Archive for January, 2012

Poets, mothers, and privacy

January 31, 2012

I was reading a piece (it’s called, “The Awful Rowing toward Anne Sexton,” by Lawrence Kessenich, and I read it here) that included the fact that someone writing about Anne Sexton gained access to tapes of her sessions with her therapist.  And, apparently, was planning to listen to them and draw on them in the book she is writing about Sexton.  The piece also mentioned Sexton’s daughter, although I’m not sure about her connection to the tapes.

I don’t know what the law is on this point involving a privileged relationship and the need for consent to put aside that privilege after the person holding the privilege has died.  (I think I once did know something about it.)  But from a non-legal perspective, I don’t see how another person can really give consent on behalf of the dead for disclosing their confidences.  How can they know it is acceptable to the deceased, to disclose something so personal?

My own mother has a very well developed sense of respecting other people’s privacy.  I know how much her own privacy means to her from this.  I suspect I’m willing to be a lot more open about my own life, and I remember thinking at one point in my life that this had something to do with having gone through the process of becoming an adoptive parent — you get somewhat used to your life being an open book.  At this point, I’m inclined to see correlation more than causation — I’m probably a more open person than my mother and hence I probably end up in situations in which more disclosure occurs.  Whatever the explanation, though, I am sure that she and I have different sensitivities about it, just as we, for all our closeness, have differences about other things.  And it’s not a matter of not wanting to shock her, it’s about trust and respect and consideration and maintaining closeness.

So, I know I would need to pay attention to the standard my mother would use about her own information if I were ever faced with a situation about privileged information about her after her death.

I hope that the people involved with Anne Sexton’s information have thought about this, too.  Just as we have memorial services to honor the dead, we can on the other hand dishonor them, I think, by doing something they might regard as betrayal of their confidences.




January 30, 2012

I was just reading a piece in the NYTimes about whether the hypothesis that inherent biological anomalies are the cause of ADD is accurate and whether treatment with drugs is effective and whether we should focus on other possible “causes,” like reactions to experiences during infancy and childhood.  (I admit I started wincing at a possible return to “refrigerator mothers” as the bogeymom for autism, by extension of the kind of thing I read in the piece.)

I think our search for “causes” is misguided.  I think the details and facts associated with conditions like ADD, or even with other conditions and situations, are just the scaffolding for presenting us with the occasion to learn something.  We can push around the “cause-and-effect” as much as we can, and yet if we don’t actually resolve the underlying issue, the issue will resurface as another condition or situation — the pattern, not of facts but of presenting the issue, will repeat until we learn how to deal with it differently.

In the case of ADD, what are we supposed to learn?  This morning, a friend of mine suggested to me that acceptance might be the lesson, acceptance of other people as they are, not as we might have expected them or wanted them to be.*  I don’t disagree.  I also sometimes think that children with conditions like autism or ADD demonstrate how our own “normal” behaviors and ways of interfacing with the world might look to someone with greater perspective than we have, that we have no idea how far our sense of normal has strayed from how we actually would be if we were functioning optimally as social animals, spiritual creatures, and living organisms.

I get frustrated by what I perceive as a misuse of energy and resources rearranging details in hypotheses whose basic premises are off, but I know that whole structures of power and prestige are based on the belief in these premises, so I doubt they are going to change any time soon.  And I think the enterprises based on these premises many people just enjoy too much to give up easily.  I think my challenge is not to give in to my frustration.


*Somebody else I used to run into walking around the res(ervoir) — not literally run into — used to tell me that she thought some of the conditions were to prompt us to revise our methods of educating people, that the methods don’t serve our needs well but that we couldn’t see that without some canaries in our coal mines, so to speak.

Institutional cultures

January 27, 2012

Here’s another follow-up.  It’s to my meditation on incongruent taxonomies of employees I came upon in my adventures theretofore in sorting out a family member’s health insurance.

I was on the phone today with a Massachusetts government agency involved in regulating insurance, trying to sort out “guaranteed issue rights” for people under age 65 and disabled and not actively working but with private health insurance through an employer, who enroll in Medicare but don’t purchase a Medigap policy initially.  When I eventually mentioned who the employer was, the fellow said something like, “Oh, they self-insure, so they’re not regulated.  And I’ve gotten questions from them from time to time, and they seem to operate in their own little world, because, not being regulated, they never check in with whether their understandings of the rules are the way the rules are interpreted by the government agencies involved.”

Bingo, it’s not just my experience of this thing, or my imagination.

Words, on bumper stickers

January 27, 2012

I meant to write this yesterday.

Shortly after I wrote about “Words, especially written ones,” in which I mentioned my lack of Hebrew literacy, I was driving in town and stopped at a red light, and the van in front of me had a bumper sticker in Hebrew (which is unusual in my town).

