Et Cetera

November 11, 2018

I haven’t heard if there’s a politically equivalent term for compassion fatigue but if there isn’t there should be one. Or maybe compassion fatigue can be extended to my present state of exhaustion with constant demands to “support this”, “sign if you…”, “tell your Congressman,,,”, “urge your Senators…”, “protest this”, “vote for…”, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

(Are you old enough to hear Yul Brenner’s voice pronouncing those words?)

I spent part of this cold snowy Sunday systematically removing myself from mailing lists of one group after another, clearing out my email inbox and hopefully leaving only a few daily news summary feeds, and requests from the single advocacy group that responded to my demand for assurance that if I sign something on their behalf, they will NOT share my information with any other organization. I actually received a personal response guaranteeing that Issue One does not share its mailing list with any other group, and I am therefore staying connected to that single advocacy site which has a bipartisan focus on restoring integrity to our governing system.

In the process of surviving these past months of ever increasing anger, outrage, brutality, fear-mongering, disgust, determination et cetera, et cetera, et cetera (Didn’t he have a mesmerizing voice?) I have also come to take even greater pride in my home state of New Mexico, felt most keenly on election day. While we too often come out near the bottom in national surveys of graduation rates, maternal health, pregnancy rates of high school students, and similar social measures, my state is decidedly in the very top tier for integrity (and verifiability of that integrity) of its elections, as well as for inclusiveness of all social groups, ethnicities, races, et cetera (et cetera, et cetera) in our state and its political process. We have an absence of gerrymandering accusations, all inclusive voter registration opportunities (driver’s license and public assistance applications both include an invitation to register to vote if eligible), and accessible voting sites with ample early voting and absentee voting options.

I felt deep pride as I marked my paper ballot, watched it being scanned into a reader, saw the recorded count indicator tick up one, and noted my individual voting number to use if I should wish to verify that my votes were recorded exactly as I cast them. No races in the state were close enough to require recounts, the gubernatorial transition has begun, and New Mexico is moving forward with its familiar absence of presence on the national news, other than noting that we elected one of the two “first” Native American women to the House. The fact that we were, as far as I know, the first state in the nation to have two women competing for governor (back in 2010) did not make the national news. And there has been, so far, no coverage on-line of the fact that the present transition is from one Hispanic woman governor to another Hispanic woman governor-to-be.

I rarely watch television – don’t have reception in my home – so I cannot confirm that the national news still omits New Mexico when reporting on weather events in the southwest. My father was the one who first commented to me that the announcers will talk about California, Arizona and Texas skipping New Mexico entirely. I reminded him of the cite in Milagro Beanfield War describing “poor New Mexico, so far from heaven, so close to Texas.” Then I remarked that the quote most probably did NOT originate with a New Mexican, as many of us feel we live pretty darn close to heaven in our beautiful state with its clear star filled skies, amazing sunsets, varied terrain and dramatic weather variations across a single day. I am happy to add to the heavenly aspects the warm reception given to Vietnamese refugees, to a growing Muslim population, to survivors of Katrina who chose to settle and stay after what they had thought would be a temporary evacuation, and even to Californians, New Yorkers and yes, Texans.

The look of the House of Representatives, come January, is being touted as the most diverse ever, and closer than ever to reflecting the diversity of our nation. Would that a little more positive notice might be taken of New Mexico’s diversity, and the extent to which a singularly poor state manages to balance the differing priorities of that diverse population.

Or maybe it is better that we continue to be overlooked, omitted, frequently thought to not even be part of the U.S.?

Left to ourselves we have been largely spared the uglier aspects of the current national scene, though we have had much more mud-slinging in recent political ads, a couple shooting rampages and quite a number of incidents of cronyism and corruption that have taken too long to be exposed. Left to ourselves, we do expose them – like the President and members of the Board of Directors of Luna Community College who have been ousted after nearly costing the school its accreditation. Or just this past week, the Fire Chief, his daughter a Payroll Officer, and his friend who is also an official in the fire department of Mora County who have all just been fired after an investigation into misuse of County funds.

That is the same Mora County, historically the poorest county in our poor state,  which became the first entity in the nation to attempt to pass a local ordinance banning fracking within its borders. They were ultimately unsuccessful at establishing legal precedent, but they did bring the oil and gas exploration effort to a halt for long enough to enact needed strict controls on the process.

I could identify other positive “firsts” New Mexico has achieved which have also gone largely unnoticed at the national level. But this post isn’t about bragging on my home state. Rather, I set out to write my way toward a less exhausted frame of mind, hoping to find inspiration to remain engaged enough to continue reading the daily news feeds that I will receive from those few sources that give me facts without a deluge of demands for money or petition signing, or other prodding to action that would once again put my email address onto countless lists.

I’ll let you know in time whether I’ve succeeded. For now, I can reiterate that I’m proud of how New Mexico handles its diversity, assures the integrity of its voting process, and quietly goes about achieving first in the nation status for choices I think important.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

 

Lessons Learned

October 27, 2018

As vacation comes closer to the end, and we start the return trip by driving from NOLA back to Mobile where we catch the plane tomorrow, I am considering what I’ve learned over the week of vacation, travel, meeting new people, seeing very different country… and sleeping more, at the same time as being much more active.

