The Army Jeep

 

A week ago I was in Montana helping my 84 year old mother move. One of the boxes was labeled “Francis’s Stuff”. It dated back to 1971, the year I was drafted and subsequently joined the U.S. Navy Seabees. After combat training at Camp Pendleton with the Marine Corps we were scheduled for deployment and were given Christmas leave. While home I had boxed up my personal stuff and then headed back to Port Hueneme.

I suspect many of us have a box of personal effects left over from our childhood or an earlier time. These are largely mementos: a baseball glove, barbie doll, photos of prom night or some such thing. My box contained a cherished die cast model Army Jeep.

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In 1957, my father and an buddy from the refinery bought an old Army jeep out of WWII surplus. They also got a couple of rifles and some other gear. Every weekend during the hunting season they were off in pursuit of the proverbial “big buck”. I was too young to go along but romanticized their trips, imagining them crawling over the terrain in that Jeep.

The Jeep is an icon that belongs right up there with the invention of ice cream, hotdogs and baseball. Its civilian counterpart has survived to this day. You can buy conversion vehicles with diesel or Hemi engines.

In 1957, my father and his buddy Louie, shot a big buck in the Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, MT. My dad was in pursuit of the Boone & Crockett record. This was an atypical buck with Christmas tree antlers.

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The guys headed to Livingston and put the deer in a locker and proceeded to get shit-faced drunk. They were running late and headed back to Billings to work. When my dad went up to Livingston the following weekend, the deer was long gone. He blamed Louie and the friendship was over. The Jeep was sold.

I think owning a Jeep was the only vehicle I ever dreamed about. I didn’t buy a car until college and opted for more practical transportation.

While on leave that Christmas, 1971, I opened my present and thought it over. But, my parents said, no, there was one more present and it was something I would like. Hanging from the tree like an ornament was a small box. When I opened it it was a die cast model jeep. I was too polite to say that I really wanted a life-sized one. I knew it was the thought that counted. Unfortunately, my thoughts back then were occupied by the impending deployment.

It was odd when I turned that Jeep over in my hands last week. My sister had obviously replaced the original Jeep to make up for the fact that she had allowed my nephew to play with mine. He had lost it and she was horrified. No big deal. But it did cause me to remember another Jeep incident in my life.

By 1973, the Vietnam War was pretty much over. I had a six year hitch and they threw me over into the reserves. The reserves were a bullshit operation and were terribly under-funded. I was an equipment operator and wanted to drive dozers, scrapers and backhoes around on weekends. Expensive toys to be sure. No matter they simply wouldn’t let me out.

In 1977, I was on my last cruise in Gulfport, Mississippi. We flew in early and did the celebratory run to Pensacola, FL and got hammered. (Seabees did that when there weren’t any girls around to keep us human).

When I returned for the swamp training they marched us into a big auditorium and the Commodore got up to give a speech. There aren’t a lot of Commodore’s around, they are an anachronism. This guy was a VP at GM’s Delco Division. He wondered why everyone was bailing out after their enlistment was up. As he talked I noticed people were turning their heads and looking at me. It was one of those, “Ok Miller, you have been shooting your mouth off, here’s your chance!” I stood up and started talking. To this day, I have no idea what I said. It was a total stream of consciousness. What I do know is that the next day, when we were being inspected, the ole Commodore took an extra thirty seconds looking me over. Then, at the end, the P.A. system dismissed everyone and ordered me to report to HQ.

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It was all pretty surreal. The Commodore wanted to know about my education and professional career. After the obligatory 5 minute introduction he ordered his JG to bring me a typewriter and a ream of paper. He then gave me the keys to his Jeep. My orders were to spend the next two weeks interviewing everyone on the base and write a report about why the U.S. Navy was so screwed up and what should be done about it.

Now,you might think this an opportunity. Actually it was a curse. I knew that if I didn’t do a good job I would come off like some idiot. So, I probably worked as hard on that assignment as any one I have ever done. Too bad I didn’t have white out of carbon paper. The typewriter was a field grade and manual. I wrote out my drafts and typed up the final. Remember, this was long before the personal computer had been invented. In 1977 Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were in garages and skunkworks. The Google/Facebook/Ebay people were still eggs ala semen.

I have to admit driving that Jeep was pure bliss. My love affair with the Jeep far exceeds that with any woman. Women are organic and Jeeps are inorganic. They’ll never let you down. At least you can reinflate the tires faster than your ego. The only thing better than a Jeep is a Jeep with a dog riding in the shotgun seat.

PostScript: When I awoke from my dream I realized the Jeep was crying. It wanted to be back in the Army. The Navy was too wet and salty and causing it to rust and corrode. My last act was to repatriate it to its original home.

