Archive for December, 2013

Holding two perspectives

December 29, 2013

Last night my cousin let me know his perspective on my putting a statue of the Buddha in my home.  Not only could I read his words and understand their content, but after I replied to his comment, I could actually see how the statue could look like an idol.

I can’t know whether what I perceived was actually what my cousin sees, but it certainly was a version of seeing the statue as an idol and not seeing the statue as I usually do.

I was reading Father Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today, about holding in tension what we know and what we don’t.

For me, a big lesson and challenge has been to recognize what is my perspective and what is someone else’s, instead of just getting swamped by someone else’s, which I am perfectly capable of doing, just as we are somewhat susceptible to effective sales techniques even when we don’t realize it.  And that’s just it; just as savvy shoppers are aware of advertizing manipulation or sales associates’ techniques, I can become aware of when I am picking up someone else’s perspective.

For me, in my context, what can be difficult is when the other person is completely dismissive of my own point of view, when there is no room in their perspective for mine.  It can happen when I interact with people who hold their atheism strongly, for example, or even with people who judge my family members or my life in strongly negative terms.  It can leave me, in a way, gasping for air; maybe it’s like a guitar player hearing from someone that a guitar is just a wooden box with strings with which they are making noise.

But there is something helpful about this experience.  It shows me how a perspective is just that, a perspective, my own included.  That helps me with detachment and with understanding our world and how we see it.

But with all due respect to feedback from others and from visiting their perspectives, in the end I have to find the view that supports my greatest good, not adopt one that suits somebody else out of people-pleasing or trying to reach some other social goal.

So I go back to seeing my statue as an encouraging reminder of how, while we may go from dust to dust, we also go from enlightenment to enlightenment — we have been enlightened before, we will be so again.  And that is a source of joy, that we can be reborn into that consciousness.  This stream of thought for me gets collapsed into just being thrilled when I see my Buddha statue.  I don’t see it as an idol but as a concrete reminder of an ethereal process in which we each can become a buddha.

I come by my joy not easily, whether that’s intrinsic to me or a result of my experiences.  But when I do encounter joy, the deep, child-like kind, it feels like a blessing.  And part of the ability to encounter it seems to come from having found the perspective that allows me access to it, so I am not in a hurry to give that up in favor of the perspective that allows someone else access to it.  It’s not de gustibus non disputandum est (tastes cannot be argued about) exactly, but that is the phrase that keeps bubbling up in my mind, and I think the concept is something similar.


December 28, 2013

A local store thought it had lost its lease and I was able to pick this up.

standing Buddha horizontal_no_flash

Actually, it weighs a huge amount, it is very dense — made of ironstone — I did not literally pick it up, at all.

It is, among other things, my contribution to righting the wrong of the destruction of those beautiful large Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban.

It’s around my birthday, too, so I am thinking also of this in terms of that.

Then I realized, after siting the Buddha statue where I did for a host of other reasons, that it stands directly opposite a small statue of Kwan Yin (maybe someone can correct my spelling) which sits atop a fountain (no longer in use) that I gave Willy for his birthday the year he turned forty.  They are gazing at each other, in a sense, which seems to me quite right.

New Year’s resolution

December 28, 2013

About a week ago it occurred to me to make a New Year’s resolution, and to resolve to work on trying to be more pleasant and less reactive under stress (in situations I find stressful, that is).

The universe gave me an opportunity to work on this the other day, even before the New Year begins, when I got my telephone bill and it contained a price increase.

My phone/internet service arrangement had come up for renewal and renegotiation this past August, and the matter had been a protracted mess, in part because somebody working for the company had made an unauthorized change to my services.  It took a lot of lengthy phone calls to get things sorted out.

I had not thought I would have to revisit my relationship to my carrier until next August, but they raised the price for my internet service, apparently, in this latest bill.

This blog post is going to be about reactivity and pleasantness, but let me first sketch out that, long story short, the phone/internet service provider actually had given me a price guarantee for a year, back in August, and now they are saying they will honor it (although I won’t see that they are following through on this claim until my next bill — in the meantime, they did give me a credit on this bill for the difference in prices, though).  The guarantee was for a slightly higher price than what they had been charging me, because they had also given me promotional coupons for a year, but I was willing to budge on that issue because, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure why I had ended up with that lower price.  The guaranteed price is below what they were billing with the new, increased price on the bill I most recently received.