  • Hmm… I can maintain my pattern of relatively limited food intake away from home while enjoying a much greater variety of foods.
  • I miss my daily ginger tea with lime juice.
  • I am able to be active without getting so tired, perhaps because at sea level there is so much more oxygen to be had with each in-breath?
  • Soft water, which I experienced for the first time, is really sweet to my skin, and well worth the feeling of needing to scrub extra long to get soap removed.
  • Seafood is as expensive on the ocean shore – at least in restaurants – as it is in my high desert home, which makes no sense to me.
  • Vegetation on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana is both similar and subtly different from state to state, but replete with flowers and plants my husband recognizes from his home in Cameroon.
  • Graduating 500 students as occurred this year at Columbia Southern University takes about three hours even when the speeches are short and “the walk” is well organized and fairly quickly accomplished. Nearly half of that 500 were minorities, and many of the students had traveled in from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Such is the power and reach of a good online university.
  • Blacks and whites appear to function side by side without overt friction in this part of the Deep South, and we were treated everywhere with appropriately businesslike courtesy, but in the week here I saw only one mixed race couple such as we are.
  • Most of the French Quarter seems tacky, full of rip off bars and hokey tourist traps, but retaining the architecture for which it is famous. I hope I am not too biased when I say that the Santa Fe Plaza, or Old Town in Albuquerque retain a traditional look and draw tourists without becoming quite so “shlocky”.  We did have an excellent bowl of gumbo – duck and andouille for me – at Gumbo Ya-Ya by the Quarter area wharf where we took our Mississippi River jazz cruise to mark my birthday.
  • Motel beds vary enormously in quality, and are not consistent by company brand. Fortunately, the two places we stayed for several nights both had good ones.
  • Driving side roads is infinitely more pleasant that taking interstate highways, when time allows.
  • The Vietnamese population in NOLA is reduced by a third from per-Katrina; people moved away again, rather than start over a third time on the site of their second life disaster.
  • Baton Rouge got its name from a red pole that marked the boundary between two native tribal territories in the area where the first governor of the then Spanish territory decided to place his headquarters. It has a lovely Mississippi frontage with a bike and walking trail for pedestrian enjoyment of the river.
  • I was able to divert my thoughts from work on the few occasions that the enormity of what is awaiting me rose to awareness.
  • Google directions can be helpful but I still prefer using a detailed map to waiting for the voice to tell me what to do, too close to the last minute, especially in rush hour traffic. Orienting myself overall with the map, then getting the step by step for details worked out reasonably well.
  • I HATE being pursued everywhere by telemarketing calls and texts trying to influence my choice of Medicare insurance when I am not in the market for insurance at all because I have it through my work. Being on a do not call list doesn’t help, blocking unknown calls doesn’t stop them, NOTHING stops the ugly intrusion into my days. I would have just turned off the phone, but I did need to receive calls from the people repairing my car.
  • Mobile claims to be the original site of Mardi Gras, in the early 1800’s. Wonder how the festivities came to be so strongly identified with New Orleans (and Rio) and not so much with Mobile?
  • The historic downtown section of Mobile has the look of a cross between the French Quarter and Uptown (Garden District) of New Orleans, and is lovely.
  • Drivers in Mississippi and Alabama are FAR more courteous than those in Louisiana. I wonder why?
  • Excited children are as shrill with a southern accent as they are with a western one.
  • My hair still gets unmanageably curly in a humid climate, despite decades of adaptation to high plains desert dryness.
  • A full week on the road is enough to make me ready for a rest at home, although not enough to get me ready to return to work.
  • Most motels do NOT cater to tea drinkers. The little in-room machines are useless for heating water if they have ever been used to make coffee (plastic retains the coffee taste and passes it into the tea), and reservoirs of supposedly hot water in the lobby are not in fact hot enough to brew tea. The only places that actually “work” for a tea drinker are those that have a hot water spigot on their “breakfast bar” coffee brewer machines available 24/7.
  • Given  choice between New Orleans and Mobile, I would unhesitatingly take Mobile. Better meals at a reasonable price, less hectic ambiance, equally pretty historic areas, and access to the Gulf. Unknowns are the differences between Alabama and Louisiana overall as places of residence.
  • Driving in a hurricane’s edge rainstorm reminded me of a trip home from Taos in an equally blinding snow storm, only this time I was behind the wheel instead of the passenger providing a second set of eyes. Both journeys were made successfully, and will undoubtedly remain linked in my memory.

Reaching the turning point of a vacation where one has begun the return trip engenders feelings a bit like reaching a point of age where one is aware that the end of life is fast approaching, and is now much closer than one’s beginning. From the long period of anticipation before a vacation through the trip itself until the return journey starts is rather like the many years of earlier life. While it is certainly true that a life may end at any point, that awareness is usually set aside until an accident, illness, or accumulation of years bring it into more immediate awareness.

Maybe it is only the juxtaposition of this long awaited vacation with a major milestone birthday that has me seeing a parallel? Will I be as accepting of experiencing whatever awaits me when I am called home at the end of life as I am of experiencing the comfort of returning now to familiar pillows, easily available tea, clear dry air and bright starry skies, and the many other elements that define my sense of being home?

Foxes and Owls

September 23, 2018

I spent the past week in training to learn a new data/case management system being implemented by my employer. We were a mixed group of current employees and newly added imports from a former quasi-competitor, all of us working in care coordination as either first level case managers or second level supervisors. To simplify my referents here while maintaining a degree of anonymity for the companies I will refer to my employer group as the Owls and the newly integrating staff as the Foxes. Both groups previously provided services to Medicaid recipients under contracts with our state government. The Foxes contract was not renewed and its clients needed to change providers effective January 1 2019. In a negotiated arrangement, the entire caseload and some 300 employees were transferred into Owl as of September 1. The Fox staff thus has had to learn not only the case management system new to all of us, but also to adapt to the Owl corporate culture which is notably different from their own.

