which stayed open an average of 45 days. The other investigators in the office had an average of 150 open cases that stayed open for 6 months to a year. It didn't take me long to realize that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. The land of Oz can be a frightening place when you work there from 8am to 5pm every day. Efficiency and production are not the watch words of civil service. Perpetuating the norm is the way you do business.

After five years of carrying about 1/4 of the office work load, I chose to seek greener pastures and left. But those jobs didn't pan out to well either. Just because folks make a lot of money and own a big company, doesn't mean that they are intelligent or smart. They are just dumb-lucky. But that is another story.

While I was away from the State Agency, Mr. Rubin decided to seek greener pastures as well. The person that they hired to replace him started going through the files and asking questions about the employee that had all the typed file notes and indexes in his files. Then he asked the worst question...why aren't all the files being done this way?

Three weeks later, I was having lunch with him and he asked me to come back to the Agency and help automate the rest of the staff in electronic file management. I hated my current job, so I went back. It was a rocky road, but it showed results in the end.

Change comes, but not as fast as we would like it to sometimes. Violent change is always feared and resisted. The concept of 'packaging' change and knowing when the right time to implement it is key. Something I didn't know when I talked to Mr. Rubin. What seems so clear and obvious to some, is as dense as a fog bank to others. Patience and change are linked. For some of us, that is a hard lesson to learn.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Obsessed with Volume

One thing I love about American culture, is that we really don't pay attention to problems until they are considered BIG by the media. If one person gets bubonic plague, meeh....who cares? If a whole town comes down with it....OH MY GOSH, we are all going to die!

That is my take on the whole Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. I started to right a blog three months ago about the Aurora-Batman Rises shooting. I did some research on it and started to write an outline for it then came to the conclusion, why bother, there will be another mass killing in a month or two, I will just wait until then. (while writing this, there was another mass killing, when the New England resident set fire to his home and the started shooting the first responders)

Well, that time has arrived, so I might as well dust it off.

Guns don't kill people, people kill people....and people with semi- automatic rifles kill a lot MORE people.

Guns are everywhere, banning them now is like shooting the horse after the battle is over. It is better to have avoided the battle and use the horse to plow fields. Why not tighten up on ammunition sales? Or better yet, make it a requirement that anyone that buys ammunition be required to go through a mental health check every 6 months? They can be issued a little ammunition card that has to be renewed like a debit card to buy bullets. Just a thought, never going to happen.

But then again, If I want to kill a bunch of people, I have the option of fertilizer bombs, gasoline incineration, mowing pedestrians down with a car, the list is endless. If you are deranged enough to do the deed, you will probably find a way. The guns just make it easier.

The attached graph shows major mass killings over the past 40 years. They are increasing, but then again, so is the population. Interestingly enough, they are getting more deadly. Less wounded and more deaths. I suppose that means that the killers are just getting more efficient.

But this graph shows the spikes. The high body counts. I am certain that the number of 'individuals' that are murdered on a daily basis due to gun violence is probably much higher than the numbers on this graph. Again, it is our obsession with the big numbers that moves us toward discussing change.

Which is what really gets me upset. The problem is long standing and ongoing. Proper supervision and mental health screening is going to stop most of these murders, not gun control.

As a culture, we have been trained to have a threshold of acceptance. A degree to which we will accept things that should not happen.

Traffic - Our acceptance of risk of accident or injury and our willingness to spend three hours a day commuting when there is obviously a better way to get to work and go shopping, but it requires change to our routine and a loss of our personal freedom, which we just can't let go of, even if it is for our own good.

Burglary - We no longer consider the concept of no crime and that our homes are safe and secure. We now accept the reality that we are going to be burglarized or vandalized at some point. It is just a matter of how often and at what cost. Instead of increased law enforcement, we have home security and higher insurance premiums.

Truancy - Back in my day (yes I am old) any teenager walking the streets during the week would be picked up and hauled into the police station. School was a requirement or it was off to reform school for you kiddo. Go to any mall in a large city today and count the number of slackers that hang out at the food court smoking cigarettes.

