You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Department of Veterans Affairs’ tag.

dsc_0034

My snowy home on a hill.

I keep leaning toward complaints, but then I simply can’t follow through: this snow is spectacular.

I live in the Columbia River Valley, just 45 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This tends to keep my little piece of Paradise green, even in the depths of winter. But Mother Nature has been on a cold bent lately. Well, heck, I can’t even say “lately,” because it’s been cold and snowy for a couple months now. I’ve lived in very snowy places most of my life, and so this doesn’t compare, but I am still enjoying it.

img_2794

Jamie and Phil after the big snow, when they were still interested in it.

img_2795

The ladies have had enough snow and are running for shelter.

My chickens seem to be fine with it, but they do not like being cold. They hide in their little home most of the day rather than walk around in bare feet in the snow. They don’t eat much, leaving the chicken feed to the chipmunks. I expect to see some pretty fat chipmunks in the Spring. I need to go out each day, dump out a chunk of ice from their bowl, and refill it with water. They have also figured out that they can eat the snow.

They also aren’t laying, and I do not blame them one bit! Who would want to produce a massive egg once a day in the freezing cold? Not me.

dsc_0026

Looking past the apple tree into the neighbor’s yard.

dsc_0022

Beaver Creek burbles along gaily with no interruption.

dsc_0036

The sun came out for a few days, brilliantly lighting it all up. Those are my tracks in the foreground. I just can’t stay indoors when it’s this pretty out.

My photos aren’t as good as I would like. My camera is still fried from my trip to Chile. I haven’t made it to a camera doctor yet. The weather has been so rotten that roads are sketchy, and it hasn’t been worth an hour+ drive into town. Also, I’ve been sick, sick, sick. Feeling much better now, but annoyed by this lingering cough to clear out my lungs. Sounds like I have COPD.

Anyway, my iPhone camera is picking up the slack. I hope you enjoy the photos. It’s been pure winter deliciousness here.

img_2737

Our gorgeous Christmas tree!

img_2739

Tara balancing new sketchbooks.

 

img_2775

Evening sun making the treetops glow.

img_2807

I rarely need to, so I do not own a decent shovel.

I found out that a blogger friend of mine was  shorthanded on, as she put it, “young energetic people,” and I answered the call. Luckily it was pre-major snowstorm, and though cold, we did our work on a beautifully sunny day. The van was parked at the storage unit and we spent the whole day emptying the storage unit and filling the truck. It was windy, and when the sun dropped we nearly froze our patooties off, but we got the job done and went home elated and satisfied. It was discovered the next day that the truck had been loaded beyond legal weight and it had to be dismantled. That day I had to work and couldn’t help.

img_2780

TS inside the moving van.

img_2810

These tracks just melted my heart.

I’ve got a little good news that’s probably exciting only to me, but I’ll share it anyway. I mentioned in November that I have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from military trauma. I’ll explain more about making disability claims with VA (The US Department of Veterans Affairs) later, but for now I’ll just say that I made a claim in 2008. The claim was denied in 2008 and again in 2009, so I appealed it in 2010. My appealed claim has languished for some reason. It’s still pending. I finally lost my patience and contacted my Congresswoman to stir things up a little, and it worked! Next week I will attend examinations in support of my claim. These consist of super-quick health evaluations not designed for treatment, but to assess the problem, then make an educated medical opinion on whether that problem could be related to military service. Then I wait around for someone to make a final legal decision. I’ll give it another year and then contact my Congresswoman again if necessary. Honestly, I think it has been long enough and my impatience is not out of line. If my claim is granted, any medical condition found by VA to be related to military service is then covered by VA for free. All doctor visits, medications, procedures. There is also a monthly stipend based on any loss of function determined to impact my employability. It would be a help.

img_2785

World made black and white.

img_2796

Playing with the sepia feature.

 

I’ve been reading through old emails this morning, looking for some details from my time in Japan back in 2012. I came across the following email, describing a meeting I had earlier in the day. While in Japan, my job was to actually meet with people all day long, whereas here in the states I typically only see their paperwork. During that temporary job assignment, I was reminded that I have a gift of being able to connect to people. I can put them at ease even when they have to talk about something difficult. That gift was finally put to use during my 2012 tour. This story is an example of why it is an honor to be able to serve my customers.