That difference in corporate cultures seems to me to be reflective of somewhat divisive differences in our wider society these days. It also seems linked to my observation of a worldwide and concerning repetition of a trend from the early 1930’s. Following the world wide repercussions of the 1929 stock market crash, economic differences between classes of societies in many countries became exaggerated. The relatively small number of economic “haves” were resented by the large number of economic “have not’s” in a fashion similar to the current anger of a large portion of U.S. society against the “1%” – or the 10% depending on which metric you prefer. Now, as then, reaction is taking the form of both scapegoating on some defined “other”, and a movement toward more authoritarian leaders. Recent election results in several countries suggest the phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. Resentment of immigrants, a rise in nationalism and parochial views, and growing intolerance of difference seems to mirror that experienced in the years before the outbreak of World War II.

The voices advocating “going high” are increasingly drowned out even on the so-called liberal side by strident demands for forceful counter measures. I do not have TV reception in my home by intent. Spending a week in a motel while at the training, I did turn on the set in my room one evening to watch the 6 PM news. I did not see the program through because I was so appalled by the viciousness of all the political ads peppered throughout the show. Not one presented a candidate’s platform, views, aims. Every single ad – all funded by political pacs, rather than individual campaigns – was an ugly, twisted and negative attack exaggeration of some opponent’s purported position. As little as I care to imitate anything in the conduct of our current president, I did find myself scolding the TV for “fake news” as I turned off the set.

Our instructor for my training week is now an upper level Owl manager with whom I have worked for five years. We started together and while I have chosen to remain a front line worker, she has advanced in well merited fashion to my supervisor, then my manager, and now up yet another level to program management. (I have 20 plus years of management in health care behind me and have less than no interest in ever again being responsible for anyone’s work product other than my own.) Holly did an outstanding job of both teaching the Fox staff the procedures we Owls follow to manage our cases, and teaching all of us how to get the work done in the new computer record system. Inevitably, usually in the question sessions, differences came out between how the Foxes had handled some of the work and the way they would now be expected to handle it as Owls. Many of the differences were minor tweaks to procedure (we were after all both subject to the same mandates in our State contracts) but some revealed a deeper difference in corporate culture which may well have contributed to the Owl’s State contract being renewed while the Fox contract was not.

The Owl company originated locally early in the last century. It has grown steadily and is now one of the largest employers in the state. Throughout, it has espoused and manifested a culture of open communication and of caring both for its clients and its staff. It is not perfect – no large business will ever be flawless – but it does consistently get high satisfaction ratings both from its customers and its staff. The Fox company is a regional branch of a major national corporation. It is continuing to do business in our state, just not any longer providing Medicaid managed care here. I have interacted with current and former Fox staff over several years, and learned much more about their operating culture during this past week of training.

What seems most salient to me as a difference between the two companies emerged in a lunchtime conversation I had with a Fox supervisor who was stressed by what seemed to him to be a conflict between what he had been told at the general orientation he had attended just two weeks prior to our training, and what Holly explained as a step in the Owl case assignment process. At issue was whether staff preferences for types of cases could/would be respected. In the general orientation, a presenter had stated that Owl management strive to enable employees to work in the areas for which they feel a passion and commitment. The supervisor heard this statement as supportive of Fox structure which allowed case managers to choose to handle only adult clients, or specialize in children; take on long term care cases or work only with clients needing links to physical health providers. Holly explained that Owl new case assignments are given on a round robin basis, and the case manager is expected to work with a variety of types of clients, with assistance from subject matter experts.

The supervisor could not reconcile what he heard as directly contradictory statements. Either case managers could specialize according to their preferences or they could not. Which was it to be?

I am aware of Owl company efforts to encourage staff to find their niche even as I work a caseload that includes members whose needs are quite far afield from my areas of expertise. I have not felt this to be a conflict because I know if I feel strongly enough that I am unsuited to managing a particular case I can discuss the issues with my supervisor, and either receive the necessary outside support or have the case transferred because it is in the best interests of the client to have a more knowledgeable coordinator to work with. I am also aware that an underlying expectation of Owl employees is that we will stretch and grow rather than stay locked in predetermined boxes doing only the same things over and over. And I have experienced the spirit of cooperation, interaction and helpfulness to one another that is a basic performance expectation in the Owl world.

Trying to explain to the Fox supervisor why I do not hear the two statements he cited as being in conflict, I suggested that he has been functioning in a “black and white” culture, with defined guidelines coming down from the national level and little if any room for discussion or interpretation. “Do it this way” because that is how it has been decided at corporate headquarters, where the responsibility for maintaining standards is held.  He agreed that was the essence of Fox corporate culture. I described Owl culture, by contrast, as a “rosy” culture where guidelines are more fluid. Our standards are clear and expectations communicated, but individuals are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own performance as they contribute to the group’s overall achievements. Flexibility, adaptation, change and growth are the norm for Owls. If those changes start to feel like they are coming too fast, we can speak up, be heard, and know that we will be offered support to adjust.

I suggested to the Fox supervisor that the challenge facing him was not to resolve a seeming contradiction in case assignment guidelines, but rather to shift from hearing things from a black and white mindset to hearing them in a rosy mentality. He thought for a few minutes and agreed that making that shift, and helping his supervisees to do so, would be a big part of his new responsibilities.

