Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Freedom, Freedom, Freedom

If I were to sum up President Bush's 2006 State of the Union Speech, it would go something like this:

Freedom, Good.
Terrorism, Bad.
Freedom, Good.
Isolationism, Bad.
Freedom = Prosperity.
Taxes = Bad.

First, I want to sincerely thank the President for acknowledging the death of Coretta Scott King, and recognizing the contribution of the King's to American society. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr and Coretta Scot King shall endure!

Next, Bush's foreign policy rhetoric can be packaged into one word, repeated constantly - Freedom. Admittedly, Bush talks strong on foreign policy and American security. With words like, "Every step toward freedom makes our country safer," it is hard to not be mesmerized by idealistic word-flinging. The problem is that you absolutely can not wield the word freedom like a sword in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Freedom isn’t something you can walk into Wal-Mart and buy in a plastic package with a yellow smiley face sign posted above. Freedom can not be given, and it surely can not be forced upon a people. Bush talks about Freedom as if a little fighting, a little encouragement, and a helping handful of encouragement will magically transform the Iraqi people, and subsequently the Middle East, into a thriving democracy of freedom. As nice as Bush’s words sound, they do not honestly portray the realities of freedom at its purest. Freedom is a power that can only be realized, and it can only be realized when it is desired.

Any ideal worthy of greatness can only be desired once it has been demonstrated as a positive alternative to the status quo. I offer this explanation as a warning to my fellow American citizens, and a thought for consumption to all the people of the World. As Americans, we must be mindful of the soil in which our President is trying to grow freedom. Americans may implicitly understand that liberty, freedom, and justice are inherently good things, but in a desert of chaos, others do not understand the same thoughts. When the mighty American Army occupies your back yard with guns blazing, it might just be difficult to tell the difference between enemy and foe. When the oil is cleaner than the water, it might not seem like fertile conditions for a new ideal to spring forth. This does not mean that freedom can not bud in the polluted waters; it simply means that we must be mindful of our own actions, our biases, and our hypocrisy. For the roots of freedom to truly grip the landscape, patience, imagination, belief, compassion, and nurture must be the key ingredients. The answers are not clear and they are not easy, but they will only come with a clearer view of the picture.

In finale, I do not believe that we should pull our troops rapidly out of Iraq. As egregious and inexcusable as President George W. Bush’s lies were that got us into the war – the United States can not abandon what it has started. One thing I have learned in my short life on earth is that you can’t abandon what you’ve started, especially when what you’re trying to do could bring needed empowerment to others. The U.S. may have gone into Iraq for all the wrong reasons, but it has the opportunity to leave for all the right ones. Bush speaks distinctly about these reasons day by day, and his challenge is whether or not he is taking the right steps to make sure Iraq does become a land of freedom, choice, and equality. Practically speaking, from what I’ve read and heard, I am skeptical that the President is taking every possible measure to ensure stability and transfer sovereignty to the people of Iraq. Americans must demand, not that troops be withdrawn, but that they be used efficiently, protecting and securing the right places. I have not seen this level of effectiveness coming out of Iraq, which is why you can count me as a skeptic. I hope that I will be proven wrong by the Bush administration in the coming year.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Power of Imagination

On page 442 and 443 of his book, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman illustrates the power of imagination. He shows how it can go both ways - positive and negative – by contrasting the events of 11/9/89 and 9/11/01. His final thought urges us to work toward cultivating positive imagination. I agree with his sentiments 100%, which is why I’d like to take the time to explain and discuss this important concept.

Friedman starts by talking about 11/9/89 when East Germany opened up the gates of the Berlin Wall and let East Germans pass into West Germany, which ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Friedman also refers to the forces, of imagination, that lead to 11/9/89, such as Hungary removing border restrictions with Austria. Next, the pressure on East Germany not only to opened up passage through the Berlin Wall but also opened up travel restrictions to Hungary. The significance being that traveling through Hungary to Austria, just as crossing into West Germany, led to the "free world." Friedman writes,
"Someone there in Hungary, maybe it was the prime minister, maybe it was just a bureaucrat, must have said to himself or herself, 'Imagine - imagine if the Soviet Union were frozen in place. Imagine - imagine if East German citizens, young and old, men and women, were so emboldened by seeing their neighbors flee to the West that one day they just swarmed that Berlin Wall and started to tear it down?'" Also, as background info, in the rest of the book, Friedman talks about how 11/9/89 was a "flattener," meaning that the tearing down of the Berlin wall made the world smaller because it allowed more people to have access to freedom and democracy. It allowed more people to have access to information, to the tools of capitalism, and the chance to follow their dreams; the ability to live in hope and not fear.

