Sunday, February 28, 2010

Exercising My Service Muscles Feels Good

For many decades, I have been a devoted gym goer. Doing my daily cardio is good for my spirit as well as my heart. And all the long-term health benefits of caring for my body are something I treasure as the years pass on. Same with the oxytocin exercise generates.

However, another set of muscles that feel really good to exercise are my service muscles. Doing acts of genuine kindness feels just as good as my workout routine, and giving from a place of love nourishes the emotional heart of both the giver and receiver.

One of the ways I love to nurture is through cooking wonderful, healthy food. Food is just so basic to our existence. And good, healthy food is so fundamental to our health and well-being.

Two members of my greater community have been going through hard times. One friend is recovering from breast cancer and complications of an infection post-surgery. She and her husband were exhausted from the medical parts of life, and since none of us can do everything all the time, I had an inkling that healthy food was a way I could offer support. My friend is diabetic and she and her husband are choosing to eat a modified vegan diet, so healthy food, in this case, is VERY healthy and pure.

I found myself having a wonderful time the afternoon I was preparing all of the features of their menu, from the bean vegetable stew, to the Israeli couscous with baby chickpeas and quinoa, to collard greens sauteed with portabello mushrooms to mixed berry fruit salad, and a mixed vegetable salad to top it off. Pouring love and artistry into what will nourish people I care about is pure joy!

Today was another day I got to exercise my service muscles. A family in my church community who lost their 25 year old son, was welcoming dinner deliveries. And once again, learning that my friend loved beans, with no wheat or sugar in any menu item, I had fun being creative with their menu. A lentil stew with chicken sausage, brown rice, millet and chickpeas with black sesame seeds, roast potatoes with sea salt, pepper, and olive oil, a beautiful mixed salad, bananas and strawberries, and a special bonus tub of 3 bean turkey chili became their custom menu.

I'll be delivering their dinner very shortly, but am basking in the feeling of sharing from the heart.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Life Itself Is a Matter of Timing

When I was in about 20, I wrote a song called, "Seasons," looking at the waves and forces moving and shaping our lives....including the actual flow of the seasons. One of the lines I wrote in the lyrics was, "life, itself, is a matter of timing," followed by "and our lives ebb and flow."

Today, my son, Alex, and I were part of the community that gathered at a Memorial Service for a 25 year-old young man who died just about a month ago while traveling in Argentina with his best friend. It is sad to lose a loved one at any age, but for his parents, who have been members of the UU church I've attended for the past 13 years, and his younger brother, this kind of loss is beyond devastating. It just isn't supposed to happen this way.

His parents are wonderful people--kind-hearted, service-oriented, authentic, attentive to their two sons. I know his mom best, and she has a heart of gold. I didn't know her son well, but I do remember him as a 12 year old when I joined the church, and I remember when he read his Credo--the personal statements of values and beliefs that each kid reads when they complete the churches' Coming of Age program, which my now 14 year old son is engaged in this year. A piece of Matthew's Credo--a statement about the importance, power and underlying desire for human relationships between all people--was included in the Memorial Service program and the service itself.

Matthew seemed to, on the one hand, have a deep heart, a desire to serve, the ability to build things with his hands and appreciate the natural world, including its human inhabitants, yet on the other hand, be struggling to find a place where he could set his feet down, grow roots and feel a sense of purpose and meaning for his life.

Though clearly loved by many, and surrounded by lots of love, some place deep inside of him must have been horribly dark and lonely. Matthew died at his own hand. He took his life.
Thanks to the information that passes through a loving community, I learned he had hung himself.

And that brought up even deeper sadness for me. Though I was not inside Matthew's heart or mind and have no idea what his personal demons were, when I was 13, I was deeply despairing, felt all alone and in spite being externally known as "the class president" and "the brightest girl in my grammar school," one day when almost no one was around after school, I took hold of one of the long ropes that hung from the school windows, tied it into a noose, and prepared to hang myself.

