Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Ambiguities of Aging

July 26, 2021

One of the blessings – and curses – of my life has been my engaged, analytical mind also capable of synthesis and of so-called right brain activities like artistic design. Blessing in that it enabled me to attend Swarthmore College where, for four years, I was surrounded by people of comparable “smarts” and thus where I fit in. The experience was a soothing balm after the social exclusion and general disregard previously afforded me in school, where I was dismissed as a mere nerd. Blessing also in that I found myself, over the course of my life, able to work effectively in a wide range of fields – law, education, government, health care – and to engage with all sorts of people, across cultures, races and economic and educational levels.

The curse began with that nerd label and has carried forward in what people express (those who make the effort to express themselves) as being intimidated by my intellectual ability. In too many work environments I encountered co-workers – mostly male – who could not accept that I was as able as they were at planning, writing, envisioning, managing. I very consciously, in one totally male dominated position, chose to emphasize my femininity in dress at the same time that I showed the full extent of my mental skills. The two other women classified as professionals, in that workplace of 100 or more where I found myself in my early thirties, were both already mature (late 50’s) and treated as invisible by the men, in the way so many older women have been disregarded for generations, in U.S. society.

The blessing extends into the present as an interest in reading and responding to essays and op-ed pieces in the various outlets that send their email newsletters to my inbox. The curse extends to having so few face to face opportunities to discuss and debate those topics. During my long work career, I rarely had time for non-work-related discussions, but I did have access to people with whom to debate. Since retirement just a year ago, I have had too much free time, and extremely limited options for interesting discussions. One extreme to the other, in the midst of pandemic lockdowns, has not been an easy transition.

In the blessing column I need to list the fact that my mental skills continue undiminished so far, except for a curious, recent tendency to come up short on names. Once I stop trying to recall the place or person’s name, it rises up into awareness, fortunately often while I am still involved in the conversation that requires it. In the curse column I probably should list a propensity, now that I have so much “spare” time, to do what my spouse calls “overthinking” situations, rather than relaxing and just letting them unfold.

A current client uses the terms Harvard mind and Stanford mind to identify two different styles of communication. He feels able to deal with either, but finds it challenging to switch quickly from one to the other. He says he admires that I can work with both simultaneously. If I understand him, he is referring to tightly reasoned “intellectual” discourse (Harvard) contrasted with a more emotionally directed interpersonal connection (Stanford). A dichotomy kin to the traditionally perceived left brain/right brain dichotomies of thinking that have increasingly been relegated to the status of outdated, inadequate explanations of mental differences between people. For my easily distracted client, having both capacities with neither under good control is decidedly more curse than blessing. For myself, having both and knowing when to use each is clearly a blessing,

About those ambiguities of aging – I am attempting to decipher whether my mental skills are blessing or curse or still a mixture of both, as my opportunities and situations change with advancing age. Having skills without much occasion to use them is frustrating and contributes to feeling old and past one’s “sell by” date. Recognizing that mental skills are of limited value for advancement in spiritual endeavors, it is a blessing to be able – at least at times – to just stop thinking and allow myself to be guided minute by minute throughout days that in retrospect show themselves full of accomplishment that “I” don’t claim credit for. What has been achieved has been done through rather than by me. The ambiguity lies, perhaps, in my hesitance to accept that I have reached the age when what I “should”, per societal dictates, be focusing on is a less engaged, more abstract appreciation of the simple acts of daily life, with perhaps a bit of legacy wisdom dispensed. The trouble comes from the fact that I have never easily done what society expects I should do.

Others have written extensively about the disconnect between chronological age, with its more or less decreased physical function, and their self perceptions as still vital and engaged persons frustrated by the limits to engagement that they keep running up against. In all that writing I have not come across any useful guides to follow, to be less frustrated. I have not so far found much comment on how the recommended activities with which one is urged to fill retirement – to ease the transition from work life to a more measured pace – when pandemic isolation, and now because I live in the West also wildfire smoke, force me indoors and into increased isolation. 

