Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Know Thyself

I noticed years ago that companies sometimes treat the weaknesses of their products as strengths in marketing.  At the time, a shampoo that was difficult to get suds from was being advertised as yielding mountains of suds while another shampoo that produced mountains of suds was advertised as effective against dandruff, a claim I found overstated as I brushed flakes off my shoulders.

Today I got a survey call at work from Duke Energy.  The interviewer wanted to know how well they were doing at keeping the electricity on, notifying us of outages, communicating hints and tips for saving energy, keeping rates down, etc.

As I stumbled through the questions that seemed to go on and on, I realized that I have no expectations of Duke.  They provide electricity with impressive up-time and bill us for it.  We pay the bill.  That's it.  When the lights do go out, we wait for them to come back on.  I don't remember ever hearing more than rumors about how long the power would be out during the several local disasters they have had over the past few years -- 36 hours or so for one outage.  Several of the questions were about the quality of such communications and I didn't know how to rate NO communication at all.  Is that a 1 on the 1 to 10 scale?  Is there supposed to be communication?  Have I missed figuring out how to tap into that communication?

Meanwhile, where I live (as opposed to my workplace) we get our power from an REMC.  R for Rural.  REMCs are the Rodney Dangerfields of the power world.  They don't get no respect.  Lights flickering in a breeze, out for the count at the slightest provocation, much higher cost than the city folk pay.

And yet ... all the things Duke wanted me to rate them on that they don't do at all, REMC does well.  They send out a monthly newsletter with both statewide and local updates on what's happening in the world of electricity, along with recipes, tips for using less electricity, and human-interest stories.  The rates are comparable to Duke's.  When I call to report a power outage, knowing that it may not be widespread enough for immediate notice on their end, they offer to call me when it is supposed to be restored.  (And if I don't answer they leave a message on my electricity-powered answering machine telling me the electricity is back on, which tickles my funny-bone when I hear it.)  They send out crews regularly to trim back the limbs that would otherwise cause flickering during wind storms (and took down a huge red oak tree for us once that was dead and threatening their lines if it came down -- at no charge).  We have no complaints about the up-time we get from REMC and, in fact, have had much less total downtime than Duke customers in recent times.  And REMC talks to us through that monthly publication.  All the things that the mighty Duke corporation was asking about for which I had no answers, I could have provided good positive feedback for my lowly REMC.  (And, yes, it's my REMC.  It's a Member-owned Cooperative and I am one of the owners.)

Just kind of funny.  I never even thought about expecting Duke Energy to provide the level of friendly hometown service we get from REMC.  Now that my eyes are opened ... I'll just be more grateful that I have REMC at home and Duke at work.  Is Duke really thinking about communicating with their customers in friendly, helpful ways?  They certainly have a long hill to climb toward that goal!

Monday, December 03, 2012

New direction?

This blog is going on eight years old and has lacked purpose from the beginning.  It didn't take long for me to vent all my angst on issues I considered fit for public consumption.  (Not that all that much public has shown up, but still...)  I find that I'm more inclined to jump into online discussions started by others than to do monologs here in blogland.  (I know, more readers would bring comments, which would be sort of like having a discussion, but I would still be responsible for initiating every new topic.)

Last week, however, I found a new love in the world of social media -- goodreads.com.  I know it has been around a while.  I've probably even seen it mentioned in my Facebook feed.  I just never paid attention to it.

What makes it so attractive now is that, after many years hiatus, I'm back to reading fiction for pure enjoyment.  This is prompted by two unrelated happenings that happened to coincide:

1.  I bought a mini-tablet off ebay -- an Archos 32.  Although it runs Android applications and does fairly well with them, it's goal in life, it's favorite activity, is to be an mp3 player.  It fits perfectly into a shirt pocket or will nestle down into the pocket of sweats and feed me audiobooks as I DO OTHER THINGS!  This is amazing.  Books have always fought to KEEP me from doing other things.  Now books are keeping me company while I clean or cook or do other mindless tasks that drive me crazy in their mindlessness.