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The golden brain

In Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin I have found a story that may sound rather bizarre. I shall summarize the story briefly.

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Once upon a time there was a child who had a golden brain.His parents only discovered this by chance when he injured his head and gold instead of blood flowed out. They then began to look after him carefully and would not let him play with other children for fear of being robbed. When the boy was grown up and wanted to go out into the world, his mother said: “We have done so much for you, we ought to  be able to share your wealth.” Then her son took a large piece of gold out of his brain and gave it to his mother. He lived in great style with a friend who, however, robbed him one night and ran away. After that the man resolved to guard his secret and to go out to work, because his reserves were visibly dwindling. One day he fell in love with a beautiful girl who loved him too, but no more than the beautiful clothes he gave her so lavishly. He married her and was very happy, but after two years she died and he spent the rest of his wealth on her funeral, which had to be splendid. Once, as he was creeping through the streets, weak, poor, and unhappy, he saw a beautiful little pair of boots that would just have done for his wife. He forgot that she was dead—perhaps because his emptied brain no longer worked—and entered the shop to buy the boots. But in that very moment he fell, and the shopkeeper saw a dead man lying on the ground. Daudet, who was to die from an illness of the spinal cord, wrote below the end of this story:
This story sounds as though it were invented, but it is true from beginning to end. There are people who have to pay for the smallest things in life with their very substance and their spinal cord. That is a constantly recurring pain, and then when they are tired of suffering . . .. Does not mother love belong to the “smallest,” but also indispensable, things in life, for which many people paradoxically have to pay by giving up their living selves?

You’re a mess but I’m o.k., I think?

Several years ago I attended a seminar called the Forum. It had been designed by Werner Erhardt, the inventor of EST. Since then Erhardt has collaborated with Harvard in the creation of a leadership program on integrity for the U.S. military.

The Forum stretched over several days and involved personal testimony by the nearly 300 individuals in attendance. As people approached the microphones, they divided neatly into two groups. Those who recognized they had personal issues deriving from troubled childhoods that spilled over into their adult lives and impaired their ability to function and be happy.

But, there was also a small group who got up and testified that they had idyllic childhoods and few problems. Then the group annealed and a deeper dive into the ocean of life occurred.

Everyone attending the Forum did so for a reason and at the heart of it was a dissatisfaction with where they were in their lives. For some it was unfulfilled development potential; for others it was recovering from setbacks and trauma.

Over the years I have often thought of the Forum experience. Like most of you I have read my fair share of self-help books that ranged from positive thinking to more clinical examinations of the issues. One book in particular is Alice Miller’s “Drama of the Gifted Child”. Alice Miller was a Swiss psychologist who spent a lifetime exploring the issues of narcissism and childhoods that left children poorly equipped.

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One of the characteristics of this phenomena is the child who believes they had a great childhood, but upon further examination comes to realize much of their time and energy was in service to the parent’s ego and narcissism. These individuals often spend a large portion of their adult life playing by the rules their parents imparted to them until one of two things happen.

For the adult who has children of their own, they eventually come to realize how destructive excessive egotism and narcissism can be in the development of a child. In families where there are multiple children one of the children will be compliant and another will rebel. A cascade of unintended consequences can emerge. This is particularly true when divorce occurs and leaves the offending parent in charge.

In other cases the person arrives at middle life unfulfilled. Perhaps they obsessed about their career to the exclusion of other things. In some cases they had difficulty forming meaningful relationships. The realization that one’s potential may never be fulfilled or the realization that whatever role they occupy in the hierarchy of organizations can be purchased as a replacement in the open market is a sobering experience.

There is also that person who has satisficed, i.e. rationalized that things have gone pretty well all things considered. They just feel a need to add a few charms onto their bracelet. You know, a husband, baby, BMW, condo at Vail, etc. They have plotted and schemed all their life and are pursuing a turtle and hare competition. Only a major illness, divorce, death or some traumatic event will bring them to their knees and make they realize the folly of their ways. Even then they may see themselves as the victim of a random, one-time event.

The social fabric of modern families is obviously in tatters. Institutions including churches, schools, and employers treat their markets as an extractives industry and are largely mercantile entities. Their failure has placed the parenting of children in relief and front and center.

The plain and simple fact is that upon close examination few families are capable of parenting without contamination of the process from their own childhoods. It is the denial and dismissiveness that places an entire generation at risk.

The most conservative amongst us believe that the family unit is the best way to raise a child. In reality it might be the lesser of two poor choices. The family whose parents chose to work out their own issues first are rare indeed. Many parents view behavioral health as the place to drop their kids off to be fixed, the same way they drop their car off at the dealer to get the oil changed.

