Thursday, November 14, 2013

Reflections on Impermanence and the Inevitable Passage of Time

It's a sunny autumn morning on the 13th of November. The trees are growing bare and the shadows are lengthening as the year 2013 slowly fades away into history. There is "a certain light" in the air that reminds me a bit of a particular late autumn day in Denmark, around maybe 1975-76, when the weather felt like this and the light was the same. In a way not unlike what I do today, I was out with my camera, trying to "visually capture the feeling" of a day.

Denmark, early December 1975
In the evening of that day, we ended up sitting at the dining table, making Christmas decorations. It was the last Christmas my dad owned the house on Fuglevangsvej; the house where I'd spent my earliest years... that is, when we were not traveling somewhere. There has always been a certain "mood" that has stayed with me, and that I have associated with that particular day... maybe it was the momentary illusion that life was "OK" in the course of what otherwise felt like a very lonely and depressing existence.

My parents "hand built" that house from the ground up... I don't know if it was ever their intention that I should "take over" the house and eventually it would become a "family home" through generations. Hard to say. So much happened, since then... reminders that things always change, and things seldom go as planned.

From time to time, I distract myself by using Google satellite and street view to look at the many places I at one time or another have called "home." It's a strange distraction, I suppose... or maybe just a reflection that I really didn't come from a "photographically oriented" family.

When I look at the aerial photos today, things have changed so much. Farmer Boserup's field outside the hawthorn hedge is now a housing development. Mr. Lauritzen's house with the giant property around it now has three houses-- or maybe they are apartment buildings-- on the land. At nr. 7, our house, the red hawthorn tree in the driveway is gone-- all that remains is a circle in the pavement that's a slightly different color. And the pavement is no longer dyed deep red... I remember how tiny fragments would come loose when I shoveled snow, giving the snow a pinkish cast, around the edges.

The thick cypress hedge is gone; the former tulip bed and sand box area where I used to keep my tree farm is no more. The terrace at the back of the house, facing the long lawn... seems to have been paved over. The big willow tree where I used to have my rope and swing is gone... although I seem to remember it coming down in a storm some people called "the hurricane." The other big hawthorn tree, where I used to jump in the piles of autumn leaves I'd raked, is also gone. At the far end of the yard-- where our huge kitchen garden used to be-- only the "footprint" of the kitchen garden remains; otherwise it appears to just be a bed with assorted trees and shrubs. When I back out the view a bit, there now appear to be two new houses on what used to be the Ragoczy family's property, next door...

These changes... which feel like from "something" to "nothing" sit there as a reminder that the only constant in life is change. No matter what we may believe (and wish for), nothing can ever be "as it used to be." It can only be "as it is, now." I look around our entire old neighborhood, and most of the changes I see reflect that "in Denmark, there are no longer rich people who own large estates." The Smidstrupøre estate sits as the lone reminder of days gone by... a giant red brick seaside edifice overlooking the sound between Denmark and Sweden. It is a different world, now. A world I barely recognize as something I once was part of; something I tried to call "home," for a while

I move the map to the side, towards the house and sprawling grounds where my Aunt Grete used to live. There are still fields on two sides and the woods where I used to walk our dog remain. I don't think anyone keeps chickens at "Dortheaborg" anymore. Mr. Pedersen's expanse of colorful lupins has been mowed and is now just "another lawn," and what was once Aunt Grete's large kitchen garden with the most marvelous red raspberries is now just another grove of shrubs and trees.

Nothing can ever be as it used to be. On top of that, I feel like I am a witness, once again, to how people of our time increasingly remove the "hands on" aspects of living life.

The old farm house-- where I lived as a pre-teen-- still sits at the bend in the road where it has been since the 1780's, but it is surrounded by new houses. The neighboring family's land is home to most of them. Paved driveways have replaced horse paddocks. Oddly enough, the antlers on the end of the gable of Hanne & Viggo's house are still up there, 40 years later... just too hard to get to and remove, I suppose. Where we lived in the adjacent wing, a few of the cypresses and thujas I helped plant are still there, facing the street. They are tall mature trees, now, slightly scraggly. They look "tired," somehow. Our kitchen garden-- where our dog would dig up the new potatoes-- is long gone, too... now a paved parking area in front of a couple of houses. All around, there are new buildings. It feels oddly... claustrophobic... now, where before it felt rather "airy" and open.

I feel strangely sad, when I look at it all, now.

When I consider all these images, they all send a message: "We don't have time to take care of things anymore-- let's just pave them over and go for minimum maintenance."

