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Thousands of people, one message: we are all one.

I am proud to say that I was among them.

I’ve had the edited photos sitting on my desktop since the evening of the 21st. Waiting to be posted, and shared. Waiting to spread that energetic joy and solidarity. I began an effervescent post that day, in my heady, giddy evening, finally thawed and dry again. I was too tired to finish it that night, but this is part of what I wrote:

“I joined what event organizers estimate was 100,000 people who turned out in the cold rain to support inclusivity of all people, and mostly women. I saw thousands of Pussy Hats (on men too!), which I had never even heard of prior to arriving, but soon enjoyed the joke with everyone else. I got totally soaked and my fingers became so frozen I couldn’t even operate the camera function on my iPhone anymore, and missed some good shots, and through it all, I was laughing. And the men and women next to me were laughing. And the police were smiling at us. And the bystanders on the sidewalks were smiling and waving, and some of them were singing to us. Singing! Women’s voices lifted in spiritually bolstering sounds of protest songs.

Downtown Portland was jammed. Shoulder to shoulder, and you-could-poke-an-eye-out with that umbrella, jammed. When it was time to start the march, at noon, the police escort vehicles could not get from the organizer’s stand to the front of the crowd to begin the march. Their lights flashing, they inched forward and people smooshed aside, and we did not begin marching till 1:00pm. There were so many people that when I was all done marching, and in the Jeep running the heater to get warm and dry again, people were still under the Morrison Bridge, waiting for the press of people to thin so that they could begin their march.”

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I loved this sign not only for the message, but because it’s a reminder of the rain, rain, rain.

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Walking along the waterfront to the main gathering area.

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I’m sort of too refined to laugh. Almost.

…and on January 22nd, the wind was knocked out of my sails. And I was so angry I began a second post, which still sits in my WP drafts folder, filled with damned good reasons why I’m angry. Because I, personally, have been attacked by my own President (because I’m female, a veteran, mother of a transgender child, a person with disability), and then explaining how all of us were not only ignored the next day, but shown an enormous orange middle finger. Not only was the administration working as fast as possible to repeal a plan to reform our nation’s health care system, but the President’s immediate reaction to our exquisitely clear message (i.e. women’s issues are important to many, many of us, and it is so important that we need our country’s leaders to know it), was to wipe out U.S. assistance to overseas organizations that provide healthcare and counseling to include family planning. Read: women’s health issues.

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People line the Morrison Bridge to look down onto the crowd. Once I spotted this, I wanted to get up there with my camera so badly! But the crush of people was impossible.

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I love: his T-shirt, and the Prince umbrella!

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Signs: Oregon Nurses Make A Difference, Dosvedanya Donald, Rise UP, Health Care For All, Resist, Stop the Lies, Yes We Did Yes We Can

No attempt to acknowledge that there were millions of us asking for the total opposite. No explanation for why we were ignored. And just to make it perfectly clear, an executive decision that was a resounding slap in the face. “Here’s what I think of women’s issues, and of your opinions, bitches.”

After an event that manifested into so much more than promised, after it spread not only to all parts of the U.S., but to places around the world, our movement should have been undeniable. The polite and democratic – and LOUD – message from men, women, and children of America should have been undeniable. That is, undeniable to anyone whose finger is on the pulse of current events; anyone who realizes that leaders are supposed to reflect the voice of the people. And the one man we were trying to poke doesn’t have those qualities, apparently.

Though I use this blog to post my soapbox rants periodically, that day I didn’t. I was seething, and I do not want to spread that nasty energy out into the world, so I couldn’t post. My anger turned to sadness and disillusionment with time, and I still did not want to send that out. I love you. I want to share my perspective, but I do not want to stir up your darkness just because mine is stirred. Yes… sometimes I do it anyway… but I like it best when I can cool off first before spouting off.

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I heart immigrants and a big bird-ish thing. Don’t ask me…

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This is NOT OK. I Stand With Planned Parenthood.

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Laws off My Body. Outraged. Oregon Nurses Make A Difference. In Our America: Love Wins. And note: the handmade Hillary handbag.

See look, it might be relevant background information to know I just finished reading Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. Wouk methodically tracked, month by month, the devastating sweep of dictatorship in WWII. The gradual shift from one man’s delusions of grandeur to his psychotic reign of terror. The hesitant but acquiescing actions of first a political body, then a nation, and then the neighboring countries of Europe, remorsefully handing over their citizens because it was easier than pissing off Hitler. I saw how possible it was then (and could be now) for so many people to help him with his goals, and how many of them had facts right in front of their faces, but instead yelled about lies spread by the opposition! I’m telling you, I was freaking out. I sort of still am.

But the people of the world are shining their light and it turned me around. This is 2017, not 1941, and maybe some of us remember history. The day that turned it over for me was January 27th, when the President signed another executive order, banning entrance to the US for anyone from seven specific countries. Almost immediately, lawyers were rushing to airports, actively looking for people in need, pro bono.