2.  The local library joined a consortium offering not only ebooks, but also audiobooks, many available in mp3 format.

I tried nonfiction, but it's not a good fit.  Fiction flows more easily and requires less concentration, which is good since I'm DOING OTHER THINGS while listening and am sometimes only half listening.

This morning I was messing around over at goodreads.com and wrote a review of one of the most enigmatic classics I have ever read:  The Great Gatsby.  I noticed that goodreads would like me to post the review to my blog.  Aha!  This might be a good fit.  I'll try it and see.
The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have a list of New Year's resolutions for readers that includes the suggestion of revisiting a book you just didn't get when you were 18.  This suggestion prompted me to try The Great Gatsby again in my 40s.  I still don't get it.  A bunch of shallow people do shallow things.  And it's a classic.

This is obviously a sign of something lacking on my part.  Fortunately, I am more appreciative of other classics and my self-esteem is only slightly bruised by my inability to appreciate this one story which is so loved by others.  It remains a puzzle, however.  Maybe I'll try it again in my 60s and see if I'm to the point yet where I can appreciate it.

View all my reviews
That's it.  Not much of a review.  I didn't even particularly like the book.  (The second star was a recognition of the book's place in classic literature.  On my own, it would have been a 1-star rating.)  But we'll see where things go from here.  I was amazed at how little time it took browsing goodreads to pile up over 200 books on my "read" shelf.  I am only vaguely aware of how many books I have read over a lifetime, but it obviously must be a much higher number.  Still, there are many more that I haven't read and goodreads did an excellent job of zeroing in on my interests and pulling up titles that I immediately recognized as good friends.  I think I like this place!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Oh, you stupid phone!

In August I retired my Dell PDA and bought an Archos minitablet from eBay. Nice little device except for one glaring flaw -- no speakers, only a headphone jack. I have used my PDA for doing calendar reminders for years. This was a rather disappointing "upgrade."

Around that same time, I realized I was eligible for a cell phone upgrade and got an itch to do it. I looked around and found a Samsung Brightside phone -- not a smart phone, but pretty smart for a dumb phone. It has nice calendar and alarm features.

One of the reminders I need is to do an injection every other evening (for the MS that has been keeping very quiet since an attack in summer 2011). It's simple -- every 2 days do a reminder alarm at 9:00 p.m. Not a big deal.

I set up the alert. It worked once -- embarrassing me by playing its little ditty while I was sitting in a meeting, which obviously was running a little long. It has not worked since. I have deleted it, reprogrammed it, found an alarm that works and modified it, changed the ring tone, and everything else I can think of. Every Sunday morning at 10:15 my phone faithfully reminds me it's time to head to the church sanctuary for worship. Every night at 9:00 it sits there and does nothing.

Tonight I decided to do a search to see if anyone else has had similar problems with this phone. It turns out there are a bunch of very angry Samsung Brightside users hanging around the Verizon forums! (Where were all these people when I did a search for reviews before buying the phone?)  People who used to depend on their phone to wake them up for work or, like me, remind them about medication schedules until they bought this model. Lots of complaints about alarms that work once or twice or longer and then quit or never work at all, a few "this might work" suggestions, but no fix coming from the manufacturer. I tried one of the suggestions -- turning the phone volume to "alarm only." Then I realized I wasn't really using the alarm function, that I had a calendar alert. Is that the same? And anyway, I really didn't want to turn off my phone ringer. So I turned it back up.

At 8:45 my phone alerted me that it's an injection night, for the first time since that September meeting.

Really?? That's the key? Turn the volume down to "alarm only" and then turn it back up? Or does it have more to do with having the phone close to a computer screen full of suggestions that it is the worst phone ever marketed and should be trashed?