 

“Sometimes my job socks me in the gut. It’s the side effect of working with military people. There are some real, live, fucking heroes out there, and never an adequate way to say thanks. In this case, acknowledging the Sergeant Major would have been the worst possible thing to do. So I nodded, and said, “Uh huh. Ok.” and scribbled on my pad of paper. And I told myself to hold it together. Hold it together. Stop thinking. Turn your head to what you need to help this man. Facts. Law. Explanation of procedure. Acknowledgement. Respect. Confirmation and affirmation for him. Total brutal coldness and move on…

 

I had asked a question I always ask when I see in their medical records a Pre- or Post-Deployment health assessment. I asked the intentionally vague question, “Did anything happen during your deployment?” It’s in the context of making a list of health problems. I have all kinds of tricks to get people to remember stuff that’s bothering them. Sit somebody in a room, say “List all your health concerns,” and they’ll come up with about half of them. So I help. Deployments are a good one, because they’ll go “Oh, yeah, there was that time I banged my head on the turret without a helmet on,” or whatever.

 

He stutters just a little. “Well, a lot happened.” I can tell he’s answering me in a totally different way than I expected him to answer. He’s answering me literally. “I lost a lot of people. There were so many of my guys… I mean, you don’t want to hear this probably,” he looks at me to see if I want to shut him down, and I keep my face completely blank. He looks at the floor, “Well. It was bad.”

 

Sergeant Major was in Afghanistan and lost or sent home injured 70 men. Seventy. He said he wrote it all in a journal, to help himself deal with it. He told me he wrote their names in his journal, and wrote what happened, and what it meant to him at the time. He downplayed himself as though he wasn’t even there. Brought up his Combat Action Ribbon (major award) as though he was forced to mention it in order to explain something else. What he was explaining was this one time he was in a convoy and one of his kids – he stops to explain, “My kids. I call them my boys…the Marines under me, not my own kid.” – stepped on an IED. But he was lucky,” he tells me. “He only lost his leg. He was lucky.” I ask casually, “how far away were you from the blast?” “8 meters.” (fucking close) “And, did you have any loss of consciousness? Bang your head or anything?” He laughs, “Oh no, I’m fine. I was fine. Good body armor. I felt the concussion waves. Everyone did. But there was no damage. Yeah. It’s not like I earned the Combat Action Ribbon. The paperwork was done, and I had so much going on, I just accepted it.”

 

Fuck. I am reeling as he’s telling me this. Eight meters from an IED blast. He watches his own guy get his leg blown off. He loves them so much he calls them his kids.

 

The meeting goes on as we discuss other health concerns. He doesn’t sleep at night. Can’t explain it. “I get around 4 hours of sleep a night, but it’s not all together. It’s ok. It’s been going on so long I’m used to it now. I think the Marine Corps teaches a man how to live on less sleep. It’s not like anything’s wrong.” And his wife tells him he’s lost his interest in things he used to like. “Japan‘s a really safe country, as you know,” he says. “But even though I know that, I can’t help it but get uncomfortable in a narrow alley. I know it’s safe, but there are windows sliding open, with rifles coming through. It’s just not safe.” He lapsed seamlessly from Japan to Afghanistan as he was talking.

 

“When you’re over there, you’ve got to turn it off,” he tells me. “It’s the only way to survive. It’s the only way you can do it. Turn it all off. Then when you come back to the states, and …well, normal things aren’t normal anymore. Nothing makes sense. Does that make sense? A guy here on base steps off a curb wrong, hurts his ankle, and there are 7 different documents written up on him, the incident, and I’m like, ‘Really? We’re spending our time worrying about stuff that small? Stuff that doesn’t even matter?’ It’s also a factor of coming from Camp Lejeune, say, it’s a ground base, where everybody is on the ground. The ‘real Marines.’ And now I’m here at an airbase, and it isn’t the same. The people here don’t… Their mindset isn’t… This is not Afghanistan.”

 

He isn’t being eloquent, though this is a very intelligent and eloquent man. And yet, I feel as though I know exactly what he’s saying to me. I tell him he is describing classic PTSD to me. He blinks and looks away. “I’ve made peace with that. I’ve made peace with the idea that it’s probably PTSD. I’m not asking for anything.”

 

The way I deal with it is I flip through the pages of his medical records, I bring up something else, “Here it says there was an abrasion to your eye?” and distract the conversation. Let it cool down, then I pull it back later for an important detail. “So you did receive a Combat Action Ribbon? That will be reflected on your DD-214?” I pull out more details from Afghanistan, talk about something else for awhile, then pull it back to the repercussions of the desert. What’s going on now that he is not quite linking to his heinous deployment yet.

 

It’s worse because he’s in charge here. The Colonel’s right hand man. Sergeant Major is in control here, and I’m listening to him tell me what a mess he is inside. And I know he’s going to suffer from it his whole life. He’s young, handsome, has been married a good long time and his youngest is a senior in high school. He should be looking forward to retirement, and I won’t tell him his retirement could very well undo him. At least…from what I’ve seen in other people’s medical records.