Maybe I should also say, that while I couldn’t read the Hebrew, the heart in the middle of the text and the Star of David at the end (far left) I understood  — at least by themselves — I just wasn’t sure how to put them together in a full sentence (or phrase) without understanding the words inbetween.

Tennis and melodrama

January 27, 2012

I was thinking about a friend of mine who loves tennis and who also sees things very dramatically.  She tells a good story about the politics at her office.  Listening to her is like being on an emotional roller coaster, and there are good guys  and cowboys and evil people lurking in the shadows populating the tales.  She also serves you wine and exotic cheeses while you listen.

I am thinking about her because I am encountering yet another iteration of the pattern in which I turn out to have a rarer situation than someone is surmising and hence that someone is giving me inapt advice.  My sense is that this occurs when I am being confused with someone else or when the would-be listener is just generally calibrated for someone who is not me.

It also happens, I’m beginning to think, when I try unsuccessfully to translate a spiritual issue into the language that people who don’t perceive things in that way might understand — I am suspecting that what I say sounds distorted, like trying to collapse three dimensions into two, to translate poetry into prose, to speak a melody.  I think the listener may attribute the oddness of what I’m saying to me and not to the situation I am describing or to the effects of translation.

Maybe the resolution is for me to learn to tolerate better being thought to exaggerate or to be a little odd.  I can also try to learn to accept more graciously people’s other sorts of reactions that I don’t find helpful.

Words, especially written ones

January 26, 2012

Sometimes when I’m participating in religious services, I find myself closing the prayer book and following the sound.  I don’t read Hebrew really, so there’s not too much incentive to follow the print, even the transliterations into English, but there’s also something in me that gets to come to the surface and take some exercise when I follow the sounds.  Sometimes it’s just letting the words wash over me, sometimes it’s joining in in singing or chanting them.  Leaving aside the written words and following the sound allows [this is one act so I’m going to use a singular verb even though I’ve used a compound subject] me more brain space, I think, to meditate at the same time.

This experience give me a point of entry into exploring more of the strengths and weaknesses of relying on words more generally, in other contexts, both written and spoken.

I think I’ve already mentioned in other posts that when I pray and meditate it’s not in words — I can usually translate it into words, but that’s not its primary language.  Maybe an analogy would be a hug — not words, but conveys meaning.

There are advantages to non-verbal language, especially since it can’t be used as easily by mistake as a substitute for action.  I don’t think we feel we’ve done the job of helping someone pick out a wedding dress if we enthuse with them about it, but if we talk them through the process, we may feel we don’t really need to accompany them on the actual search.

So, I sometimes think our capacity for putting things into words both allows us to be more helpful and to be less helpful.  It allows us to share ideas and information and some amount of understanding with each other (and to use judicial processes instead of violence to settle disputes), but it also can allow us to put up walls and to substitute words for deeds.  (My favorite occurs with social service providers who are all meetings and plans, and when it comes to implementation, it’s more referrals to more providers, who then do the same thing, until eventually (true story) the client is referred back to the first provider, with whom they started.)

I am not against words, I just think there is a time and a place for them, and that sometimes it’s the time to put them aside and do something.  They are a politician’s best friend, they are one of Cupid’s arrows, but as Jackson Browne points out in his song “Late for the Sky,” they are sometimes inadequate.

I get frustrated when they are used to paper over real need for action.  On the one hand, they allow the re-framing of a situation into something more manageable, on the other, they can allow a person who wants to avoid action to have a framework, however illusory, in which none by them is required.  Their use can also become an energy sinkhole if the person using them insists on an argument.  But perhaps situations such as these are really merely a more complicated arrangement for learning the lesson of accepting that people just don’t always perceive things the same way, that some points of view just can’t be reconciled.  Maybe my quarrel with the role of words in this is how they are sometimes used to try to deny the other person’s point of view — with other forms of communication, the differences in realities may remain clearer.

But as I indicated, words give us a medium for working things out in situations in which other media might fail more spectacularly.  So, I’m not “against,” words, just a little cautious about how they are used.

At the bus station

January 24, 2012

I was thinking about a story in which a girl was asked to go retrieve some stolen artwork from a psychopathic thief by entering into a relationship with him.  She was given to understand that she could afford to spare no expense in her efforts, because when she was done, there would be someone to pick her up at the bus station.

She entered into the relationship, and did what it took to retrieve the art, at great cost to herself and those related to her.  When she finally was as sure as she could be that she had ferreted out all the stolen art (like searching a sinking vessel for passengers before abandoning ship), she made her way to the bus station, cold, ill-clothed, hungry, emotionally damaged.