Yes I can email, I can and do talk on the phone, I read, I write essays and letters to the editor in response to opinion columns that catch my interest. I run my home, filling my time with a variety of tasks and I rarely encounter my blessedly few physical limitations. These are all Harvard brain activities.

What I miss is the interaction, the human to human contact necessary for my Stanford brain to feel itself heard and engaged. That bit of self feels like the small girl, the unsiblinged and sadly overlooked nerd child still crying softly “see me, look at me, hear me, I have something to say and to contribute, if only someone would take the time to notice and listen.”

How too many of us feel like that these mid (I regretfully do not feel we are yet at post) pandemic days!

Sounds and Silence

May 24, 2021

A good friend, who is a multi-talented musician, just told me about a project he completed in a week of intense collaboration with a former student – she wrote a play, he wrote the music and she submitted the ten minute musical comedy score to a competition. It was so well received that it will be performed at the awards presentation. My friend described the hectic back and forth of the week, as the script was modified and his music had therefore to be adjusted as well – all under the pressure of the immediate deadline. “Sometimes that is what it takes to get me composing” he concluded.

Apparently it takes something similar to get me writing these days. I have been posting my reflections on the events of my life with regularity, despite a demanding work schedule, for many years – until sometime last autumn. Retirement was supposed to expand my time to write, but instead it seems to have shut me up. While Covid prevented my engagement with many of the activities I anticipated would fill my days, it cannot be held responsible for the silencing of my written voice.

Or can it? Whereas I have mostly felt that I needed time away from interactions with people to reflect and write, is it in fact the case that I need interaction with people to stimulate the reflection that produces writing? Is the reality that I and most of those around me have been vaccinated and can begin to meet in person, out least in outdoor venues, enlarging not only my physical boundaries but also my verbal ones?

Is the persistent urging of a writer friend, that I submit an essay or story for a project she has undertaken, also a  necessary condition (and perhaps a sufficient one) for me to haul out the laptop and start putting words together? It would seem so, as here I am, writing. The criterion for inclusion in the pending project is a connection with northern New Mexico, one I easily meet as I have lived in this beautiful high mountain community for more than forty years. In newspaper columns, blog posts, short stories and even an unpublished novel, I have written about the foibles of local culture, weather anomalies, the healing tranquility of vast open sky, highly talented local performers and, in the words of Anna’s Siamese king, et cetera et cetera et cetera.

Called on now, under almost as tight a time constraint as that faced by my musician friend, to produce an essay worthy of inclusion in a book focusing on my home region, what new do I want to say? 

That on May 17 it is spitting snow? The weather in this area is absolutely uncertain, changing from summer back to winter and then summer again, not just day to day but often hour to hour. The only aspect of weather that is certain is wind. Enough sunny days, most years, for solar power to be an effective alternative to carbon-based energy and what feels like enough wind to power the world. Two benefits of living with permanent weather uncertainty.

That yesterday I watched antelope running free across a neighbor’s pasture? We have quite a variety of wildlife sharing our space. Deer, wild turkey and the antelope are seen frequently. A herd of elk also ranges over the open pasture beside the county road where I go for my walks. Covid shutdowns have limited dining out, and prevented me from attending classes at the nearby NM Highlands University but have not otherwise hampered my routines. I walk (weather permitting) amid pastures occupied by cows and the elk and antelope. I raise my chickens, eat and sell their eggs, and have ample space for a garden. The unpredictable weather means mostly growing only hardy vegetables until I can place a roof over the beds. When that will happen is another uncertainty, on a par with when the university will reopen campus classes. 

We are doing very well here on the Covid front, and are national leaders in vaccination rates. More activities are now permitted at the same time that people remain vigilant, masked in indoor  spaces and mostly caring for the health and safety of our neighbors and communities. I am told by those living in more urban areas that the noises of social activity have increased. I would not know – where I dwell the predominant theme, Covid or no Covid, is the semi-silence of the natural world.