Once again, I'm thinking that demon possession is really the only reasonable explanation for the quirks of office machines and computing devices.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Important Tasks

Yesterday I removed an old apple tree stump from the yard. We replaced the old tree several years ago with a different variety and the root ball has been sitting next to the new young tree and serving as the heart of a weed patch in the front yard.

This is not a big deal. Our yard is large, mostly in front of the house, and is surrounded by untamed woodland. There are evergreens between the weed patch and the road. My clothesline with its sagging posts is nearby. No one trims under the other fruit trees in the yard or around the clotheslines poles. Ours is a country yard, not a manicured city lot. In context, the weed patch is not nearly the eyesore one might expect.

Still, yesterday was another beautiful spring day and I was lured into tackling the weeds. One thing led to another, the wheelbarrow was called into play, and the stump will now continue its decay in the woods rather than the front yard.

Was this an important task? No. It has not once earned a place on my to-do list. Was it urgent? Not at all. In fact, it's a prime example of the benefits of procrastination -- the longer it stayed there and decayed, the easier it was to break it apart for removal. Were there more important and urgent tasks on my to-do list? Absolutely. Just the thought of those very important and uncompleted tasks with their looming deadlines starts a tempest of anxiety within my mind.

So why did I choose yesterday to move the old stump out of the front yard? Why not complete the urgent and important tasks first and then reward myself by doing something more pleasant?

Two reasons. First, did I mention it was a gorgeous spring day? And not a single important and urgent task involved outside activity. I wanted to be outside more than I wanted to clear off my to-do list. But more than that, I'm beginning to realize that I am blessed with so many opportunities in life I could fill all my days doing urgent and important things and never get around to moving the old apple tree stump out of the front yard. Or writing posts such as this. If I ever cleared out all the clamor of my current to-do list, I would discover more opportunity to do more tasks that would look just as valuable as the ones currently clamoring for my attention.

I have often started an appointment-free Saturday with the realization that I could fill it completely with unfinished job-related tasks. Or church-related tasks. Or homeowner tasks. Or I could spend the entire day building relationships. Or I could catch up on reading and writing and sewing and other pleasurable tasks for which there is never enough time. I could fill such a day five times over! And at the end of that multiplied day I would discover more job- and church-related tasks, more projects to tackle around the house, more books to read, posts to write, more relationships begging for attention. And the weeds would still be growing tall around the old apple tree stump in the front yard because, with all those urgent and important tasks demanding my attention, it's not that big a deal to have one more weed patch in the yard.

In light of all this, I could make a resolution to deliberately devote some time every day to unimportant tasks that serve to refresh my soul. Or I could simply spend less effort fighting the siren call of such satisfying but unimportant activities. Sometimes I just need to shrug off the burden of overcommitment, go out in the sunshine and move old stumps, and let the to-do list deal with the resulting loss of time resources.

Related posts:
What Is It about a Garden?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

#10 Suffering produces character.

This last entry in my expositions on Ten Things to Remember has been slow in coming. One reason for the delay is that, like the first entry, this last one, the other bookend, strikes me mostly as a platitude. Yes, I know. God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life. (Yawn.) When that wonderful life starts to fall apart, people tell me I'm unlovable, and my emotions spiral downward, it's hard to believe it. I can give mental assent when my heart cries out it isn't true, but it seems hollow.

Now here we are at the other end with another platitude: Suffering produces character. There are at least two passages from the Bible to support this thought: Romans 5:3-5 and James 1:2-4. Our parents, grandparents, and other mentors in life also sometimes like to remind us of this truth when they tire of our whining. Most of us, however, would gladly give up a little character development if we could find a way to avoid the hard times. And we all know people of weak character who readily relate all of life's difficulties that stand between them and being a better person. Sometimes, it seems, the primary product of difficult circumstances is wounded, unhappy people.

Still, it's true. When we choose to allow it, difficult times can indeed be good for us. They drive us to the God who alone can redeem them and turn what looks to be hopelessly bad into good. In the Bible, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph, the favored son of Jacob (aka Israel) sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, assures them that God used the terrible evil they did for good by enabling him to save the world as they knew it from starving to death during seven years of famine.

