Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Rebel with a Self-Perpetuating Cause

In these parts, everyone's got a cause. Whether it's immigration, keeping immigrants out, world peace, taking over the world, stopping global warming, disputing global warming, gay rights, "traditional family values," preserving Lake Tahoe, developing Lake Tahoe, keeping sex ed in schools, keeping sex ed in the home, gun control, the right to bear arms, multiculturalism, hegemony, keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance, removing God from the Pledge of Allegiance, eco-sustainable-green-whatever, NIMBYism... well, let's just say James Dean wouldn't have stood a chance in the rebellion department.

I guess if you want to be an agent for social change, the Bay Area is a good place to be. After all, this was the hotbed of radicalism in the 1960s. (Some people seem to believe that it's still the 1960s, but that's another story). It's said that if you throw a rock in Manhattan, you will hit either a psychoanalyst or a person who's currently in psychoanalysis. Around here, I think that if you throw a rock, you hit a social change organization. And the funny thing is that there are hundreds of tiny organizations working toward the same goal--but not always together. Sometimes they don't even know that their comrades exist; other times they just don't want to cooperate, often for reasons of personality politics.

(To wit: I once was asked in an interview how I would increase the organization's visibility to queer youth of color. I said that I would find out first which other organizations were already successfully providing services and activities for this demographic--of which there are many--and then see if we could co-sponsor some of their programming. The interviewers' collective response was one of stunned silence. I'm still not sure whether mine was just such a novel idea, or completely the wrong answer. Whichever, I didn't get the job.)

Now, I'm all for social change. The status quo is certainly better than it used to be, but it's not as good as it could be. What saddens me is that I see a lot of pushing for too much, too soon. Let me be clear that I don't think we should just hang around until public opinion changes, and then move in and re-work the system. I'd love it if, overnight, marriage equality were a reality across the US. But realistically, that's not going to happen. Eight years ago, there was not a single state in the US which offered any official sort of recognition of same-sex relationships. Now, seven states and the District of Columbia offer at least some rights to same-sex couples. Yes, there are still those who think that Massachusetts is going to slide into the Atlantic on account of marriage equality (come on, it's been over four years! so where's the sliding already?) but I think there are also those who've figured out that two chicks getting married isn't actually all that bad.

Simply put, every one of us is afraid of change; and so if we try too hard to change, there's going to be backlash. Even changing for the better is scary. In fact, fear of change has been hypothesized to be a sort of "allegiance to the self"--when you change, even for the better, in a sense you lose the person you were before. I think this happens on a societal level too. The more a small group of people yells, "THIS HAS GOTTA CHANGE!" the more the rest of society girds its loins.

But then we have another problem, which is that the more the agents of change are told to sit down and shut up, the more frustrated they get, the louder they yell... and the more they are told to sit down and shut up. If they are wise, they will take a moment and re-evaluate their tactics. But throwing tantrums is human nature; and it takes a lot of mental and emotional wherewithal to decide to take things slow when you want what you want and you want it yesterday. So in many caes, nothing gets accomplished--

--except that as long as the status quo remains, there's something to try to change. Not changing tactics is a very self-protective mechanism for those who are oriented toward fomenting social change. For once you've completely accomplished your goal, your choices are either sit back on your laurels or find some other cause to champion. And sitting back on one's laurels is pretty antithetical to the personalities of those who work toward change.

So there you have it: Change, and the world changes with you. Keep doing the same thing over and over, louder and louder each time, and you might find yourself the chronic kvetcher amongst a whole lot of pissed-off sticks-in-the-mud.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Now what?

Animaniacs came out just as Mrs. Gerbil and I were starting high school. The timing could not have been better. We were just barely too old for kids' cartoons, but just old enough to get adult humor. For Halloween of our sophomore year, a bunch of us even went out trick-or-treating as several of the Animaniacs. Appropriately, Mrs. Gerbil was Wakko, and I was the Brain.

I love Pinky and the Brain. Like all good cartoons, the plots are highly predictable. But there's something just extra cool about lab rats with designs on world domination. With few exceptions, each episode ends with Pinky's question, "Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tomorrow night?" and the Brain's answer, "Same thing we do every night, Pinky--try to take over the world!" And by the next night, the Brain has already developed a brand-new, highly detailed plan. How much time does he actually spend thinking up new plans? Does he mull over possibilities for a while, or does the whole thing come to him all at once? We will never know.