I have come to the conclusion that there is no easy fix. Adults simply must get a grip on their own personal issues before they take on parenting. At a high level this obviously includes addiction, narcissism, and character issues. And, it does not suggest that seeing a psychologist is the only way. There are a multitude of self help regimens such as journaling, meditation, reading and seminars that can offer assistance.

In many ways we are left with the advice of the classical philosophers who advised us to understand ourselves first and foremost. That is ironic because it might appear, in and of itself, to be self-centered. But, you have to start somewhere.

The greatest menace to children is the hubris filled adult who believes they had a perfect childhood and can just do a followup act to their own parents. I can almost guarantee that person the peeling the onion will reveal dysfunction galore. After all, if it works so well why are you attending the Forum or reading this blog. For validation?

When George met Henrietta

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When Harry Met Sally… is a 1989 American romantic comedy film written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. It stars Billy Crystal as Harry and Meg Ryan as Sally. The story follows the title characters from the time they meet just before sharing a cross-country drive, through twelve years or so of chance encounters in New York City. The film raises the question “Can men and women ever just be friends?” and advances many ideas about relationships that became household concepts, such as those of the “high-maintenance” girlfriend and the “transitional person”

Anyone who has worked with members of the opposite sex knows the relevance of this topic. It is consistently the top reason for people blowing up their lives and leaving a debris field to be swept up by the divorce lawyers.

I have written about the issue. It is like an underground coal fire burning that seemingly cannot be resolved. One experience from my childhood does inform me more than others.

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My grandmother Lucille had a younger sister named Henrietta. They had both left the dreariness of the family farm in Rhame, ND and emigrated to Montana. Henrietta married Harry and lived in Anaconda, Montana, home to the copper smelters. Harry was an incurable alcoholic who drank his weekly salary and died early. Henrietta was left to support herself and raise an only child. She opened a hair salon on her front porch and had a television tuned to the daily soaps for the girls to watch and socialize. But times were tough and the only way she could make a go of it was to do the hair on the stiffs at the local funeral home. Physically she resembled a grown up Orphane Annie with died blonde hair and curls. She was a kleptomaniac but my father tolerated her visits by putting locks on the freezers. She was, after all, family and my father’s aunt.

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George entered the scene in the 1960s. He was a sheet metal worker who had ventured out to Montana to work on State buildings. His first wife had died of cancer at 54 and it devastated him. He sold everything, gave his three kids their half and headed for Helena, Montana. After the work petered out, George picked Anaconda as the place to retire. It’s a quaint town with small homes and tree lined streets.

George met Henrietta when he blundered into her shop to get his hair cut. She cooked him dinner and the rest is history. They became friends until death overtook them both. Henrietta always introduced George as her cousin. But, we knew all the cousins and he wasn’t a branch or leaf on the tree. My dad and the rest of the family adored George and we tolerated Henrietta.

In the early 1980s, I was in Butte on business. I went over to Anaconda to see George, who I hadn’t seen since college and military service. He took me to the nursing home where Henrietta was bedridden. He went there every day for 12 years. Her son had long ago stopped coming and was estranged from the family.

What struck me as odd was that on every visit George stroked Henrietta’s hair. She didn’t respond to language but purred like a kitten when her hair was stroked. I think it had some erotic overtones from the past. At any rate, George indulged her until the day she died. Upon her death and burial, George packed up and went back to Minnesota where he died and was buried beside his first wife.

As I think back on it, the relationship between Henrietta and George was pure love and friendship. On that visit, George and I finished off a bottle of vodka. He revealed that a day had not gone by that he had not thought of his first wife. He visited her grave twice a year.  Once a year with his children and once a year by himself after solo trips driven through the night.

If Henrietta and George had a sexual relationship my guess is it was the minimal part of their relationship. Perhaps reaching an older age allowed focusing on issues transcending the hardwiring of biology and the desires to procreate.

I am not sure this anecdote allows one to infer beyond the a particular situation. But, it does proves such relationships are possible and can be fulfilling. The conditions for success require two individuals, both of whom are more interested in the other person’s well-being, rather than fueling their ego or narcissm.

Another afterthought. Both Henrietta and George could have dealt with their initial losses by becoming victims and grief-stricken. That’s what most people do.  They often die just a few years beyond the loss of their original partner. But, both of these individuals became child-like. They lived a full 15 years beyond the life expectancy of their peer group. I doubt that it was genetics. It was emotional well-being. And, I doubt if either of their original partners would have wanted to deny them that final happiness.

Me. I just hope that if I end up in a nursing home that there is someone, anyone who will be willing to touch me and administer to my basic needs. If God sends angels to earth, he sent George to Henrietta and vice versa. I think that is as good as it gets.

Technology a tyrant in an era of weak health care management

The recent allegations of mismanagement within the VA are part of a greater pattern within the health care system. All of the health exchanges had major systems problems this past open enrollment period. And, some systems, such as the Colorado Benefits Management System that processes Medicaid applicants, have had problems for years.

