Sunday, March 31, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 347: Poem - Your Pyre

Your Pyre

Forgive me this flatboat;
I feel I have sinned against you
with this crap of logs and planks
but honestly, it was hard work. 
Your wife could not afford a longboat replica.
Worthy ships are expensive, my friend
and you did not save enough. 
This is as much as she and our crew could do.

Forgive this tarp for a shroud because 
we meant to get silk  
but they don't have it at the craft store. 
Anyway, I bought a bolt of linen 
and it didn’t quite cover you. 
You got to be kind of a big guy,
big guy, there at the end,
and you looked too much like a body last night.
So this morning we pulled out the canvas
from your shed.

The boat rental shack gave me no trouble.
Your wife was right about that.
The lady there sold me a tow line, too, 
no questions.
I think I could have been drinking
from an open bottle of whiskey while I paid
and not gotten that woman to care.

Like you asked, well, demanded,
we have loaded you up under the tarp
with all your worldly treasures
but not all, only the ones your wife said were okay.
Ceremonial sword, class ring, 
favorite watercolor painting, lucky cat figure, 
the gold coin, although I hid that from your wife
- look in your inside pocket if you can -
and two pennies taped over your eyes. 
You don't get your wallet in the afterlife, friend,
but I'm pretty sure you won't need it. 

Forgive this kerosene because you asked for tar.
Sure, your idea would work but straw doesn't stay dry
and tar is slow to paint on.
We did paint and paint for hours
but this is a pyre on the water, buddy.
We couldn't rent a boat that's good on the open sea
so the other boats will see us.
I added the cans of kerosene and hair spray
because we won't get many shots at burning.

Forgive your brother and me for almost dumping you
when we lowered your flatboat into the water.
We brought the right equipment, dammit, 
but this stuff is hard.
I almost got caught between boats by the winch
when the tow line pulled down, sudden-like.

Forgive your brother for yelling when I started to light up
because he wanted more distance between the boats.
I'm using an actual fuse for the kerosene.
Well, six of them and two waterproof clotheslines
because I may have to do this twice.
Anyway, be happy. I humored your wussy brother
like you always wanted.

And I only lit it once.
I’m surprised. 
Apparently, I know how to build a bomb, sort of,
and now all the painted tar looks great.
You had a good idea there, buddy.

I remember in high school 
when we were young and strong 
as we drank by a campfire. 
You talked about having a Viking funeral 
and I realized you had fixated on this
since you were about eight, maybe.
We had decades and decades to prepare
but this is as far as we got, man.

Your wife did bring me whiskey.
A whole bottle, bless her,
so I will sit and listen to her speak.
Your brother started cursing at us
but she revealed a pack of cigarettes,
just for him. And so we sit.
We listen.

Well, here come the police, man.
I see the flashing lights in the distance.
Forgive me if I don’t go down fighting. 
I’m not headed for Valhalla.
Anyway, it's just one car.
They don't even have a boat
but I see them waiting at the rental dock.
I think I’ll just let them laugh at me 
And berate me a little 
And I'll sit on this deck and listen to your wife 
as she explains to them in full voice
like the fucking Viking soprano 
you always said she was.

-- Eric Gallagher, 2024 for a friend

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 346: Biomythography - Note 88, Painful Relationships, Part II

Painful Relationships, Part II

How do you tell you're the relatively clueless one in the relationship?

When I was twenty-four, I started dating a woman who, in retrospect, arranged our circumstances so we could become a couple. For a few months, I'd hung out with her and her friends. Twice, maybe three times (it's hard to tell what was going on, especially in retrospect), she stopped her girlfriends from hooking up with me. This included bursting through doors into rooms where I was cuddling. At the time, I figured I had developed a bad reputation and she was simply protecting relatively innocent young women.

One day, she invited me to her place to hang out. Her boyfriend was gone for a few days and she was bored. Despite telling me repeatedly she was lonely, though, she didn't seem to want to socialize with her friends. She kept me in her bedroom instead and confided in me about her problems. They were interesting to hear about, especially her difficulties in college, but as it got later at night and I figured I'd better leave, she grabbed my wrist to stop me at her door.

"You're not tired," she said.

"Not so much." The conversation had gotten sexual and I'd grown uncomfortable. I felt the opposite of tired. Her innuendos had me wired up. I liked her boyfriend, despite her problems with him, and if she was worried about our reputations it couldn't do any good to have me spend the night.
"I've done all the talking." She gently released my wrist.

