Thursday, January 26, 2012


If you took piano lessons you may have played around with the keys and pedals. As the piano keys are struck, hammers inside the piano strike appropriate strings emitting sound. The sound oscillates through the air to our ear at a particular frequency. 

By silently holding down specific keys and the sostenuto, middle pedal you can press a single octave and cause sympathetic sounds that resonate with dramatic impact.

A musical friend informs me that “the same sympathetic sounds are what you hear when someone leaves on the snares on the snare drum and someone begins talking or playing or singing. You hear a buzzing noise from the drum set. The sound waves that began somewhere else are setting the snares in motion and they are buzzing against the drum-head.”

Anticipating Christmas our FM station aired a flute duet accompanied by piano of the Coventry Carol. Christmas hymns tell the story of Jesus Christ’s birth from the perspective of various witnesses, i.e., angels, shepherds, stable animals and the Israelites anticipating the coming Messiah. Two years after the heralded birth wise men from the East brace the King of Israel with news that astrology has recorded a royal birth. King Herod is terrified. After meeting Joseph, Mary and the child, the Arabs slide out of town as warned in a dream.

After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child and wants to kill him.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”

But Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills.  The Message

The lullaby is only four verses long, sung by the women of Bethlehem describing Herod’s soldiers slaughtering their children.

Without vocalists the instrumentalists were not limited by verses and performed several variations of the melody before coming to the third verse.

I knew the verse they were playing was the third because of the discordant harmony between the two flutes. The words tell the story:

Herod, the king, in his raging,
  Charged he hath this day;

His men of might, in his own sight,
  All children young to slay.

The piano was silent in the first measure. On the first beat of the second measure the pianist played a bass octave.  With the damper pedal held down, the harmonic effect reverberated up the piano strings. My nerves shuddered as the implication of soldiers’ boots, swords and screaming mothers rang under the flutes.

Discordant terror rose in unison reminding me that I celebrate Christmas because lasting peace can never be obtained by men alone. Peace on earth, good will to men comes from a higher power.

Friday, January 20, 2012


In the first post on Living with Ambiguity I described a simple pendulum action like swinging on a rope. One end must be attached to a fixed, middle position high in the air somewhere. We then swing from extreme to extreme until the force providing the motion slows and we become more centered.
Fighting the pendulum experience by clinging to one extreme calcifies our thinking.
Working with Dementia victims highlights ambiguity, but every collection of people experiences the polarity of issues. Some issues are as monumental as life and death (Hospice). Justice is never defined by one extreme in exclusion to all else. Organizations manufacture issues based on preferences, such as the church music or architecture that God likes best. Giving women authority is always the elephant in the room.
Our brains are built to want certainty. Ambiguity is an unwelcome factor in reality. Ambiguity is an enemy that shoves us off balance as we strive to appear sure-footed and in control.
Political extremes are illuminated in an election year. People stuck on the far Left can’t live without a dependent group in our culture that reinforces the Left’s feelings of innate superiority. The weak must suck canal water because that is all they’re worth. They are then told that thimbles of canal water should give them hope and prove what a terrible country we live in. The far Left cannot tolerate ambiguity in society.
People stuck on the far Right think they must regulate as if we already live in eternal perfection. The far Right thinks they have achieved such a position by their own superior knowledge and behaviors. They are the self-elected few who dictate to all others too morally confused to choose for themselves. Grace is a chanted concept but poorly lived. There is no tolerance for ambiguity in society on the far Right.

A delusion is thinking you can function somewhere that doesn’t exist. Sickness and poverty, health and wealth are a result of living outside of perfection, which is where we are. Greed is the super glue that holds both extremes to their positions. They fight tooth and nail to live in certitude and deny mystery.

Living in ambiguity is an unavoidable balancing act. It takes conscious work and continual consideration of uncertainties. (See posts on Polarity or Problem. April 20, 2011)  Personally, the perpetual motion gives me vertigo. I don’t like it any better than do the extremists.

The Bible describes a God who lives outside ambiguity. He annihilated entire cities because they usurped his authority. Then this same God allowed himself to be put to death to redeem city and country folk alike. This seeming confliction drives us nuts. Christianity, as do all religions including atheism, demands we live with paradox.

Living with Dementia has taught me to hold certitude lightly.  Else the ambiguity may drive me up a tree.  Or up a creek without a paddle.  Or dangle me at the end of my rope.

So what ambiguities irritate you?

Confliction: a psychological state resulting from the often unconscious opposition between simultaneous but incompatible desires, needs, drives, or impulses

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Marie’s husband dropped dead on a golf course. She was surrounded by friends and family who continue to involve her months after the funeral.