I was standing on a desk or a chair, so that if I jumped off, I would be suspended by my neck, hanging on the rope. Someone walked in and found me. I was too deeply into my own trance of despair and heartache to remember who it was, a custodian, a teacher or some random staff member of the school. All I know is someone found me and stopped me. And I remained in a catatonic state of shock for a long while afterward, including the shock of the school's reaction to my action: pretending it never happened and that everything would go on as usual, ignoring and moving beyond my act of desperation and pain.

Had I been alone in Argentina, my life could have ended the way Matthew's did, with no one finding me until it was too late. But while someone stopped my actions, no one really FOUND me. I don't know if the school even officially dealt with the reality that a star student was that miserable to have attempted such an unthinkable act. Did they tell my parents? Not that telling them would have done any good. I remember dissociating at a town governance meeting later that year, and telling the adults there that I was not feeling well and to please take me to the hospital. Instead of honoring my wishes, they took me home. That only made things worse.

I was not surrounded by a loving community. I did not have an emotionally safe place to go. Yet nobody saw my despair. Nobody saw my isolation. And my attempts to reach out, to get help....or to even try to end my pain....were ignored, because they "didn't fit" the image of who I was, or at least how I was supposed to be, or what anyone else was equipped to deal with. I guess some dark places are just too hard to see.

Yet, somehow, in spite of the depth of the pain I suffered, and the invisibility of my pain to others, I am still here. And Matthew is not. I do not pretend to know Matthew's inner story, and in every way, it could be completely different from mine, somehow I faced death at my own hand, and managed to live. He faced death at his own hand, and he has died.

As I got older, my suicidal impulses had other expressions, including anorexia at 13, and being externalized in an attempted rape-murder attempt on my life at 16. When my suicidal impulse was externalized, and someone ELSE was trying to kill me, not me, I finally realized that this life and death stuff was serious business and I really WANTED to live. I did have a sense of mission, scary as it was to commit to it, and I did choose my life. And since the time I was lying on my back in the alley with the stranger trying to rape and murder me, I have never wanted to end my life or die.

Yet, I am struck by how much life, itself, IS a matter of timing. A school staff member found me, in time. A car came down the alley as the attempted rapist/murderer was making what I thought would be his final attempt at ending my life, and scared him away. I was anorexic at a time when a major research project was being done on very bright women from critical families that starve themselves, and I was sent to the project leader. Even the fact that women get pregnant every day, and carry children to term and that children grow into adulthood is full of those magical moments where life wins.

I am very grateful that, somehow, in spite of all the pain, trauma and suffering I experienced that made me want to end my life, I managed to, in time, learn that life itself is a gift. I am very sorry that even with all the love around him, the timing swung in such a sad direction in Matthew's darkness hour.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Comfort Zones and Discomfort Zones: A High Touch Person Wrangles With A High Tech World

Today gave me an opportunity to reaffirm my comfort and discomfort zones while pushing my limits of trying to integrate the technological and the human. My comfort zone is what one would call "high touch." I like meeting with people face to face, talking real-time, and building relationships through common experience--be it in my therapy practice or with friends and colleagues. My discomfort zone is what one would call "high tech." I use enough technical tools to survive, but am far struggle when I hit the eventual snaffus that come with constantly changing software updates, browser updates, product updates and the like.

Most of my days allow me to operate within my comfort zones on both the high touch and high tech arenas. Seeing clients, teaching classes at UMass, mentoring apprentices, writing e-mails, writing articles, being my son's mom....all of those avenues are familiar, warm and fuzzy--even on challenging days.

What I find much harder, is figuring out how to meet new colleagues in this internet age and become more visible in circles I have not yet discovered (and who have not yet discovered my work). In the old days, where professional conferences were the highlight of the year, and opportunities for workshops and talks were clearly defined and abundant, it was very clear how to meet new people: present at the conferences, teaching centers and professional associations that people attended to discover work like mine.