"I don't mind." I felt flattered she wanted to talk to me so much. She wasn't being selfish. "Really, I like it.

"Well, why don't you tell me about your problems for a minute?"

"Eh, mine are just failed affairs with women."

"Tell me about the one who came down to see you from New York."

After a while, I sat back down to conduct my self-analysis. The young woman made jokes about my love life. She teased me about the former girlfriend who had visited weeks before and another, too, from a couple months before that. After a while, she started touching me. After long enough, I lay down on her floor, in the center of her rug, partly to relax from the tension between us. It was a good place to talk more and listen to her thoughts. Past midnight, she lay down next to me. As we talked, she snuggled up. Her touches grew more sexually direct.

We spent a long few hours, both of us, enduring sexual teasing and tension. Finally, she set up camp on the floor and told me to go to sleep. It took a while, but I managed.

The next day, she fed me before I left her place. At noon, while I was doing chores in my apartment, I got a phone call. It was her. She announced she was breaking up with her boyfriend. She asked me to pick her up from her place and take us out to a restaurant to talk about it.


How can you know when a relationship gets too painful?

I think when nurses attach a ECG to you for a week at a time, when you're put on a hospital diet you didn't want, when you have 'heart blocks' induced by your experimental medicine, when you run out of veins to give blood tests, when the nurses start jabbing up and down your limbs, bruising the back of your arm, bruising the back of your hand, and they rip away patches of skin as they remove ECG pads from your chest, then at last you have a baseline for comparison. When everyone around you is groggy from lack of sleep, when your nurses are crabby with you, when your temporary friends feel glum, and you look around and wonder what's wrong with you, that's how you know.

When being an experimental subject feels light and carefree compared to the rest of your life, that's an important clue. I looked around at my smelly roommates, my medical surroundings, my tubes dripping into red bags, my swathes of tape, my nurses in blue smocks, and I felt good. 

In a situation like this, you want to know why you're happy. Why are you relaxed and joyous when everyone else is concentrating on their imprisonment and torture? It doesn't take long. It just doesn't take much thinking to figure out how the unhappiness is missing. After I considered the problem for a minute, I couldn't escape the conclusion. I dreaded going back to my girlfriend.

At this point, we had been living together for years. She had moved with me from Massachusetts to Maryland. We paid rent on an apartment together. We raised cats.

Before her, though, for two decades or more, my friendships had been the most important aspect of my life. That was a problem, now. My woman couldn't stand for me to visit my friends, even though I tried to include her in every event. She couldn't stop resenting the time I spent writing, either. In fact, any moment I spent not focusing on her was becoming the subject of her ire. The situation had gotten exhausting for me in a way I hadn't been able to recognize until the experiment.

“Can you skip the party this time?" she said, on several occasions. "I’m not feeling well.” 

At other times, it was, “Can we do something else? My foot is sore.”

And, “Aren’t you done yet? Let’s do something together, I'm bored.” 

Every time, she steered me to what she wanted. Also every time, it made perfect sense. If I wanted to go out and do something she didn’t like, she would let me make the arrangement. Then, at the last moment, she would get sick and ask me not to go. Her injuries and ailments were real. I don’t think she was faking anything. In some way, it made her feel bad to have me leave for a few hours.

She genuinely developed medical problems or she felt them more when the time came to see my friends.

“I would like it if you take care of me. Stay for a while.”

“Don’t leave me when I’m feeling feverish.” 

By the end of a couple of years, I had lost day-to-day contact with all of my friends except her. I no longer knew when they were available. They no longer expected me to call.

She was a good person, too. By then, I knew she was being manipulative. She couldn’t stop and she couldn’t really hide it. But she was still good. A lot of people would have liked all her attention.

Here was a thing I was discovering about myself, though. I couldn’t really live without my friends. I couldn’t stay in one place and not leave the house except for my job. I couldn’t live closely with someone who resented my time writing or exercising or dancing. I needed to dance and sing a little. I wanted to exercise more. I yearned to write or, at least to feel the afterglow of having written something.

I no longer wanted to live without the possibility of having children, either. That decision was my betrayal of our relationship. She had said from the beginning she wasn’t interested in having children. On that issue, it was me who changed.