I lifted my head and realized that a lot of people were still just as loud about human rights today as they were last month, or in November, or last summer. People are on fire, and the fire is not going out!

There is organized opposition to the confirmation of various people selected to run our government, particularly Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, and Scott Pruitt for Environment Secretary. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates declined to support Trump’s immigration ban. And was fired. When the administration enacted a gag order on the Environmental Protection Agency, halting all action on projects in progress, removing information from their website related to climate change and emissions, and banning all communication with outsiders, memos were leaked, and staff of the EPA began immediately sharing their stories on a personal level to make sure the information got out anyway. Local activists on the city level began using Tea Party tactics as a guide to mount a different resistance. These are just a few stories off the top of my head.

I don’t know the facts of all of these issues, so I can’t endorse the arguments of the opposition but I DO endorse the opposition itself. I am not in the let’s-give-him-a-chance camp. Not one bit. The buffoon has already made it clear that I, Crystal, have no value to him, and so my response is in kind. When my leader proudly announces that he refuses to lead me with honor to the best of his ability, then I owe nothing to that leader. Our job, as democratic citizens, is to watch his every move like hawks. And to come down hard when something is illegal or counter to American values that we are famous for: freedom from religious persecution, equality for all citizens, progress, and engagement. And when we can’t fight him directly like Sally Yates did, then we will have to settle for annoying him and jamming sticks into the spokes of his demagogic mechanisms.

I do have a little hope now. Maybe you do too. Please enjoy these photos from the march. It was *pouring* rain the whole entire time, and it was so cold. If it had been a little colder, it would have been snowing, and then we would not have all been soaked to the core. But despite the wretched weather, spirits did not seem dampened at all! There were thousands of women, and thousands of men, and people with no gender at all. There were people using wheelchairs. And people on prosthetic legs, and people who couldn’t see. And people who didn’t speak English. People who weren’t old enough to talk yet, and people so old they had seen this all before, a hundred times, and were responsible for some of the rights we hold today. People were holding BLACK LIVES MATTER signs, ACLU signs, and people holding signs in Hebrew and Russian and Arabic and Chinese, that I couldn’t read. One in Spanish I could read: Somos Uno (We Are All One!).

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We are all one. You don’t have to believe it, but it’s true.

Half of them were wearing Pussy Hats, which I had never even heard of before that day. I could tell the hats looked like they had cat ears, and I got it right away, because my President was caught on camera joking about grabbing women’s pussies. When told it is offensive, his response shows that he thinks we’re overreacting. Basically implying that boys will be boys. So it turns out, zillions of people found the knitting instructions online, and made these caps in all colours, but mostly in pink, and men, women, babies, and police officers, and group organizers, and everyone was wearing them. Many people held signs that said, “Pussy Grabs Back!”

Two favourite signs of the day: Babies Against Bigots! It was pinned to the coat of an infant being carried in a backpack on her father’s chest. The other said “I know signs. I make the best signs. They’re terrific. Everyone agrees.”

What did women achieve that day? (And men. Do me a favour and skim all those photos and notice the men in every one) Oh gosh, I just don’t know. What was it all for? Were we only preaching to the choir? At least I spoke up, but it doesn’t seem enough. And I feel too small to do more. But my hopes are up again, and I still have my voice, and I’ll continue to use it.

Autumn sun heats the surface of my pond.

Autumn sun heats the surface of my pond.

I have an idea to plant a weeping willow on this tiny island one day.

I have an idea to plant a weeping willow on this tiny island one day.

On my podcasts it’s all election all the time today. Even on the BBC! Thank goodness I have something else to think about. Fall brings some delicious warmth after an unusually cool and wet summer. If I still worked for NOAA, I would have been reviewing charts and models all year, and would know if it was the result of El Nino patterns, as I suspect. It’s typical Autumn weather now, and it suits me just fine. Mostly rain, but broken up with scrumptiously warm and sunny moments. Warm as much for the colour as for the heat.

See how patriotic I am! The flag has complicated meanings in the States, which pains me. Despite the meanings I *don't* want others to take, I take the chance and display my country's flag anyway.

See how patriotic I am! The flag has complicated meanings in the States, which pains me. Despite the meanings I *don’t* want others to take, I chance it and display my country’s flag anyway.

Each evening, there is a brief moment where the sun has an opportunity to hit the front of the house through the trees. That is, if it's shining.

Each evening, there is a brief moment where the sun has an opportunity to hit the front of the house through the trees. That is, if it’s shining.

I voted days ago, taking advantage of Oregon’s statewide mail-in ballot. It was an instant relief to get that double sealed and signed envelope into the mail. Ah, to be able to ignore the clamouring voices. And now I’ve sought them out for entertainment value. I watched all of the Saturday Night Live debates between Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin. They’re a riot. Kate does such a great job of portraying Hillary Clinton that I was actually able to see how people can dislike her. Personally I find the prospect of having a smart, introverted, strong, and empathetic woman for President to be nothing short of exhilarating. My anticipation dulled only slightly at the knowledge that there is a good chance that Congress would fetter her as effectively as they have our current President.

