Archive for the 'advice' Category

Being too competent?

March 17, 2015

I was on the phone last night with a friend, talking about such topics as asset basis and non-resident domicile and tax returns and account registrations and settling parents’ estates.  A large piece of his advice to me was for me to stop displaying and using my competence so much and to instead play with the accountants and lawyers the role of a character he called “Jane the Dunce.”  He threatened to start calling me “Jane,” just to remind me.  The issue, as he saw it, was that nobody but me actually cared about getting the stuff right and that I should remove myself from the role of trying to get this stuff done properly.

I had a neighbor named Jane, who would be appalled at her name being used thus — she reveled in her competence.

The countervailing issue, which he did understand from his own experience, is that as a fiduciary, I am answerable to others — this isn’t just about my own stuff.  But he said that the standard in that context is not for me to act as a professional accountant or as my lawyer is expected to, just to act as a reasonable or prudent layperson would act.  Which he said is more like his character of “Jane the Dunce” and less like me.

Now we’re into territory about whether it’s ever a good idea not to use your own style and to try to act like someone else.  Some people, of course, ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?”  and nobody thinks that will end badly.  But aiming in the other direction, I have my misgivings about that.   On the other hand, there is the risk of getting everybody mad at me as I try to get the forms corrected or the transactions adjusted.  I could win some battles and lose a war.

My friend and I agreed that this is why many people, himself and my father included, end(ed) up trying to do all these tasks all by themselves.  (Interestingly, both my friend and my dad seem to have similar issues with their wives about financial matters.)  Which, actually, is a large part of why what I have now on my plate is so complicated — my dad arranged things his own way and without a lot of regard to what would happen after he was not there to handle the stuff.

Anyway, my friend said that he and his sister just signed what the lawyer (when he did use one) put in front of them, they didn’t check it over.

It’s a thought, but it’s certainly not how I was brought up.

I certainly see a challenge for me here.  The challenge seems to me to be something about striking a balance between pushing to get things right and not alienating others, between picking up other people’s slack and keeping my equilibrium, between my responsibilities to others and taking care of myself.  It’s a work in progress.



Subsequent conditions

March 13, 2015

I am in the process of transferring my mother’s accounts into accounts registered to her Estate.  This morning I had, in connection with that, an experience that I surely didn’t like, but which also allowed me to see other, past situations more clearly.

Last evening I was told that a second of my mother’s accounts at a bank was being transferred in to her Estate’s account and that I would see it, online, posted to the Estate’s account later that night.

This process has been an arduous one, because, despite what my mother was told when she moved, she really needed to have closed these accounts in the NJ branch and reopened them in a MA branch office of the same national bank.  She was advised that there was no reason to, that the only difference would be the deposit slips she would need to use if she left her accounts registered as they were.

It turns out it does make a difference to New Jersey and its taxing authority, in terms of demonstrating change of domicile and leaving NJ with a conduit for trying to tax assets upon death.

My mother moved to MA with the intention of living here permanently.  She sold her house, filed a permanent change of address card with the USPS, took a year’s lease on an apartment, found new doctors, etc., etc.  I know because I helped her with most of the heavy lifting involved.

When I didn’t see the money posted to my mother’s Estate’s new account last night, I thought that maybe it would show up after 8:00 a.m. this morning on the account.  It didn’t show up then either.

So this morning I called.  It turns out there is a note in the file that they need another document from me, a bill mailed to my mother showing where her residence was around the time of her death.  I faxed a copy of her January electricity bill for service at her apartment and sent to her apartment.

But I was most definitely not a happy camper (or happy Personal Representative).

I do understand the need for evidence showing my mother’s change of domicile, I don’t mind faxing copies of bills, leases, doctors, whatever.  But I found being told everything was all set when it wasn’t, not okay;  the imposition of a subsequent condition I found upsetting.  I had calibrated my expectations in relation to what I had been voluntarily told, I had worked my schedule and arranged my work on the Estate around things being as I had been told.  I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if this hadn’t been a big hump to have gotten over — I had been told we had gotten over it and now I was being told that we hadn’t.

I’ve had this sort of experience in personal relationships, where I find it upsetting, too, but in the midst of the he said/she said type of argument that usually ensues in such cases, it can be more difficult to see what has happened and the issues at the root.  The person does actually say one thing, it is relied on, not unreasonably, and relied on in a difficult situation that will be ameliorated by the assertion’s being true, and then later the person says something else, something that removes what has been relied on.  The root of the problem is probably that what was said means things of different importance to the the person saying them and person hearing them.

In the Estate banking situation, I have more detachment than I often do when this sort of dynamic comes up in other parts of my life.  I can more easily see that timing is an issue (they could have told me this last evening) but that so also is substance:  my mother did change her domicile, according to general legal principles (I don’t know whether NJ’s statutes replace those rules with something else — my lawyer, who thought everything was in order before she went on vacation this week, gets back next week), and the bank personnel did inform me the paperwork had been completed and the money was in the process of being transferred.  In personal relationships, on the other hand, for example, we are rarely so precise about things, and when we are, it is usually an indication that relationship is not working.