My desire to have a family would, by itself, have signaled the end. I had gone from being slightly interested in parenting to, somehow, feeling sure I could be a decent father. Maybe books were to blame. By that point in my life, I had read Mario Puzo's The Godfather three times and I had solidified my ideas about family.

There is no good compromise over the issue of children. In every other aspect of my life, like everyone else, I was accustomed to making compromises. But there is no raising half a child. There are no part-time parenting jobs. And I wasn’t going to feel right without the sense I was trying to grow a bit more goodness into the world.

Even though she was a manipulator, even though my friends called her out for it and resented her control of me, she would have been a very good match for someone else right then, just as she was.


How can you ignore what everyone is telling you? 

For a couple years, my friends had been indicating I was too much in the sway of my woman - that I had stopped doing things that made me happy because of her. Some of my friends didn't use gentle words. But I ignored them. And when I realized, a couple years later, how unhappy I was and decided I had to end the relationship to preserve myself, a lot of the same friends circled back to tell me again.

The result of the decision, though, was a slow, multi-month breakup. 

Not all of our friends were happy with it. Some of them asked us if we would get back together or if we were even really sure about breaking up. 

When they inspired doubts, I remembered the euphoria I had felt in the midst of the medical torture. When everyone else had felt down about our living conditions, I had experienced sublime joy. Yes, she was my life partner and I was happy with her presence. I did my best to look after her and she looked after me. She improved me, day to day. Yet somehow, over a longer stretch of time, the direction of my life made me miserable. 

Over the course of the relationship, I had become more aware of being manipulated. I had considered it a bonus, sometimes, that I was being forced to defend myself more and more. Why not? I could handle it. I figured I could handle pretty much anything. But the revelation was: I was handling it and nonetheless was miserable. 

All it took was a moment of relative freedom for me to understand how off track my life had gotten, how unhappy I was to be stagnant and bereft of small joys. It seemed I would rather be woken up every night to be stabbed with needles than to keep on with the way I was living.

I should have done better. I should have fixed it from the start, somehow. I should have stopped the patterns of manipulation. But I didn't. Couldn't, maybe. And finally I had some awareness of the results.

A year after our breakup, we were still friends. When I visited on an autumn day, she told me she was having hallucinations. They happened often enough she decided to go to the doctor about them. She started taking medicine to control them. 

"I don't like the pills," she admitted. "But I think they help."

She turned her life in a different direction. Knowing about it felt good. Of course, I should have done better myself, earlier. I should have suspected a medical problem. I should have figured it out. But she was and is very smart and good at getting her way. I don't know that better understanding on my part would have helped. It might have set things back a bit if she perceived me pressing her into a decision she didn't trust. 

She made the choice. Although she had been determined to avoid it, when she needed to make the decision, she did. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 345: Biomythography - Note 87, Painful Relationships, Part I

Painful Relationships, Part I

In the spring of 1989, I was working at a full-time writing gig for the University Publications of America, which was in downtown Frederick. I walked to the UPA offices on bright, crisp mornings. Window panes reflected sunbeams down from the upper stories of the brick buildings along my way. The air was cool. The streets were paved. The sidewalks led my way unevenly, their cobblestones at weird angles beneath my shoes.

As with most other small cities in America, Frederick's facades had cracked. Half the residents had fled. And literally, building fronts (although usually the sides) had fractured. Some downtown streets, long ago damaged by Hurricane Agnes, had been left unrepaired for decades. A few buildings on my path remained boarded and windowless on their bottom floors.

The town was poor but somehow, it remained cheery. The streets remained clean. The people I passed on my stroll smiled at me each morning. I waved. We traded comments about the spring weather. And eventually, after enough years, our optimism about our surroundings turned out to be justified.

The downtown revival was a decade away from starting, though. At the time of my UPA job, the city was desperate for money and I was, too. I was lucky to have the gig but my salary barely paid the rent for my multi-room apartment. It didn't let me build up my savings. All the math I did told me I was headed into more debt, even beyond my weighty college loans. I needed car repairs right away.

At the end of one of my many morning walks, I picked up the newspaper. Three copies of the Frederick News-Post and one of the Washington Post were delivered to our offices every day. Since I arrived second earliest, I often picked them off the floor behind the transom.