Friedman then contrasts 11/9/89 with 9/11/01 by showing that imagination and a smaller world can benefit the bad guys to. The terrorists have a cause and they can use the same imagination, along with tools of the free world (which he talks about in the book), to cause great terror. Thus, he writes a faux conversation that Bin Laden may have had where he imagined the great destruction that could happen if they flew planes into the World Trade Center.

I think one of the two most telling lines of this section is in the next paragraph - "There is one thing, though, that has not and can never be commoditized - and that is imagination."

By commoditized he means simplified and transformed into a commercial package. It also can't be turned into a mathematic formula that can be done with a computer or by a Chinese person or Indian behind a computer. It is the "imagination" he is saying that really makes a difference in the world. It makes a difference between a good service and a plain old service. It is the difference between a vanilla idea and one modeled after Rocky Road. Thus imagination is true and it can't be faked, it can't be outsourced, it can't be digitized, it can't be - commoditized.

Finally, and probably my most favorite paragraph of the whole book, Friedman writes, "Therefore, thinking about how we stimulate positive imagination is of the utmost importance. As Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the IBM computer scientist, put it to me: We need to think more seriously than ever about how we encourage people to focus on productive outcomes that advance and unite civilization - peaceful imaginations that seek to 'minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence rather than self-sufficiency, inclusion rather than exclusion,' openness, opportunity, and hope rather than limits, suspicion, and grievance."

I especially like the last part because it is what people with disabilities have been saying for a long time. This really underlines what I believe in. To use positive imagination to "stimulate...productive outcomes that advance and unite civilization." To "encourage people to...seek to...minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence..." To "seek...inclusion rather than exclusion" and "openness, opportunity, and hope rather than limits, suspicion, and grievance."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Honesty Is Hard to Come By

In my search for Personal Care Attendants (PCAs) I have learned much about the nature of people, and I did not like what I saw. The most troubling is that honesty is a rare virtue these days. As part of the hiring process I have prospective PCAs meet me at the local Borders bookstore for an interview after I pre-screen them on the phone. Of the 16 people I have set up interviews with over the past 2 weeks, only 6 have shown up - that is a miserable 37.5%!!! Of the 10 that did not show up, only 2 called me before their appointment to say they couldn't make it, and 1 let me know afterward why they missed. After the first round of interviewing I had two very qualified people in mind to hire, both with seemingly outstanding personalities, and both turned me down because they found other jobs. Now, I realize that withholding truth isn't always considered lying, and I realize looking for multiple jobs at once is common practice. However, what isn't honest is the way in which people lead me on. They show up and act as if this job is this great opportunity that they are excited about. The one guy that I really thought was good for the job, I told he had the job, and he said he was REALLY EXCITED about making a change in his life and coming to help me out. Then I asked him to come over for training on the weekend so he could start by the next week. On Thursday night we set up a training time for Saturday morning - no problems so far. Saturday morning comes - he doesn't show up. I call him, he says he slept in and he has outstanding tickets, he needs to take care of on Monday, but that he could come by later, since his friend could drop him off. Being the understanding and forgiving guy that I am, I let this by as he seemed to be telling the truth. I asked that he just come by sometime on the weekend for a training and then start work on Tuesday. It is not until Sunday night that I call and he FINALLY tells me he got another job. He dragged me along all that time when I could have been looking for someone else.

The second time around, I find two more people that I want to hire. I called one girl back, and that was on Thursday night (it is now Friday night), and then called her again tonight - NO REPLY. Keep in mind that this girl was very chatty and had a cell phone, which went off during our interview. She struck me as the type of girl who doesn't miss calls or messages. No answer, no callback, no nothing. Not even a courtesy call.