Another friend, a music lover, actor and writer who lives 140 miles away in Albuquerque mentioned recently that he appreciates silence at home in ways he did not used to do – choosing to play music only when he intends to sit down and listen to it with focus, whereas he used to have music playing almost all the time. We talked, without reaching a conclusion, about whether this change is a function of aging, or is another curious adaptation to life with Covid.

I consciously avoid any created background sound when I am alone at home, preferring the silence that is not silent. I hear my rooster crow, and the several hens who lay each day warbling their productivity. Occasionally a woodpecker is attracted to one corner of my house. After an hour of his intermittent drumming I squirt him with a water pistol, to regain some semblance of peace. Winds vibrate metal trim on the house, creating a whistling that cannot be terminated with a well aimed shot from the water pistol. Those I have learned to ignore, knowing the wind is both intermittent and perpetual, one of the factors that must be accepted as central to life in this area.

On warmer, less windy days, I hear the zoom of hummingbirds, and always there are the rowdy crows and less rowdy but equally insistent doves making their presence known audibly as they compete with the chickens for daily grain rations. My active guard dog barks away most four-legged intruders, keeping me aware of what is going on around the edges of my acreage. 

Some years ago I had house guests for the summer, two African girls who had graduated from the United World College nearby, but were stranded waiting for arrangements to travel to their next destinations. Both were urban-raised and admitted to being afraid of the quiet. While I was away during the day at work, they would play their music loudly, covering over the sounds that to me are evidence that this country is not silent. They managed to hear my car engine pulling into the driveway despite the music and would turn the volume down to what I consider a “listenable” level as I entered the house. In the three months they spent with me, I did not succeed in my efforts to help them hear the natural sounds within what they thought of as intolerable silence. I try to keep that failure in mind, when I talk with others about the pleasures of my home environment, reminding myself that not everyone has the same preferences.

It has been many years since I recognized that I was unlikely to ever have the kind of income that would permit much travel. I have been grateful to live where I do, in the high mountain desert where I would choose to come on vacation, if I lived elsewhere. And of late I have been especially grateful to live where, despite the pandemic, I have been able to enjoy the outdoors, continue my walks, work safely and comfortably from home, and appreciate the noisy silence of an airy, uncontaminated natural environment.

For those who seek the same, welcome to my world.

Asinine and Insulting

May 14, 2021

I have not been motivated to write lately. I have instead been enjoying my artistic pursuits, balanced with part time work for the NM Caregivers Coalition. But the untenable position I have been placed in – experienced in spades today – by the latest CDC pronouncement cannot go without response.

Setting aside the broad guidelines in place in New Mexico according to county by county statistics that put us in color categories, none of which as of yet allow unrestricted or undistanced indoor dining or shopping, and acknowledging that the CDC indicated local level decisions must still be recognized and adhered to, it remains beyond stupid to issue a statement that “vaccinated people can go unmasked indoors” when there is absolutely NO WAY to know if the unmasked person standing just behind my shoulder and breathing into my face is vaccinated, or one of the far too many individuals who refuses vaccines and denies that there is a pandemic infection still active here.

I am vaccinated.

Wearing a mask to protect myself from the deniers and anti-vaxxers and mask resistors, I become subject to ugly accusations from others that I am a coward, that I don’t care about my neighbors or I would get a vaccine, that at my age (I qualified for and got my vaccine in the first tier) I should know better than to refuse a life saving treatment.

Is the CDC going to hand out masks imprinted with I AM VACCINATED, ARE YOU? for those of us who feel the need to continue to protect ourselves from the heedless, thoughtless, careless multitudes?

REALLY!

Fighting Back

December 10, 2020

The combination of retirement, a dip in overall health, and the isolation of self protection from Covid have combined to push me toward being what I have most disliked over my life until now – an old person talking constantly about health complaints. How else can I view myself, when the few calls or inquiries made of me begin with “How are you doing? Are you okay?” and while the overall answer is “Alright, just rather bored and tired” the more specific answer is “Aggravated by the sequence of health challenges that have arisen since I stopped work” which in turn rob my energy and focus, and when combined with all the pandemic-imposed restrictions, prevent me from engaging with anything that can stimulate my interest or give me the opportunity to discuss substantive issues with others.