Over the years, my favorite conferences have gone away, only some of the teaching centers remain, and people rely on the internet for information far more than on face to face gatherings.
And so, I enter my discomfort zone.

Today, I started out the morning meeting with a new colleague who might enjoy mutual referrals. In order to meet more new colleagues, I bravely chose some categories (such as attorneys who work with divorcing couples, since I can help with the deeper emotional work that might make the divorce process smoother and ultimately, more successful), did some internet research on people who might be fun to meet and might be interested in my skills, and took the risk of reaching out and inviting them to tea.

Of the 20 attorneys I wrote to who work with divorcing couples, only two wrote back. I gladly met with both of these attorneys and discovered delightful human beings who I would be glad to call my colleagues. They each appreciated my reaching out and saw my skill set as complementary to theirs. Today's meeting was with the second of the two attorneys. Two points for the comfort zone.

Then I drove out to Acton to reconnect with a colleague I had not seen since 2008. Comfort zone once again. We each learned of one another's new developments, and I invited her to present to the Boston Area Mind-Body Therapies meetup group that I run, and she clued me in that firefighters are looking for ways to reduce line of duty deaths, a primary cause being cardiovascular disease. Right up my alley! This is why I love face to face meetings!

Basking in the warmth of my comfort zone, I was thrown into the black hole of technological snaffus. I had completed my March 1 e-newsletter on my beloved Constant Contact software that I have used for more than 3 years. But the silly software would not allow me to schedule the publication of my newsletter. And I had tried over and over again for 3 days.

Stepping into my discomfort zone, and recognizing I was totally clueless how to complete the scheduling task, I called the technical support line and presented my dilemma. The technical support staff member was my special angel, immediately diagnosing a problem I would have never figured out in a million years. Within the last few days, Constant Contact updated their software and Mac owners who used Firefox now had to upgrade to Firefox 3.6 for Constant Contact features to fully work.

The technical staff member gently walked me through the process of upgrading my Firefox, disposing of the old Firefox, and then seeing if my stuck places now worked. Voila! Magic! I scheduled my e-newsletter in moments. I finished the homepage on my newsletter archive portion of the account. I posted the archive link on Facebook. I was good to go! One big sigh of relief, and about 90 minutes of time invested.

But, alas, I was quickly pulled back into my discomfort zone, as I discovered my logo was not on this laptop, having been lost when my old computer died just over 2 years ago. I needed my logo in .gif or .jpeg format. And all I had was old-fashioned hard copy! As I tried to upload a photo of my logo onto Vistaprint, I was told the resolution of the image was inadequate for printing. Technosnaffu! Stress!

So, venturing further into my discomfort zone, I found myself dialing the number for the Vistaprint support person, explaining that I had hard copies of my logo, but not electronic copy, and hitting the wall. In today's world, hard copies of images are as useful as the old floppy disks that existed prior to CD's and DVD's. The support person explained that Vistaprint does NOT work with hard copies at all. So, my mission was to find a way to get my logo onto my computer in electronic form of a high enough resolution to meet their standards.

Thank goodness my housemate, Fofana, is technically savvy and was able to help me extract a copy of my logo in .gif format from my Constant Contact image library! He downloaded it onto my computer, and I was in business! Phew! Another 90 minutes of clueless effort, solved with a 5 minute intervention by one in the technoknow!

So, here I am at 11:15 pm on a Friday night, finally getting to make my daily blog entry....something I had planned to do about 5 hours earlier. But had I not had my journey into the world of software updates, the gap between what used to be and what is, what I can figure out and what I'd never ever figure out in a million years....I wouldn't have had the opportunity to experience such a potpourri of moments in both my comfort and discomfort zones!

I trust I will sleep well tonight!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Revised Definition of Insanity

Many years ago, I was told that the definition of "insanity" was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For many years, that seemed to make good enough sense, and I could see plenty of real world situations where that definition applied.