I marched to the front desk and leaned against the corner of it. There, I flapped open the News-Post. Next to me on a shelf by the desk sat sections of the Frederick News-Post from the day before. I could see the classified section on top. Plenty of the editorial staff had been scanning the classifieds for side jobs. I had, too.
Not the paper I was reading but a paper I was writing for.

Do you have two weeks of vacation? read one of the ads. A pharmaceutical company was willing to pay young men to leave their families, a week at a time, for a two-week drug trial. You had to stay on their premises, which was a bit like a hospital. On the other hand, they would feed you. I'd been looking at the same deal for three days.

It was right for me. Sure, it would be a harsh way to use vacation time. But I didn't have much choice.  
I copied down the information.


Somewhere in my notebooks are journal entries from the experience. At the time, I believed I would look through my records to relive the horrors of being an experimental subject. But why would I do that when the memories are so vivid? Besides, since then I've been spoiled by searches through local computer files and online archives. My forays into my paper notes have diminished. By a lot.

Fortunately, I used my journal notes right away to compose a piece for The New Paper in Frederick. I no longer remember what title I gave the article but I know it was not the one the editors decided on. They made it, "Confessions of a Voluntary Guinea Pig." (My paper records were good for this much; I found a copy of the printed article.) Even decades later, the title seems hokey. Did it pull in readers? Probably. But it didn't match my intent or tone.

The editors made me research a side story. It was less fun and they printed it in bigger type, like an ad. They chopped up the prose I'd written for the main Confessions, much to the detriment of the coherency of it, but I know they had to fit my prose into their January 3 edition. They cut their articles to fit, like all editors. My submission excited them but it was also bigger than they found comfortable.

For the first week of January, The New Paper paid me more than usual. I think it was $95 for the pair of stories.

As I re-read my article, I discovered I had forgotten a few things about my time in the experiment:

  • We had to shave our chests. All the men objected to this until threatened with lack of pay.
  • We weren't allowed to eat meat or have caffeine in any form, not even in chewing gum. The company running the experiment checked on it.
  • One guy had abnormal ECG readings and a heart block before the experiment. We teased him. Eventually, he dropped out.
  • After the doses began, we laughed at one another for having heart blocks induced by the medicine.
  • Toward the end, the technicians woke us up to draw blood every two hours.
  • Lack of sleep and hematomas made us lose our sense of humor. We weren't joking at the finish.

Most of all, though, I learned a stranger lesson than I wrote about for the newspaper.

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 344: Biomythography - Note 86, Oppositional Thinking

Oppositional Thinking

The fish I pulled from the pond next to my grandmother's house was bigger than my two hands together. Since I was six, that wasn't much, but it seemed huge at the time.

"Fish don't feel pain!" my uncle Mike shouted. He danced around the silver carp. 

The carp flopped on the sand and rocks, where I had reeled it in to meet our lack of net. Mike skittered beside it, unsure of where to put his feet, unsure of even his hands. He waved his arms without making the move to pick it up. Clearly, I had upset him with my burst of anguish. I'd scowled and cried out when I found I'd caught a living being with a hook through its mouth. It seemed cruel, like a big kid sitting on a smaller one. This time, I was the bigger kid.

I wasn't as big as my uncle, of course. Mike was around twelve, maybe thirteen. He had grown tall and thin with pre-adolescent vigor. Or maybe this was his early adolescence but acne hadn't set in. He hadn't reached his full height, for sure. He seemed to think like a big child, to me, rather than a young adult. He had volunteered 'to teach me how to fish' most likely because he wanted permission from his mother to go fishing. I probably had seemed underfoot, asking lots of questions. He saw it as an opportunity.

"Save it!" I pleaded. I grabbed at the fish. The fins of the carp expanded suddenly in my hands. A spine cut my hand near the thumb. The fish escaped me. 

"I'm trying." He knelt. The carp flopped hard twice, three times, and eluded him. He looked at where I had dropped the fishing pole. He ordered, "Pick it up!"

"I'm hurting him!" I yelled. But I picked up the fishing pole. 

"Fish don't feel pain," he insisted. "They proved it."

I stared at the flopping carp. It had started to tire. Its gills flapped more slowly. Its tail kicked its body over but no longer knocked it into the air. Mike was able to grab it. His fingers found the base of the hook. He started shifting the metal wire from side to side.

While Mike worked the barb free, I gazed into the panicked eyes of the fish. That was pain, in there. And exhaustion. And defeat. I knew I didn't care what anyone said they'd proved. 