So what have I learned?  That some people really do mislead a person in a way that the person misled cannot see until the damage has been done.  Whether the situation can be cleaned up to an “all’s well that end’s well” conclusion probably depends on particular details of the situation.  Such a conclusion would probably heal the damage.  In its absence, there is always acceptance that people are limited, there is always the choice to take the experience as a challenge to find compassion for people when they behave in this way and to see people as they are, not as they tell us they are or as we wish them to be.


Post Script:  As I was editing this, I got a call from the bank that the rest of the funds are being transferred, and I can see online that they are.



May 25, 2014

Gita has told me that learning to discern is an issue in my life, but the context of discernment she has had in mind has never rung a bell for me — I see what she’s talking about, but I have a fairly strong understanding that I’m not supposed to practice what she’s calling “discernment” there, that instead part of my portfolio is not to discern in that way in that context — to not discern in the context she has in mind is part of allowing anonymity, and that can be something that serves.

So today I read Richard Rohr on discernment (it, too, about “‘discern[ing] the spirits'”) and he’s got something else entirely in mind — something about distinguishing what is our false self from our illusions.  Again, I think I see the point, but while I am sure I struggle with what he’s talking about, I don’t think that’s my discernment issue either.

But the compare-and-contrast of Gita’s and Father Rohr’s respective versions of the discernment issue precipitated in me the thought that my real weakness in discernment comes in the very mundane context of discerning between people who take advantage of me and people who don’t.

I think it was Ann Landers who said something about how people can only take advantage of us when allow it.

I suspect my challenge is something related, namely, to find a voice and a posture to deal with people whose behavior, whether intentionally or not, asks too much of me.


April 24, 2014

I very much appreciated Richard Rohr’s reminder this morning that “Without all the inner voices of resistance and control, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired.”  That’s in today’s Daily Meditation.

Gita and I have talked about this, too — couldn’t do it without “letting go” and “turning it over.”

Now, I am perfectly prepared to believe that I could do this better.  I put up resistance (like a kid pushing the spinach to the side of their plate), I fret, I get ahead of myself, I try to get other people to act in a way to prevent a future problem (like trying to get them to correct, before it is filed, a tax return that has mistakes in it).

I think I see two additional issues, in addition to “letting go” and “turning it over,” but, as I said, I am prepared to discover the issue lies with me.

One is volume.

I just end up with too many things on my plate as a result of being open to and able to do caretaking.  The inflow can feel as if it exceeds my processor’s capacity.

The second is society’s (unreasonable) demands.

The two kind of intertwine.

I once heard someone say that she thought of the nursing home in which her mother lived as being like “one big alcoholic.”  She meant that the institution could be as difficult to deal with as a human alcoholic, and with similar patterns of behavior.  I’ve felt similarly about other institutions, including schools, hospitals, social services, the justice system.  Whether it’s damaging behavior by the institution to a loved one or demands from the institution on me (as a caretaker), it can feel as if what I am called upon to do exceeds the amount of energy I can give it without too much damage to myself.

It’s no secret that patients in hospitals and nursing homes who have caretakers of their own weighing in as case managers do better, get better care, etc.

So where to draw the line between detachment and involvement?

It’s not just the wisdom of knowing the difference between what we can change and what we can’t, it’s also putting a boundary on how much of ourselves we can deploy without too much depletion.  Inflow from prayer and meditation certainly helps, but I think outflow can exceed inflow if care is not taken.  On the other hand, there is an instinct or desire to try to prevent or ameliorate suffering of others.  Part of that is wrapped up in trying to avoid pain — something we are encouraged to do by our norms and our survival instinct.  I think there is also a part of helping others in some situations that is from pressure from social norms more directly, regardless of where we think we should be drawing lines and regardless of inner guidance about where to observe boundaries, of what’s ours to do and what’s not.

My sense is that we have with our current social organization shifted around responsibility like a hot potato or like a shell in a game in which something is being hidden beneath one of a number of inverted cups.  Some techniques we seem to me to use to do this include, for example, narrowly defining our piece of the project and expecting others to do more;  littering, on the justification that one little piece won’t hurt;  setting systems up in such a way that requires a person without authority or control to have responsibility.

I don’t know if human free will can “clog up the plumbing” of the system of human interaction and society, or whether it’s the case that any system we devise can work, so long as those who have to use it interface adequately with divine help.  But I admit that sometimes I think we have developed a system that doesn’t work, especially for the long run.

For me, the questions are relevant to the issue of how much better a situation can be expected to go — because I am often hearing from others that things could be better if I just _______.  I have run through a fair number of _______, and I am here to say they do not necessarily work as advertized.  Maybe this is why 12-step programs refrain from advice and why the most general helpful source I found after Willy died was actually Al-Anon, the program for family and friends of alcoholics, although Willy was not a qualifier of mine.

At any rate, I conclude for now that working on my part of the equation, so long as I do it gently, can’t hurt, but that I should also be wary of assuming that optimizing my own part will result in things going better in other ways.