In today's world, as our infrastructures break down, I think it is time to redefine what "insanity" is. Now, "insanity" is trying to reconcile a seemingly simple problem using the rational, clear and definited channels made available to you, and expecting to actually reach a resolution.

Here's just one example. My parents are in their 80's. My father is dying of colon cancer and my mother is taking care of him. Many decades ago, my father purchased bearer bonds from the US Government, which have coupons that can be redeemed twice a year, paying interest on the bonds. The interest from the bonds has helped pay for my parents' living expenses since my father retired from his job. And my mother would go into Boston to a bank that could redeem the coupons.

Today, bearer bonds are no longer issued. And many people have never heard of them. However, this is only backstory.

On Saturday, I received a notice from the local bank my parents use with a "bounced check" from the Boston bank who redeem the bond coupons for my mother. I was surprised to see a "bounced check" since I would expect there to be funds in a big bank's account to pay a small coupon redemption fee. The reason for the bounce listed was "refer to maker." I had no clue what this meant.

I had to wait until Monday to call my parent's local bank to inquire what this meant and what to do to get my parents their money. The local bank had no clue what "refer to maker" meant and said I had to call the Boston bank to find out.

I called the Boston bank, and they told me they could not help me, because the check was issued by their corporate office in Minnesota. I called the corporate office in Minnesota, and got a very nice man named Greg, who truly wanted to help reconcile the problem. He did research on why the check might have bounced and could not come up with a reason. There was money in their account. There had been no stop payment issued on the check. He said I needed to speak with the local bank again, and that they could call him to discuss the problem.

I called the local bank again, and spent 45 minutes on successive holds, as the issue was escalated up the customer service center supervisory chain. No one there had the authority to speak with Greg at the other bank. I was told I had to walk into a local office of the local bank and someone there could call Greg and solve the problem.

I went into the local branch of the local bank and met with the branch manager to solve the problem. I spent 40 minutes with her as she escalated the issue through her support chain, and was told they could not figure out the problem and no one had the authority to call Greg. She told me I had to physically bring in the facsimile of the returned check to the originator and get it reissued. I explained it came from Minnesota, and I was NOT going to hand carry the facsimile to Minnesota.

She said I could not redeposit the facsimile because the processing people had made a technical error on the original check and had double printed a set of numbers, so the facsimile would be rejected. I asked her to remove the $10 service fee issued to my parents' account, since they should not have to pay for an error that had nothing to do with them or even the Minnesota bank. I was told this was not possible. There was no procedure to do this.

I pushed back and said this was not fair. Why should 80 somethings have to pay a fee for something that had nothing to do with their actions. She said she would file a claim to try to get the fee removed, but the process was cumbersome and unlikely to bring a positive outcome.

Now, having invested 3 hours of my day trying to solve the problem, in addition to working with clients and checking in with Alex, my son, after school, I called the Boston office of the check issuing bank and told them the dilemma. They reaffirmed they could not do anything and I needed to talk to Greg in Minnesota again.

I reached Greg, and he said this was insane. He said the banking industry is totally dysfunctional, because people are not in jobs long enough to know what is going on or how to solve problems. They receive no training, and get frustrated and turn over, and leave customers in the lurch with serious issues that are not able to be reconciled.

I asked Greg how long he had been in his job, and he said 10 years. He said that was unusual. He said his bank required people who were going to handle customer calls like mine to have 6 weeks of traning before they answered one customer phone call.

Greg instructed me that I could mail in the bounce slip and the facsimile check, but that I had to write a letter and get my mother's signature and state the the local bank had a processing error and we needed to get the check reissued. There were certain conditions that would require a notary to sign and seal her signature and mine. But we were able to define a set of circumstances that would allow me to just bring the letter to my mother and have her sign it and have me send off the paperwork and hope for the best.