What does this employment environment discussion have to do with the near century old cycle of political movements with which I began? For me, Fox culture mirrors the have/have not, missing middle ground rigidity and authoritarian patterns that relieve individuals of personal responsibility but which almost inevitably lead to conflict and war. Owl culture seems to embody a more interactive and democratic model that demands flexibility and willingness to change, as well as taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, but offers a road to negotiated settlement of disputes.

Not everyone is comfortable within Owl culture. Employees resign because they need a more clearly structured environment, with very specific duties that they know they can complete. Or because they are unwilling to put in the overtime sometimes required, or to keep adapting to procedure changes implemented in an effort to further enhance customer experience. I can relate to their frustrations with Owl culture. I understand their need for more control as an extension of my own unwillingness to be promoted to a supervisor or manager role because I want to “only be responsible for my own work product.”

Despite that preference of mine, I know I would not last in a Fox corporate culture. I don’t take well to a highly structured, “my way or the highway” environment. I value the give and take, openness-to-suggestions approach that I have experienced as an Owl. Which is why I labeled the environment a rosy one, rather than the traditional gray  contrast with Fox black and white.

What I don’t know is how to bridge the divide between the two cultures.

The Fox supervisor was oriented to changing his own view. “I’m grateful to have a job instead of being out of one at my age.” He said he has been encouraging that attitude of gratitude in his peers, many of whom were finding it hard to accept their sudden transfer of employer coming after 9 months of uncertainty about Fox renewing its State contract. Over the next months, we will see who can adapt and who decides to leave and seek different employment. Those who remain will obviously be those who can accept, perhaps even welcome, the change of culture. Those who leave will seek the culture they prefer, and for their sake I hope they find it.

Can a third generation coal miner adapt to building solar panels? How do we help a worker on an auto assembly line feel comfortable living in a different state and manufacturing wind turbines? What steps have not been taken as/when they should have, to facilitate maintaining a middle between the 10% and the rest of us? As some of us continue to push for environmental protections, more equitable sharing of resources and social supports, and genuine equality of opportunity, how do we facilitate transitions for those who see themselves losing out in the change?

We are not all Owls. Our societies need Foxes, and need to include them in determining how there can be a place for them to feel productive and important., working alongside Owls. Otherwise, I see more and more countries torn by internal strife, and society as a whole repeating the century cycle ending, God forbid, in a World War III.

What’s Yours is Yours and What’s Mine is Also Yours

September 2, 2018

It’s scary how deeply embedded childhood experiences can be, how instinctual one’s resulting emotional and visceral responses to triggers that occur a half century or more later.  No wonder conscientious parents can obsess about the smallest things, for fear they will “mark” their children for life. At the same time, children are generally quite resilient and can come to accept and live with quite appalling conditions.  Only when their circumstances change, and they gain a different view of those conditions, do they experience noticeable emotional reactions to what they have lived through.

What triggered this reflection was one of those small, meaningless in itself, interactions with my mate.  I had finished cooking a few slices of bacon, and set them aside while I used the remaining oil to fix a small serving of stir fried rice. Bacon is a treat from my childhood that I rarely indulge now. While I was stirring the pan, one of the bacon slices was scooped up and eaten.

I am quite happy to share everything with my husband, yet my first reaction was to feel angry and disrespected. Immediately, I was other where, my hand holding an ice cream cone, my mother taking half the scoop in one large bite, after she had refused to buy a cone for herself in order to “stick to my diet.” That scene repeated itself over and over, in various forms, throughout my childhood.

Whatever was supposedly designated as mine would be co-opted in part – and often entirely – by her, without “sharing” ever going the other way. I was forbidden to touch anything that was hers, forbidden to ask for a taste, let alone a portion, of what she was eating.

At Halloween, when I came in from my trick or treat foray, which was restricted to the  10 houses on two sides of the block we lived on, my bag of goodies was confiscated, to be doled out to me in small quantities for at most three days. “It’s not healthy for you to have a lot of sugar.” By day four, the stash was reportedly exhausted, even though I knew I had not eaten any of the popcorn balls or fudge I had been given.

Approaching a birthday when I was already into my teens, I was walking and window shopping with my parents when I saw a necklace in a window that I fell in love with. It was not particularly expensive and I risked pointing it out and suggesting that it would be something I would love to receive as a present. My father had asked me just that morning if I knew what I might like and I’d said I needed to think on the topic. My mother criticized the necklace design and suggested it wasn’t worth its modest price.“Don’t ask again,” she scolded.

I don’t recall what I received for that birthday. I obviously have  never forgotten that about a month later my mother began showing herself off wearing “my” necklace. Apparently her opinion of its value differed when the purchase was for herself.

To this day, I am generous with my possessions, and very approachable with requests for sharing of whatever is desired – but also immediately bristling if, instead of being asked, my whatever is appropriated in the way that piece of bacon was picked up. I’ve learned not to voice the anger and usually can quickly talk myself out of the offended response. But I have never yet succeeded in not responding in the first place. No amount of reflection and understanding of the source of my reaction has been sufficient to excise the visceral memory of those many childhood hurts.

I dealt with the immediate situation by offering to cook more bacon, and sharing the fried rice. Would that it were equally simple to deal with that shadow mouth gulping down my ice cream!

Old, New, Newer and Older

September 2, 2018

I think I have the beginning of an understanding of the stereotype of older people, particularly older workers, as rigid and inflexible. Not saying the stereotype is valid, but that I am seeing in myself some qualities of resistance to change that could, if taken to an extreme, become a rigidity not conducive to continued employment.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is only one expression of a mindset that I recognize can be attributed to older people, older workers, including myself. “Been there, done that, don’t need to do it again to know it doesn’t work well” is another. As is the certitude that having explored a variety of ways to complete a task over years of  trial and error, and settled on the best alternative for myself, I am unlikely to welcome the suggestion that I shift to a different option.