This handsome 3-point stood just on the verge of eating the rest of my honeysuckle.

This handsome 3-point stood just on the verge of eating the rest of my honeysuckle.

The next day he ate my apples, to which he is welcome.

The next day he ate my apples, to which he is welcome.

Then he napped in the grass. It warms my soul that these deer feel comfortable sleeping here.

Then he napped in the grass. It warms my soul that these deer feel comfortable sleeping here.

I was proud to be a part of my own friends group when a rousing text-conversation burst up over the topic of Meaure 97, and whether to tax multi-million-dollar corporations at a level corresponding to the rest of the nation. It’s good to know the people in my life care as much as I do about voting intelligently. I imagine Nike, Intel, Columbia Sportswear and the rest of the corporations (most not headquartered in Oregon) could stand to pay their fair share in taxes. I was taken aback that my fave bookstore in the whole wide world, Powell’s, spoke out against Measure 97, saying that if they had to pay higher taxes they might go under. I do hope they’re being dramatic. The biggest shock of all this election season came when I reviewed the voter booklet that explained the issues, and found that a corporation in Oregon has to have sales in mega millions before they are taxed as much as my own personal income tax. I am astonished to learn this.

I have yet to get a close up photo of this remarkable fellow, who is attracted to my pond for fish reasons.

I have yet to get a close up photo of this remarkable fellow, who is attracted both to my pond and my creek for fish reasons.

Here he is again, even farther in the distance.

Here he is again, even farther in the distance.

These geese make a wonderful call, that sounds somewhat human-like. I have yet to identify them.

These geese make a wonderful call, that sounds somewhat human-like. I have yet to identify them.

Lets talk about emails, because, why not – everyone else is. Emails. Emails. I recently commented on a friend’s blog that the idea of having my own personal computer server to manage my government work sounds divine. At my home office, just like the Secretary of State, I am allowed to use only government equipment. I use an aging CPU with outdated software. I call her Old Bessie, and she takes around 22 minutes to be up and running each morning (I’ve timed the process), after logging in to the protected network and verifying my identity with passwords and chip ID cards and the like, through multiple firewalls. I can sing the Jeopardy theme song after each click, while I wait for my 0’s and 1’s to travel to the hub in Illinois and back again. Our government IT department is understaffed and underfunded. I get these little warning messages all the time “You are using an unsupported version of…” but since I do not have administrative authority, I am not allowed to touch any of it. And don’t talk to me about getting new hardware, because that’s up to you, the taxpayer. There are hundreds of things in more critical need of taxpayer dollars.

Anyhoo, when I heard that Mrs. Clinton had a personal server, the emotion I felt was envy, not rage or suspicion. “If only!” If the rest of us peons had the means to acquire our own systems, you can bet the lady candidate would be only one of legions who engaged in the practice.

In the back of the property

In the back of the property

One last look at the lovely pond.

One last look at the lovely pond.

Tomorrow will be a frenzy. Thank heavens I work till 6pm and I’ll miss most of it. I have a demanding job and I won’t even be tempted to follow things a little bit, because I need to stay focused.

But ok, honestly? I’m still thinking about it. As soon as the work is done I will find some kind of live stream to plug into. Because it really does matter how this goes. I know the President is only one person, and that one person does not have the power we think she has, and that one person does not have the power the majority of people insinuate upon her. She will be a face to the world, and a champion of causes, but a woman who has to find a way to work with the team, whether that team is hostile or friendly. She will have to continue to do her job while crazies try to find a way to impeach her, and straightjacket her, and defame her. She will have to stand tall while people talk about her wrinkles and her waistline and her butt and her voice and her taste in clothes. And like many women in the workforce, she will have to do the job spectacularly to maintain even the mildest respect from the masses.

We’ve been oh, so scared to talk about it, but we are right on the edge of electing a woman as a President.

It is so important that she is elected. Who else (among women who want that job) is baddass enough to pull off a woman in the White House? I think she doesn’t care if you hate her, and I don’t care if you hate her, but she can do the job. And oh, my fingers will be crossed all night long that Americans will give her that chance.

I came across this old post and found that it still resonates with me. Written in 2007, this was a few weeks into my current employment with the Department of Veterans Affairs…so some of my perspectives here lack the education I have today. It is a good snapshot of how I was feeling eight years ago, just coming out of Brandeis University, and not connected to the military community at all, like I am now. Guilt for not having served in a combat zone continues to be a topic that comes up between myself and veteran friends.

Conscious Engagement

Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War. Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War.

It’s sad to admit, but I was almost going to leave out the “Gulf War” part of the title, because I didn’t want to trigger any negative responses. The word veteran is pretty easily used among my friends, and we say how proud we are of veterans. But “that damn war” is a different topic altogether.

