From Agitation to Love

A friend shared this link with me today, “We can’t survive in a state of constant agitation.” This paragraph is particularly good:

“Yes, actions are important; they are absolutely essential, in fact. But I don’t believe we can survive for long in a state of constant agitation. Our bodies and hearts need rest to replenish stores of energy. This is something best done from a place of love.”

This is the core, I think, of self-care, acting out of love for yourself. Treating yourself as you would a loved one – with kindness, compassion, and honesty. I know this is sounds new-agey to some, and crunchy-granola to others, but ask yourself this: Why shouldn’t you treat yourself this way? If self-love really means treating yourself in this manner, and the reason for doing so is to improve your life, what exactly is the problem?

I never understood this previously. It never occurred to me to treat myself halfway well. That’s why anger became lifestyle and stress became habit. I went on day by day, functioning, sometimes well, but more often than not, it was just good enough. I also didn’t enjoy life the way I should have. I loved my family, I loved my job, but life, perhaps not so much.

As I’ve written before, breathing helps. Counting single breaths, finding the moment, and remaining there, makes a difference and leads to patience. Impatience is costly as it leaves one unsatisfied.  All of this is related to agitation and reversing it. Stress, anger, impatience, are just ways to become and remain agitated. Remove the sources of agitation, if you can, change the responses to stress, and living becomes a little easier. If you can’t remove the agitation, try to reduce the amount of time it crosses into your life.

I have had a number of friends and family members dealing with addiction over the years. Sometimes it was them, their spouse, or other family member. Regardless of who it was with the problem, one of the issues we faced is “dwelling.” In recovery from addiction there is challenge enough for the person with the addiction to deal with the yen, the desire, for the substance or behavior at the source of the problem. In recovery, and I have seen this also with PTSD,  dwelling on past behaviors and failures becomes an issue. I think though it is about more than forgiveness of self or others, that’s hard enough. It is instead about moving on and living in the current moment.

This is hard.

You can dwell on the past all you want, but it is the past. It’s over. The only way you can change it is to change the remembered narrative. You can rewrite your memory. Make yourself the hero, or at least remove the blame from yourself. Of course, doing so is contrary to your best interests. It is fundamentally dishonest with one’s self and that just creates more problems on down the road. Somehow, you simply have to find a way to move on, while maintaining an honest recollection that allows your continued growth and development.

So, I think once you have learned to accept yourself and your history, and learn to love yourself as you are – a flawed individual seeking personal growth and development, you can learn to take better care of yourself. Self-care is critical and when done well, makes all these other things easier. You know you are engaging in good self-care when breathing becomes an act of love instead of a mere act of survival.

 

Caregiving and the Art of Waiting

In a discussion the other night, a friend made this observation:

“So much of a caregiver’s life is waiting.”

Exactly true. She was waiting while her care was in the clinic. I have done that so very many times. Sitting in the car or waiting room, with laptop and phone, trying make the most of every minute not directly involved in transport. Sometimes though, all one can do is just sit and wait. You expect a very short wait, you don’t bring a laptop, and ten minutes turns to 20, to 40, and the next thing you know, three hours have gone by. Three hours of nonproductive time, three hours of waiting.

It’s more than that also.

Waiting as a caregiver is…

…waiting for the next thing, for the next shoe to drop.

…waiting for something to change.

…waiting for them to get better.

…waiting for a need to be expressed.

…waiting for things to get worse.

…waiting to know what to do.

…waiting for the gift of patience.

These last two items are key. Sometimes to be a caregiver is to flounder in doubt about what to do, or rather, what is the best thing to do. Advice is rampant. Advice is also confused. Advice is also often ignorant. Figuring out what to do to support your charge, and more than that, to help them heal or to be comfortable, can be very difficult. It gets worse as you try to figure out things to do that do not increase their dependence on you.

Then there is the need for patience. Patience is hard, because its need is tied to all the waiting as much as it tied just to being patient with your patient.