This preference for patterned behavior shows in the sequence with which I complete member assessments for my work, and the place I like to keep the salt shaker by the stove in my kitchen. Not that I can’t do the work in a different order, or find the salt when I need it after my husband has left it where he last used it, but I know I am more efficient and sure of the outcome if many small bits of my daily life follow the consistent, established routine.

I don’t think that’s a preference unique to older people. Though I’ve lived amid accumulations of things in relatively small spaces most of my adult life, I’ve nonetheless kept an order to the piles and know exactly where to lay my hands on whatever I need.  And I periodically go through the stacks and discard or give away. Rather it seems to me that one of the benefits of growing older is having had the time and experience to understand the value in routine, consistency, and a personal sense of order and rightness to how things should be done.

Which isn’t to say that I refuse to change. My life has been mostly about change these past 6-7 years. New work, new marriage, new friendships, new style of cooking, new patterns everywhere I look.  And now a whole new database system being introduced at work that I have embraced to the point of volunteering for the work group implementing the transition and will be serving as one of the “go to” mentors for my coworkers when they have questions about how to function after “go live” in October.

I do see, however, that I am inclined to notice what the new system will not do as well as the old, or to identify likely points of friction for myself in adapting to the new process requirements . This attitude is in contrast to (mostly all much younger than I) management’s persistent, cheer-leading enthusiasm for how the new system will solve all the problems we have had with the old one. I do see advantages to the change – but I also see disadvantages, as well as the load of work for each of us getting our caseload records switched over.

One apparent benefit to the new system is the way it tracks mandatory contacts and schedules for the worker, so that deadlines are much less likely to be missed. For many of my coworkers this structure seems beneficial. Never having had a problem with keeping track of and organizing my workload, to me it felt like objectionable micromanagement until I understood the system well enough to know how to address the “to do” list in a way that gives me back my sense of being the one to control my workload.

The older-person me first perceived the objection. A younger-person me (as I usually experience myself) understood that I needed to learn enough about the new system (cooking style, living arrangements, income sources) to adapt its methods to my needs and also to adapt myself to its structure. Which is what reducing the stress of change is all about. Adaptation.

If living long has taught us anything at all, it must be that life is inevitably about change and adaptation. Failure to change and adapt is, essentially, death. Maybe not instantaneous, but certain.  Most interviews with people who have exceeded normal lifespan expectations include mention of continuing to engage with life interests and learning, continuing to seek new stimulation even if the level or extent of options is reduced by physical frailty.

The most productive workplaces, then – indeed the most productive communities, groups, social organizations – would seem to be those that have recognized the importance of balancing the energy and enthusiasm usually associated with younger people against the wisdom of experience offered by older participants. In simpler societies, even in our U.S. culture not so very long ago, that value was recognized and respected.

Is it just my jaundiced old lady view, or am I accurately seeing yet another exacerbation of polarization in U.S. society, and a deepening divide between young and old, each group believing for example the scare headlines about cost of, loss of, social programs and a resultant mistaken belief that here again we are faced with “us” against “them.”  

My still young mental self, the part of me that embraces change and declares itself ready to adapt as necessary, is seeking to find commonalities between generations, and encourage the valuable cross-pollination of ideas that benefit us all, just as it has been ready to learn the new work database system, simultaneously appreciating its benefits and questioning how we will manage its shortcomings.  My older self can be heard repeating the voice of the 70 something protester against the effort to impose a Muslim ban (and the broader reintroduction of blatant discrimination that many of us fought against in the 60’s and 70’s), “Didn’t think I’d have to be here protesting this yet again.”

Another adage, about those who do not learn from history being condemned to repeat it, comes to mind. Unfortunately, on a societal level, the unpleasant repetition also imposes its negative effects on those who have learned the lessons and done their best to prevent the country from falling back into old ways. Living long enough to see this cycle around and back again becomes both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to teach but only if there is someone ready to listen and learn.

It has never been different. I am reminded, almost too frequently these days, of the translation of a tablet excavated from the ruins of a Greek village, in which a father lamented the laziness and reluctance to work of his teenage son.  The writer who shared that tidbit of information concluded, as I will here, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I therefore do my best to detach, discern where balance can be found, place  my attention on those things that matter in the long run, and cultivate an attitude of patient acceptance, doing what I can where I see myself able to be effective, and letting the rest slide by.  

“I am here. I am alive. I am trying.That is enough.”

STRESS !!!

August 11, 2018

I have been absent from writing for a couple months while negotiating a combination of work and health changes that, out this other side, I now see were causing me far more stress than I had recognized. I know that stress is insidious, subtle and pervasive. I know and employ a variety of stress management techniques as well as stress reduction practices. I thought I was dealing fairly well with the pressures, and feedback from others close to me suggests they also thought I was coping well.

The difference in my body, my energy, my viewpoint this morning when I woke from sleeping the clock round reveal just how much more severe and draining the stress was than I had realized. The physical health matter was the not uncommon need to undergo cataract surgery. In late May I determined that, although my vision was not yet seriously impaired, this summer would be a good time to get through the process. My eye doctor recommended completing the procedures before I became adapted to the grey and fuzzy results of thickening cataracts, and upcoming changes in my living conditions also suggested now would be a good time to get done with the necessary surgeries. I was able to schedule the two operations just two weeks apart, minimizing the time when I was faced with mismatched eyes that nonetheless had to function for daily reading and computer work in order for me to carry on with my employment.