I ponder that, for a moment... and the strange way we humans so often wish for "better times ahead" when we are younger, and then grow up to "long for the way things once were" as we age.

Back yard, November 2013
I switch my perspective from the past, to the present. Cape George, Washington, USA... our house, seen from the air. There is a circle in the back yard; the labyrinth we built... now finished, since the last satellite pass. What will people see, 50 years from now, when we are most likely gone? Will there still be a circle there? Will there still be signs of the vegetable beds we are planning to build? Will people look at the property from above and observe that some "strange people" who still had a "hands on" approach to the land lived here, at some point?

We go off chasing virtual worlds... and in doing so, it seems like we have become increasingly far removed from the earth beneath our feet. I worry, at times, that we have become SO far removed from it that we no longer understand the basic "care and feeding" of the planet. We "talk" about saving the environment, but do we "live" our talk?

And I worry, now, that we have really learned nothing... and as people start moving off towards colonizing Mars, we will merely bring our "bad habits" with us... having not yet learned how to develop "good habits" at home before we strike out to explore and settle other places between the stars.

Way back in the when-- when I wrote endlessly about "The Universe and Everything" in my personal journals-- I wove exceptionally complex descriptions of a version of the Greater Universe that was always a place where people were not so angry, not so loud, not so warring, no so aggressive, not so competitive, not so violent, not so dirty, not so destructive as I watched them be, all around me.

I don't know what it says about me-- as a 13-16 year old-- that these were my core preoccupations in the fantastical worlds I visualized inside my head. In those worlds, there was no "slaying" of anything, and there were no "battles between species," there were no "huge wars." The beauty of it was cooperation, exploration and peaceful trade. And nature didn't have to be "beaten down," and people weren't too busy and stressed to take care of their surroundings.

And yet... even by the very few trusted people with whom I shared some of these visions, I was typically told that I was a "delusional dreamer" and that "peaceful and gentle" is not in anyone's nature... that we're all basically "primitive, evil, vicious, selfish and aggressive." For 40+ years, I have pondered why my state of mind-- the place I "naturally go to"-- is SO different from everyone else's. I have no answers.

And to those who ask why it seems like I have always seemed "sad" or "mildly depressed," that is basically the underlying reason.

Yeah, yeah... I know. I'm "delusional." I'm "in denial about my true feelings." I'm "filled with repressed rage."

I have grown tired. I have become somewhat of a recluse-- at age 53-- because I have grown tired. Not only have I grown tired of the loudness and aggression and anger of the world-- and the inevitable destructive consequences thereof-- but I have grown tired of "defending my reality" to the endless stream of people who seem compelled to impress on me that MY reality can't be "real" because it's not the same as their own.

As if, somehow, allowing me to have my perception somehow denies them the right to have theirs. Oh. I'm sorry. I forgot. When someone has a different viewpoint from your own, it's considered a "personal attack." My bad....

Thinking about it... makes me feel sad.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Endless Mysteries of Being Human, Part 539: Violence

In my 50-something years of life on this planet, certain aspects of this thing called "Being Human" remain somewhat of a mystery to me.

The tendency of (many) people to respond with some form of violence (physical, verbal, psychological) when their paradigm is questioned or challenged is one of them.

OK, so you don't agree with what I (or someone else) said... or see things differently... and your response is to reach out and "beat" the person who's challenging your paradigm?

It's everywhere, it seems-- from the sand box of my childhood to bullies in school to domestic violence to the way we portray "problem solving" in movies to the wars between nations.

Don't get me wrong here: I grasp the whole litany of rationalizations and "scientific reasoning" the gets spewed in defense of someone who punched a friend (or not-friend) in the face for liking the wrong football team. I can also empathize with someone's underlying pain.

That's not the point.

The point is that in the root of my being; at the center of who I am... I don't understand it. I don't understand the core spark that leads to (metaphorical) "problem solving with your fists."

Back when I lived "down south" (where Big Guns and Big Talk are plentiful) I would occasionally overhear genuine conversations between "seemingly rational and normal" people, in which someone who confess that if "some Ed Bob" were to try to break into their truck and try to steal their stereo, they'd pull out their gun and "kill that mofo!"

Such observations were shared in the same matter-of-fact tone one might use when saying "There are rats in the garage, I've put some traps out there."

I simply don't "get" it.

And I could never complete the equation of same said people sitting in church on Sunday worshiping a God, one of whose core teachings was "Thou shalt not kill."