Several common threads run through the tapestry of these system problems.

Our lives are now molded and shaped by systems and technology. There is little we can do without enduring the petty tyranny of systems. Th manager at Staples tells me that cash and check transactions are less than10 percent of his sales. It’s all credit or debit card.

Smart phones and tablets are ubiquitous and rule our lives. As users of these systems, it is often apparent that the nurses and doctors somehow figure out how to deliver high quality care in spite of the system.

The problem is often in the appointment scheduling, billing and administrative side of the shop. Administrative costs in the health care system are nearly 40 percent of total costs. And, these costs extend up and down the food chain.

Doctors, hospitals, insurance companies — every major player in the system has significant administrative costs, delays and problems.

You would think that the No. 1 concern of a business is to book a sale and get paid for it. But, during this year’s open enrollment period it took weeks for insurers to be in a position to accept payment.

Part of this problem rests in the evolution of the technology.

Hardware has evolved at a faster rate than software. Vendors leave application development to the open market and concentrate their capital investments on new hardware, operating systems and peripheral devices such as printers.

Hewlett Packard was once the premier manufacturer of medical monitoring devices. Today, they make 80 percent of their profit from the ink sold to keep printers running.

In 1969, Kaiser-Permanente came to Colorado. Against physician opinion, a contract was negotiated with Saint Joseph Hospital to provide inpatient care. At that time the impacts on SJH’s operations were minor but disruptive. So, Sister Mary Andrew brought in industrial engineers to flow-chart a mesh design that sustains to this day. Both Kaiser and Saint Joe’s had to accommodate each other, but the system was well designed.

Little formal design work is done today. User organizations are either coping by trying to milk old systems or they are installing off-the-shelf software that fails to accommodate the human interface.

I am appalled at the pervasive use of outdated operating systems such as Windows XP and legacy software, some of which ran on old AS 400 IBM mainframes in the1980s.

There is denial by management and policymakers as to the extent of the problem. The fix is almost always a request for millions of dollars, often to be dispensed to the same vendors who were the perpetrators of the problems. CBMS uses Deloitte and Connect for Health Colorado uses CGI.

We all somehow know that changing the administrator at the top of organizations will in and of itself not solve the problem. When a building falls down for lack of proper architectural engineering and construction, it’s time to go back to the drawing boards.

Frank Lloyd Wright claimed that you cannot be a great architect without great clients. The development of systems that interface at multiple levels in large scale organizational hierarchies and transcend numerous boundaries are “big-brain” projects. They necessitate involving highly skilled people and using hardened teams of professionals.

Federal Express, Hertz, UPS and organizations that rely on systems to be “force-multipliers” in their business realize this.

Several years ago, the British government and health system suffered a collapse of its systems. It responded by doing a 180-degree turnaround in its approach. It now uses open systems, transparency and internal teams to achieve its ends.

It is not trying to build systems using the low bidder, or even worse, the most politically connected contractor.

We have crossed the Rubicon and it is not a Jeep. It is a divide between an old way of doing business and the demands of the 21st century. We simply must design our way out of this mediocrity.

The use of agile approaches is well known. Leading technology organizations do it all the time. At the crux of the matter is the hollowed out nature of many of our organizations.

We hire managers without a deep or long track record in systems development and turn them into procurement officers.They let out bids to third parties but the shallowness of their skill sets does not allow them to manage the project.

Yes, there are transcendental skills a good manager can deploy. But, if you do not really understand at a deep level what it takes to build a large scale complex system, you will fail.

We send our military officers to war college. We don’t recruit guys and gals in suits to “manage” war. It takes requisite skills that can only be acquired over time through a combination of experience and education. It takes a commitment.

We have arrived at a moment in history where the system determines our success. Without a blending of high tech systems with the high touch human part of organizations we cannot succeed.

In the good old days, we could buy everyone a calculator or personal computer. Departments could kluge together solutions. And IT managers could conspire with IBM to produce bills and statements.

Today, the system is the organization. When it fails, the organization fails. You can force-feed the VA money all day long and you won’t get the job done. And, you can put wounded warriors in charge of the organization because they have stars on their collar and you will also fail.

In the end, this situation reminds me of Arthur Conan Doyle’s saying: “Genius instantly recognizes genius; mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.”

If the high-level policymakers are a confederacy of dunces, they will continue to put people like Shinseki in charge, when he clearly did not have the skills to run such a system. And, if we do not think strategically about the role of government run health care systems relative to delivery of services by the private sector, we will also fail.

There is a compelling argument to reframe the VA’s problems and possibly voucherize the system like Medicare.

It can’t be any worse.