Of course, no one blames the soldiers. They are the ones dying. And their families are the ones suffering for the loss of the youth and strength of their loved ones. As one friend reminded me, the ones who don’t die have a more difficult battle: coming home scarred. Missing limbs, unexplained ailments from the desert, gone wrong in the head. There is radiation poisoning from depleted uranium that gets passed down to their kids. There…

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Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

America, you piss me off sometimes. I feel like a parent who knows how much greatness her kid is capable of, and yet must watch while that kid takes the lazy, irresponsible route.

I work for VA. Not in a position of any influence, I work amongst thousands of other anonymous civil servants who take our responsibilities seriously. We endure the often ridiculous demands of the D.C. Central Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, because when we are able to contort ourselves into their expectations of us, they leave us alone to do our jobs. If we check the boxes and count the beans the way Central Office wants it, the end result is that we get to serve, and educate, and literally change lives for the better for our favourite group in the whole world: U.S. Veterans.

Until yesterday, the Department of Veterans Affairs had a good leader in Eric Shinseki. Not a perfect man. I’ll tell you from experience that under his watch we were worked very hard while under enormous pressure. I am not kidding when I say at times I wavered between fearing I would get fired and plotting how I would quit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some stressed out VA employees who cheer his departure. Shinseki is direct, and sincere, with high expectations, and he makes decisions and then follows through. It was usually hard to comply, but in 5 years we did some impressive things in VA. Improvements I am proud of.

The fiasco regarding VA medical facility waitlists that has shocked the nation has been identified – by Shinseki himself! – as systemic. That is ugly to hear. Painful to consider. Embarrassing. Inexcusable.

What I found most interesting about this whole ordeal was that my strongest reaction has been to feel deep regret that the employees of VA medical facilities have been under so much pressure that they had to lie to save their jobs. See, what makes my reaction different from a lot of you is that I’m not instantly thinking of the vets. I give the better part of my life to vets, I *am* a vet, I don’t need to prove my patriotism to anyone.  The story I see is one of oppression in the workplace.

I think Secretary Shinseki would have been the man to get to the bottom of the problem. The work he already did to begin addressing wait list problems was lightning fast (by government standards). He knows the Agency, he knows how we keep it running, he knows what we’re up against. Now that he knows that some parts of it are infected with lies, he would have been ALL over that. Dr. Foote, now known as the whistle blower, also felt that Shinseki should stay onbronze side

HOW will forcing his resignation and bringing on someone who doesn’t know what’s going on fix anything? How will Sloan Gibson merge into this breakneck pressure we’re already negotiating within? The pressure of eliminating the backlog of disability claims. The pressure of getting veterans quick appointments. The pressure of constant media disdain and misleading news headlines.

You bastards, whoever you are. Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back for forcing Shinseki to resign. By implying that this could be a partisan issue, and by directing your fury at the Secretary, you have successfully allowed the public NOT to have a discussion about how to fix the problems. You have hurt veterans more than you know.  Your demands should have been to insist that the Secretary fix the problem, not for him to leave. Now the sheep among us will think something was done to address the problem, and that the problems are as good as fixed.

We missed our opportunity to do the only thing that really would have helped the situation, which is to have public outrage centered on how we got into this mess. Members of our U.S. House and Senate were screaming to take down Shinseki, but they cleverly did not clamor to hold themselves responsible for providing the funding to increase VA medical facility size and staffing to fix this problem.

Just think about it sensibly. The reason why a hospital can’t bring in a patient is either because there is no room, or there is no doctor available to see the patient. Can’t you see that firing people is not going to fix the problem? Isn’t that obvious to anyone but me?

That’s why I feel such empathy for the employees at the medical facilities identified. I can imagine how dreadfully stressful their jobs must have been up to this point. And now some of them have been fired, adding insult to injury.

Possibly the first person to attempt to change things at the Phoenix VA facility was Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who contends that after confiding in hospital director Sharon Helman, she was subsequently disciplined and transferred. She then tried to confidentially complain again, this time to the Inspector General, but instead of being touted a hero, was put on administrative leave and threatened that she may be held accountable for violating patient privacy by her allegations. The one who finally got this recent ball rolling is Dr. Sam Foote, who first retired, then took on the role of whistle-blower. These are only two people, but the environment is made very clear to me: if doctors – the power elite  of hospitals – if doctors’ complaints are met with disciplinary action, then there is no hope that a complaint will be taken seriously from the scheduling clerk who answers the phone and handles appointments. In fact, it’s pretty clear that anyone who resists the system can expect to get fired.

Have you been spouting off about the integrity of those VA employees? Well ask yourself if you’re willing to get fired today. Are you? It is another example of asking the victim to be the one responsible for changing their environment.