As of today, both eyes are “set” for distance vision, with close to equal need for magnification for reading and to see the computer screen. Interestingly, my old trifocal prescription lenses are still serviceable at least temporarily. What was the distance adaptation works for the computer, what was the middle computer adjustment works for up close reading, and I look over the tops of the lenses for distance. I am told I must wait a month, until after I’m done with the complete and somewhat tedious regimen of drops, before being assessed for what should be the final prescription I will ever need. Or perhaps I won’t need one at all, and can simply use two strengths of readers, one for close and one for the computer screen.

My work during this period included not just my regular care coordination support for my caseload members, but also being trained on the new data management system that is being introduced this fall. Lots of learning and significant extra computer “face time” during the period when my vision was least reliable. In retrospect ,I see that I was struggling for a sense of control during a period of constant change in multiple areas of my life. And I see that I was less patient, more judgmental, and significantly more exhausted than I recognized at the time.

It bears repeating. Stress is subtle, insidious, draining and far more damaging than most of us credit. Managing stress is not the best answer, as my relatively successful effort to do so proves. Eliminating stresses is virtually impossible. Which leaves learning to minimize stress responses, the stated goal of a mindfulness training approach introduced during a recent gathering of my coworkers for our quarterly training at headquarters.

I did make an effort to take mindfulness breaks in my days. I know I kept away from worrying over possible problems and negative outcomes, focusing instead on what I could learn that would be of use to my clients (or helpful for mentoring my coworkers) as I adapted to the changes in vision and mastering the new and different data management system being implemented at work. While I believe I was moderately successful in this effort, I know I have a ways to go yet toward reducing (as opposed to managing) my stress levels.

I offer a general apology to those with whom I interacted over the past month when I was impatient and intolerant – particularly people in my employer’s IT department. Someone up their chain of command implemented a switch from software to cloud based email for all of us, without warning, without training, and without any allowance for the lack of adequate internet infrastructure in rural parts of the state such as where I live. Systems crashed, work could not be done to the tight required deadlines, and I had no leftover reserves to handle the additional stress. I especially want to – anonymously but in a most heartfelt way – acknowledge the IT tech I most recently dealt with, who showed me how to red flag an email as urgent and made me laugh at my own frustrations as he did so. Bless the man!

I don’t have anything substantive to add to the reams of online material (can a term for paper quantity be correctly applied to internet content?) on stress. Rather I feel impelled to document my renewed awareness of how deeply one can be affected by anything that brings one’s sense of identity, or one’s feeling of control over basics of daily life, into question. I did not consciously think about the changes I was going through. I coped with them and kept moving forward but that did not negate their manifestation as subtle stress that seriously drained my energy and sent my attitude “south” (Why south? What did south ever do to deserve so negative an association, other than be traditionally located downward on a map?)

Being present – with one’s Creator, Master, Higher Power, the Sound – being focused for however long or short a time on the immediate present and one’s vital essence and its supports, doesn’t just manage but eliminates stress for those moments. The more frequently one can remember the practice, and exercise it for even just  few moments, the less stress accumulates. The less accumulates, the less requires management, and the more one’s thoughts and energies can be directed to other more important endeavors. I know “these Truths to be self evident.” I apparently needed a reminder to put them more consistently into practice.

I have been reminded.

Baraka Bashad and Thanks Be.

Inner and Outer Cultures

June 1, 2018

No sooner do I comment that it would be nice if we could go a few months without major expenditure, to recoup the finances a bit, then the well pump quits. On a Saturday, with no possibility of knowing what is wrong or what it will cost in time and money to be repaired until Monday at the earliest. We lose electric power often enough that life without running water is familiar.  I lived two years of my early teens without running water also, and have that old knowledge to draw on. Making the transition from flowing taps to only water stored in large and heavy bottles nonetheless takes a bit of doing. Not exactly what I intended to spend my weekend energy engaged with. But then, we know what comes of intentions and plans.

Before learning of the pump failure I did enjoy a day of walking in Santa Fe, seeing creative new jewelry designs, unique treatments of photographs, and some very original free form pottery at an art fair adjacent to the Farmer’s Market where I purchased beautifully multi-colored heirloom tomatoes. In addition to completing routine errands (including refilling the aforementioned large water bottles) I savored the quiet reflection time of my hour drive each way.

Based on what thoughts, remarks, and experiences have caught my attention these past few weeks, I must conclude I am engaged in some part of the process of self-definition. Not the who I want to be if I ever grow up type of self definition, but rather the what am I and what values do I channel? What is important to share and what is best not just left unspoken but totally dismissed so that it vanishes completely from my awareness and thus from my life. My recent rant about cultural appreciation versus so-called cultural appropriation is some part of this larger question I am pondering, because as I wrote the lengthy but still far from comprehensive listing of identity elements in that rant, I was aware that I was merely listing external traits and experiences that have influenced me. That external listing may be the common means by which we share something of who we are – but even as I wrote the words I was aware I was not describing the essence of me.

During  a reported in-house meeting at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates participated in a discussion of whether the publication can achieve diversity while maintaining its long-standing tradition of political neutrality. Given the magazine’s recent difficult encounter with trying to add Kevin Williamson to its staff, a move Coates initially supported despite how different the two men’s values are, the question is particularly salient. It touches on other closely related questions such as how much of a range of opinion is acceptable under the mantle of encouraging diversity, and at what point does tolerance of diversity slip over the edge into tolerance of unacceptable extremism? Isn’t diversity as a positive value already a political statement and therefore a step away from political neutrality? Is it possible ever to legislate values and still claim to be politically neutral? Isn’t our current deeply divisive political environment largely due not to disagreements about politics, but disagreements about which values should be enshrined in legislation by our politicians?