The worst evil people can do can be redeemed by the amazing life-giving power of our Creator. Hard times can work wonders within us. This I truly believe. But when trouble shows up and punches me in the gut, in those times of emotional distress, it's hard for me to see character as worth the price.

I can imagine a stand-up comedian getting some good laughs by pulling out this line, harking back to the lack of support from friends and family during the tough times. Which is maybe the greatest value it has when I'm flailing around at the bottom of an emotional pit. It can draw my attention to the world of laughter and irony and enable me to smile just a little at the drama which has so consumed my energy and skewed my perspective. I consider the measure of my suffering on a universal scale (pitifully low considering the intensity of my reaction to it) and consider how much character development I can hope to get out of it. Maybe being able to step out of myself and find even that tiny trace of humor in my heart at how serious I'm taking life's blows is a first step toward both emotional health and a stronger character.

So when I'm counting to ten in response to life's blows, if the first nine don't give me a hand up out of my slough of despair, I can at least fall back on this timeless piece of advice coming from those who aren't walking where I'm walking and think about what wonderful character development I can hope for if I manage to endure my suffering to the end.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

#9 The words are not the message

I don't know about you but I regularly interact with people who don't articulate their feelings well. Sometimes they are unable to do so. They may not be in touch with their inner selves enough to know what lies behind their surface emotions. Other times they choose to hide their real feelings from me. Sometimes it's a combination. Hiding their inner feelings from me is an unavoidable part of hiding from themselves.

I recently triggered the defenses of a friend. In his “constructive criticism” response, he put a negative label on my viewpoint and told me I was blind to the truth about him and his actions. It was a struggle for me to look beyond the negative label I didn't want to wear and the word arrows being shot my way to recognize that the message my friend was giving me was that my words to him had hit a sensitive spot. I wanted to bring in proof of my visual acuity and persuade him to take back the negative label. I wanted to respond to his words rather than to the wounded spirit that prompted them. The urge to vindicate myself was strong.

When such scenes play themselves out, the words spoken tend toward extreme positions: “You never ...” “You always ...” They hold me personally responsible for bringing unpleasantness into the world. My own defenses spring to life and I make rebuttal statements. After all, the words contains untruths and I like to get the facts straight. But when I focus on the words I am missing the point. These negative words are generally not about me. They are a trap, a distraction. There is a message behind them that I'll miss if I'm not careful.

A couple of examples:

The words:
You are always late. [Not true. I am usually very prompt, seldom early, and do slip into late more than I like, but I am NOT "always late".]

The message:
The time I spent waiting for you has upset me.
Or maybe, I have had a bad day and your tardiness isn't helping.
Or maybe, I was hoping you would be early because I'm on a tight schedule today.

The words:
You didn't do a thing to help me. [Maybe not, but it's not as though I was sitting around doing nothing. Do you want to hear my excuses for not helping?]

The message:
I am tired.
Or maybe, I am struggling with this project.
Or maybe, this project has left me feeling isolated and alone.
Or maybe, I feel like our friendship is fading.

When words start raining down on me and my “truth detector” urges me to set the person behind them straight concerning their erroneous statements, I really need this reminder to look beyond the exaggeration, the non sequitors, and the accusations to the nature of the pain that brought out the word arrows. Otherwise, I'm just examining incoming arrows for balance and weight without figuring out who is shooting at me and why. If I can get beyond the words, I can ask the right questions to figure out what's really going on.

Even though it's almost at the end of my list of ten things to remember, this is in the running for the most needed reminder of the bunch. The words are not the message.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

#8 What Goes Around Comes Around -- or: God Is Not Mocked

The connection between the two title choices of this eight item on my list of ten things to remember may not be obvious. The first version traces back to using a revolving door as a memory 'hook' for it. The door goes around and around. Moving one door panel inevitably moves the entire door. If I don't move with it, it will sneak up behind me and smack me in the back. I'll be the victim of my own actions.