April 6, 2014

I got into an argument with someone recently about how free will and human thinking should be integrated with divine guidance when we try to figure out what to do in our lives.  In the instance, we were discussing relationships.

He thought the partners should just work it out between themselves, I thought they should each be inviting God into their midsts, and he countered with the notion that God’s message was for them to work it out themselves.

That sounded just plain wrong to me.

For one thing, one or both of them of them mistakes their own imagining of the other person’s response for that person’s response, for another thing, one of them lies, both to themselves and to the other.  It’s a veritable house of mirrors, nearly impossible to disentangle which notion originated with whom.

And, of course, neither partner really understands the other’s circumstances or needs, so they are basing their ideas on erroneous facts and assumptions, to boot.  So their suggestions are inapt. If a contractor doesn’t have enough employees to provide the man-hours needed for the project in the requisite amount of time, the project will not get done on time, no matter how efficient the workers on hand are.

One of them also keeps confusing the other’s issues with what’s going on with somebody who lives next door.

One of them assumes that someone whose words and deeds don’t seem to match is scamming them.

Sometimes partners use a human go-between to try to repair a relationship situation.  I know when I’ve done that, I have sometimes wrongly believed the go-between understood what was going on more than turned out to be the case.

So I still argue that the partners should ask for help from the universe.  I get that that may carry a risk that they may hear a call to do something one or both of them doesn’t want to do or which is at odds with what other people in their lives want or seem to need.  Or even with social convention.  But that’s just a fear.  What they hear might actually be something quite wonderful, that both of them would be happy to embrace.

My interlocutor, in my opinion, has a binary point of view:  either they work it out themselves or God imposes a solution.  But I don’t see that, I see God enhancing their capacity to work it out, providing more room for there to be a middle way that meets both their needs.  I think that when the partners drop the tightly clenched fists of insistence that this or that must or must not be part of the solution, more things become possible.

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.


December 12, 2013

While I am leery of giving advice to other people, I found myself pointing out to my friend last night what seemed to be working in her life and what seemed to be her trying to make something work (not without good reason) that wasn’t working for her.  I didn’t say it looked to me as if she should abandon her pursuit of what she wanted in terms of a new engineering job, but I did point out that what she was doing in the community and with politicians seemed to fulfill her and seemed to be working out more easily.  I thought maybe she should put more of her focus on that aspect of her life.

I even cited Richard Rohr about the halves of our lives and what suits us when.

Of course, I have no idea what she should be doing.  She has professionals she goes to for career advice and she has a partner at home, so my role here is not that important.  But she came to me when she found herself at a difficult juncture, and I try very hard not to turn away from someone who seeks me out in that context, I try to catch the person when they hurl themselves at me in the way Jordan used to when he would jump off the stairs landing into my arms.

I do believe we can help each other by softening each other’s landings and pointing out where another’s trail of bread crumbs seems to be.  And, if nothing else, we can reassure them by our actions that there is someone at the other end when they reach out for help.

Teaching Spanish

December 18, 2012

I studied Spanish in school, from seventh grade through twelfth.  It was a pretty good program, I think, and part of that was because the foreign language department hired native speakers.  Some of the native-speaking Spanish teachers for the upper levels of instruction didn’t speak English all that well, but for those levels, it didn’t much matter since within the class, only Spanish was spoken anyway.  (The only problem I remember was when we learned something like the subjunctive and were trying to understand its equivalent in English — we would have to suggest possible equivalents and the teacher would agree or not.)

I was thinking about this in light of the shootings in Newtown, CT and participating in on-line discussions about our reaction to them.  I have come to wonder how my perspective is of immediate help.  I feel a little like someone who doesn’t speak the language in which the discussion is occurring.

On the one hand, I can take the position that others will help guide the discussion and our national reaction, others who speak the language of the discussion and especially others who structurally have positions of influence.  They can reach people.  But when I hear much of what they say, I am concerned.  So much of it sounds short-sighted to me — understandable but short-sighted.  I start thinking that to navigate the world in this language, people cultivate certain ways of seeing, of interacting, of getting along, and that they don’t develop ways of seeing a bigger picture.  I am not sure how to bridge the gap directly, between what they see and what I see.

Maybe it’s not helpful to try.  Maybe just speaking my perspective on the topic, and in general advocating things that foster developing self-awareness and listening, are what’s helpful — in the long run.  Maybe the most I can expect are tiny shifts now and then from small changes at a different level, not sea changes at the surface.  I know I’m only part of a whole, that everybody has a role to play, that all I should be doing is playing my own.


September 9, 2012

We hear how presidents of the United States sometimes call on religious leaders for help accessing spiritual support and we know there exists a group of media leaders who provide critique of a president’s performance for the president.

It is my speculation that these two groups used to be one and the same, that they were the most enlightened people in the land who provided their insight to the governing leader and provided it gratis and without seeking any personal gain (including a reputation for influence).

I think we need to find our way back to this model, or at least take into account what benefits it provided that we are now missing.

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.