Minus the pandemic, I know I would be enrolled in a sketching class, probably teaching workshops, and certainly driving out to visit friends or meeting them for a meal and conversation in a restaurant. I would still have the health issues that affect me (residual apparently from something toxic inhaled along with the smoke from the West Coast fires) but I would have distractions, and a schedule of activities to motivate me to do more than read my daily news feeds and the novels that I still enjoy.

Transitioning from very full time, demanding and people-interactive work to retirement is a challenge. Isolating at home to keep safe and relatively healthy is a challenge. Adapting from having one’s mate always present to his being away all week and only home on weekends is a considerable challenge. Combining all three at once and layering on a coating of decline in health seems to be enough to turn me into a stereotype of an old person. Only my hatred both of stereotypes and of whining, complaining people stands between me and overwhelmed defeat.

Thank heaven I live in a rural environment, can get out and walk freely around my property, and at times am treated, as this morning, to the delight of deer effortlessly completing a standing jump over the fence and onto my land. It is a gray day, with dropping temperature and possible rain predicted, after a week of warm, sunny autumn weather. Without the deer my mood would most likely not be great. Instead, as I see the picture of my spiritual teacher smiling at me, I understand His gift just provided to me.

For you, today and all days, may similar blessings be.

Brooding

July 19, 2020

When a hen goes broody, sitting on eggs, she spends 99% of her time in one place, only getting off the eggs for a few minutes to peck up some food and take a few sips of water. She sits for several weeks and – if she is my grey “Easter egg” hen, she does more. She has chosen to sit in a trough that runs about four feet along the top of a feed manger now used only for storage of miscellany. My other hens have, until now, taken it in turns to lay their eggs along that trough, often in much the same position, such that I envision them lining up to take it in turns leaving their daily deposits to collect to a total of 4-6 that I pick up in the evenings.

Only two of the hens have the habit of announcing their laying prowess with repetitive loud crowing. I have heard those two regularly over the past couple weeks, but have generally only found one egg when I make my nightly checks. I recently mentioned to a friend that perhaps instead of two hens laying, only one was doing so and announcing herself twice – or that two hens were crowing their accomplishments but one was lying.

Instead, apparently both are laying and the gray hen is shoving their eggs beneath herself along with her own that she is trying to hatch. Otherwise there would not be, after just a week, more than ten eggs beneath her as my spouse ascertained to be the case yesterday. Grey hen gets ‘fatter’ looking each day, as she spreads herself more an more trying to cover and maintain warmth in so large  clutch.

I initially picked four eggs from her brooding spot when, just a couple days after she settled in, she was out to eat. I decided then to let her sit on eggs laid subsequently, since it is warm enough and enough summer still remains, for her to actually hatch and raise them. I did not anticipate that she would collect everyone else’s eggs to add to her own. Now I’m just curious to see the outcome. Will we in fact get babies? Of several different colors and breeds (my hens are a mixed bunch)?

It also has struck me that, in the midst of the ugly “everyone for him/herself” dynamic being perpetuated in our societal life these days, it is heartening to observe an example of self sacrifice for the collective good in a creature too often maligned as stupid.

Would that more of us purportedly intelligent bipeds were equally concerned for the well being and perpetuation of our young, particularly when it comes to finding the means to balance their health with their education and their impact on their families.

World Enough and Time

May 25, 2020

The wear and tear of time, plus assorted horse and motor vehicle accidents and a couple slip and falls have collectively resulted in a task of aging. More of my time than I wish had been needed over the past 18 months has been spent sorting out the causes of a variety of body pains, the triggers that set them off, and what treatments can reduce the pain to livable without creating new and different health problems. Along the way I verified the now-scientifically-proven hypothesis that ups and downs of the barometer are felt in the joints in advance of the visible weather changes they herald. I succeeded in identifying a sluggish gallbladder that the tests my doctor ordered merely confirmed. I’ve adopted some preventive herbals treatments and now have a few that have proven effective when different types of pain become too strong to ignore.

