Shameless plug: Walking with Anna

This is a shameless plug because no one knows I’m doing it and I receive no direct benefit from your (potential) actions.

You may recall my last story “The girl who ruined my Christmas newsletter” about a young lady who is recovering from a horrendous automobile accident.  If you don’t, you can read it here.  Besides Anna facing years of recovery work, the family faces thousands of dollars in non-covered medical expenses.  If you. Like me, find you are living a pretty good life, you might consider helping the family out with a donation to defray their expenses.

If you click here you can get more information about Anna, her family, and how you can help.

Since Anna’s family doesn’t know I’ve asked you for this help, I want to thank you in advance.

Cupping Coffee

I’ve given up many vices in my life but coffee is not one of them.  Some I’ve walked away from, others chased me long and hard before I got away from them.  Enjoying a good cup of coffee brings all the senses into play and leaves me with a nice buzz.  You can hardly beat that.

I start with whole bean coffee, ground finely with a pinch of salt for smoothness.  I fill the coffee maker with cold water and set the coffee cups on top of it so they will warm while the coffee brews.  I find a good cup of coffee depends much more on how the coffee is made than what it is made with.  I get my coffee from Costco, the grinder came from Wal-Mart and we found the coffee maker at K-Mart.   I’ve spent twice as much on coffee beans but the coffee wasn’t twice as good (marginal cost .NE. marginal taste).  The one thing that affects my enjoyment of coffee is the cup I drink it from.  That’s why I go to the Goodwill resale store when I want to find a special coffee cup.

What I have come to realize is that unlike so many things that can be scored using standardized, objective, evaluation criteria, my selection of a coffee cup is based on my own, subjective tastes.  As a result, I don’t find the options at most department stores fit what I’m looking for.  So often I find just a handful of styles in a whole bunch of colors/patterns I don’t care about:  three styles of cups times 25 color schemes = three cups to a blind guy.  I do care about how well a cup will keep my coffee hot, how it will sit on my desk (without tipping), and how it fits in my hand.  When I go to Goodwill I’ll find 75 cups that actually are different from one another.  And, if I don’t find one that is just what I want, I can come back next time and I’ll find another 75 different cups.  I’ve even just gone crazy and tried a cup out only to find my $0.50 wasn’t well invested.  Oh, well.

Lessons learned:

I realize the way I choose a coffee cup is unlike the decision processes I use for many other things.  I’m of the school that says buying the highest quality you can afford now will provide the best value in the long run.  Whenever we make a large purchase, we try to find a reliable source (Consumer Reports, etc.) as a buying guide.  Other things, like my coffee cup, I’d just as soon buy at a resale shop and maximize my subjective preferences while minimizing the amount I spend.  If it turns out I made a bad choice, I’m only out $0.50.  The reality is that even though I thoroughly enjoy a good cup of coffee in a good cup I don’t really want to put a whole lot of time and money into buying one.  I kind of enjoy the mismatched collection of coffee mugs we’ve accumulated and even though I have my favorites, I can’t imagine paying more than a few bucks for a coffee mug.  

What this little exercise has done is helped me to recognize that there is a line in my brain that divides things I evaluate based on objective criteria and things I evaluate based on subjective criteria.  This line has something to do with the trade-off between cost, benefit, and utility.  These three factors form a triangle that helps me understand how I’m balancing them.  When we bought our house we focused on balancing cost and utility.  We had a checklist of things we wanted in a house (utility) and found a place that filled those needs at a reasonable cost.  When it came time to replace our car, we figured the landscape for cars and driving are in transition so we decided our best option would be one with a good maintenance record (benefit) and low operating cost.  We’re not planning to replace it when it dies.  When I look for a coffee cup I focus on the highest utility, knowing the cup will have a low cost.  The benefit I get from the cup comes in its ability to keep my coffee hot and ready for me to drink.  While this is very important to me, I can always find another cup if I need to.

As I write this, I realize that I’ve wound this story around buying a coffee cup but I didn’t have to.  The blue jeans I’m wearing right now also came from Goodwill.  I know they won’t last as long as if I had bought them new but I also know that if I had paid $58 for a new pair of jeans they wouldn’t last eight and a half times longer than the $7 pair I’m wearing right now. 