Marianne’s husband became belligerent and forgetful. Because of his behavior in restaurants and other social situations, friends stopped calling. At age 56 he was eased out of his sales position and she was forced to stay home with an unpredictable man.

Marie’s husband was singularly dead. Marianne’s husband is living but dead to the joy and loving relationship they used to share. Marie received sympathy. Marianne is avoided, alone and criticized by relatives who never see the conflict.

Harold’s wife fought him tooth and nail as he attempted to dress and toilet her. She now smiles across the breakfast table, “You’re a nice man, but if you don’t get out of this house before my husband comes home, he’ll call the police.”

Herman was born in 1920 and served in World War II. He accuses his black caregiver of using his walker, hiding his television remote, stealing into his room at night and taking his valuables, etc. The caregiver works day shift. But Herman lived in a racist world and has Dementia. We live with Herman in ambiguity.

Bettina has two children, cares for her incapacitated grandmother, works two jobs and takes on-line classes. She needs welfare but doesn’t receive enough to place her on a two-year track to her nursing degree, a good job and financial health.

No one likes ambiguity, but there it is.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Groucho Marx was a master of ambiguity.

“Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know. But I’m sure capitalism is to blame.”

He also proclaimed, “Marxism is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?

I have given up listening to political pundits for a few months because they dissect ambiguity to death. Politicians make extreme, apodictic statements while speaking to a group leaning in a particular direction and then they must scramble to clarify when the position is reported to the general public. The complete picture takes too long to communicate.

Sound bites may be memorable but they leave the speaker open to various interpretations.

Families with a declining loved one grasp at reported sound bites. If they are not intimately involved every day, evaluation ranges from detached acceptance to criticism.

Families attempt to judge the primary caregiver without recognizing the ever present paradox. Especially when a second marriage pulls in unrelated adults who have spouses and who all swing on their own rope. The caregiver experiences enough stress dealing with the loved one’s contradictory behaviors. He or she does not need outside opinions from within the family.

When Dementia has been diagnosed each family member must recognize that they are now living with ambiguity. To deny the reality is to curse the primary caregiver. Distant relatives who rarely see the family member are often the most easily deluded.

A daughter caring for her father might say, “Last night I wanted to strangle Dad in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I don’t know. I’m so exhausted I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Anyone who has been or is a caregiver has experienced the ambiguity of Dementia. We live with someone who is normal and who then, when we relax into complacency, delivers an unreasonable tirade. One minute they are calm and the next kick us in the face as we bend over to assist at the toilet.

Grace was both normal and imbalanced. She was present in her chair but simultaneously absent from reasonable conversation. She could express preference, lapse into vacancy, and strike out in anger, all within minutes of each other.

Years ago we inherited an outside, calico cat who occasionally ventured into the garage. She perched on the stair rail where we would pet her. We quickly learned to lean in, reach for a soft stroking of her back and then raise the arm out of reach of her claws. I would give her two strokes and quit. I accepted the ambiguity of a cat who could tolerate only so much attention.

Dementia from alcoholism will force us to recognize ambiguity as the person ages. We never know if his reactions will be jovial or violent. It is a precarious way to live.

No one enjoys ambiguity. But the people we care for may force us to accept contradiction and paradox. They are both here and gone, a loved one and a stranger, affectionate and dangerous.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  F. Scott Fitzgerald

Emails and texting have become potentials for extremes. They allow a person to slide to the end of their rope and swing into your experience.

The physical principle of swinging demands that one end must be attached to a fixed, middle position high in the air somewhere. If the rope isn’t attached to a lofty, middle position, the swinger either crumbles to the ground or crashes into the first fixed body it meets. And it is impossible to maintain the distant swing without hanging on for dear life to a fixed position.

I think it’s much better to mark the center and view both extremes before jumping into action. Actions have consequences. They take thoughtful consideration. If the media is to believed, few consequences are fully explored before the hoopla begins. Once a body has swung to one extreme or the other, and if that position is too loudly lauded as the only way to go, a body is stuck.

Holding two opposed ideas in mind at the same time allows a person to swing back and forth, passing through the middle for clarity.

Email authors cleverly eviscerate the opposing view and anyone so foolish as to promote it. Like a political Television ad, they never tell the whole story. How can they? They are impaled on a post on the left or the right.

Ambiguity is uncomfortable. The person who willingly listens to conflicting extremes runs the risk of the Gemini, seeing two ways and choosing none. With deliberate practice a gentler motion is experienced without obliterating someone else’s apple cart. And necessary work gets done.