I also don't "get" the attendant-- albeit subtle-- cultural subtext that if you DON'T "reach out and touch someone" when they do or say something we don't like or understand... we're somehow part of "The Wussification of America." At the very least, someone will confiscate your "Badass Badge."

The "counter-argument" I always get goes something like "Well, if someone was hurting someone you loved and you had a gun, you'd shoot them, too!"

I've thought about that, as well. We do want to protect our loved ones, for sure... and under "extreme circumstances" we will do extreme things.

My thought is that if you happen to have a gun, and you're a good enough shot that you can shoot someone in the head, you're also a good enough shot that you can shoot them in the knee.

But again... this diverts into a sidetrack of semantics.

I never quite understood the whole "Badass" thing, either. "He's a badass, she's a badass, that's a badass car, that's a badass dog."

Having lived in many countries around the globe, that seems to be a uniquely American concept... although it seems to be gaining traction in other parts of the whirled. I don't "get" it-- entirely-- because it seems to emphasize as a "virtue" when someone is "Big Scary and Intimidating."

My father-- God rest his troubled soul-- was Big, Scary and Intimidating. As a little kid, I remember being somewhere with him-- I think, actually, it was a trip to the factory where he was the CEO-- and getting "a talk" about respect. He was an imposing man with a volcanic temper and a strong will. Yet... I watched him interact with the people he told me "respected" him... and from my 10-year old vantage point, all I could really see was that these people feared him.

In my world, FEAR is not the same thing as RESPECT.

I respect Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. I fear Stalin and Hitler. See the difference?

I'm sure there are people who's consider His Holiness a "badass" but I have my doubt His Holiness has ever given the idea a second-- let alone even a first-- thought. He simply is who he is.

My thought is that if you have to think about "being" something... then you probably aren't it. It's like enlightenment... if you're "looking for it" you obviously don't have it.

I suppose that both these ideas... violence and badassishness... have their roots in the fear of powerlessness. And maybe that's one of the "root" places where we really need to try to heal the world... at the level of its fear; people's fear... that they are powerless, and somehow need to "compensate."

Meanwhile, I still don't truly "get" it....

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Ridiculousness and Real Cost of Heath Care in America

After some 30+ years of living in this country (the US being "this country" and Denmark being "where I came from") I have come to the conclusion that one of the things that annoy me the most about living here is insurance.

Or rather... the cost of insurance-- and especially the cost of health insurance.

People talk a lot about the "standard of living" in the US, but how do you really measure the standard of "living?" Sure if you look at the median income, it's a pretty nice number, compared to a lot of places in the world. You can also look things like Gross National Product per capita, and things still look pretty nice. The problem with those metrics is that they are "just numbers" but don't really look at "where" people truly are.

Here's the thing... when you look at "what can you actually DO with your life once you've paid for the basic expenses of living" things kinda suck. And that's the fundamental truth of living in 21st century America-- we may look like we have a lot of money... but we also have to pay a monumental pile of expenses... and when you consider the equation from the angle of "how many units of basic lifestyle can I buy with an hour of averagely compensated work" things are not so good.

And then... things are complicated further by the fact that we have utterly unrealistic expectations about what we "should be able to get" with the money we do have... there's this odd sense of "entitlement" that we "should" be able to buy boats, McMansions, trips to Europe, $300 sneakers, flat screen TVs and redecorate our house every three years with the relatively tiny pile of actual disposable income we have left over, at the end of the day, after basic expenses. And that really doesn't work, in a functional sense... the only thing it "works" towards is creating a bunch of underlying anger and frustration about how we "never have enough."

But I am digressing.


It's "a job" around here to pay the bills... And I keep looking at just how many of these bills are about insurance. Health insurance, auto insurance, homeowners insurance, title insurance, life insurance... insurance, insurance, insurance.... we're up to our eyebrows in insurance because we all seem to be hanging by such a fragile string that unless we're "insuring" ourselves to the hilt, everything we have and believe in could all "go away" if the slightest mishap comes our way.

Top of my "annoyance" list is health insurance. Now, granted, I grew up in a part of the world that has socialized medicine... so perhaps my perspective is skewed. In this household, we have been paying $611.00 per month in health insurance premiums... all for the privilege of being "insured" but still having a... get ready for it... $6,000.00 deductible.