Now, just so we do not give up on the entire human race, there were some honest people. The second lady that I wanted to hire, wrote me back (in e-mail, because she had responded to an online ad) immediately after I said the job was hers and let me know she needed to think about it because the drive and pay might not be worth her time. This is very much understandable considering the price of gas, the distance she would have to travel, the number of hours I was offering, and the seemingly low pay. Also, another lady told me straight out after she missed her interview that she transposed her appointment times for her appointments for the day and asked nicely for a re-do but understood if I refused. Another lady called before to tell me she was sick and asked nicely for a re-do if possible. Was she sick? She sounded sick, but I guess you can never tell. Regardless, she had the courtesy to actually give me respect by calling me before her interview. This was especially nice because I was about to embark on a 1 mile trip in my wheelchair in 30 mph winds to get to the Borders.

In sum, hope is not all lost, even though true honesty, respect, and common courtesy is in short supply. I depend on PCAs to live my life and be independent. It is important that I hire a PCA ASAP since my life, independence, and dignity depend on it, and people are playing me as if I was McDonalds. If it wasn't for my girlfriend working overtime without pay, I would surely have either had to 1) move in with my parents or 2)move into the nursing home because I would have had no help. If I do not find someone by Tuesday and Wednesday I might have to drop some or all of my classes at Rockhurst! So as you can see this position isn't just any old job, and I try to let people know that, and yet they still can't be upfront with me. As I said, true honesty is hard to find.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My Favorite Show

The best show on television right now is hands down - Scrubs! I received (well, actually bought with Christmas money) Scrubs season 2 for Christmas. Just as with Season 1, I am constantly amazed at the depth, hilarity, and cleverness of this refreshing show. I also watched new season 5 episodes and they are just as witty as ever.

I am actually a late bloomer to Scrubs, as I only got into when Michael J. Fox made his guest appearance for a few episodes. I am ashamed that it took MJF to get me hooked, because this show was apparently always good. Actually I was afraid to watch it at first because the commercials made it look like a lame slapstick napfest. However, the commercials do not, and can not, give this show justice, because the each episode is so tightly woven together that taking out 30 seconds can not say much about the show.

What makes this show so good? The writing is the most clever, cunning, and FUNNY on TV today (or ever for that matter). The characters are believable, lovable, and real. The storyies are intricate with real-life themes and issues. The themes and issues are so subtly inserted into the show that sometimes you do not even know you are getting a lesson; you just think you are getting a good laugh. Some of my favorite shows also take a nice balanced step into seriousness too. Be warned, Scrubs can make you cry and laugh and think -- all at the same time. If you haven't given Scrubs a chance, you need to give it a try. If you can get a hold of season 2 "My philosophy" it is hands down the best episode I have seen so far. "My Old Lady" from season 1 is a very close second.

The music is an integral part to each episode. The writers and directors do such an amazing job of picking songs the capture the mood and setting of the characters and story of each episode. Whether they want you to laugh, cry, think, or a little of each, the music just picks up the story movement and takes it for a smooth coast along a wave, and always lands perfectly on the beach. Here is a great review of the music of Scrubs. I agree with everything in this article!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Good Help Is Hard to Come By

Today I had to restart my search to hire a personal care assistant. I had a candidate for the job and had offered him the job, and today I learn he is accepting a new job. So, after an exhaustive search that started around December 20th, I have to start over now on January 9th. I have one week to find potential candidates, interview them, check their references, organize our schedules, train them, and hope they do not find something else better first. By the way, if you live in Kansas City and are interested, send me an e-mail at jason@ibelievedesign.com.

For those who do not know what a Personal Care Assistant (PCA) is - A PCA is someone who helps a person with a disability with the tasks that they can not do for themselves. Since I have Muscular Dystrophy and use a power wheelchair I need help with many tasks. Some of the tasks my PCA would do - clean, cook, take/place stuff on shelves, assist me in organizing, vacuum, transfer me on/off the toilet, drive me to school, drive me to do errands, and much more. A great candidate would even be able to be my hands on fixing my computer when the hardware has problems, but unfortunately it can be hard enough just to find someone to cover the basics.