***

Many of us were given a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” as a graduation gift. About midway through it’s excitement about the possibilities in the future, the reader is warned that things may get difficult. The streets are not marked, the path is not clear. The journey may get worse and you’ll wind up headed,

“toward a most useless place. 
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring,or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.”

Even though this passage has come to my mind in many waiting rooms, it is wrong. It is not always useless to wait. Sometimes waiting is the most useful thing one can do. It can also be the most caring, loving thing a person can do. The gift of time, from one to another, is precious.

***

Waiting can be a solitary activity. Waiting can also be a community activity. It was often enough that I found myself in the company of others waiting. Once Melinda started using the county transportation service, she did the waiting. The service often required her to wait hours for a pickup and return ride home. While this gave her some independence (freedom from me) it came at a price – inconvenience. And occasionally really poor service.

***

Over the summer I had to start physical therapy for some kind of damage to my ankle (it can cause screaming during my golf swing without drastically changing my swing). When I walked into the therapy wing of the orthopedics office, the receptionist said, “Oh hi! This is the first time I’ve seen you here for yourself.” Yep. I’m kind of recognizable enough because of my size, but two-plus years of escorting Melinda to PT and sitting patiently with a laptop, I leave something of an impression.

***

I guess with the passing of Tom Petty this week, quoting the chorus to The Waiting makes sense:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
-Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Waiting.

Waiting can be hard. But as caregivers, it is a large part of what we do. We do it because it needs to be done. We do it because of love, commitment, friendship, whatever reason. But has hard as it is, I do not think waiting is the hardest part. The hardest part is the sense of powerlessness that occurs sometimes daily when you just can’t make things stop hurting for your patient. That’s the hardest part, followed closely by learning to accept that you can do only so much for someone, and doing too much can, in fact, be too much.

We swore we’d travel darlin’ side by side
We’d help each other stay in stride
But each lover’s steps fall so differently
But I’ll wait for you
And if I should fall behind
Wait for me
-Bruce Springsteen, “If I should Fall Behind.”

Waiting is an art. It is an artform we can all do, but we can’t always do well. It’s easy enough to just wait, but to do so without impatience, with grace, takes practice and effort. It is easy to become frustrated and grumpy. Impatience with waiting feeds into these emotions and creates undesired and unneeded conflict. To avoid this, we generally try to find ways to be productive while waiting. It can help and it can also be necessary to keep work moving. When I could afford the time, I found that waiting was often a good time to just take time to be. The stress of intense, long-term caregiving is such that caregiver can lose, or at least feel like they’ve lost, any sense that any moment of time is their own. Taking those moments in a waiting room or a carpark can be just what’s needed to find a moment for self. It took me long enough to learn that lesson, but I did learn it.

Waiting is what we do.

 

Mythos, the West, and Manliness

This picture popped up in a discussion between my sister me (she’s the disheveled little girl causing trouble). But notice me. I’m ready for anything. There’s nothing I can’t handle.

medadanddaphne

After all, I’ve got my trusty six-shooter by my side.

Spending one’s boyhood in Chickasha, OK (the horse-trailer capital of the world and the birthplace of Cleavon Little (but I suspect more people know that I was born there than he)) made it next to impossible to know something about cowboys and to want to be one. It was also the time of the Lone Ranger, even if in re-runs, and the return to “those thrilling days of yesteryear.”

As a family picture, this is kind of oddity in that probably shortly after this, Daphne became the outgoing one, the focus of all attention. I think it must of have been not too long after this photo that things changed and she settled fully into her role as the middle child.

This picture bothers me. My eye continues to be drawn to the holster at my side. Even though it’s a toy, I feel look too comfortable with too much of a challenge in my eye. I don’t remember being a troublemaker at that age. I think that came much later. So I kind of hate the idea that I might be feeling empowered by having a gun at my side, even if it is a toy.

