Sunday, May 30, 2010

Answer: Pair-o-Docs

Question: What do you call a couple of Microsoft Word files?

Here's the thing. Many of us have adopted the idea that helping others starts with acceptance. We believe that to love someone is to accept them and be happy with them. We believe that the best way to help children with autism is to follow their lead, to pursue a child-directed program. We believe that one can choose to be happy in any situation.

And yet... Many of us are not only open to change, but actively make change happen. We accept and love the people in our lives, but we also set boundaries and limits. We accept our special children, and yet we conduct elaborate programs designed to change them. We are happy in challenging situations, accepting them, even as we work diligently to change them.

We accept what we have and we don't.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
When I was a Christian, I often heard church leaders who seemed to be quite angry at others simultaneously tout unconditional love. Sometimes the anger would verge on (or become) hatred and I would ask about the apparent contradiction between word and deed. Typically, the person would explain that it's not hatred, it's righteous anger or something of that ilk. However, if I persisted (as I am want to do) in my assertion that 'it sure seemed like hatred', the leader would often say something like, "Well, the important thing is to love the sinner, but hate the sin!"

At that point, I would usually stop my pursuit wondering what exactly it meant to love someone while hating their actions.

In many ways, who we are is simply the amalgamation of our actions. We might insist that who we are is something other than that, but the other-than-that is inaccessible to anyone but the individual. So, say that I am loving you, but I am hating your actions, who exactly am I loving?

I think the answer would likely be some idealized you that hasn't been made manifest through action. A you made up by me.

As a parent loving a child acting out, you see past his immediate actions to a memory, or a rationalization (a set of beliefs of why he's acting out), or a projection (an image of who you want the him to become), or yourself at his age; you see someone other than the malevolent little monster before you. As a partner loving someone whose actions don't even closely resemble those of the one you first loved a decade before, you love a memory, or you love a dream, or you love only in the moments where the current and previous partners align.

In some cases, we abandon specific, focused love of the individual for a vague, general love that we can apply to anyone. However, in any of these cases, it's not clear to me that we're loving and accepting the actual person.

Counting on Change
One of the things that really clicked for me an Iris is that we both wanted to not have children together. I have three amazing grown kids and I feel quite complete in that area. Iris has no desire to have children of her own. It's perfect.

However, there are many couples for whom the question of having children or not is not a slam dunk. In Iris' previous relationship, her boyfriend of ten years simply assumed that she would eventually 'come around'. I know many guys who after divorcing decide that they are done with children. Then they meet someone really special who isn't done--isn't even started yet. The relationship moves ahead, each anticipating the other to change and often avoiding any discussion about children. At some point, one or the other 'comes around' or the relationship ends.

It seems that we sometimes offer a limited-time acceptance with a heavily loaded back-end payment.

Contextual and Temporal Acceptance
Over the past couple of days, Faith, Sree and I have been conversing a bit about this topic. Sree proposed an acceptance model that leap-frogs from moment of acceptance to moment of acceptance. In one comment, Sree offers:
As for the paradox, I guess what works best is when we totally accept what is in the present moment, and go wholeheartedly for what we want for the next moment. Then we arrive at that next moment, totally accept what is, and go for what we want in the 'next' moment, and so on. I suppose we can't want nothing, can we? Taking a breath = wanting to live. So we might as well be fully conscious of our wants and choose 'wisely', as in, in a congruent, integrated manner.
I like Sree's model in many ways. It accommodates both accepting you for who you are now and wanting you to be someone else in the future.

It also unearths something that we often confuse when talking about acceptance. We often assume that acceptance somehow comes with commitment or guarantees; it's almost as though we take the concept of accepting an agreement or a contract and we apply it to people. In reality, accepting someone for who she is in the moment doesn't intrinsically imply anything about whether or not you'll accept her five minutes from now. Acceptance is transitory and contextual.

I especially like Sree's model as it seems to closely resemble how we often operate.

To Love is to Not Accept
It then occurs to me that some of the most useful things that I've learned have come from people who absolutely did not accept my behavior and actions. My dad frequently "made" me do work that I absolutely did not want to do; I learned a lot from that work. My first saxophone teacher, Mr. Grimes, made completely unreasonable demands of my twelve-year-old mind and there were times when I absolutely hated going to lessons; and yet, it's the lessons that I most hated that served me the best.

When working with a stroke victim or a child struggling with his sensory systems, the best therapy is often the one least wanted; we restrain the stroke victim's working hand to force the use of the less-than-working hand; we provide a combination sensory stimulation that is difficult for the child to process to help him develop his sensory processing capabilities.

To love involves helping someone to shore up his weaknesses, not to simply build on his strengths. Shoring up weaknesses is often not pleasant or desired.

Agenda and Manner
One of the things that I've learned from my friend Kat is how important it is to distinguish curriculum from method (or manner). She performs and helps others to perform miracles with children with autism. She always begins with very clear notion of where a child is developmentally and where she wants to take him developmentally, and with a clear outline of all the steps along the way: a developmental curriculum. From that perspective, her approach is structured and directed. And yet, her manner when working with a child has no hint of being controlling or directive or non-accepting or agenda-driven.