But one thing is certain: once one plan fails, he manages to come up with a new one. The Brain does not sit around and ponder where to go from here. He has no need of that cliche "next steps," because the only thing on his agenda is to try to take over the world again.

The phrase "next steps" fills me with a weird sort of revulsion. I was taught to avoid cliches (like the plague, haha) at geek camp; and yet my visceral reaction to "next steps" is very much unlike my visceral reaction to other cliches. It's similar to my visceral reaction to words like "sustainability," "green living," and "ecoresponsibility." These are fantastic concepts, but sometimes I think they fall victim to name-dropping. (I admit, I had to Google "sustainability" to find out what it really meant, so many times did I hear someone say "we're focused on sustainability" without mentioning how, exactly, this focus was accomplished.)

Because Western thought and life are quite linear, I suppose it only makes sense that we should think about what to do next. I'm fairly certain that my problem with the phrase "next steps" is that it gets used when nothing's actually been accomplished yet. For instance: I used to work in a non-profit that worked with a whole bunch of other non-profits. As a group, we had tremendous difficulty deciding what to do now, and yet somehow we were perfectly happy to discuss (for hours at a time) what to do next. Non-profit paralysis had set in for many of us--the deadly combination of not enough money, not enough time, and not enough resources. Having "next steps" meetings was a defense against having to do something in the present that might, of course, fail.

The other problem with "next steps" is that someone actually has to follow through with them. Brainstorming "next steps" is great; but who's going to make sure the list doesn't wind up in the circular file? Perhaps it's an odd sort of motivation for those who aren't actually doing anything measurable in the present, a way to avoid feeling aimless once the first task is finally completed.

Or perhaps I am too much of a cynic. Perhaps I don't have enough patience or tolerance for other people's way of doing things.

Some (including but not limited to Mrs. Gerbil) have said that the world would be much better off if I ran it. So I think tomorrow night I'm going to try to take over the world. I'll plant subliminal messages in car commercials that link the phrase "next steps" to "I will do whatever Gerbil says."

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

They tried to make me go to rehab

I get a lot of calls from people who want to go to detox, or who want their family members to go to detox. Often they are legitimate candidates for immediate, do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200 detox. For example, they've decided to go cold turkey from alcohol and now are tremulous and sweating. Or they've been quadrupling their Xanax and their psychiatrist won't write another prescription. Withdrawal from alcohol or benzodiazepines can be fatal; and detox is a medical procedure which (hopefully) keeps the withdrawal process safe. I can't begin to count the number of alcohol- or benzo-dependent people I've had to convince to go to the hospital immediately... not tomorrow, not the next day, not next week when they already have time off from work. I've found "Withdrawal can kill you" to be a fairly effective tactic.

Opiate detox is another story. Opiate withdrawal is highly unpleasant, to say the least; but it is not necessarily dangerous. Managed care does not always cover opiate detox, especially of the inpatient sort. I have no idea why. But if I get a call from someone who wants to detox from Vicodin, I tell them to go to the hospital immediately. Some will ask whether withdrawal will kill them. I reply, "At the very least, if you try to do it yourself, it will be extraordinarily uncomfortable."

But then I have some people who want to detox from cocaine. There is no medical detox procedure for cocaine. Cocaine is rapidly eliminated from the body; so even if there were a way to do cocaine detox, it would have to be done very quickly. When people ask me for cocaine detox referrals, I tell them to go to the ER right away if they have any unpleasant physical symptoms or pre-existing cardiac problems. But unless they are suicidal, homicidal, or using alcohol or benzos with their cocaine, they can most likely wait until the next day for an assessment for some other level of care.

My favorite callers, though, are the parents who want their teenagers to go to marijuana detox. (Oddly, no one ever seems to call for detox for their own pot habit.) Again, there is no medical detox for marijuana. Marijuana hangs out in the body for a while, but there's really nothing to do about it--and no real need to do anything, either. I am often tempted to tell these folks that marijuana detox is a home procedure involving a couple bags of potato chips administered over the course of a few hours. But I don't, as this would be poor customer service.