Why is it so hard? Because in a job rich environment such as Johnson County Kansas is, it is hard to pay $8.00 an hour to have someone work non-traditional hours doing a non-traditional job. You don't need any experience to do this job, but apparently you do need to have nothing better to do. Medicaid sets the reimbursement rates for personal assistance in Kansas (and most states that are lucky enough to have a community based WAIVER (we'll talk about waivers another time)) and they don't set it very hard. I actually could start my PCAs at a slightly higher $8.50 but then I would have no way of rewarding them for good work. So I start them at $8.00 so I can give them a raise, since I can't on Medicaid to do so. As a matter of fact, I have seen the reimbursement rate go backwards instead of forward. Besides choosing whether to start my PCAs at $8.00 versus $8.25 or $8.50, I do not have much flexibility in paying my PCAs.

Why is a PCA necessary? So I can live independently in the community. So I can continue my studies at Rockhurst. So I can graduate and get a job and pay taxes. PCAs are the vital tool that help many people with disabilities take control of their lives and contribute to society. In my case, if I don't have PCAs I am stuck, and would end up in a nursing home - a very bleak outlook for a twenty-five year old with great aspirations.

The intent of this post is not solely to gripe about Medicaid or the "system" but to educate. Money that goes towards helping people live independently in their own homes and communities is an example of social tax dollars put to good use. On average hiring help at home is cheaper than nursing home care, and it preserves the dignity of the person needing help, while also allowing them true freedom. Also, is the benefit of the PCAs who are hired to do the job and the money they give back to the community and the government; it is a domino effect. Unfortunately, the system needs some work, and even I admit it could be run better.

How can we help cut down Medicaid costs and make sure individuals keep their dignity and have true freedom and independence? Many ideas can go a long way, but I'll throw one out today. Give beneficiaries more freedom in hiring their care. Once you've met the requirements that you have a disability and need assistance, you should be able to spend the dollars as needed. Furthermore if the "reimbursement" came straight to me, instead of through the "payroll" agent, I could have more flexibility in how much I pay my PCAs and what hours they work. The more rules and bureaucracy that stands between the individual needing help and the tax dollars, the more the waste, and the less efficient the system. Let's start giving the money to the people who need it, and give them the freedom (with minimal restrictions) to use it in the way that best fits their needs. We can achieve maximum efficiency in Medicaid by not blanketing everyone with rigid one-size fits all stereotypes, and instead transforming to a more elastic all sizes fit every single one (who needs it) approach.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Syriana, Corruption, and Oil

I do not consider myself a very harsh critc of movies, but Syriana has to be one of the worst movies I have seen in a long time; it is a wonder it got a fresh rating on rottentomatoes.com. I do not know who the film reviewer Nick Schager is, but he writes a good review of Syriana. I generally find movies with multiple storylines converging in the end intriguing, but Syriana overextended this plot device by offering too many characters and plots at once. No one character is on the screen long enough for you to get to know the character, care about the character, or even remember the characters name. What is even worse is that you realize in the end that most of the characters weren't even needed in the first place!

Furthermore, Syriana tries to hard to take itself seriously. I don't need a bad civics lesson on how oil rules the world and makes men corrupt. Anyone who can follow the news a little deeper than Fox News knows the world is dependent on oil and lots of corruption is happening with oil and energy companies -- Enron anyone??? The United States has a dependency on fossil fuels and Americans like to consume. It's not a good combo, and the type of people who are going to give Syriana a chance don't need a bad lecture on what's gone wrong. What we need is some answers and story about how we get beyond the slimy mess of oil. And can anyone tell me what the name Syriana has to do with anything???

Finally, as I said, what is really needed, whether in American politics, American media, World media, or Hollywood, is a real debate about how the United States can become energy independent. We need to use our ingenuity and technology to discover new energy sources, invent new fossil-fuel-independent cars, find new transportation modes, and empower a new generation of Americans who conserve. If we do not have leaders who step up to the plate on this issue we will face a major crisis. A crisis of environment and energy of catastrophic proportions. Global warming is real and fossil fuels aren't going to last forever, not to mention that depending on countries that hate the U.S. does not help our security any. I believe if we start preparing now, by uniting in the name of energy independence Americans can be a leader on these issues! Write a movie about that and I'll be the first one in line to watch!