So I’m about as settled into effective symptom management as I expect is possible. And trying at the same time to settle into accepting that I can only respond to, not control, the variables, so will always have to be flexible in facing what each day presents.

All of which activity I now find may have had a different ultimate purpose than the obvious one of helping me become more comfortable in my daily activities. The detecting involved is now being called upon for quite another challenge. I want to sort out what underlies the so far inexplicable fluctuation in egg production from my small flock of hens.

Some of the variables – weather in particular – are probably the same as those that affect my pain levels. Cold and damp are not helpful. High wind is also probably as disturbing to the ladies as it is to my joints. But other potential factors are unique to the flock and as yet unidentified by me. I’m considering their amount of food (type also) and access to water in the small bowl they prefer (the bigger one that assures they do not go without is consistently shunned). I try to note whether our protective dog has been barking more – or less – at the variety of four legged visitors who pass nearby. Is she engaged with running off stray dogs who can be considered a threat by the hens , or merely alerting that the neighbor’s cows are in an adjacent pasture? Might there be a snake or a passing skunk disturbing them? Are some of them, like me, just feeling the aches and fatigue of age? I know there is one that must be recovering from the exquisite pain of laying the largest double yolk egg I have ever seen!

Two of the hens have gone broody, despite not having a rooster around to impregnate them. They will, I trust, resume laying when they fail in their attempts to hatch sterile eggs. Will they be challenged into more consistent production by the presence of 5 new flock members, including a young rooster? Or will they instead divert their energy to the establishment of a new pecking order with the youngsters put in their bottom-of-the-pole place?

Without access to comprehensible feedback, such as my own body gave me, I question whether I will ever have answers that enable me to reliably collect eggs from everyone each day. No matter – puzzling my way through the variables is a good distraction from equally unanswerable questions about what lies ahead for us all as we move on into the changing world we are glimpsing. As often as I have heard, and have quoted to myself, that the only certainty is change, my mind continues to try to find answers – certainty – in complex situations which defy resolution. Undoubtedly that is why I relax at night with crossword puzzles and Free Cell. Solvable challenges, with set answers.

That same mind that likes order and seeks connections recently made me aware of a list of seemingly unconnected situations. Green ice in the Antarctic, shrinking of the polar caps, bark beetle devastation of forests in the southern Rockies, insect destruction of olive groves in France and Italy, more frequent and more fierce storms of all types all around the globe, non-seasonal temperature extremes setting ever new records, spread of hostile insects like the killer bees into environments where they have not previously been known, and of course now the worldwide spread of virulent new virus-based illnesses. A quick and easy answer is “climate change” if the question is “what is the cause of all these negatives?” 

But when the question is “what is the solution?” no such single simple answer presents itself. 

Nor is there a single simple answer to my questions about how I will adapt to a recently changed pattern in my personal life, a change that is still evolving, with key decisions yet to be made. In past years my life circumstances enforced the learning of patience – waiting for the time to be right for significant alteration in employment, companionship and other facets of daily life. Now I seem to be facing the opposite lesson. Or maybe just a different facet of patience – learning to step back and observe fast moving changes without feeling I have to act or “figure it all out.”

Just as I am unlikely to sort out all the influences on my chickens’ egg laying propensities, and I know I don’t have many answers to the multitude of manifestations of change in the environment; just as I know my scope of action in our tormented civil (uncivil) society is limited to what I can do in my immediate surroundings; so too I need to remind myself daily that my mind is not in charge of finding answers to my personal challenges. Those require detachment, patience, observation and tolerance of uncertainty.

The way forward for me personally, and for the larger society as well, will show itself in due time.

Who knows, maybe I’ll also be gifted with an insight that turns my poultry yard into the most prolific egg production unit in the region. Wouldn’t that be fun!

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.

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.


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