 

Then I get reassurance that being cold was the right move, when he tells me once he went to talk to a doctor here on base about his symptoms of anxiety and trouble sleeping. He started to tell her about Afghanistan, “And she just got all upset, and started crying, and she left the room! She just left. I’m thinking, ‘you’re supposed to be my rock, and you leave.’ So then I found this other doctor over here. He was in Vietnam. He knows. I guess he’s the kind of guy who tells it like it is. I don’t think everybody tells the truth. This doctor said, ‘It’s never going to go away. You’ll always have those memories. What we have to do is figure out a way for you to live with it.’ All the other people tell me ‘It’s gonna get better. It’ll all be ok.’ But I think… I think I’ll have to believe the doctor. He was in Vietnam.”

 

I think about what he said for several seconds, trying to decide where to go with that. “I have no medical training,” I start with. “All I can say is what I see in the medical records I read. And when people are young like you, it’s easier to manage. But when you’re 65, or 72, you are at a higher risk for having a harder time dealing with these symptoms. I don’t know why, but it seems to be harder for older people.” “Funny you should mention that,” he says. And tells me what his step-father told him just a little while ago. Another Vietnam vet. Never had a problem at all till he turned 55 when suddenly his Vietnam memories start bothering him. I try to give Sergeant Major hope instead of despair, “Well, look. I also see the opposite. I see guys who find themselves a distraction. A hobby. For example, a guy takes up fly fishing and he can stay happy.” “Well, I took up drinking,” he says. “That was my hobby. But I had to stop. My wife begged me.” I let out some air, disguised as a laugh, “Yeah, that’s the wrong hobby. Pick a different one.”

 

Anyway. He takes off. I address some email. Pack up my gear. At 4:30 I head home, and halfway back to my room I started crying. I knew immediately what it was. When those guys are in the desert, they have to turn it off 24 hours a day. They have to turn it off till they come home. But me, when I get to my room, I’m safe. So I only need to turn it off during business hours.

 

I’m sad. I’m aching for him. I want so badly to talk for six hours and give him hope, give him tools, tell him how grateful I am that people like him are out there having their lives ruined on my behalf. I want to talk to his wife, and tell her some things to help her understand, to help her have patience and to be strong. And tell the kids too. He’s a powerful, self-confident, fucking baddass war hero, and he was in my office scared. Scared of the future. Of what his mind is going to do to him. That sucks.

 

I’m still crying. Sometimes my days are like this in the VA. I am glad it’s so real for me. The war is never far away from me because of this. I’m just more used to seeing it in typed records and handwritten letters, not looking into a man’s eyes as he tells me how he wrote the names of his kids in his journal when they died.”
The sun and Snow Creek Wall put on one last show for me by way of goodbye.

The sun and Snow Creek Wall put on one last show for me by way of goodbye.

A rock spire on the side of Snow Creek Wall is lit by the slanting rays of the sun as I descend into the canyon.

A rock spire on the side of Snow Creek Wall is lit by the slanting rays of the sun as I descend into the canyon.

I rose with as much leisure as possible, and waited for the sun to dry everything out before I packed. It was another glorious day in The Enchantments, and I was so reluctant to leave. Finally I began the 4000 foot drop back down to civilization.

Every bit of the trail was as beautiful as it was on the way up. I took lots of breaks because my bad knee was complaining. I would sit on one of the many available granite boulders, and gaze in admiration at the world around me. I passed one point in the trail where rustling leaves caught my attention. I first took a photo, then realized what was so beautiful about the spot was the sound, and not the image. So then I took a video. A couple of hikers came up while I was filming. I held up a finger for them to stay back till I finished. They got very excited and looked intently up the hill to discover what wildlife I had discovered. Then I stopped the video and disappointed them when I explained, “No wildlife, just rustling Aspen leaves.”

It looks sort of pretty, but this photo does not convey the magical sound.

It looks sort of pretty, but this photo does not convey the magical sound.

Lots of people passed me on the way up, which was a mystery until I recalled that it was Friday, and guessed that Seattle people were likely getting an early start on weekend hiking. They asked me lots of questions about trail conditions, campsites, and goats. I tried to encourage them by telling them about the trail ahead in the best possible way. “You’re at least half way to the lake!”

A bracket fungus captured my attention while I was resting.

A bracket fungus captured my attention while I was resting.