Now, 4 1/2 hours of my day into trying to solve this problem on behalf of my parents, I still don't have it solved. And I cannot imagine my 82 year old mother who is trying to care for my 84 year old father who is in the last stages of dying from colon cancer having to go through what I went through today to reconcile a seemingly simple problem.

In fact, I can't imagine my mother even understanding my attempt to explain what happened, what it means and what we need to do to solve the problem. Should an 80 something be subject to this kind of wild goose chase when tending to a dying spouse? Should ANYONE be subject to this kind of wild goose chase?

And how many people would have the tenacity and wherewithall to keep pushing for resolution when one pathway leads to another dead end and it all comes back in a circle to where you started?

How many stories are there like this of people trying to reconcile issues that impact their daily survival--be it with banks, insurance companies, hospitals and other social institutions? And how did we get here?

Somehow, we need to gather together from the bottom up and rebuild models of commerce so that transactions are more grounded, and the complexities of overcompartmentalization and reliance on technology to the point that humans are unable to solve seemingly simple problems can be eliminated.

On the upside, it is much harder to do the same thing over and over again, at all, never mind expect different results. Following a pathway is likely to lead to a random, chaotic or circular trajectory that could probably not be repeated, because different characters will pick up the phone or e-mail as jobs turn over or are handled by multiple people, all sharing the same function.

I will see this through til my parents get their check reissued and successfully deposited into their checking account. But how many more times will this kind of craziness or worse knock at the door?

Perhaps another definition of insanity is "the resulting condition of trying to solve a human scale problem in a chaotic, dysfunctional world."

©2010 Linda Marks


I have always fallen on the "low tech" and "high touch" ends of the "tech/touch" continuums.
I still write checks to pay my bills. I have log books to record my business transactions, which I joyfully tally at the ends of quarters and years to provide data to my accountant. I cook healthy homemade meals from scratch each day, using pans and even use a food processor to make pesto that is more than 20 years old.

I do have a Blackberry, though I won't text or Twitter. And I have come to find most of my communication taking place via e-mail or Facebook. Even the phone for my therapy practice, a landline I have had for 25 years, rarely rings these days.

On my Facebook page earlier this week, I posted a question about the balance of "real time" contact that face to face meeting or even telephone chatting allows and "virtual" contact courtesy of the many technological options that seem to be the communication superhighways of our times.

The responses were very interesting. One high school friend noted that social networking sites allowed an introvert to be the proverbial fly on the wall, and feel more connected to community than she could or would in a more face to face medium. Another friend celebrated the diversity of communication media now available to us, so we can pick and choose how and when we will communicate. A third friend noted that he often has a hard time fully expressing himself real time, so the solitude and spaciousness of writing his thoughts and feelings on a keyboard allowed him more complete self-expression.

There are elements of connection and communication that our internet tools truly foster and even enhance. Yet, there are other dimensions of being human that just can't be replicated in cyberspace. A loving touch, a hand of reassurance, a comforting hug or even a mutually knowing glance of the eyes cannot be replicated in cyberspace. Human beings and human hearts exchange life energy, and though our words and thoughts are products of this life energy, the actual, physical, multi-dimensional experience of our life energy does not translate viscerally and kinesthetically in cyberspace.

Too, some people learn to abbreviate their thoughts into "text speak" with U for you, R for are and all those clever terms like LOL, so that the art and practice of full self-expression becomes cybercompressed. While, on the upside, one can meet a potential friend or partner in cyberspace, on the downside, relationships can be ended too easily in a keyboard stroke, using the very efficient, but incredibly impersonal medium of the written word. Our EQ somehow seems to diminish as instead of fully working an issue or engaging in "good relationship process," we gather and dispose of one another emotionally quickly and sometimes thoughtlessly as well as heartlessly.

I think we need to be sure to balance an investment in emotional literacy and touch literacy with an investment in technological literacy. If we forget the "real time" experience, life becomes too virtual!