If I carry a gun today (which is rare, but I do deer hunt with a handgun occasionally), I feel weight. I feel the weight of responsibility in all its dimensions and risks. I feel far more responsibility than power. I also feel the actual weight. My choices in weapons lean towards the heavy and reliable. But heavy. I really find nothing empowering about a gun, knife, or other weapon. I find them burdensome, with the exception of a really good knife or Leatherman’s Tool in the great outdoors.

I’ve carried and used a lot of weapons. Everything from a pellet gun to a 90mm recoilless rifle with a lot of dangerous in between, so it’s not a question of lack of experience or knowledge. I have had some serious training, including sniper school at Ft. Campbell and I know how much fun it can be to just blow shit up with explosives. But I think I would tell little Tod, if I could, to find other toys. Not to ask for the Johnny Eagle M-14 and M-1911, both of which shot spring-loaded bullets.

On the other hand, I grew up having compulsion against serving in the Army and tackling whatever came my way, so it may not have been all that bad a thing to have all those toy guns. But Zach did not grow up with a toy guns, and instead had other toys that may have included cabbage patch dolls, but still he became a hunter. Peer experiences can be powerful.

I notice a lot of people carrying around town.

They don’t really seem to have the confidence of the little boy above.

 

 

Racing in the Streets

More than any place else I lived in growing up, I called Joplin, MO home. It was my Home of Record when I was in the Army. It was the place I went home to for the holidays and special events. It was the place I always returned to when life changed until after grad school.

Joplin is Midwestern town through and through. Coming of age there in the late 70s and early 80s cars, girls, and danger. Dragging Main Street was the thing to do on the Friday and Saturday nights. The endless cruising, talking car to car, stops in parking lots, the occasional fight, and the more frequent race off the change of the light.

I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot
Outside the Seven-Eleven store
Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
And he rides with me from town to town
We only run for the money, got no strings attached
We shut ’em up and then we shut ’em down

-Bruce Springsteen, “Racing in the Streets”

I kind of loved it all. Even though most weekends it was pathetically boring.

Except the racing.

Joplin is laid out overlapping the bulk of two Survey Townships. Two thirty-six square mile grids with main streets (including Main St.) spaced a mile apart and razor straight. Not flat, but not hilly enough to do much more than hide a waiting squad car. Officially, Main Street proper seems to be just under four miles. It’s not much, but it doesn’t need to be much with a dozen or so traffic lights interspersed and the only distance that matters is between two traffic lights.

I might have won a few races here and there. Now, I’m not admitting to have ever actually raced, because that would be wrong. Would have been wrong, and against my parents’ wishes and the way I was raised. And we know, a 1977 Ford Pinto was never expected to be fast.

Unless you knew it had a 2.8L six cylinder under the hood instead of a weak-ass four-banger.

I love cars when they work. I’ve learned to hate cars when they don’t. I tried being a mechanic. I replaced the warped aluminum four-cylinder of a Chevy Vega with an eight cylinder Chevy 350. That car was dangerously fast. Especially when the steering linkage failed.

***

Much of my life can be described as history of cars. Some good, some bad, some that I really, really, really should have stayed away from. There were one or two that seemed my heart and soul.

But I have no pictures of most. In some ways this is kind of strange, because for years I was trying to be a photographer. I never took pictures of my stuff or my life. I just took pictures of other people, other lives. This was brought home last Sunday when I received a Facebook friend request from someone I served with in the Army. We connected, exchanged a few messages, and I noticed he had pictures of those days.

It never occurred to me take pictures of my Army experience. Never. Admittedly, my life was pretty miserable because of the marriage I was in at that time so I am pretty sure I wasn’t thinking I would want to recall those days. There are pictures of my son from that time and a few family pictures and that’s about it.

***

“Racing the Streets” is one of my favorite Springsteen songs. I don’t actually make an effort to play it. It is one of those songs, like “The River”, that I think is best when it just comes on the radio and I say myself, “Ahhh, I really love this song.”