When this nation found out what was happening to our veterans, having to wait so long for an appointment that they missed critical care, and in some cases may have died while still waiting, we were right to be astonished and offended by the news. Our next step should have been an outpouring of support to the hospitals, asking them “What can we do for you? How can we help?” And most of all, we should have all apologized for ignorantly allowing them to suffer for so long. Newspapers and television networks could have used their fabulous investigative skills to root out VA facilities that were finding ways to succeed without lying, and to identify proposals to improve the system that no one was taking seriously yet. Reporters could have spun the story so that the American public learned that our representatives in Washington, D.C. had been the source of the edict to get vets into facilities in two weeks or less, but had not provided the financial support necessary to make it happen. We could have begun campaigns to let Congress know that we love our vets so much, we want them to approve a VA hospital budget that will actually allow us to take care of them the way they deserve to be taken care of.

When faced with a critical decision to make, our country’s leaders copped out and picked a scapegoat on whom to blame their problems. American citizens, we are bad parents of our government. They will never learn to live up to their potential if we don’t teach it to them.

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flags of power

I am not the only one shaking my head in disbelief over the official outcry from Washington about Russian President Vladimir Putin taking unilateral military action in Ukraine. Yes, what Putin has done is wrong: sending troops into a nearby country without threat of imminent attack. But the big news story is not Russia! It’s the U.S. pretending to be outraged.

“It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty and not unilateral force that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century,” Kerry said, after accusing Vladimir Putin of 19th Century behavior.

Secretary Kerry, for all your intelligence, you are not thinking! It was as recent as September 2013 when you were championing Obama administration’s proposed unilateral military action in Syria, whose government was not threatening attack on the U.S. You thought that particular 19th Century behavior was justified.

“We’ve also seen an acknowledgement from the Foreign Secretary about the United States’ right and ability to make our own foreign policy decisions that are in our national security interest,” said Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, August 30, 2013. It’s an argument that the U.S. has the “right” to make our own decisions and take action. Even with no support, not even from our closest allies, the British.

I remember how angry Putin was with the U.S. at that time. Isn’t it obvious – dare I say predictable – that Putin would do the exact same thing in retaliation when he got a chance?

And the 800-pound gorilla in the room: March 19, 2003 we invaded Iraq. We went to WAR unilaterally. How can Secretary Kerry publicly imply that we wouldn’t take unilateral military action and therefore can cast judgement on those who do? Well, how can he say such things and not feel ashamed, I should have said.

Hypocrisy.

When my own country’s leaders are as oblivious as that, when all they can think is that the U.S. is always right and everybody else is always wrong all the time no matter what the question is, then they lose my respect. They lose a little more of my patriotism. They lose a little more commitment. My country started off with a devoted fan, and lose me a little more all the time. I am disgusted. Again.

It’s been 26 years since I registered to vote in time for the 1988 Presidential election. I could have been successful at any University at the time, I had great grades, involvement in a dozen clubs, awesome SAT scores, but out of patriotism I joined the Air Force to serve my country instead.  I’m crazy about the U.S.A. This dang country can be so embarrassing and arrogant…and yet I still keep loving it.

The decision-makers in D.C. are not learning, not growing, toward being a better nation, nor are they interested in real solutions. The very top people in government are obsessed with the wrong goal: finding more effective ways to win the game of power. I know a lot of cynical wisecracks might come to mind, but it’s actually pretty dismaying to discover that.

Someone said it really well in a recent BBC World Service podcast (4 March 14 pm). That someone was Putin. Struck so close to the truth I nearly flinched. 

Questioned about recent talks with world leaders, Vladimir Putin responded through a translator: “We are often accused of carrying out illegitimate actions, and I asked the question, ‘So, you think everything you do is legitimate?’ They say ‘Yes,’ and I have to remind them of American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Our partners in the United States have clearly defined their own geopolitical interests. If you follow what they say, carefully, they use a framework of ‘those who are not with us are against us.’ This forces the rest of the world to align themselves accordingly. Those who refuse get badgered. And more often than not they get badgered into submission.”

Let me be clear: I understand that Putin is a sneaking, conniving, power-monger like all the rest of them. But these words above are true. It tells us that those countries who have the ability to badger the others are the ones who win the power game. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it works. (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” said President Bush)

Stinking ugly hypocrisy. Putin called it right.

Most of the time there is so much good in the United States government that I am able to forget the idiotic moments. I never have to pay bribes. Nearly everyone on the highways behaves as I expect them to. Same sex couples kiss in public. Immigrants are CEOs of major companies. If I am hurt, I will get treated at any hospital emergency room I go to. My own job is taking care of military veterans – what other country on earth cares for veterans like this? No one! Not even close.

Despite all the good it does, I can’t help but be astonished when my government shows that its primary goal is to maintain power. Not to take care of me. Not to be honorable. Not to do good with all that power, but only to use it to get more power.

Me with Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Me with Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Shinseki's coin

Shinseki’s coin

VBA (Veterans Benefits Administration) ran out of money at close of business Monday. I work for VBA, which is not VHA.

VHA (Veterans Health Administration) is funded under a different system, which means they already have FY 2014 dollars. So hospitals, clinics, and other VA-funded health centers will continue operations without fear of running out of appropriated funds.