The "God is not mocked" phrase comes from Galatians 6:7. In the NIV it reads: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." Again, a chosen action (sowing a particular seed) inevitably leads to a predictable consequence. Pushing a door panel makes the entire door go around. Planting corn seed never gives you peas. If you plant corn, corn is what you can expect to grow.

This eighth thing to remember is related to the seventh and enables the seventh. When I pass on the love and mercy of God to those who don't deserve it, I give up my right and responsibility to set them straight. This could lead to a terrible injustice without the reaping-what-you-sow principle. This principle tells me that justice is built into the world and is completely independent of my efforts. I don't have to reflect someone's negative behavior to show them how it feels to be treated the way they are treating others. The whole universe is set up to handle that reflectivity. I can be confident that those who treat me with contempt will be on the receiving end of contempt at some point (if they haven't already experienced it). Those who are selfish will encounter selfish behavior in others. Those who demonstrate hatred will encounter hatred directed their way. The principle of reflectivity is so deeply ingrained in the universe that I am completely expendable as a mirror and can focus all my energy on reflecting the love and mercy of God rather than giving people a taste of their own medicine.

This principle of justice is revealed all through the Bible and abundantly demonstrated around us when we look through eyes of faith. I can look around and see that those who criticize me are often the subject of criticism. Those who fail to listen find few listeners. Those who dig pits to trap others often fall into those pits.

The psalms often talk of the wicked living well for a time, but note that their end is always destruction. It may look like everything is coming up roses for those who trample over me, but I can be confident that the thorns are there and will inevitably snag them.

The more faith I have in this principle the easier it is to resist the urge to push back against people whom I perceive to be mistreating me. Every seed they sow will inevitably produce a harvest. Those who are sowing seeds of unpleasantness may already be living in a world full of unpleasantness directed their way. Regardless of whether that's the cause or effect of their own unpleasantness, I can afford to be compassionate toward them, knowing there is no lack of negative consequences already coming their way in connection with their negative actions and attitudes.

As I apply this principle to those who have brought my world crashing down, I also remember that I too will reap what I sow and start looking around my seed bin for seeds of kindness and compassion. That's the type of crop I would like to harvest when what I set in motion comes back around to me. It's often easier said than done, but it helps to keep this on my list of things to remember.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

#7 Life is Reflective -- Choose Your Source

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that those who are merciful will receive mercy (Mt 5:7), those who judge will be judged (Mt 7:1-2), and that we should treat others as we wish to be treated (Mt 7:12). These principles are often seen as L-shaped, i.e. God -- either in this life or the one to come -- will treat us (the vertical leg) as we have treated others (the horizontal leg). However, it doesn't take much sociological research to see that there is much truth in these statements on a strictly horizontal and immediate level. You can hear it in our language:

"I wonder how she would feel if people treated her that way!"

"It's time to give him a taste of his own medicine."

"You gotta fight fire with fire."

"He started it!'

"Don't hand it out if you can't take it."

"Now there's an example of the pot calling the kettle black."

It seems we are born with a natural instinct to treat people the way we perceive them to be treating others, particularly on the negative side of life. Those who criticize others are easy to see in a critical light. Those who are unforgiving aren't easy to forgive. Those who speak harshly to us stir up a hardness within us that makes us want to respond in equally harsh terms. It's not easy to be generous with people who hoard everything that comes their way.

Not only do we tend to reflect people's behavior back to them, we also tend to justify our own behavior. It's easy to see the attacks that come my way as unprovoked and undeserved. In contrast, my attacks on others are matters of self-defense or intended to let them know how it feels to be attacked so they don't do it anymore.