But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I come home the house is dark
She sighs, “baby did you make it all right, “
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn,
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born

-Bruce Springsteen, Racing in the Streets

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car 
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir 
At night on them banks I’d lie awake 
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take 
Now those memories come back to haunt me 
they haunt me like a curse 
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true 
Or is it something worse 
that sends me down to the river 
though I know the river is dry 

-Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

I remember these days of cars, of the Army, long ago. I don’t really recall what my dreams might have been, other than perhaps of glory and fortune. Clearly, those did not really come true, insofar as most people might measure these. But did the dreams die or did they evolve?  Were they every really there?

What I do know is that time rushes like a damn river. It passes by quickly and no matter what you do, you can’t step in the same piece of water twice. It is always moving, always different, never at rest. Time passes and the water moves on. It’s this moment that matters. What has been done can’t be undone, what has happened can’t be changed, and one can only seek redemption in the current moment..

****

A few months ago I wrote about the price of impatience. In my continued reading about mindfulness and trying to live in the moment, I ran across this passage from “Wherever You Go There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

I see patience as one these fundamental ethical attitudes. If you cultivate patience, you can’t help but to cultivate mindfulness, and your meditation practice will gradually become richer and more mature. After all, if you really aren’t trying to go anywhere else in the moment, patience takes care of itself. It is remembering that things unfold in their own time. The seasons cannot be hurried. Spring comes, the grass grows by itself. Being in a hurry usually doesn’t help, and it can create a great deal of suffering, sometimes in us, sometimes in those who have to be around us.

Patience is an ever present alternative to the mind’s endemic restlessness and impatience. Scratch the surface of impatience and what you will find lying beneath it, subtly or not subtly, is anger. It’s the strong energy of not wanting things to be the way the are and blaming someone (often yourself) or something for it. This doesn’t mean you can’t hurry when you have to. It is possible even to hurry patiently, mindfully, moving fast because you have chosen to.

From the perspective of patience, things happen because other things happen. Nothing is separate and isolated. There is no absolute, end-of-the-line, the-buck-stops-here root cause.

And the river keeps rushing by. I read this and said, “Yep, just says it differently. The price of impatience is to be unsatisfied and anger is at the source.” These have been the big things I have tackled this year, with some success.

You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take 
You ride to where the highway ends and the desert breaks 
Out on to an open road you ride until the day 
You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay 

Now with their hands held high, they reached out for the open skies 
And in one last breath they built the roads they’d ride to their death 
Driving on through the night, unable to break away 
From the restless pull of the price you pay 

Oh, the price you pay, oh, the price you pay 
Now you can’t walk away from the price you pay 

-Bruce Springsteen, “The Price You Pay”

Patience.

Take a breath.

Count to one.

Exhale.

Repeat, as needed.

You are always in the moment of the current breath. Why count beyond? There is no need to race about, no need to just react. Breathe. Be. Patience.

 

 

 

How I spent my summer

So I looked at the scenery,
She read her magazine;
And the moon rose over an open field.
“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.

 -Simon and Garfunkel, “America.”  
 My wife and I spent three weeks on the road.   We drove a grand total of 5,024 miles to explore the Upper Midwest and the Northeast with what is billed as the “Coolest Camper Ever.” Now the thing is, this camper is really just superbly-designed tent-on-a-trailer. It is a very utilitarian camper, one that when compared to RVs and bigass trailers, is as Spartan as a Walmart tent. While the Sylvan Sport GO is great camper, it does not have all the creature comforts one is used to, especially after a number of years of recovering from multiple surgeries and learning to live with limited mobility. This was going to be a challenge for Melinda. While she was all in on it, I was of two minds knowing that a trip like this could build and strengthen a relationship or tear it apart.
Or just leave it as it is with deep new scars.
We survived. We emerged with a stronger relationship and a continuation of the rediscovery that began on the trip from Philadelphia to Joplin back in May. Recovery from multiple surgeries is challenging enough. When these surgeries leave one still disabled and in chronic pain, it is easy to shut down and to just quit. Melinda has been working hard for months to break out of that mode. What she accomplished on this trip by hanging in and dealing with pain and discomfort and camping is pretty damn impressive. When it hurts to walk all the damn time, the last thing one wants is have a fifty or hundred and fifty-yard walk to the washroom. She did it though
And we had a great time.
This trip started out with choosing between two conferences: One in Charleston, SC and the other in Minneapolis, MN. Summertime and the fact that Melinda needed Wisconsin, Michigan, and Rhode Island to complete her list of the lower 48 states she has visited, and I needed Michigan, Minneapolis as part of an epic road trip was the obvious choice. We did a trip like this in 2000 when our son was nine. That trip started in Oregon and created a funky loop passing through Crater Lake, Dinosaur National Monument, Santa Fe, Joplin, MO, the Field of Dreams, Rushmore. Crazy Horse, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, and Grand Coulee. That was a camping trip. With a monster tent that I hated setting up.
We did this summer’s trip in style. Just about as minimalist as a tent, but in style.
20170813_173950