Anyway, back to my reaction.  I was indignant and upset that I would have to spend time on this issue again so soon, I wanted to push it off my plate and I resented that someone had plopped it on my plate.  So when I encountered the first scripted response of “We can do this, you don’t have a contract,” I felt frustrated. And I felt the asymmetry of the relationship, I felt I was being “done to,” and I felt victimized.  When that happens, I think I tend to express anger in my tone of voice and I tend to interrupt.  I think I did all that.

I suspect it’s sort of to compensate for feeling I have a lack of effective tools at my disposal to fight back with.  I was indignant about a mid-year-ish price increase, and my argument was about how I had not been aware that my price could go up and had understood that it wouldn’t for a year from the deal we had agreed on.  I think I tried for a bit to argue from general principles about why I didn’t think I should be subject to this increase, but all I got was scripted responses and a list of new options, none of which I liked.  I did subside and said I would need some time to think over my options, and the conversation ended pleasantly enough, but I had gotten testy in the middle of it, I believe.

Later that day I went back to look at my notes from the August negotiations and I saw that because I had been “put into my bundle by a manager,” the price was guaranteed for a year even though there was not contract.

When I called back at that point, I got a representative who was even more scripted, but I had the right lines;  her script allowed her to respond to my manager’s guarantee by going to her supervisor, and we got back to my guaranteed  price and to “yes” — in part because their file notes showed the guarantee and in part, apparently, because of what my deal had been before August, information they actually had to ask me to supply them with.

I learned from this that had I not reacted with such emotion to the fact of having to deal with this at all, I could have gotten all my ducks lined up before I made the first call and possibly gotten the matter settled to my satisfaction with one call and without getting testy.  That I didn’t has something to do with getting too drained by my work on behalf of my dad’s estate and on behalf of my mother, and on behalf of my children.  In all those cases, I seem to be the only one available to help, and while I don’t take on every aspect of the tasks — I avail myself of professionals and I insist these other family members do, too, like financial managers, social workers, academic advisers, etc. — it leaves me too drained to take things, like straightening out the telephone bill, with equanimity.

So, part of the solution, in theory, is to take better care of myself so I am not on the verge of being too frazzled when a new issue comes along for my attention.  Part of it is to at least train myself to put in a pause and take time to observe that yes, I am reacting and not taking the time to address the issue methodically and calmly, in my hurry to just push it away.  Part of it is to train myself to use tools other than my tone of voice — I think I resort to tone when the content of my words does not get through the first two or three times I try.  Part of it is faith — to have some faith that the issue will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of making my workload impossible, that I have some support even if I have no spouse or relatives to provide respite help to me with what’s on my plate.

The bill is, as I said, supposedly being revised to meet my price guarantee, Jonas has lined up a new place to live in the spring, Jordan has chosen new spring semester courses, my mother has accomplished her transaction before the end of the calendar year, the estate has been largely settled.  I don’t have nothing to show for my efforts (in these and other current matters), but my “serenity” has taken a hit.  And that is what I want to figure out, how to accomplish this stuff with less “drag” on the system.

Sell a Mercedes, buy a Focus

December 25, 2013

I didn’t actually sell Willy’s old Mercedes, I donated it.  I kept it way longer than I probably should have.  It never felt like mine and it was expensive to fuel and maintain.  I put much too much money into it.  When Willy first discovered how sick he was, one of things he tried to do was to get a different car, now that I was driving again — but there just wasn’t time and health for that, things went too fast, I certainly didn’t have time to do that, either.

I discovered when I bought my (used) 2001 Focus years later (I think it was spring of 2007) that I no longer got “attitude” from other drivers.  I guess driving around in a 1989 Mercedes wagon implies something to many people.  The Focus is also a better physical fit for my (small) size, too, although it turns out to be a terrible fit for Jordan’s — he can’t get his knees in a comfortable place with respect to the steering column.  It’s color scheme is the same as the Sable Willy’s father gave him when he received his Ph.D. — white exterior, beige fuzzy interior.  My Focus was clearly previously owned by someone who smoked, Willy’s Sable had been new, although, if I remember correctly, its first incarnation was a lemon and had to be replaced by Ford.