A few days break since I wrote those last lines. Well pump has been replaced, water is flowing once more – and an analysis in The Week concluded that what used to be the political reminder “it’s the economy, stupid” has now morphed into “it’s the cultural clash, stupid.” Seeing in my own life just how challenging it can be to adapt to new and different values, blend different cultures, integrate new attitudes, I can readily understand how a nation as diverse as the U.S. can end up as fractured into tribal units as we seem to have become. Each of those external traits I listed in my last post could be considered a distinct tribal identity, to any one of which I might choose to adhere closely, abandoning the others as “not really me,” By not doing so, I place myself in the “multicultural” tribe and take on various implicit values that I admit I wish to see implemented in “my” society.

A theme running through many of the essays published on PlanetWaves, in conjunction with some very fine-tuned astrology, is the persistent narrative of our times, that “the personal is political and the political is personal.” I take that as meaning everything I do has repercussions in the wider society within which I live, and how that society is functioning affects how I think and feel. I can easily remember how affected I was by the last presidential election – the sense of very personal affront that so unqualified a male would be chosen over a perhaps tainted but still intelligent, vibrant and capable woman. My whole life of being put down, overlooked, ignored, insulted and scorned simply because I am a female more competent than many of my male coworkers felt summed up in those election results.

It is less easy to see how my actions affect society, beyond the one-on-one of my work and friendships. I suppose the fact that I post these reflections must be counted as me affecting a larger world in ways of which I am mostly unaware. I do consciously consider what I am “putting out there” and try to may it positive.

Hmmm… might some of the contentiousness of current public discourse come simply from the fact that we are all more aware of how society affects us then we are of how we affect society? Isn’t much of the frustration being expressed lately a form of attestation that too many people feel that they are not able to alter what is going on around them? No one does well when he/she feels helpless to change circumstances.

Which brings me once more back to the recognition, central to my spiritual training, that too much focus on the outer, whether for self definition or sense of achievement, leads to fading  energy, loss of joy, mistaken thinking and a degraded quality of life. Without a daily, disciplined practice of turning inwards and upwards, to the spirit/ Soul /Divine/ Master/ God-self by whatever name through contemplation/ meditation/ prayer (to each according to his/her Path) we are all less than we could/should be and the world is less in consequence.

Baraka Bashad

Cross-Cultural Respect

May 1, 2018

It looks like I can no longer avoid wading into the culture wars. Not that I couldn’t continue to ignore most aspects of the current, often ugly, social debate but that I find myself up against a personal limit, the same one that requires that on occasion, no matter the cost, I “speak truth to power.” Some actions cannot be let go without objection.

I just read an opinion piece  by Josh Campbell entitled “An FBI Director, Two Prosecutors and a Priest Walk into a Bar.” It links James Comey, Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and Chaplain Patrick Conroy as casualties of, or in his view heroes of, ethical public service in the current era of self-serving lack of moral character. They each stood up to political pressure asking them to compromise principles and standards that have a long and respected history, and which are now under attack.

The issue that has pushed me to write is not political in this sense, but it is in its own way a matter that calls for “drawing a line in the sand” of what has become the desert of cross-cultural discourse. The other article I read this morning was the account of a Caucasian Utah high school teen who chose to wear a traditional Chinese dress to her senior prom, and posted pictures on Twitter that included one in which she posed with friends with their hands together in a traditional Asian gesture of respect. Keziah Daum is, from the photos, a lovely young woman who garnered many thousand followers on Twitter but also an onslaught of ugly accusations of “closet racism” and “cultural appropriation”. She defended herself well, and I am not writing to add to that defense, but to take on the – sorry I find no other word for it than “idiocy” of the concept of cultural appropriation.

I am Caucasian, of Jewish heritage, with a German-born father and a Russian-born maternal grandfather. I grew up living in Vietnam and France, have been married to a mixed Black and Native American man, a New Mexican Hispanic and am now married to an African from Cameroon. I speak several languages, cook cuisines from many more countries, and have enjoyed a lifetime of learning other cultures. I have taken comparative religion courses, attended ceremonies in many different churches, temples, synagogues and other places of worship. In homes around the world, and with students studying locally from dozens of different countries, I have shared  meals, conversation, traditions and customs that have helped us all to bridge the differences we were raised with. It has been a rich and enriching life experience.

How can anyone be so narrow-minded as to critique wearing a dress from a different culture, opening a restaurant that serves food not native to the upbringing of the owner, performing a gesture of respect that is not usually made by a Westerner, or any other honest expression of appreciation for an aspect of another culture? Would the protesters against the artificial concept of cultural appropriation want to see us all in our little isolated boxes, unknowing of and uncaring about the tastes and talents and costumes of any other group? Taken to its logical conclusion, if I cannot cook your food, speak your dialect, wear your clothes, to whom will you show them off, market them, or communicate?

Perhaps that is in fact what is desired – that we all cease to communicate and descend into anarchy? The loudest voices now seem to be declaring, “My way or the highway” and castigating anyone who tries to show appreciation for a blended approach to cultures.

I refuse to let any accusation of so called cultural appropriation pass unchallenged. In fact, I challenge the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, stating that it is a fallacy and an artificial, meaningless construct, a distortion of cultural appreciation that should not be given countenance in our society.