Our Sylvan Sport GO set up at Brevort Lake, MI.

The SylvanSport GO is the coolest camper ever. (It says so on it’s side.) At 840 lbs it is towable by just about any car. Further, it hardly impacts the fuel economy of our Cherokee. I can set it up completely by myself, without rushing, in 26 minutes, including the awning (which takes about 6 minutes of the 26). This thing is incredibly well-engineered and flexible. For someone like me who really values utilitarianism, this just about a dream come true.
We ended our first day of driving in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. That was fun and I could have spent a lot more time there. Especially since the museum pays homage to all the forms of music that influenced the development of rock and roll, like my hero, Pete Seeger.
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Pete Seeger display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum consisting of his banjo head with the stenciling “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

We made it Minneapolis and parked the trailer at an Extra Space Storage center north of the city. First month’s rent free, $25 dollar setup fee, canceled at the end of the week. Total cost for storage, $25 – far cheaper than parking the car in the city. Next time we might leave both vehicles in storage.
2017 Vacation

A Google Map image showing the route of our travels.

We left Minneapolis on a Friday for Eagle River, WI and a private campground. Along the way I saw a family of Sandhill Cranes in a field. I wish I had been able to get a picture because they were pretty special – I hadn’t anticipated them. Our next stop was Marquette, MI on the shores of Lake Superior and a very nice National Forest Service campground on Brevort Lake across the highway from Lake Michigan. The picture above of the camper is from that campground.
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Sunset at Brevort Lake.

Because of a dropped cellphone and a kind soul, we spent a day returning the 150 miles to Marquette and back. This allowed us to experience pasties (pass-tees) and Michigan cheese curds and to explore a little more of shores of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, both of which were pretty great.
20170813_144606

On the shores of Lake Superior with a bronze sasquatch staring at me and my cheese curds.

We left Brevort Lake and crossed the bridge between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan into Mackinaw City Where we found laundromat and pizza delivery. It was kind of like the island (peninsula, really) of Lost Socks.
20170814_125240

Lost socks hanging from clothes line of the ceiling of laundromat in Mackinaw City.