"On paper," what that adds up to is that no matter what, our "healthcare" costs us over $7,300.00 per year (the premiums)... before we even grab the first Kleenex to blow our noses. Now if we do need the services of a doctor or "something medical" (as most of us do, as we move into our 40's, 50's and beyond) we're still out-of-pocket for the next $6,000... meaning that our health, allowing for occasional mishaps and visits to the doctor + medications means we've spent $13,300 per year before we've derived any damn "benefit" from "being insured."

Of course, just because we "hit that mark" doesn't suddenly mean that "it's paid for." Now we get into all the technicalities of "co-payments" and "disallowed" items and so forth.

Now, a $6,000.00 deductible may sound like a HUGE amount... but it's really less than you think. Why? Because we live in this society where it's (a) assumed that "it'll be covered by insurance" and (b) everyone is incredibly litigious, which drives up the cost of malpractice insurance, which drives up medical costs... you can use that up that deductible in a hurry. For example, Sarah went to the doctor this spring ($180.00) which required some bloodwork and labs costing $1,270.00, of which the insurance company covered no more than an "administrative adjustment" of $127.00. That's pretty normal, in the real world.

But getting back to that out-of-pocket annual amount of $13,300.00 for our health... that amounts to $1,108.00 a month just for "breathing air" without being seriously sick. That's more than most people's rent. Or mortgage payment. Or all utilities and food, combined. And we haven't even covered the "other" kinds of insurance we're having to pay for... auto, home, life, etc.

Now, you might think we have a really crappy insurance plan... but based on a lot of research, along with the insistence from other people (medical and private) that "it's actually a really good plan," this seems to be pretty much "what to expect" in 21st century America... unless you're working for some large employer of the government and get medical as part of the package.

OK, so let me back up. I said "America." I don't mean "America." The United States. Our neighbors to the north in Canada don't really have these kinds of issues (at least not to such an extent) because they have a form of national health care. Although healthcare in Mexico is not fully nationalized, it is effectively of a quality and cost low enough that many US based health insurance providers actually require their customers living within reasonable distance of the Mexican border to go to Mexican hospitals for many procedures.

In the US, we're very proud of our national self-reliance... but that may also be our Achilles heel when it comes to public health. The entire nation was founded on a mistrust of government, so it is not surprising that the idea of socialized medicine is a "hot potato" in the US. And I harbor no delusions that this attitude will ever substantially change. And then there's the age-old argument "yeah, but you would have to pay it in taxes, anyway!"

We'll get back to that one...

For me, such a central part of where the healthcare debate in the US completely misses the mark is in the way the vast majority of dialogue is centered on the practical aspects of public health. From where I am sitting, the vast part of it actually looks more like a social and societal issue that gets swept under the rug most of the time.

In the US, we're very attached to the whole "equal rights" thing, and how everyone should have "equal access" and all that good stuff, and yet... when you have a "for profit" type of healthcare system (or, for that matter, any type of for profit system) you automatically create a sort of "meritocracy" in which service is more readily available to those of means and is dished out according to financial ability, rather than actual need. Bottom line-- which we really don't like to look at, as a free enterprise culture-- in a for-profit system there is really no (or little) money to be made from peddling services to poor people.

The other-- and subtler, but potentially more pervasive-- issue involves the subtext and implications that go with living in a culture that has no "safety net."

We may not think of this on a conscious level, but for many people in the US, "getting seriously ill" basically means "losing everything you have" or going into bankruptcy... same end effect, either way. That knowledge "lives" as a constant undercurrent in our society. Probably two-thirds of the population-- if faced with some kind of major medical event-- would find themselves "on the rocks."

"True," you might say, "but so what?"

Well, if your life is subtly but constantly influenced by an underlying fear that you're "not going to have enough" it is also going to fuel a constant drive to try to get "more" to compensate for this fear. That's simply human nature-- psychology 101. Of course, fear of "lack" drives the quest for "more," and the quest for "more" ultimately drives "greed" (subtle, or not so subtle)... and the failure to get "more" leads to an undercurrent of frustration and anger. And where does living in a perpetual state of subtle anger and frustration lead? On the "soft" end, to ulcers and anxiety (requiring healthcare!) and on the "hard" end to marginally abusive and violent tendencies.

No, I'm not talking about actual physical violence, I'm talking about about the violence and abuses inherent in extremely competitive workplaces where the actual "contest" for "more" and "overcoming our fears of not having enough" play out.

Now, let's get back to those taxes... and how "we'd have to pay for it, anyway." To some degree, true. Of course there would be taxes. But it would be less than we pay out of pocket, right now... because the cost of the "profit motive" would go away. Healthcare would be a "basic service" like police and fire.