This was a new concept to me. I was starting to realize that people sometimes told me things that were wrong. People lied, and not just my little brother when I caught him sneaking a treat. My father told lies. My uncle told lies like this one, apparently. I was starting to sense a pattern. People lied when they wanted to justify something. If the world was a certain way and they didn't like it, they were going to pretend it was how they wanted it to be. 

Part of me, even then, dimly realised Mike insisted fish didn't feel pain because he didn't want to accept the obvious. 

He wasn't the only one. Even in school, I read lessons and talked with teachers about aspects of life that were written down but couldn't really be true. Among those were an insistence that animals couldn't feel pain. 

There are a number of other things I was taught that turned out not to be true:

  • Chicken bones
    • The first time I heard chicken bones are dangerous to dogs, it upset me. A lot. I'd been feeding chicken bones to dogs for years. In my life, it was too late to hear it was dangerous. Since then, I've seen bunches of dogs eat bunches of chicken bones. There's never been a problem with it. My dogs have all been mutts except for one abandoned Brittany Spaniel but the Brittany Spaniel ate bones, too. And lived to a grey age. 
  • Animal pain
    • It's not an "other" thing but if you object to this, you could be on the autism spectrum. It's more likely that you're willfully delusional, though. Also, just wait until the next item on this list.
  • Plant pain
    • It's obvious, if you watch plants, they have pain reactions. Even one-celled creatures have pain reactions you can see under microscopes, so this is nothing startling to hear about in plants. On a multi-cellular (but largely invisible) level, cilantro, marigolds, and other plants exude scents to attract predator bugs when they are attacked by aphids. Acacia trees react by releasing tannins and ethylene when antelopes eat their leaves. Their tannins poison the leaves and the ethylene warns other trees. You may not feel empathetic towards plants but nevertheless, they have pain reactions. 
  • Slavery
    • In elementary school, I was taught slavery had been abolished. Since I had read every book I could on Harriet Tubman and wanted the victory to be true and complete, I believed it. By junior high, I was starting to notice references in the newspaper to what seemed like slavery. By college, I understood a bit more about human nature. Also, newspapers had started to acknowledge slavery hadn't been wiped out everywhere. 
  • Blood plasma 
    • In my first EMT class and similar classes on first aid, I was taught that blood plasma infusions restore needed fluids to the body and keep veins from collapsing. In fact, administering "plasma first" was killing people at the time, lots of them. In the 1990s, Dr. Jeffery Kashuk and other researchers figured out the problem and proved it to such an extent that they changed the standard practices of trauma care. The death toll estimates from this single, bad medical practice soared into the millions. People started wondering if lawsuits were coming. Then the newspapers stopped printing anything more about it.  
  • The human brain
    • In my youth, a debate raged over whether humans were effectively pre-programmed or the mind was a blank slate. We now know definitively the mind does not begin as a blank slate. Studies of language acquisition and other forms of cognitive development show we have hard-wired inclinations. The extent of what this means is still a great topic but the blank slate part is done. 
  • Continental drift
    • When I was a child, the continents were static and unmoving in my textbooks. And in my school teachers. The debates over the topic raged even while the older generation of geologists died off and continental drift won acceptance. 
  • The land bridge
    • Early studies showed the diversity of American Indian languages meant the group of people speaking them had been isolated from the Old World for about 60,000 years. I didn't know this particular fact when I was taught about the land bridge in elementary school. Even in fourth grade, though, the idea of an ice-free corridor seemed suspicious. The theory eventually turned out to be a weird sort of wishful thinking from scholars who couldn't stand to see the Americas having a long human tradition, sometimes for religious or ethnic reasons. 
  • Earthworms
    • Everyone told me earthworms were good and natural when I was growing up. In the Americas, they are invaders and powerful predators in the soil. After the icebergs receded, there were no earthworms in North America until Europeans came and introduced them. American soils were a completely different biome from the Eurasian one. The toll on American microbes and other native life is still uncounted - and perhaps uncountable.
There are plenty of other examples but so many, in fact, I know I'll never remember them all. Lots of concepts I was taught in my childhood have not held up. It's easy to see the patterns of commercial interests and just plain wishful thinking that won people over to these views and makes them linger today despite the facts and obvious pains staring us in the face. I would attribute, in part, my "oppositional thinking" habits to observing so much wishful thinking from my friends and family. That, and my father being so quickly oppositional, himself. He set an example. 