So I was tickled pink to read in James Carroll’s piece on Pope Francis in the current issue of The New Yorker that the papacy de-accessioned the papal Mercedes, as well as acquired a Ford Focus — I hadn’t realized there was that first step, too, in how Pope Francis came to be riding around in a Focus.

It’s interesting.  I think the Pope is physically a big man, and they went with a Focus for the sake of modesty when they really didn’t have to, so the dynamics are clearly different in the two situations, as well as plenty of other details, big and small, being different, but I like that there’s a parallel sequence of putting aside a Mercedes for a Focus.  Somehow I find it reassuring, in the sense of being suggestive of the idea that this is “what one does.”

Stories we tell

December 25, 2013

I was talking to Gita about how sometimes recently I become so aware that something that occurs is just what happens when some energy happens to manifest in a certain way, like what happens when the wind meets a flag or a sail and we see the flag wave or the sail billow.  It’s just stuff that happens, the tail wagging on the dog that we happen to be able to perceive far more easily than we are able to perceive the rest of the dog.

Because so often we instead accord these tail-waggings (greater) significance.  We put them into narratives.  Illness occurred in this person because they ate the wrong foods (did the wrong thing), that person met their soul mate because they networked appropriately (did the right thing), this person found a treasure in their attic because they were industrious (were deserving), that person lost their business because they were not industrious (were not deserving).

This isn’t the “you didn’t build that” issue, it’s the “things happens as the result of long and complicated processes most of which we are not aware of.”

Some of us accord even more significance to things.  We see patterns, we see synchronicity, we see metaphor.  I got clobbered in a class once when I tried, with my best technique I had learned elsewhere, to analyze what the monsters in Cavafy’s poem about Odysseus might represent.  Different styles of literary interpretation or criticism use different techniques or assumptions — I think we accept that.  When we apply different techniques to the interpretation of life events, we sometimes get clobbered, too.  Exhibit A is the  label “conspiracy theorists.”  Some secular rationalists clobber people with religious faith, and vice versa.

But what I’ve observed is this.  Our accepted way of combining events into stories is just that, an accepted way of combining events in stories.  To see this, a person has to view what goes on in this world from “outside” of it.  If people do this in some ways, they fall into distress and dysfunction and we have mental illness.  If people do this in other ways, we have witnessing and detachment — which some people also consider pathological.  But once you go there, you can observe that consensus reality is just a group choice, it isn’t necessary or compelled by anything.  You just have to make sure you can toggle back and forth between consensus reality and witnessing it from without, if you want to be able to continue to navigate in society.

Once a person “bursts the bubble” of consensus reality, then they can see that “stuff happens” not in a fatalistic way, but in an observational way; it is that which happens.  It is that which happens that we are adapted to seeing.  Our attempts to make stories out of what happens that we see is more the aberration, more the foreign intrusion, than the occurrence of something that looks like an outlier, that doesn’t quite fit with our storytelling assumptions.

Maybe a person can get to the point of having a perch from which to perceive the world from the outside without first seeing the world through more intensive patterning.  But it is certainly one way to do it.  And once a person does it, then they can see that not just the intensive patterns are an artifact of perception, but that the more widely accepted patterns of most people are, too.  And then a person can process what happens, as simply what happens.  Gita called that “beginner’s mind.”

I sometimes say that I go to Gita when I need to hear what I don’t want to hear.  This time I could see the category is really “what I need an outsider to observe and relay back to me.”

Sometimes Gita  clarifies for me the name for a concept in a different way.  For example, I was using “unisex” where “androgynous” was the more accurate label for what I was referencing, and she corrected me.  We humans do pick one another’s nits, they just aren’t always material nits.

What I personally got out of what Gita observed back to me is not actually the point of this post, but I will end with it anyway.  For me, what she did was to tell me, in effect, that I had arrived on the outskirts of where I was headed, namely my beginnings but with an “I” aware or conscious in a way that I hadn’t had before.

The definite article

December 23, 2013

I really do mean the word “the” in English.

I used it in a comment about the deficiencies, in my experience, of a secular approach to life and its issues.  This was in response to the Ross Douthat column “Ideas From a Manger” in Sunday’s Times.

I referred to “the horizontal relationships” because I was distinguishing them from “the vertical ones.”  But by using the definite article and not just referring to “horizontal relationships,” I may have made possible the interpretation that I was referring to my own relationships happening to be inadequate to the task of helping me deal with a situation adequately, not to the more general phenomenon of human relations being inapt for some issues, period.  (I wrote, in part, “In my experience, the secular approach has nothing to offer when the horizontal relationships are inadequate. And there really are some situations in which the horizontal relationships are inadequate to the task — again, in my experience.”)