At my workplace, then, operations continued under normal conditions through Monday. Tuesday morning, however, people were called one at a time into their supervisors’ offices, and presented with either a furlough letter, or an excepted letter. Most of us at VBA are excepted from furlough. The two categories are drastically different. Furloughed employees were sent directly home. They were not allowed to dally, not allowed to finish up what they were working on, not allowed to use VA equipment at work or at home, not allowed to work at all…not even if they agree to do it on a volunteer basis. Excepted employees must work. They are not allowed to take time off, even previously approved time off.

No one gets paid.

We are told that excepted employees will get back pay, and that furloughed employees may or may not get back pay, depending on what Congress decides to do. IMHO Congress will not vote ‘yes’ to deny a paycheck to hundreds of thousands of federal employees. As unbalanced and unfair a painting as it may be, I can’t help but paint a picture in my mind of two categories of federal employees: those working for free, and those on paid vacation.

It was 1995 when I went through this the last time. I was a forecaster with the National Weather Service back then. As an employee whose mission statement was the “protection of life and property,” I felt -a little miffed- but mostly proud to be facing the political storm with a brave face and serving my country. As a nation we MUST keep abreast of the weather situation. Knowing the weather is critical to public safety, to agriculture, to commerce, to wildland management, fisheries…. ok…sorry. My point is, when I helped my team to forecast the weather, it was obvious that I needed to be there.

This time around, I don’t feel the same kind of calling. Yes, taking care of veterans is a job to be proud of, but this is not the same as protection of life and property. It’s deciding who is entitled to benefits checks. The veterans already receiving checks will continue to receive them, but my job is to decide if more people should get checks, or if those checks should be in greater or lesser amounts. Remember VA healthcare is not in jeopardy right now. If a vet is sick, she can go to the hospital.

Working during a government shut down doesn’t feel very noble this time.

Not when I compare it to other jobs in terms of who is Mission Critical. FEMA was sent home. I can hardly believe it was successfully argued that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is less important to our nation than paying somebody $129 a month because their ears were damaged while working on the flight deck. Honestly, I’d be glad to forfeit my $129 till next month if we could send FEMA back to work.

I’ve been trying to discover why I feel so sour about this, and I suspect it’s because I don’t want to go to work. I am dying for a break. It’s a hard place to work, with constant production pressure (each veteran’s claim is a point, and we must earn so many points per day, without making mistakes, in order to keep our job), no end in sight (something like 13,000 pending claims in the state of Oregon), media harassment (the backlog!), and mandatory overtime on top of all of that. The government shut down means all of that is still true AND we aren’t getting paid.

Motivation in this girl is about as low as it gets.

The bright side is that during a government shut down there is no mandatory overtime! Woo hoo!

The bright side is that I love my co-workers and my supervisor, and even the veterans (many of us ARE veterans), and we are all in this together.

The bright side is that I cashed out a certificate of deposit, so I have enough money to get by for at least a month.

The bright side is that I live in the United States of America, and even though my Congresswomen and men are behaving like second-graders and I am embarrassed for this to be witnessed by the rest of the world…I can say to them, “You people are a bunch of effing idiots!” outloud, and in public, and I won’t go to jail for it.

A prison designed to follow Bentham's Panopticon design

An illustration of Bentham’s Panopticon design

Obviously I am not feeling much workplace satisfaction at the moment. Moods are low at VA. Public opinion of the Department of Veterans affairs is historically poor and getting worse. I lament the absence of breaking news stories about how hard we work for very little gratitude, and how frequently we are the force behind changing veterans’ lives for the better. Granting a few exceptions, we are a remarkable group of dedicated and diligent workers (many of us veterans ourselves), daily negotiating the morass of bureaucracy in order to do our jobs. (Did you ever grumble about the laws and paperwork it took to unravel a tax problem, or get a Fannie Mae loan, or file for Social Security disability? Imagine if your job was to work within that system every day.) Recently we were ordered to mandatory overtime for the third summer in a row.

Where I work

Where I work

Some time ago at work we were talking about prisons (voices bouncing across the tops of the cube walls low enough that foreheads remain visible), and books on prisons. I mentioned Foucault and how it struck me that our Cubicle Sea (as I fondly call it) is a form of Panopticon.

In his famous book Discipline and Punish, Foucault examines Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, a radical prison design. You can read an excellent summary of the design, and its intent, at J.N. Nielsen’s intriguing post. Very briefly, the Panopticon as a prison is where the cells are arranged in a circle around a central tower. The cells are backlit and open to the center, so that anyone in the tower can instantly ascertain what an inmate is up to. The tower is shuttered, so the prisoners can’t tell what the officers are up to, or whether there is anyone in the tower at all. They are motivated to behave at all times, since theoretically they could be watched at all times.