Funny, how that works. We're "OK" with having firefighters be a "public service," but not our health.

Ever considered a conversation that goes "Well, Martha, the house is on fire but we couldn't afford the fire service insurance this month, so it'll have to burn down because we can't afford to pay the fire fighters to come out." Probably not. Yet... that's what we do with our health.

"Yeah, but the really GOOD people would no longer become doctors in a non-profit system... "

Mmm... really? I have some major philosophical issues with that line of thinking.

Maybe I'm being overly naive or idealistic here, but the fundamental fallacy behind that argument is that it assumes "doctors are only in it for the money." This assumes that people go to medical school not because they are actually interested in medicine and healing people... but only because they can "make $400,000 a year."

Two (major) things to consider:

One, if "the lure of big bucks" was actually a bit less, wouldn't we actually end up with more doctors who were genuinely interesting in healing people, rather than those mostly looking for wealth? In a sense, wouldn't the system be self-adjusting towards creating a pool of doctors who care more, rather than care less?

Two, if you were a physician who was part of a structured not-for-profit system... where-- for example--your malpractice insurance premiums would all but vanish, and the need to constantly market yourself and "run a business" largely dropped away... wouldn't you not only be able to focus more on "practicing medicine" and still actually be "relatively" well off since your drop in gross income is partially offset by a drop in operating expenses?

Meanwhile... on a more personal level... if I there was some kind of safety net between me and the potential for destitution, I wouldn't have this eternal knot of worry in my stomach. And if I wasn't out this monthly $1,108.00 I might not feel quite so much like no matter what we do, it never seems to be "enough."

What do YOU think? I know it's a complex debate-- but everyone seems to have an opinion. And if you live outside the USA... what's your take on "healthcare in America?"

Friday, August 9, 2013

Beginnings, Developments, Declines and Resurrections-- the Dubious Joy of Living with ADD

Every now and then, I think about "resurrecting" this blog, even though I can't exactly say that I have ever officially "abandoned" it.

The combination of being "a writer" and "living with ADD" is a strange place, sometimes most of the time. I have never been one of those writers who sits there, staring at a blank screen or page, lamenting their "Writer's Block." Mostly... I lament that I can't keep all my ideas organized enough to remember what I've already thought about, and written about.

The challenge is trying to stay focused on one idea long enough... and being able to tune out (or at least "postpone") the 47 that come up while I am working on the first one.

When I started blogging... sometime before blogs had actually been invented... my writing was most centered around "Generalized Daily Emotional Vomit." Not particularly attractive, entertaining or fun... but it did help me work through some "stuff." Eventually, I gave up on "general" blogging and instead pursued an increasing number of "micro-niche blogs" each of which was related to a specific interest (or work aspect) of mine. I still do that, quite a bit 99% of the time.

As the years have rolled by, more and more of my writing has been developed into a free-standing "article format" rather a blog format. The thing with blogs (at least the more interesting ones, in my opinion) is that they tend to be a conglomeration of "serialized thoughts." I have seldom felt very compelled to keep up with blogs that are about "shaving monkeys" one day, "changing an oil filter" the next, and "recipes for peach pie" the subsequent one. I see that approach and I'm like "Pick a lane, ANY lane, and stay in it."

And yet?

In SPITE of the fact that I was taught-- in college, and while working in the IT industry-- that the true sign of a good organization system was "never needing a MISC folder" I have to confess that I often end up with those dreaded "MISC" ideas. Even though I have a veritable smörgåsbord of venues to which I can share ideas.

Maybe one of the true banes of the ADD mind is that it's all but impossible to simply "discard and forget" something you've thought up. Makes me think people with ADD are the "psychological hoarders" of the world... we hoard "ideas," rather than "stuff."

The irony of my sitting here, writing these words, is that I was actually working on a different post/article... which was (IMNSHO) really quite good and insightful, and yet I couldn't think of a "place" to put it. It didn't really "fit" with any of the other things I normally write about. And it annoyed me... because it seemed idiotic to "waste a perfectly good idea." And so, I got sidetracked into "cleaning up" this old general writing venue... which involved giving it a quick "face lift" and updated appearance....

... of course, in the meantime, I thought up a way to "slant" my earlier post so that it would fit into one of my established "specialty venues," thereby making my efforts here "a waste of time," which-- in turn-- also annoyed me, so I decided to sit here and write for a bit, anyway.

Not sure why, though...

Maybe just as an illustration (and warning!) of the convoluted bullshit the ADD mind goes through. And it's not even NOON, yet!