At this point in the trip, we started experiencing some anxiety. The lost cellphone, the changing of plans resulting in missing planned visits to a museum and Mackinac Island, and just the general anticipation of a rugged campsite without running water became too much. So we did a motel night to rest and regroup. I had anticipated this might be a necessity at least once, so it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, I really wasn’t sure how many consecutive nights camping we would make. Melinda hadn’t camped in years and life has changed quite a lot since the last time.
We finished the trek across Michigan and crossed the border into Ontario. I’m thinking about spending a summer in that part of the province. I want to make that same drive, about 15-20 minutes a day. Why? It seems that is how far apart the exits are that lead to at least one golf course. I figure this would give me a month of playing time, twice a day, without much stress. At least until I got close to Toronto and Niagara and all the crazy traffic.
The RV park in Niagara was multicultural. Definitely moreso than than the others we used.  There were also plenty of short-term campers in the section we were in as campers left daily and new ones arrived.
I saw Niagara Falls in 2001 when in Toronto for a conference. (That was the trip I took off driving without any documents about where I was going other than “Toronto.” Fortunately, I realized after just a  few hours on the road and was able to contact a colleague for the hotel name.) They haven’t changed much. Still an awful lot of water being pushed off of high cliffs and splashing against rocks and more water. Impressive and lovely but not really enough so to just hang around all day with thousands of goofy strangers. Melinda ended up feeling the same way, so we explored, had lunch and went to the casino. The casino was a bust – we had much better luck at Christmas Casino in Christmas, MI.
After Niagara we headed for Massachusetts to see our son and fiancee. This campground (private) presented a new set of challenges. In Wisconsin the walk to the washroom was short, level, and on soft ground. In Michigan the walk was quite a bit longer (150 yards all told) but still basically soft and flat. In Massachusetts it was a shorter walk, but up and down some steep little hills with a surface of broken asphalt and rock. This was a challenge for Melinda, day and night, but most especially at night. She handled it though. And so did I. I walked with her as much as four times a night, hand-in-hand. There is something special about being awakened from a sound sleep to take a walk in the middle of the night with your love. I don’t think I ever got irritated being awakened as I knew she wanted and needed me to help steady her and prevent her from going astray in the dark. (The latter can happen. It did. Just once.) I think this helped spur  the greater closeness we found together.
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Us. Me, Melinda, Zach, and Kristen.

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Skill development. Learning to whistle or screech with a blade of grass.

Anyhow, we spent a delightful weekend with the young couple.
Time at a winery for a tasting, lunch, and then some very silly card games. Because of crowds and how the state shuts the park down at capacity, we were not able to get in and walk around Walden’s Pond, thus sparing friends and family a gratuitous post of Zach and me thorowing a Frisbee around. That was my biggest regret of the trip. We did at least see the pond from the road …not more than a stone’s thorow away.
We drove next to Acacia National Park in Maine. We noted the eclipse while stopping at a backroads grocery store, but we didn’t really pay it much mind. We were more concerned about lobster rolls, blueberries, and getting to the Schoodic Campground, which is on the mainland section of the park. It is a very sweet campground. Not as heavily trafficked as the island and thus much quieter and more sedate. It just takes longer to get to it as it about 40 miles from the park’s headquarters. It truly is lovely and the skies are dark. The first couple of nights there I just marveled at the stars and the Milky Way, the way I had on the Upper Peninsula. The third night, well, it was raining. There are some marvelous little hikes in the park.
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A rock wall along one trails at Acadia NP.

Our last night camping was spent at the Winhall Brook Forest Service campground about 30 miles north Brattleboro, VT. It was lovely and pleasant in the mountains along a trout stream, with great campsites and facilities.
But it was a long, slow slug getting home, mainly just trying to get across, and then out of, New Jersey and avoiding I-95 until the very end. We made it  home close to midnight in better shape than when we left. We were tired, but friends. We were also much closer than we have been in years as a couple. Yes, we have been close as a caregiver and patient, but that is a different and difficult relationship, one that we have been moving away from. For three weeks there was an enforced proximity of travel and with it a commitment to see the journey through that caused us both to be more willing to stop, take a breath, think, and then act or speak. It was helped by the fact that both of us have been working on mindfulness and meditative practice as part of our self-care.
All the work I have done on self-care was a big part of what made this trip a success. Taking time to find peace and inner calmness is one thing. Putting your body and mind in a state where those things can be achieved and appreciated is a whole other thing. Self-care is really a part of relationship care that we don’t talk about enough. It is much easier to be there for someone else when you have taken care of yourself.

life in road trips

Melinda and I just finished a three-week road trip  covering 5,024 miles. There will probably be a post about that trip, but I have been thinking about previous road trips. I have now visited all 49 continental United States and have done some extraordinary trips.

2017 Vacation

Summer 2017. First real vacation since 2017.

 

 

st pete round trip

AIR Forum 2003. Not an epic trip, but memorable.

San Antonio Trip

SREB Data Exchange , 2016.  The second of longer road trips with Melinda after her multiple surgeries. The first was a somewhat similar route to Austin, TX for Vertex.