Wishful thinking might not always win. It certainly remains a powerful force in our lives, though. It always will.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 343: Biomythography - Note 85, Cultural Identities

Terminology and the Times We Live In

Generally, people don’t have much emotional understanding of how great the differences are among our cultures. We don't get to live in different societies (there's not enough time nor enough travel in our lives) and, in particular, we underestimate the gaps in comprehension imposed by the eras in which we live. 

Nowadays, the linguistic terms for many aspects of life are changing. Having more gender terms is a big social movement. This sort of language drift is natural. It happens more or less constantly. Sometimes it leaves me behind or I find I've gotten too far ahead in some way. I have internalised Buddist, Stoic, and Daoist terms and definitions because they are appropriate to the way I think. For a while, this put me ahead of some American cultural shifts. Since then, a lot of our sub-cultures have adopted aspects of these schools of thought. They've added to the lexicons of them as well, so I find myself needing to catch up.

It surprises me still how much the Buddhist outlook affects my everyday, moment-to-moment living. (Although I refer to Buddhism here for the sake of being understood, Daoism and Stoicism would be as appropriate. All three philosophies share a core set of values.) 

Sometimes I hear trending phrases like, "I identify myself as ..." from a Buddhist perspective. A basic tenet of Buddhism is the need to erase the 'self.' Identity is not merely irrelevant; it's contra-indicated by the philosophy. This makes the current, popular obsession with identity seem like a wave of anti-enlightenment. Perhaps it is. 

We don't need to know a person's identity to treat them well. We don't need to know, maybe, even if they are a person or not.

Of course, part of the difference in the context of 'identity' is generational. Maybe the trend in terminology represents a group of people taking an outlook in their sub-culture that I did not take, that was not even a concept when I was young enough to be influenced by it. Maybe I am bereft of modern conceptions, like my old boss was when I mentioned the term 'people skills.'

Early in my computer science career, I had a supervisor who was fairly nice and constantly made a bad impression. He had a grating voice. You could hear him in a crowd of thousands without him raising his volume. He looked unathletic. He wore unfashionable clothes. Worst of all, in his conversations he always challenged everyone else's ideas. That was his conversational reflex, a habit burned into him by either his family or his academic environment. 

If you proposed a solution, he would say "No, that won’t work! This is how it works. Here’s why."

He expected you to challenge him back. It was how he conversed. It was how he solved problems. If he was shown wrong, he changed his view to something better almost instantly - a highly admirable trait. To me, it became obvious how to challenge him casually. To his co-workers, apparently it was not so obvious. Many of the doctors he worked with hated him. His fellow scientists found him irritating. His bosses tried to fire him. 

He was so bad with people, I tried to coach him how to be better. (He accepted the coaching, too; he knew he had problems with his co-workers.) In the process, I remembered an odd moment from when I was growing up. One of the neighbors on my block turned to another and said, "Well, you are either good with people or you aren't."

For a moment, I wondered why such an old memory would come to me. Then I realized: my boss belonged to that generation. He had grown up with the idea that you were either good with people or you were not. And he was not. Once he had understood his place, he never tried to change it. The idea that you are born a certain way is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. Eventually, he didn't want to hear anything more about improving his people skills.

Moving back to the concept of identity - the current emphasis on it can feel like anti-enlightenment activity but maybe it's really not. When people study Buddhism, Stoicism, or Daoism, they mostly focus on improving themselves. The canons of those systems focus on how an individual can be better. What they hardly ever mention is how cultures can clash, how one sub-culture might affect another, or any other aspect of people in large, organized groups. In the context of groups, using the term 'identity' may mean something different than it does in the context of individuals. Admittedly, it might not be different enough to avoid reasonable Buddhist objections. But still, subscribers to the Way may understand the word 'identity' in this group sense is meant to be interpreted as a place within a culture.

Saying, "I identify as a Buddhist" might not signify anything more than "I am an office worker." There is not necessarily a problem with either statement. If one arises, it's likely to come from how the person making the statement is clinging to a sense of identity. No matter how noble, ignoble, or simply socially aware a sense of identity happens to be, the attachment to it seems, to me, to be the real issue. 

Picking up these senses of identification in their context and then putting them down when the context changes should be fine.