Into this back-and-forth clash of negative reflectivity come Jesus' teachings to reflect not the negative behavior of those around us but the love and grace, mercy and forgiveness of our heavenly Father. It's the positive side of reflectivity that is L-shaped; and God is the initiator. As God forgives us, we are to forgive others. As God is generous with us, we are to be generous with others. As God sees past what is ugly within us, we look past what is ugly in others. As God values us, we look for value in others. Rather than a mirror reflecting the negative behavior of others back to them, we reflect the love of God. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). As others have put it, we are moons -- cold dark rocks until we start reflecting the sun's light for all to see.

It is easy and natural to reflect the negative attitudes of those around me back to them, to be no more generous or accepting or forgiving than they are. It takes a deliberate choice to pass on to others the grace and mercy I receive from God. It helps to include on my list of ten things to remember a reminder to choose carefully my source for reflectivity.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

#6 -- Someday I will dance

The sixth thing on my list of Ten Things to Remember actually comes from a reminder to myself I wrote years ago. In its entirety, I don't think any commentary is needed.

Someday I will dance unhindered.
I will glide across the great expanse of heaven
with bright sparks of freedom and joy in my eyes,
leaping and whirling in perfect rhythm with the music.

With that gracefulness and freedom
waiting in the great beyond,
I can afford to rein in my exuberance for today,
matching my steps to those around me
no matter how slow or clumsy.

Because someday ...
I will put on my dancing shoes and dance.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

#5 -- Humiliation has yet to prove fatal

The fifth thing to remember on my list of ten has the morning newspaper for a memory hook. In this case, the newspaper is over my bowed head as I try to cover up my embarrassment. I am sure my life is over, that I am literally going to die of embarrassment. But as I wait for death to come the moments drag on ... and on ... and on... and it starts to occur to me that humiliation is not actually life-threatening, that I will almost surely live to see another day. So I take the newspaper off my head and add this insight to my list of ten things to remember, hoping that by remembering sooner rather than later, I can avoid the agony of waiting futilely for death to rescue me from my shame.

My earliest memory of shame happens to also be perhaps my earliest memory of being in church. My memories don't go back far into my preschool years and in this case I am old enough to know at least some of the words of the song being sung. As I sing along with enthusiasm, I am suddenly aware that the song is a "special," not a congregational, that I am the only one in the congregation singing. Oh, the shame! I bury my face in my mother's lap and cry piteously. I don't want anyone there to see me ever again. I just want to escape somehow. And amidst many, many moments that slip past me during that time of my life, it's that moment of shame and embarrassment that imprints itself in my mind and persists for these many years. Still, I survived the moment and went on to sing with gusto again.

I've grown up a little since that time. Now when I accidentally sing when I should be silent (in whatever form that takes), it is generally only mildly embarrassing to me. I make a mental note to find a way to avoid doing it again and move on. Usually. Sometimes I hide for a while, still waiting to die of embarrassment. But death consistently fails to rescue me and I eventually return to the game.

Someone has suggested that we wouldn't be nearly so concerned about what people think of us if we knew how little they do. It's a helpful thought, although it's offset in my mind by the realization of how many formative moments in my life have come from people who had no clue how powerful their words were and knocked me down without noticing. I don't want to be that kind of person. Still, it helps in times of shame to realize that most of the people I think are staring at me are actually too preoccupied with their own stuff to focus in on my embarrassment. There are a few perks to living in a world populated by self-centered humans. Even those heaping scorn on my head or pointing out my flaws will eventually get bored and move on. It's not as though I'm not even more broken than they know. One of life's many underrated blessings is the fact that no one gets to observe every stupid thing we do. The odd person who has nothing better to do than enjoy what they can see of my many slips in life is pretty desperate for entertainment.

And so, in moments when shame and humiliation flood my soul and make me look for a hole to crawl into, I try to instead fix my focus on life on the other side of that moment, to remember that such moments inevitably pass by and the only casualty is my pride, which always manages to recover and come back around to trip me up again. With this in mind, I can even consider the idea of throwing my stubborn pride to the lions when it's the only thing standing between me and more effective living. What freedom there is in realizing that humiliation has yet to prove fatal.