Happily I am not on Twitter and rarely look at Facebook, so if I now become subject to vitriol, I won’t know it. This is far from the first time I will have spoken up when I’ve felt it necessary. I rather doubt it will be the last. I also do not doubt that I will survive and continue to thrive. For certain, I am expressing Truth as I perceive it, and that is always a rewarding endeavor.

Three cheers for Keziah Daum and all who, like her, are able to appreciate, enjoy and share in aspects of cultures with which they were not raised!

Tolerance/Hate

April 28, 2018

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in our deal little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught
Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific nailed it nearly 70 years ago.
And yet, here we are still in need of Southern Poverty Law Center’s curriculum for schools, Teaching Tolerance.

“When will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?”

Different topic, same refrain. An epitaph for humanity?

Shape

April 21, 2018

Something I read recently got me thinking about how deeply embedded early self-concepts can become, and how amazingly difficult they are to reverse. I entered my teens while living abroad, amid Asian women who were generally both shorter and more petite, thin, wiry of build than I. My mother, afraid of my developing sexuality, critiqued my figure and urged that I hide my curves under loose-fitting dresses. One exact statement was that if I cinched my waist in, as was the mid-fifties fashion, it made made my hips look “so big” that I should never wear slacks. I still can feel the discomfort and embarrassment of being out-sized that pursued me through my teens and into my 20’s, although when I look at pictures taken of me in those years I see a very shapely young woman with the hourglass figure that I have since learned men find very desirable. Exactly what my mother was panicked about, undoubtedly.

With an odd sense of shock I was struck earlier today by the realization that I weigh very close to what I did in the last years of high school and through most of my college years. I’ve been significantly heavier between then and now, and take pleasure in the accomplishment of being at present much as I was then. What I am finding difficult to reconcile is my lingering awareness of how unacceptably big and unattractive I felt then, compared to the compliments I receive now on my figure and how I look in my clothes – especially on those still rare occasions that I wear pants rather than a skirt.

An analysis of the challenges associated with keeping lost weight off includes the necessity of becoming comfortable with a new body image. Many women, apparently, continue to see themselves heavy even after they have reached a desired weight goal. Taken to extreme this becomes the illness anorexia. I don’t think it is just one’s own body image that is misperceived, but an amalgam of images from fashion and films that blend with one’s sense of oneself in  a hodge-podge of sticky discomfort. It did not help my teen self to have Twiggy be the height of British fashion. Nor the tall, pencil thin models of French fashion houses. Marilyn Monroe’s curves were presented to me as implicitly “not okay” because of their “blatant sexuality.”

I know that all cultures have standards of beauty against which women are evaluated. Sloping shoulders were highly desirable at one time in Japan. In many African countries it is still considered preferable to be of a warm, light brown color rather than deep black, although that is changing. Ample hips and buttocks are believed to indicate fertility and are therefore positive attributes in many cultures – though not in my adult lifetime in the U.S.

Whatever the norms, sadly and consistently the primary victims of them have always been and still are female. Progress has been made toward acceptance of a wider standard of attractiveness, but from my conversations with young women, the body shaming continues.

My concern in reflecting on this pattern is not particularly about progress – or lack thereof – in the images our society holds up as desirable for girls. Rather I am interested in how tenacious are the often illusory images we hold of ourselves. How can I look at pictures of my young self and see an attractive and shapely woman, while simultaneously still vividly inhabiting the fat and unacceptable body self I experienced at that time? Reason is insufficient to erase emotions.

Hmm, this is the second time in recent weeks that I’ve encountered a situation in which reason and feeling collide – and feeling dominates. Advice given to any professional working with people who are upset or more seriously emotionally disturbed is consistently to not argue with their faulty conclusions but rather to focus on creating an atmosphere of safety and trust. The first step to doing so generally involves acknowledging their feelings. Therapists working with couples usually set parameters for communication during sessions that begin with instructions to listen to the feelings being expressed and refrain from saying any of these are wrong. Feelings are what they are. They tend to gain in power by being denied. To change someone’s feelings about a situation (or past self image) it is useless to reason that the feeling is wrong.

What does seem to have power to alter feelings is new experience perceived from a new framework which can be related back to the earlier events. In my case, the first new experience I recall occurred when I was visiting with relatives of my then husband in Cincinnati. Mel was what is now called “a person of color” with Native American, black and white genetics, whose extended family lived within the culture of Black Americans. As I left the room where we had all been sitting I heard Mel’s aunt remark that I had “big old fine pretty legs” in a tone of appreciative praise. Those “big” legs were then the primary source of my negative body image, in conjunction with the hips to which they were attached. The emotional impact of that statement was so strong that I can, still now, feel myself sitting in the bathroom to which I had headed, trying to connect what I heard with what I felt and totally unable to see myself as Mel’s aunt evidently saw me.

Over the years, feedback from people whom I trust has helped me evolve a rather more positive self image though it is still a work in process, as evidenced by the latest realization – that I am now very much as I was 55 years ago when I felt so unacceptably large. Most days now I can look in the mirror and feel good about myself. That I am a size and shape admired by my husband certainly helps.

So I presently feel good about the same outer physical condition (objective reality) that once made me feel uncomfortable and shamed. Nothing has changed, according to mind; everything has changed according to emotion.

Yet we wonder why, across a wide range of areas, belief based on feelings is so impossible to alter with rational argument!

Instead of “I think therefore I am”, we manifest “I feel therefore I know it to be true.”

So much for the illusion of rational humanity being – because we can reason – at the top of the evolutionary chain.


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