At the bottom of the hill the parking lot was jammed, compared to the empty lot I had seen Tuesday morning. Yet another affirmation for hiking popular trails during the week. I dumped my dirty smelly pack into the back of the Jeep and grabbed some clean clothes to bring up front with me – for changing in the first bathroom I could find. I plugged in my phone, and it started beeping it’s little heart out as battery life and cell signal brought in all the texts and phone messages I had missed.

One key phone message was from human resources. Yes! I got a promotion. A new job, more accurately. Since it’s government, there is no such thing as promotion in that someone says “Hey Crystal, you’re doing well and we’ve decided to pay you more,” because that could be unfair. So, when a different position became available, I submitted my resume and supporting documents, went through an interview, and was selected for the position.

Pros: higher salary, completely new job within VA that I get to learn and thus will stay interested in work, good career move, good retirement move since my retirement pay will be based on my highest salary.

Cons: I have to change my schedule from compressed to five days a week, and commute to the office every day while I’m in training. Drive to work. Every day. Cuz…remember I live on Jupiter now. I’m out beyond public transportation, and I do not drive a fuel-efficient vehicle, and I’ll have to pay for parking smack downtown. Bluh. ….but it’s an investment in my future, right?

I get to bury myself ever more deeply into veterans disability claims and with this new position I will be able to help them more than ever before. That makes me really happy.

I was so eager to get home that I decided to make the 4 1/2 hour drive rather than find a hotel. I texted Tech Support, who was house-sitting, and let him know I was on my way. He texted back that the chickens had been loose during the week, but all was well at the moment (Someone must have told them they could fly. I was trying to keep that a secret.) He left the heat and lights on so when I arrived in the middle of the night, the place was so welcoming. 🙂

He also left me with this memento, taken from my place while I was gone:

The starry sky from Crystal's place. Photo credit: Tech Support, friend, chicken-catcher and house-sitter.

The starry sky from Crystal’s place. Photo credit: Tech Support, friend, chicken-catcher and house-sitter.

An apple from my tree.

An apple from my tree.

My piece of land is growing on me as she changes her clothes for the season. I have decided there simply aren’t enough colours out there for a proper Autumn view, and I will plant trees with this in mind, so I can enjoy them in future years. There are a few maples turning colours though, and I have been able to capture a few photos of them. It has begun raining again, and the creek level is rising. The pond is still too low and I’ve talked to a neighbor who has a pump and generator, who may be able to lend it to me to restore my little puddle to something more pond like. I’ve harvested apples from my two apple trees and made a pie. The deer eat what I haven’t had a chance to pick up off the ground. I feel more assured when I can walk around and take stock and see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. I suppose I’m becoming more of a country girl with each day.

Creek level is rising again.

Creek level is rising again.

A new creek view, available due to some heavy pruning of this big cedar that was dropping branches to the water.

A new creek view, available due to some heavy pruning of this big cedar that was dropping branches to the water.

One of the few maples painting my land red.

One of the few maples painting my land red.

A view up toward the house from down where I'm building a bonfire pile.

A view up toward the house from down where I’m building a bonfire pile.

Distracted by a spider (but you can still see the red in the background). Isn't the colouring gorgeous?

Distracted by a spider (but you can still see the red in the background). Aren’t the patterns on the abdomen gorgeous?

I can't resist red. So yummy.

I can’t resist red. So yummy.

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.

My view into the back yard from my new office at home.

My view into the back yard from my new office at home.

Yesterday was my first full day working at home. It’s too early to report on whether this will be a fully positive, and thus permanent change in my life, but I suspect it is.

I really love the work that I do. If I described it, you may find yourself thinking it’s “BO-RING!” but…it is great work for me and my particular skill set. Plus, our customers have earned my respect and my desire to help them. However, I struggle with doing the job at my downtown office. That environment is crazy distracting and unhealthy for me.

To my delight, the positive changes yesterday were more than I had anticipated.