The aspect I am taken with is the pure application of power, disguised as something else. It’s a smart use of space, it’s good for reform, and it reduces the burden of the officers. But really, it’s just an effective application of power. The Panopticon states to its inmates: you are inferior to us and we have the right to observe and judge you in every aspect of your time here. Dehumanizing and brilliant strategy for hegemonic control.

Consider if you will, the office environment of Yours Truly. My floor takes up an entire block, with windows nearly floor to ceiling around the perimeter. The center of the floor is where the building elevators are located, and around the elevators are arranged the supervisors’ offices, with large windows and shutters and doors. Cubicles fill all the space between the center offices and the perimeter windows, and they are set back from the windows when possible in the office design, to prevent any blocking of the light. The height of the cube walls is just below chest-height when you stand, and does not obscure your head when you sit. We are all in view, therefore, of each other, and of our supervisors in their offices.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that our cubicles are a modern-day Panopticon, an unsettling mimic of Bentham’s idealized prison scenario. No wonder we’re inexplicably miserable: aside from the other frustrations, we spend our entire work day in a physical environment that someone once believed would be ultimately demoralizing and punitive for inmates. It is a canceling of our individuality, decrying the idea that we are valued (or trusted) contributors.

I searched the Internet to see if anyone else had come to this conclusion, and found that my idea is not original. Cynthia M. Daffron thought the same thing.

When recently the topic of cubicles came up in a Marketplace story, on American Public Media, I listened hopefully for some expert’s exposure of the failure of cubicles. Instead, in a cost-saving measure advertised as a hip new way to encourage co-worker collaboration, many companies are ditching the whole idea of cubicles to simply fill a huge open space with a bunch of desks and put us all side by side. I’m assuming the supervisor still gets an office with windows. If my employer were to ever take this step, I might suggest the supervisor’s office be placed in the center.

A parting quote. You may also be interested in the blog post from which I snagged the image.

A parting quote. You may also be interested in the thoughtful blog post from which I snagged the image.

Occupy! Portland in early November 2011

The way I see it, Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi shaped the U.S. 2012 election in a positive way. Bear with me here, I’ll make the links.

In the 2012 U.S. elections, one of the key topics that candidates are being forced to address is wealth distribution (and income accountability, taxes, etc. etc.). This happened because of the Occupy! movement, which was encouraged by the protests in Wisconsin, which may not have been so powerful and remarkable had the good people of Wisconsin not already been fired up by protests in the burgeoning Arab Spring. And of course, the Arab Spring can owe much of its inception to the death of one young, frustrated man: Mohamed Bouazizi.

On the day the Times named our 2011 Person of the Year, I was disappointed to hear the winner was the vague “protestor.” I had a particular protestor in mind, and had been hoping they would choose Mohamed Bouazizi, the unfortunate fruit stand keeper who had endured one hardship too many and burned himself to death in protest. Not that he was the first person to self-immolate in protest in Tunisia, but December 17, 2010 his was the first story to grab news headlines. The Times talked about the runners up, who included Kate Middleton, Admiral William McCraven, and Gabriel Giffords, among others. Considering all  candidates’ contributions to the planet in 2011, I felt (and still feel) as though there is simply no comparison to the contribution of Bouazizi.

Occupy! Portland at the base of the Wells Fargo tower

Bouazizi’s flames pulled the trigger for much of Tunisia in December of 2010 and launched what probably no one was able to predict: an upheaval of north Africa and the Middle East, and shockwaves that spread across the globe. With the death of Bouazizi made public, Tunisians could no longer keep quiet. They were an entire nation of people who could identify with the last straw breaking the camel’s back. They could no longer endure the system they had been forced to negotiate within. They exploded.

As the news of the resistance of Bouazizi and his countrymen spread next door, the Egyptian trigger was pulled too. On January 25, 2011 Egyptians resisted their own oppression in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I was riveted by the news of revolt in Egypt, since my daughter and I had been there – right there on that square – only a year previous. January 27, a huge demonstration rocked Yemen’s capital city Sana’a. News of similar revolts continued to roll in. Jordan. Bahrain. Palestine.

And with the thoughts of Arab Spring in my mind, the protests in Wisconsin hit the news February 14. I could not help but immediately make the connection and I suspect they were making it too. Revolution was on the news every day back then. Citizens in the Middle East and Africa were getting shot in the streets but willing to continue to make a stand for the will of the people. So when a wretched attack on collective bargaining rights for public servants was perceived in Wisconsin, it was only natural that they would respond with an aggressive spirit. If others are willing to die to change their government, why wouldn’t Wisconsonians be willing to misbehave and elicit some public scorn in order to block the passing of Governor Walker’s “budget repair bill?”

February 15, Libyans protested, and by the end of February their country was roused into a fury. The world was fired up! In England, unexplained riots of vandalism and theft swept through the streets. It made immediate sense to me, when everyone else was wailing “why? why?” This chaos stems from the despair borne of helplessness. An article in the Guardian suggests that we view those riots in the context of the “division between the entitled and the dispossessed.” Mexicans rose up against the devastating drug cartels. Greeks demanded accountability in the wake of their leaders’ ineptitude.