Sometimes a little misprision can have a big impact, for better or for worse.  In my context, it probably doesn’t much matter, given how limited the reach of my comment, but I was interested in it as a opportunity to understand how misunderstandings can get started, including in religious texts.  Just a little change in emphasis in translating from the concept into language at all, or the translation of the idea and words from one human language to another, can get it started.  Some languages have demonstrative adjectives but no definite articles.  That’ll make a difference in emphasis and thinking.  And to give another example of how emphasis can get transformed, as I recall it, Latin does something very different from what English does when it expresses the report of something negative — the negative goes with the reporting verb, not the thing reported.  It looks like “I deny that X happened,” where in English we would say that “I say that X didn’t happen.”  That can make a difference in emphasis, too.

The content of the interpretation I did not intend in my Douthat comment is also not wrong in itself, I think, anyway — vertical relationships are available to people whose human ones happen to be inadequate, even if others have human (horizontal) relationships that would be adequate to the situation, I think.  But that wasn’t really what I intended to say, in part because secularists tend to take that to mean we should all only focus on our human relationships and improving them.  Telling that to child born into a family of narcissists is like telling the child to get water from a stone, although many children will eventually, when they can choose their own relationships, find substitute ones that will fill in for deficits in family relationships, at least to some extent.

So I actually think there are two dynamics:  one in which one finds oneself in a situation in which one’s needs exceed what other human beings can help with, and the other in which one happens to find oneself short of what one needs, like being short of change when buying a pack of gum, because of weaknesses in one’s own human relationships (for whatever reason or reasons).  In both cases there is, I believe, help available through vertical relationships.  I don’t think God or the universe invokes the lawyer’s concept of needing to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit, I think grace is available on a much more generous basis.  I don’t think God is like a clever lawyer any more than I think God is like a cranky parent (and I don’t think God is like a cranky parent).

Social Security Numbers

December 22, 2013

There was a time government and private businesses (like medical practices) routinely asked for and used our Social Security Numbers — for our drivers licenses, our university ID numbers, our identifying information in our files.  Then they were told not to, and they stopped, and life as we know it did not cease to exist on the planet.

I feel that way about N.S.A. practices, that there has been insufficient attention to what’s really needed and to engaging in the least intrusive practice possible.

Maybe people who work in intelligence are actually more interested in demonstrating their power than their own intelligence, but that is one approach I could see taking to challenging the N.S.A. to come up with a better system:  this is really kind of crude, just grabbing everything, like a teapot collector trying to buy every teapot ever made.  They could be challenged on the grounds that this is not a very “smart” system.

I am also not convinced that even if it weren’t overly intrusive, it would make a lot of sense to engage in this system.  In some ways, it reminds me of doctors ordering tests in order to cover themselves in the event of a malpractice lawsuit.

Without knowing much about national security myself, I would say that preventing terrorist incidents looks to me like a modern-day reenactment of the myth of Sisyphus.  But maybe that’s the point, to help even more people see that our tasks are just tasks, not some sort of mission we can ever accomplish once and for all.  With that in mind, maybe we take better care not to damage others in the process on the justification that we will be able to claim, if we do, to have actually definitively accomplished the mission.

Animal droppings

December 21, 2013

There are what I think must be animal droppings in my backyard, on the side path, round disks with white centers.  I’ve been trying to figure out through internet searches what animal might have left them, but I don’t know.


December 21, 2013

I was writing about confabulation in response to Charles Blow’s column about the Duck Dynasty controversy, and one of my replies came too late to be posted, and I closed my browser tab, so it’s lost and I can’t even post it here.

So I thought I’d write a few words on a related issue.

I do think we often have trouble distinguishing between (1) bad intent, (2) ignorance, and (3) distortions in processing and other aspects of communication.  And I think sometimes the explanation for a situation is not malice or even ignorance but that the person is saying something not to communicate any truth but for some other purpose in the course of trying to engage in social relations.

What I thought I’d mention is that I think that just as school administrators often misunderstand student behavior, liberals often misunderstand why people who disagree with them are saying what they are saying.  I think some of the things people who wind up being politically conservative say, they say not out of malice or even ignorance, but just because it seems like the thing to say to fit the situation in terms of social expectations.  As a friend of mine would say, they are “just talking.”