Check Cashing Stores - If you don't have a social security number or want to lay low so that the cops or your ex-wife can't find you, where do you cash your check? There is a whole industry that has sprung up that will take care of that for you, for a fee. Now, someone with wage garnishment or who owes alimony can cash their check and not get caught, thank goodness.

As a society, we have come to accept this loss of structure, because we are not willing to devote the resources (taxes) to maintan it and instead have left it up to the individual to deal with on their own. Better buy a gun to protect your property, send you children to private school, buy a really 'safe' car and keep a minimum balance of $10,000 in your checking account.

With increased condensed populations comes increased mental health issues. The key to combating this is to promote more social interaction (in person) and get people out of their homes and into a community situation. Folks that fester in front of their Xbox or Playstation for years on end are not going to be well adjusted citizens.

We have been killing ourselves, in slow mass suicide, over the past decades with our lifestyles. With the processed foods that we eat, the pollution that we have created and the greenhouse gases that we have unleashed. But since the effects are only noticed in small numbers, we don't really see the danger.

If we advertised eating apples instead of 'Thick and Chuncky Spaghetti Sauce' from a can, if we promoted riding a bike or walking to work instead of commuting on freeways, if we encouraged everyone to learn to play a musical instrument or a speak a second language (so we would learn to interact with others), there just might be fewer mass shootings in the world.

However, this isn't what the media and its advertiser backers want us to believe. They want us to eat more snack cakes, buy more cars and sit at home and watch more television.

Hence, expect a lot more mass killings in the future. This isn't a gun problem, this is a societal problem. Think outside the box people. Stop trying to treat the symptoms. Cure the social disease!

This isn't an issue of numbers, it is an issue of behavior. In the two weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, over 200 people were killed in the United States due to gun related deaths. This figure may be low, since it does not take into account suicides by gun, only homicides. This is not an issue of how we kill, but why we kill. Why anyone would take the life of another human being relates to frustration, mental illness, hatred, bigotry, envy, etc. All things that have to due with someones mental state.

If we take away ALL the guns, these individuals will still commit crime and murder, but on a less massive scale. So, are we going to draw the line and say that 200 murders a week is acceptable, or are we going to say that murder is unacceptable?

Timothy McVay killed 44 people in Oklahoma City because he was upset with the government. We haven't banned fertilizer yet to make bombs with. Any jealous lover can take an SUV and plow down their estranged spouse at a bus stop, killing all the bystanders as well. Are we going to make bus stops more secure or outlaw SUVs?

We need a system that will identify and aide the people who are going to commit these act before they do them. However, no one wants to discuss this because it takes a lot of resources and raises the specter of 'Big Brother' keeping tabs on us and infringes on our personal freedoms. No one is going to submit to a monthly mental health check to make sure that they have not gone nuts in the last 30 days and be required to turn in their knives, guns and car keys.

What we need to do is commit to creating a culture where it is more acceptable to discuss our problems, instead of solving them with violence. I find it hypocritical, that tasteful sexual content is outlawed on public media in the United States, but that the drawing of a weapon to solve a problem on television happens dozens of times each evening during primetime.

The mental state of this country is one of 'reaction' and is not 'pro-active'. Our mindset is to treat the symptom in hopes of cost savings and that hopefully the illness will eventually just go away.

Until we start to really address these issues, and stop talking about 'banning' things that cause violence and putting 'armed' police in schools, nothing is going to change. It will require a long term social change over a generation. Not a one time fix with the passage of a 'Gun Law'.

Segregation was wrong back in the 1950s. We could have said, give those uppity African Americans more money and hopefully they will settle down. But that would not have addressed the issue. We passed laws to make them all equal. Just passing the law didn't make them equal. We had to institute social change over generations to undo the hatred and bigotry that Jim Crow had fostered.

We will need to do something similar to address the epidemic of violence in this society. My fear is, that we will need to go through a lot more killing before people finally start to wake up and stop listening to what the media tells us to do, and we start telling the media what to do.