Americans again got fired up and Occupied! the country. And all the idiots in Washington said “It’ll never last,” and “Those stupid college brats are wasting their time,” and attempted to ignore it. But we remained Occupied! And the unrest that had begun in Tunisia and spread over here, rippled and went back. Hong Kong, Berlin, and Sydneygot Occupied! Politicians in the U.S. never did (and still mostly do not) have any clue how revealing the Occupy! movement is, and they continue to fuss about illegal immigration and same sex marriage, when we are UNEMPLOYED out here, and our homes have been FORECLOSED, and most of us could really give a flying fluck whether men marry other men because right now we have REAL issues to worry about.

KBOO live on the air in the midst of Occupy! Portland. Note the "people's republic of portland" bumper sticker and the image of Che Guevara

U.S. officials tried to wait out the protestors, and wait for winter to discourage them, but they wouldn’t go. So in a nationwide coordinated effort, police were sent in to break up the camps, arrest any resisters, pepper spray the rest, and bulldoze the tents. Our own Portland Mayor Sam Adams joined the melee. But it was too late.

unoccupied Portland, with metal fences and locked gates

Too late, because guess what? The whole country has begun using a vernacular that includes phrases like “class warfare” and “income inequality.” We stand around our respective water coolers and mutter to each other that politicians care only about reelection. There is a “deep distrust of government” and “capitalism in crisis.” We’ve had Warren Buffet publicly announce that he thinks it is unfair that his millions are taxed at a lower rate than his secretary’s salary. Mitt Romney succumbed to pressure and produced his tax returns. Polls since Occupy! have included a new segment of the population that demands a focus on reducing the income gap. Just enter keywords “poll wealth inequality” and see the lists of what pops up. A recent poll reveals that Americans across party lines believe that the federal government should prioritize increasing the equality of opportunities. I do not recall Americans demanding this level of transparency in our last election and I certainly do not recall an opaque response.

I learned later that the Times United Kingdom nominated Bouazizi as person of the year. I am puzzled that the discussion of person of the year in the U.S. didn’t even mention the man (though curiously he is immediately identified on their person of the year home page), and then he was the person actually selected in the UK.

one of my fave graffiti shots downtown

When I went for a run Wednesday morning, I passed the sweetest sight. A man was carefully removing falling leaves from a chalk message on the sidewalk. I couldn’t read the name written there (I was too close to the sidewalk to see the giant letters well). It said, “[NAME] I love U!” The word love was actually a heart.

It’s a ritual on this block: people send chalk messages to inmates held in the jail across the street from where I work. Apparently, they must be able to see the message from the jail and pass it on to whomever is named. Messages show up on both sides of my building, kitty corner on the sidewalk intersections, silently sending love up to the people in the towering building.

A couple hours later, I left my desk on the third floor and walked over to the windows to see if I could read the chalk name with a better angle. I looked out the window and felt like I was socked in the gut. All I could see on the sidewalk corner was a wide wet area, where the chalk had been scrubbed off. No, it wasn’t that the whole sidewalk had been sprayed. Just the message. Washed off.

I don’t know why it hit me so hard. I suddenly thought of oppression. I thought of a stifling work environment, and a totalitarian regime. I thought how easy it is for those in power to take tiny steps to squash the people. The people who scrubbed the message off probably weren’t even directed to do it by anyone related to the jail. The slightest details, perfectly, hegemonically aligned, will have devastating effects. And yet, no one can point a finger and legitimately make it stop.

“Take a stand! We must FIGHT the scrubbing of chalk messages!” See? That wouldn’t go anywhere. And yet, think of how devastating it could be to someone who has been waiting for a love message, to keep up hope while waiting for the court date or something. What does it mean to that person, who was assured by a loved one: “It will be there. Wednesday morning. You look out that window. I promise.”

Arno suggests that I could look at it with an entirely different perspective. “It’s a very positive idea, though,” he said, “that there is a means of getting messages to the people in the jail. They have a way to send their love.”

Arrggh. Pandora you wicked one.

Our Bill of Rights. Click the image for a larger version.

I haven’t posted for a while. Sorry about that. It’s been a busy week because our managers set a policy of mandatory overtime on a monthly basis, and I decided to work all of May’s overtime this week to get it out of the way. So I’ve been working like a fiend, but I’ll have the rest of the month to relax.

Tonight I was downtown at an art show (I’ll blog it soon!), and left for awhile to enjoy the glorious evening at the waterfront. I saw this posted on a rock beside the Willamette River. I had a brief thrill of recognizing parts of this simple and articulate document in my daily life. These words turned into laws and customs that have become a way of life for us. These powerful words were created by a few men trying to create a brand new country, and trying to do it “right.” What a profound goal, and what great things have been achieved with these simple beginnings. Our bill of rights. My bill of rights.

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