rants


This seems like the appropriate day to tell you that we have a problem with military veterans in the US. We all do. It doesn’t matter where you land on the ideological spectrum or what you thought about some US foreign policy decision. If you live in the US, you are benefitting from the sacrifice of our veterans, and it’s not enough to pay your taxes and put a “support our troops” magnet on your car.

The problem has two aspects. The first is more or less logistical–a resource problem. There are veterans today who, after risking life and limb for you, are homeless, who are taking out second mortgages on their homes to pay their bills, who are undergoing long, intense bureaucratic nightmares for disability benefits, and many other forms of economic suffering. Not all of them, of course, but it happens, and this should never happen. Unfortunately, aside from voting or working in social services, I’m not sure what you can do about it. If you hire people, though, consider hiring veterans.

The second aspect is more spiritual. In this country, we are bad at integrating our warriors into civilian society. We get tired of our wars and stop paying attention to them. We don’t know where our returning warriors have been or what they have done. We’re not interested. We benefit but we don’t care. Or we’re scared to find out. Our warriors end up holding their stories on their own, or inside their brotherhood, not fully part of the wider culture. Not all of them, of course, but many, and this should never happen. Luckily, there is something you can do about this. Stay interested in the details of our conflicts. Be around veterans and be interested. Don’t pry, but listen.

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You might argue that the amount of time community mental health therapists spend writing paperwork is unethical, and you would be right in at least two ways: (1) It is an unethical use of tax payer money, paper, and storage space, as much of it is redundant, and (2) it squanders a valuable resource, attention from therapists, on writing, which we are not particularly good or efficient at.

But the worst part for me is that I consider myself a writer of sorts and really care about the quality of my writing, but now spend a large part of my full time week practicing how to write badly. I groan inwardly each time I write something like, “Clinician used psychoeducation about anchoring and adjustment and introduced perspective taking exercises. Client showed understanding of psychoeducation and participated in perspective taking exercises.” And there is no time or economic incentive to make it better.

At least, I tell myself, I did not “utilize” psychoeducation like many of my dear colleagues, but that is small comfort.

It reminds me of why I got out of the small-time freelance record production business. There I was, a songwriter, and the grist for my creative mill was whatever songs someone who could afford my hourly rate brought to me. And those over, and over, and over. Don’t get me wrong–I loved the work and most of what my client’s brought me was good, I just needed to curate what went into my ears more carefully.

The analogy is not perfect, but close. Therapist paperwork writing is not only bad, but emphasizes the least important parts of therapy. A good document of therapy would be more like one of Irvin Yalom’s novels, narrative, interesting, a document of confusion, exploration, courage, inspiration, a document of the development of a mutually beneficial relationship. But this is not what gets you paid. “Clinician challenged cognitive distortions” gets you paid.

And the writing of notes does intrude into therapy occasionally. Occasionally, in session, I have the thought, “How am I going to write this up?” Not a therapeutic thought. Brush it aside, suppress shudder, return attention to client.

One of my supervisors likes to say, “You need to own your charts, you need to love your charts. Your documentation is the only record of what you do.” In an economic and bureaucratic sense, she is exactly right. And I am committed to this career, so I know what I need to do: Fully master the paperwork. Spend as much time as necessary now so that the future me will have perfect case notes, perfect assessments, perfect charts, with no more than the minimal time, stress, and effort spent.  And hope that the bad writing I am practicing makes the minimal impression on my creative brain.

In my time working on construction crews in Oregon, one persistent joke was, upon reading the ubiquitous warning “known to cause cancer in the state of California” on a material we were about to use, was announcing, “good thing we’re not in California!” Everyone would laugh and then go ahead using the pressure-treated lumber, or whatever it was, as usual. I was generally alone in taking precautions in these situations, and actually caught significant flack for being paranoid and/or anal retentive. This was not improved by my careful explanation that California was where the lawsuits and legal actions happened which resulted in these warnings, not where the cancer cases were confined!

The bottom line was that precautions (not to mention using less toxic materials) slow down the process for bosses and often seem unnecessary to the crew, so they were not taken. Many of the crew reasoned that since they already smoked and drank, how much could inhaling some fume or touching some chemical really increase their chances of getting cancer?

This was frustrating to hear but is actually an excellent point. Without information about base rates, how can we make good decisions about toxicity exposure? We need specificity and statistics to make good decisions.