Applying the lessons:

Balancing cost, benefit, and utility:

  • What is most important in making the decision?
    • The lowest cost right now?
    • The highest benefit over time (cost savings, time savings, etc.)?
    • Getting just the right tool for the job (utility)?
    • How do you balance cost, benefit, and utility?
      • Cost vs. benefit?
      • Cost vs. utility?
      • Benefit vs. utility?
    • When do you just say “I don’t really care, I just want what I want?”
      Epilogue:  As I was preparing to write this story, I noticed my favorite coffee cup seemed to be leaking.  It turned out to have a crack and needs to be replaced next time I’m at Goodwill.
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The girl who ruined my Christmas newsletter

We’ve been sending out a family newsletter at Christmas for many years.  I thought this year’s newsletter was going to be a tale of trauma, drama, and happy endings in the Lococo household.  In reality, the trauma and the drama were overrated and the happy ending turned out to be the recognition of the precious gift of ordinary life.

This past spring, I started having an irregular heart beat while exercising.  On June 2 I learned I was born with a heart defect that often goes undetected, with the primary symptom being sudden death.  The recommended treatment:  coronary bypass surgery.  The surgery took place on September 9th and the recovery process lasted well into the Fall.  Needless to say this was the topic of our attention for most of the year.  I expected the story of my heart surgery would fill a space in the newsletter consistent with the amount of space it occupied in our memories of the year.

My perspective took a significant turn on November 15.  A 17 year old girl we know through our social networks was involved in a head-on collision with a driver going the wrong way on the highway.  Like me, Anna encountered an unexpected, life threatening situation.  That’s where the similarities end.  As I reflect back on the heart defect I discovered this year and compare that discovery to the single moment in time that is likely to shape Anna’s life for many years to come, I realize my plans for our 2015 Christmas newsletter were largely narcissistic indulgence.

Lessons learned

The challenge I found myself facing was how to put my own experience into context along side Anna’s on-going experiences.  I truly faced a life threatening situation this year.  The fact of the matter is that situation was (permanently) resolved through a medical procedure that is routinely done on a daily basis.  Anna, on the other hand, just got home from the hospital last week and is now sleeping in a hospital bed in her family’s dining room.

In unpacking this challenge I found myself realizing that since I am completely recovered from my surgery and, in reality, healthier as a result of correcting the birth defect, chronicling my experiences is little more than an exercise in storytelling.  Anna’s experiences are on-going with many unresolved questions.  Her story is interactive and is dynamically affected by the responses of everyone involved, including seemingly pedestrian bystanders such as myself.

When I think of Anna and those around her the following ideas arise:

  • There is little Anna could have done to avoid the terrible accident she was in – and yet, feeling sorry for her doesn’t seem to be the appropriate response.
  • Anna has every right to wonder “Why me?” as long as she doesn’t fall into that ugly space of “It must have been supposed to happen.”
  • Anna has earned the status of “Super Hero” in demonstrating the grit and determination required to get to this point in her recovery.  And yet presuming Anna will not face dark times as a result of what she has been through is naive and inconsiderate.
  • The challenges Anna’s family faces in ensuring she receives the care she needs in order to recover from her accident are seemingly endless and overwhelming.  To forget that “Things are the way they are because they got that way.”  diminishes the fact that bureaucracy (of all sorts) can be a humongous barrier to health and well-being.

Applying the lessons

As I come to the end of this reflection I find myself focusing on the differences between storytelling and soliciting a response from people.  I am also struck by the balance between empathy and sympathy.

Here are my take-a-ways:

  • Good storytelling brings the reader/listener into the story.
    In seeing themselves as a part of the story, a reader/listener is called to place themselves in the place of the subject(s) of the story.
  • In the best stories, the reader/listener will carry the story in their heart long after the details of the story are forgotten.
  • When we hear a story of challenges faced by others our responses are often a mix of sympathy and/or empathy.
  • Sympathy often takes the form of:  “I’d hate to be you”; “I’m happy that didn’t happen to me.”  Empathy takes the form of “What would I do/feel if I were in your shoes?”
  • Sympathetic action often takes the form of helping to fix a problem.  Empathy calls us to walk hand-in-hand with others.
    As I recognize how narcissistic my story of drama and trauma was this year I feel called to empathize with Anna and her family.  I just don’t really know how to do this.  It seems step one is to reach out my hand.

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Copyright 2016, Dan Lococo.  All rights reserved.