  1. Natural light! It was my favourite discovery of the day. No more banks of fluorescent lights blaring into my eyes from every direction all day long. For a sufferer of migraine headaches…this is huge. My desk is next to a window, and for most of the day, that was plenty of light to work by.
  2. Inspiring view. At the office, my view is of the Portland Police Bureau and jail. I work downtown among the high rises, so the view available to me consists entirely of the buildings across the street. I’m only on the 3rd floor, so I can’t even see the sky when I’m at work. Yesterday, I realized my view is of the bird feeders in the back yard. I saw how busy the birds and squirrels are here during the day, and how the yard is filled with sunshine at mid day. Every time I looked up from my work, something made me smile.
  3. Music. At work we do not play music aloud because at any moment there are a dozen people within hearing range who will probably not share our musical taste. Unfortunately, there is a co-worker next to me who is totally oblivious to peer pressure, and chooses to play his top 40 soul hits all day long every single day despite multiple requests for him to use headphones. (Come on, I *know* Stevie Wonder had more than two good songs. Is it too much to ask to play something else?) Yesterday I played my kind of music, and loud enough to sing along to. And I didn’t offend anyone.
  4. Warmth, point 1. At work, the HVAC roars all day long, blowing air through the building. Loose papers actually flutter. And I’m cold all the time. So even though the register states it is 68 degrees, it’s way too chilly for me at work. There are a few of us who wear fingerless gloves at work, and keep our jackets on all day. Yes, it is that cold. At home, I just bump up the heat if I’m chilly.
  5. Warmth, point 2. For a full hour, the sun came in the other window at an angle that allowed a sunbeam to fall across my back. It was amazingly restorative. I wanted to curl into a ball like a cat, and just soak it up.
  6. Rainbows. For multiple hours, that same sunbeam shone through crystals hanging in the window, and cast rainbows all over the walls and the computer, and my scratch paper. I love rainbows inside the house.
  7. A helper. Speaking of curling up like a cat, our kitty Racecar visited me multiple times for some lovin.’ She attempted to help a couple times, by lying down on some papers, but I had to put her back on the floor. It was thoughtful of her though, and I appreciated the gesture.
  8. Convenient facilities. So, ok. Our office building takes up an entire city block and we have one bathroom. I hate to sound whiny, but it’s a very long walk to the bathroom, which is on the opposite side of the block from the break room. Yesterday, I didn’t have to pack a lunch, or a thermos of coffee, and haul it on the bus with me, because it was right there, mere steps away. When I usually skip breakfast because I won’t have time to catch my 5:50 am bus, I had breakfast.
  9. Less sick leave. yesterday I requested 45 minutes of paid sick time to take my daughter to the dentist later this week. If I was at the office, it would have required 4 hours of time off to leave work early enough to make it out to Montavilla from downtown, pick up my kid, and get her to the dentist on time. Her appointment will be over before my shift is over, but by the time I took her back home, and drove all the way back into town, there would only be 30 minutes of the work day left. Not worth it. But now, all our doctors are just a few minutes from home.
  10. Short commute. It’s a 10 minute walk from my house to the bus stop, a 35-minute bus ride, and a 12 minute walk from the bus stop to the office. It takes an hour to get to work. Coming home can take longer, because it’s during a much busier time. Yesterday, I woke up and was there! I’m saving 2 to 2 1/2 hours of commute time each day.

There are disadvantages, but so far they are outweighed by advantages. I have to log in remotely to a virtual computer desktop hosted somewhere outside of Chicago, which makes every task take a  l o o o o n g  t i i i i i m e. When I need to ask someone a question, I can only ask whomever is active in Instant Messaging at the time. And the way I’ve used my reference tools on my computer desktop for the past 6 years is no longer going to work, because of the virtual desktop thing…so I need to come up with a new plan. I still have to go to work one day a week, and when I do I am required to take my car because the sensitive nature of the documents I carry with me prevents using TriMet. So that will cost me in vehicle maintenance, gas, and parking fees downtown.

I am fortunate enough to work for an employer (the Department of Veterans Affairs) who supports working at home for certain employees. Rumor has it that they want to eventually shift to 50% of the workforce at home. My specific job is processing disability claims, so it’s conducive to working remotely. On a typical day, I never see or speak to an actual veteran (other than my many co-workers who are veterans). Rather, I read pages and pages of medical records and scour VA laws and court cases and procedures manuals, and enter data and write up reports based on everything I read. All this can be done at home as easily as at work.

If things don’t work out for me, I can always go back into the office. To my (not) beloved cubicle sea. Where voices and telephones and radios and the HVAC and the cleaning crews’ vacuum cleaner all blend into a ceaseless din that drives me half mad some days. Where the fluorescent lights never stop their blaring. Where a dozen people a day ask, “How was your weekend?” and hope that I’ll ask them about theirs, when really all I want to do is get my work done.

Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I’ll stay home as long as they let me.

Racecar on my desk yesterday, annoyed that I stopped scratching her head so I could take this photo with my phone.

Racecar on my desk yesterday, annoyed that I stopped scratching her head so I could take this photo with my phone.

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.

One of my many guises

Recently I posted…

Other people like these posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 388 other followers

Follow Conscious Engagement on WordPress.com

I already said…

Flickr Photos

More Photos