For example, Reanna pointed this sign out to me last night:

It is posted on the side of the RV we have been living in during our renovation project. Of what use is this supposed to be? If I was on the fence about whether or not to buy an RV this might be somewhat helpful, but only by increasing a vague sense of fear, possibly to the point that I wouldn’t make the purchase. I want to know by doing what (driving it? sitting in it? licking the walls?) for how long (minutes? years?) and in what circumstances (engine running? after the RV’s a certain age? at certain temperatures?) will increase my chance of developing what cancer by what statistical rate? With that information, I could make a decent decision about how to interact with this RV. Or construction material.

It’s unfortunately true that construction worker and RV buyers (as well as doctors, lawyers, and Americans in general) do not understand statistics, and so for many this information might not be helpful. But it could hardly be less helpful than it is now.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Ted Talks while working on my trailer the last couple of weeks. I’ve been enjoying them, mostly, but I’ve also become annoyed at the presenters saying, “The reality is…” before making assertions. It’s a powerful-feeling thing to say, and I think for lot of people it may be a powerful-feeling thing to hear. It may even help these presenters change peoples’ minds. When I hear that phrase, though, I go off on a mental tangent something like this: “Wow, sounds like you think you have direct contact with reality the way the Pope thinks he has direct contact with God. That’s either pretty arrogant or pretty careless of you to say. I wonder if you are that careless or arrogant when analyzing the data that you are summarizing right now. Or maybe you have a handle on how much direct contact you have with reality and you’ve just said that because you think I will be swayed by you talking that way. Are your ideas not strong enough to stand on their own? Oh, and what was it you were saying for the last 30 seconds?”

Reanna and I have just about finished re-sealing our 1962 Kenskill travel trailer. Everything that was screwed into the corrugated aluminum that covers the outside of the trailer had to be resealed: access hatches, tail lights, door, windows. It turns out that this is hard work and takes a long time. We did not anticipate this, mostly because the instructions for the process are very simple: 1) unscrew the window or vent or whatever, 2) remove the old putty tape, 3) apply new putty tape, and 4) screw the part back in. No problem!

Reanna vs. Butyl Putty

These instructions leave several questions unanswered, foremost of which is how much of the old putty tape needs to come off for the new putty tape to seal well? Old butyl putty is sometimes impossible to completely remove with a putty knife, short of scraping all of the paint off the aluminum. No one mentions solvents in removing this stuff, but that is the only way I can imagine getting it all. Even the non-butyl putty, which gets crumbly and easy to scrape off in its old age, hides in the tiny crevices created by staples and folds in the aluminum and takes almost forever to remove completely.

Another question is how important is it to leave the paint on the aluminum intact. I found that I could speed up the process of chipping and scraping the five or six layers of rubbery and/or rock hard sealants on the roof vents using my putty knife at a sharp angle and hitting it with a hammer. Uncovering a vent could take two hours to uncover, pre-hammer technique, and now takes only just over an hour. Unfortunately, it is an unsubtle technique which inevitably gauges the paint and the aluminum underneath. Is this a problem? Even if we are going to cover everything in sealant?

Also, is there any advantage to using non-butyl putty tape? Our extremely reticent local RV repair guy would say only that he used butyl for roofs and non-butyl for walls and that butyl was stickier. People who talk about it online mostly seemed to use butyl. We found the butyl to be much easier to work with and stopped buying the non-butyl after a couple of rolls. Half of the wall-mounted stuff like windows are sealed with butyl now. Will that be a problem?

I’d like to share the several techniques I invented during this job, but I have no idea what the results will be during the next rain, much less in a couple of years. There are only three things that I know I wish I had known beforehand:

1) Don’t go to the putty knife too quickly when removing the remnants of non-butyl putty. You can get a lot of it off by rubbing hard with a wet rag for a while. It is not easy to do for hours, but quicker than going after each speck of putty with the corner of a blade.

2) You will probably have to throw away almost all of the screws you pull out, so you will spend a lot of money on new ones. And while you are correct in your initial assessment that the trailer is put together almost entirely of #8×3/4″ and #10×1″ screws, you will need a large assortment of other sizes because of water damage. I now have 3/4″ screws in #8, #10, #12, and #14, 1″ screws in #10, #12, and #14, and 1 1/2″ screws in #10 and #12. And several of those kinds of screws meant another trip to the hardware store to get them.

3) Sealing up the trailer will take a lot longer than a week if you have anything else you like to do with your life. More like three weeks. (Actually, I’m not sure I would have been better off knowing that one…)

And finally, here is the only video we found, after considerable searching, of someone actually applying putty tape. (Thanks, Canned Ham Trailers!)