Leg 1 Keizer to Joplin

Leg 1 of a family road trip in the summer of 2000 that included a visitS to Crater Lake and Dinosaur National Monument.

Leg2 Joplin to Keizer

Leg 2 of the trip in 2000. Stops included the Field of Dreams, Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Coulee Dam, and Multnomah Falls. Both halves of the trip were predominantly tent camping.

Ft Campbell to SeaTac

In 1983, my unit (B Company, 2nd Battalion, 502d Infantry) at Ft Campbell, KY rotated as a unit to assignment in at Ft Richardson, AK. We were all to meet at SeaTac to fly in together. We turned this into a rather crazy trip to see family and sights.

Anchorage to Joplin

In 1985, when I left active duty, we drove from Anchorage, AK to Joplin, MO.  Sections of the highways in Canada were still gravel. It was late March. The personal dynamics between my first and wife and myself were, shall we say, difficult. Very difficult. Much of the trip is a blur, enough so that I might wish to revisit the route.

There are other cross-country trips that could be included. The move from St. Louis to Oregon, with two small children, a U-Haul towing a truck and a separate car. Or the move from Oregon to Virginia in January 2001. Winter trips are often a much different sort of experience. Plus dozens of trips to Joplin, MO and/or Chickasha, OK to see family, from various points. Basically, just a lot more miles than I sometimes appreciate.

Bottom line is this. I love road trips.

 

 

A philosophy of counting and analytics

“It’sa dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”


― J.R.R. TolkienThe Lord of the Rings
It is likewise a dangerous, or perilous might be a better word, business to begin to count things. Once you start counting, you never know where it will take you. What you do know, or at least what you should know, is that where it takes you is highly influenced by your assumptions in place when you began to count.

Counting is fundamentally an act of control. We seek to understand and thereby control our environment or our relationship to our environment. We seek to control things by counting in order to manage their exchange or monetizing the things being counted. We control people through counting in a number of ways, not the least of which is to define groups in and out of existence.

The notion of “information justice” captures this latter idea. Jeffrey Alan Johnson defines it thusly in an upcoming text:

“Information justice refers to the fundamental ethical judgment of social arrangements for the distribution of information and it’s effects on self-determination and human development. It is a broader subset of the notion of political justice, applied to questions of information and information technology.”
And so my challenge of how I think about and how i perform counting and analytics is this.

How do we count without doing harm, without taking away voice and recognition from minority groups, and how do we use analysis to improve outcomes without stealing it denying agency of those we claim to serve?

So, I have a few principles that I follow.

1) Counting must give safe voice to the voiceless. We can’t allow counting to become a tool of targeting subpopulations. We must think about the act and processes of counting to protect confidentiality as appropriate.

2) Counting and reporting should illuminate and guide decision-making in non-harmful ways. By this I mean that data and information displays should follow good practices of clarity and appropriateness of context and completeness. There should be clear statements of the limits of any measure. Average wages of graduates by itself has so much potential used by itself to be completely unrepresentative of 80% of people reported under such a measure. Distributions matter.

3) Analytic models that result in risk factors that include race/ethnicity or gender are indicators that you are measuring against the students or clients you wish you had, not those you have. We should delve more deeply into understanding the relationship between what we do and who we think we are serving.

4) Slick displays and data visualizations are too often like air brush paintings where the artist can’t draw. Slickness is often used to hide the lack of substance. Simplicity and basic displays are better for highlighting difference or the lack of distance.

5) There is often no other more powerful act than the act of definition. In the absence of definition, creating and publishing one is powerful, even without fanfare. A definition may seemingly lay dormant on a web page for years and then appear in law. It’s powerful and a tremendous responsibility.

I guess to sum up I would say this.

I count to give voice and support to those we serve, striving to do no harm, and to never restrict nor deny agency to those being counted. The analytics I perform are to improve systems’ and institutions’ understanding of self and to support individuals in finding the excellence in the lives they desire, within the domain of my work.