Her ride drew up.  She got up to open the door to the car, but the driver indicated that he expected her to take the bus instead.  She had no money for bus fare.  He told her about others who get jobs in order to earn money for bus fare.  He smiled at her warmly and said he’d be rooting for her, he even seemed pained that his car was full (and he wasn’t going to have her ride on top of the car).  He didn’t act as if he recognized that he had somewhere, whether in that car or elsewhere, her clothing, food, a hot shower, a warm bed, and help for what ailed her, which he had been given to hold in trust for her until she was done, and it was clear that he had come to the bus station for a different purpose — he said he just wanted to see what she looked like and to thank her.

What could she do?  How do you deal with two people with two completely different narratives which need to be conjoined?  She took a deep breath and walked away.

She noticed later he was trailing her in his car, with the window down.  They spoke as he drove and she walked.


I have no ending to this story yet, not even what comes next.  To be continued.


January 24, 2012

I wrote what follows in an email in response to a bit of tension that seemed to be developing in an email group discussion.  It contains some thoughts of mine that I hold to more generally, beyond that context, so I thought I’d try posting it here, too.

I am interested that many “liberal Democrats” (Paul Krugman comes to my mind as an example of a person whom I think illustrates this and with whom people may be familiar) don’t wonder more why the approach of liberal Democrats doesn’t pull in everybody in our democracy to that way of thinking — and I want to connect that gently with the discussion here.
We all and each have a point of view.  Sometimes we lose sight that it is just that when we are surrounded by many others who happen to think similarly.  But people who have different ideas may have them because from their experience and in their lives, these other ideas are more helpful.  Other people aren’t just “us” parachuted into different scenes — we are each shaped by our experiences, Democrats no less than Republicans.  I think the fact that Democrats don’t seem to be able to address the deep unease that seems to animate much of conservative policy is a weakness in the Democratic platform.  I sometimes wonder if the attempt is even made.  I think that an attitude of being “right” from an intellectual point of view is a limiting (and limited) one, and often misses the real issue — which may actually be that the model being used is itself missing some important parts or information.
So, I’m all for emphasizing being open-minded.  We are all so limited anyway, we need to pool our understandings, like those blind guys with the elephant.
Which brings me to the religion issue: there, too, and especially, we are all blind guys feeling what part of the elephant we can reach.  For me, the point of the Sufi parable is the communication necessary among the blind guys — compassionate communication, I think, is actually the goal, not coming up with an accurate description of the beast being felt.

More adventures in Medicare, or, how we outsmart ourselves with complicated systems

January 23, 2012

I mentioned in a previous post some of my experiences trying to sort out for a family member a health insurance situation involving both Medicare and private insurance whose cost is shared with an employer.

One of the strands at that point was my 4 phone calls and 2 days of pursuing some help through the SHINE program in sorting it out.  I got a voicemail on Thursday from the local Council on Aging’s SHINE contact person.  She works three days a week, so today was the first day I could hope to reach her.  And I did, sort of.  She called me back, we talked, she said she needed to talk to some folks, and then she called me back again.

To say that the case is too complicated for their counselors (she herself seemed to understand it, but apparently she needs to refer it a counselor who wouldn’t).  She suggested I call Health Care for All, which I already had, some time ago, and they had referred me to the Medicare Advocacy Project of Greater Boston Legal Services.  Which I had called, and heard back from, have done the intake with, and have yet to hear back again for a conversation about my actual questions about things like coordinating the insurance plans and obtaining the documents (who is supposed to do what, for instance — who furnishes the documentation for comparable creditable coverage for prescriptions, for instance, and when?).  She seconded the motion that they were the right ones to help me with this, and she suggested I leave new voicemail messages for them, which I probably will.

But first I wanted to express my sense that this is an example of how we make these systems way too complicated.  We need to consult with lawyers just to arrange our health insurance?  This is our current system.  It is so complicated the people designated to help us navigate it can’t and instead refer us to lawyers.  I have no problem talking to lawyers, I kind of enjoy it, I can speak the language, I’m technically one myself, but needing to do so to arrange health insurance reminds me of the hostility towards lawyers as getting in the way and driving up costs, that people sometimes express.

Well, if we don’t want lawyers involved in everything, we need to simplify administrative systems.  Because the administrators apparently can’t handle the administration administratively.


January 23, 2012

I watched the football conference championship games yesterday (I used to be a Giants fan, back in the days of Fran Tarkenton, Homer Jones, Pete Gogolak and Fred Dryer, and I live outside of Boston, so I can’t say I’m unhappy with the results).  So, I was watching TV.  There seems to be a commercial on that implies we can and need to “build a smarter world” — something like that, if not those exact words.  I understand pain avoidance and strategies pursuant thereto, I even understand greed and pleasure-seeking, but the goal of out-doing nature and the arrangement of forces in the universe I don’t understand.  Maybe I should take it as a polite way of saying somebody wants to make money from some activity and wants customers to support this, but the terms in which the overture is couched seem significant to me — people really like the idea that humans can build a “smarter” world.  The farthest I think I’m willing to go is that we try to maximize the positive and minimize the negative while we try to live in harmony with our world.