I’ve been visiting Vancouver for a few weeks and most days we end up commuting at least once from the west side of the city to the east side and back, mostly by car, sometimes by bus. (I’ve done it by bike, too, but not on this trip.)

It’s about six or seven miles each way and takes about 30 minutes. Google maps says 20 minutes by car, and I’ve heard rumors of 15-minute trips, but I’ve yet to experience one less than 30. Yesterday, our commute was 10 miles and it took 50 minutes (extra Christmas shopping traffic, I’m told). That’s five miles per hour in the middle of the day. It was worse on the way home, at 3:30 rush hour.

I found myself quite impatient with this situation. Five miles an hour does not seem a reasonable speed to travel. I think of Los Angeles as congested, but in non-rush-hour traffic I expect to be able to get to another city in 20 minutes–from the train station in Los Angeles to my brother’s house in Glendale, for example.

The thing is, I’d be on the I-5 most of that trip. There are freeways all over the place in LA. This is strikingly not the case in Vancouver. We are on surface streets wherever we go, hitting stoplight after stoplight, very often with no left-turn lanes so traffic piles up behind each turner. Suddenly I miss all of those ugly, loud LA freeways.

Reanna and her family argue that the fact that it sucks to drive in Vancouver is an accomplishment. The more it sucks to drive, the better, because more people will use public transportation or bicycle. We fought to keep freeways out of here, they say. I was reminded of how upset my grandfather gets when he talks about the freeways in LA. The house he built was one of the houses they demolished to put in a freeway (it might have even been the I-5 that went through his house). Freeways went through the middle of neighborhoods, loud and ugly, splitting them in two. It’s very hard to imagine that happening in Vancouver, if only because the real estate is too expensive.

I am pro-public transportation, so when I’m not stuck in Vancouver traffic I think it’s a shame that LA was designed for cars. Maybe it is the relative ease of car-travel that has kept LA’s public transportation from moving to the next level — though LA, at least according to this article, is quite low in miles of freeway per person compared to other major US cities.

This situation does not strike me as a straightforward win for Vancouver, though. People still drive a lot, and in cars constantly in their least efficient mode, stopping and starting all the time. The busses use the same congested, no-left-turn-lanes roads as the cars, so they lose efficiency and speed along with them. Maybe the answer is to have the government quadruple gas prices or insurance prices to make driving a rich-person-only thing, and leave the roads for public transit. I’d much rather see public transportation that wins because of how great it is, rather than because of how crappy driving has become, but I guess I would take what I could get. Not that I could get quadrupling the price of anything related to driving even here in the most progressive part of Canada. That might be less popular than putting in freeways.

In thinking about all this, I wanted to be able to compare the transportation systems in different cities and found it quite difficult to do. We need a single-number transportation index that takes into account the average speed of travel, average energy-expenditure per mile, and how far people travel on average to live their lives in their area. People-miles per gallon-minutes, maybe, or maybe people-kilometers per joule-minute. Any economics or urban planning students out there looking for a project?

A while ago I wrote a list of things that almost always make me happy, so I thought I should make a list of things that almost always make me unhappy. For symmetry, you know? In no particular order:

All things “scented”: soaps, lotions, deodorants, colognes, candles, cleaning products etc. I like the smell of roses, hate the smell of rose-scented soap.

Small talk: Please do not talk to me about things that you are not actually interested in.

Unripe fruit: I would much rather not eat a banana than eat a green banana.

Unsalted butter and peanut butter: In these cases, unsalted is often better than nothing, but generally disappointing.

Buying airline tickets. Or, really, buying any pretty expensive item that might not work out as I’d hoped.

Shoes that are the slightest bit uncomfortable in any way. Don’t tell me that they will break in. That’s the line of a lazy and/or evil shoe salesman.

The hard sell. This is the only real downside to being nice–you become a target.

Unpleasant sensations, especially pain, nausea, and cold feet.

Injuries that do not heal or that take a long time to heal.

Bigotry.

Spots on my camera lens that I cannot remove.

Not being able to see the stars for man-made reasons.

Packaging of most kinds.

Dust jackets for books. They are supposed to protect the book from dust? All they do for me is give me another, more fragile, thing to try to keep nice looking.

Being helpless in the face of injustice on any scale.

Bad food, especially Amtrak, airline cuisine.

Almost made the list: mild and sharp cheddar.

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