Now, “just talking” can create all kinds of damage, depending on content, but to get a person to stop doing it, browbeating them with reason or morals is not terribly effective.

I suspect the habit of confabulation arises out of a number of different scenarios, including avoidance of childhood abuse and a discovery it gets positive results of some sort.  I think that to dismantle the habit, whatever is the underlying cause must be addressed.

So when liberals rail at conservatives in a way that assumes bad faith or ignorance or difficulty thinking, sometimes I think they miss the mark.  The person is damaged, limited, and doing the best they can.  But I don’t think we ignore any damage they create, I think we have to show them the impact of their use of this mode of communication while we supply them with alternative and support them in overcoming the underlying causes for engaging in confabulation.

And failing that approach at resolution, we can just not take at face value what they say and avoid situations in which we might need to.

Of course, liberals have their own patterns of thought and talk, arising out of their damage and limitations, and enabling seems to figure prominently among people who end up being politically liberal.  That kind of posture and behavior causes damage in its own way, too.

Unfortunately, the combination of the conservative and liberal profiles seems to be one of those “deadly embraces.”  How we break our civic polity out of this merry-go-round probably involves everyone trying to address their own damage.  Come the millennium.

We may be social animals, spiritual creatures, and instinctive organisms, but we are also damaged goods, most of us, and we don’t tend to function at peak operational performance.

More on accountable care organizations

December 17, 2013

So the Accountable Care Organization returned my call, and pretty promptly at that.  What was explained to me did not make a whole lot of sense, but maybe if I try to explain it, it will make more sense.

While the letter was pretty general about Medicare sharing information from other providers with this provider (the primary care doctor), which made it sound to me like coordination of care and case management, what the person at the ACO told me was that only information from providers who are members of the ACO is shared (with other members of the ACO).  So I asked why route the information through Medicare, why not have the member provider just share the info with the ACO directly?

One answer seemed to be that the information that the provider gives to Medicare may capture different issues, issues that may have gotten left out of the medical records themselves.  (No, putting it into an electronic format does not improve its accuracy or completeness, garbage in, garbage out, and all that.)  It seems that the ACO is providing oversight of the doctor, reminding them of preventive care that is indicated by the billing codes;  to provide a more independent check on the doctor, the information that is used is not reported directly by the doctor to the ACO.

Why the patient isn’t just asked to consent to the doctor sharing information with a supervisor is not clear to me.  I see that the way the written explanation of the sharing is structured would allow for the possibility of Medicare sharing any information they have, including from providers not members of the ACO.  The person I spoke to said they aren’t doing that.  I would say what she said and what the letter said are not completely congruent, and that if the arrangement is not about coordination of care and case management, then I’m not really sure what improvements in efficiency and outcomes they expect.  It sounds as if some of the purpose of this plan may just be to pick up the slack for care doctors’ offices no longer provide, like following up to determine whether there is compliance with care instructions and medication regimens, or following up to see if there is a need for support in order to do those things.

So it sounded as if this is about providing supports to doctors — reminding them of indicated preventive care and providing follow-up with patients.  Apparently doctors’ offices are not themselves positioned or structured to do that.  But adding this intermediate layer, including routing the information through Medicare, sounds expensive to me.  I guess it’s just the cost of doing business when human beings organize themselves into groups with the social and financial incentives we have.

If the ACOs develop into something more robust and effective, then I think we run into the issue of where a patient’s information will end up — then a tiny leak in one place, including in the course of transmission, could mean a whole lot of private information being compromised.  As it is, adding more social workers and such into the mix, in order increase patient compliance, will mean more individuals having access to patient information, including, for example, having the information on laptops they carry into cars to make patient visits.  It will be interesting to see how that all works out.  Visiting nurses already do that, but I’m thinking that multiplying the number of people with access to information increases the likelihood of compromised situations and mistakes.

I think I thought that ACOs would be more like structures located within the offices of the doctors’ practice (not be a separate organization) that would provide checks and would streamline organizational practices, etc., and that the information about patients would not be transferred to new locations or to new organizations.  I guess I am concerned that, like the Affordable Care Act’s exchange website, nobody has really thought through how the whole system will work when all the pieces are put together.