She is able to simultaneously maintain a strong vision of where she wants to go while meandering wherever the road takes her. She's strong in her desire for something different and yet easy and comfortable with what is. She's completely aware of context and plan while being totally present and in the moment.

In a Word
Maybe acceptance is the wrong word to describe how we embrace others in love. Maybe it's simply being at ease with them, being comfortable and wanting the best for them. Usually, it's our concept of best and sometimes our concept of best aligns with that of the person we're loving. Sometimes, our concept of best may serve a person in achieving what they want better than there own; in other times, not.

I believe that we often tout acceptance while (covertly or overtly) wanting something other than what we have. When we do this, we muddy the water. Perhaps the answer is to be easy and comfortable with a situation or with another person even as we actively seek to change the situation or the person. Rather than feigning acceptance while silently hoping that change will happen, we can avoid the apparent paradox by comfortably, lovingly and openly wanting and moving towards change.

What do you think?

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Work - to do something that requires physical or mental effort. 

Work has gotten a bad rap.  It is said that 'hard toil' (a.k.a. work) was one of the terrible things that came out of Pandora's box.  As the world prides itself in increased efficiency, the notion of 'hard work' seems to be akin to 'inefficient'.  Blue collar jobs, and jobs that require physical effort are seen as substandard in some way, commanding less respect, and often, less pay, than their paper pushing, weaker cousins.  The market is taken over with products that make whatever we are doing easier.  The person that is caught warming up their dinner on the stove is looked at incredulously.  While I agree with the idea of 'working smart', it doesn't have to be in contrast to 'work hard'.

Recently, I was sharing with a friend my enthusiasm about someday purchasing an iPad (since it is no-where in the current budget but I really want one!).  He commented that I am a contradiction.  On the one hand, I prepare most of the food for my family myself, buy real food in the supermarket (the stuff we can pronounce), hate video games and don't let the children know they exist, teach the children hand crafts as a part of school and other, earthy, homesteading type of things.  On the other hand, we have 4 computers at home, various other internet ready gadgets, I prefer to drive than walk, I don't want to do my own gardening but would love it if someone who has figured out how not to kill plants did it for me.  I don't see any contradiction.  I like efficiency.  Preparing my own food is more efficient than being sick all the time. Using an iPad would be more efficient than cajoling old Susan (she is apparently resting right now, since I can only turn her on in safe mode) or fiesty, tempermental Wanda (running on Vista...need I say more?)

Why Work?
In physics, motion is observed by looking at the distance an object is shifted by within a certain time period.  The object needs some kind of force applied to it.  That force is called work! (Pardon my mangling of the physics!)  For the purpose of illustration, let's say the goal you have set for your career or your new decoration project is clear.  You know what you want to do, you know the resources you will need.  You know when you want to be finished by.  The work needed is what will move you from the state of your career or home at this current time t1 to the state you want your home or career to be in at the future time t2.  Time will pass, but things won't change without work, either yours or someone elses.

Is this the right work?
"Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress." - Alfred Montapert.

When we are really clear on what we want and when we want it,  it's much easier to figure out the right kind of work, and to evaluate the work as you go along.  I heard a saying once, that anything worth doing is worth doing the hard way.  I think though, that we have an internal measure of what is too much effort for a particular task.  In other words, I want goal A enough to extend effort A1, but not any more.   So if goal A is something I really want, but am not prepared to extend any more than effort  A1 on it, perhaps the work needs to be re-worked. Perhaps that is a case for increasing efficiency with a new strategy.

Sometimes this sign that we are expending too much effort gives us the false idea that the road we are on is somehow invalid.  "This must be the wrong vocation for me, it's such hard work!" or "This relationship isn't right for me, it's too much work".  But is it something that you really want?  If it is, perhaps taking time to really magnify the value of this outcome will help us see the value of the effort we expend.  People tell me that they wouldn't homeschool their kids, though they really want to, because it's too hard.  I'm going to direct them to Teflon's post yesterday.  Let's figure out what we want, stand behind our wants in huge ways, then work at it.  That might mean a little sweat, or a lot of sweat.  It may mean combining the sweat with creative thinking.

Relationship Work
I grew up around people on average 10 years older than I was. It was a great privilege to get some snapshots into life 10 years ahead. I was most attuned to the dynamics of friendships, family relationships and intimate partnerships. I saw stuff I liked and stuff I didn't like. One thing I realized is that having the intimate realtionship you want takes work. It takes mental and physical effort, effort that's worthwhile and valuable if you are working towards the relationship you want.  What kinds of relationships do you want? 

Some of the relationships I saw were closed, difficult to see into. The people always wore the 'Things are perfect' mask. I saw neither the work, nor the value of the work. It was like looking at a shadow in dim light. You can't see anything definitive. Everything is blurry. I have a friend whose parents fit that description. He was startled when he got married and had some high volume, differences of opinion with his wife. He had not seen that with his parents, had no friends who had let him that far into their relationships, had no conflict resolution, active listening skills.  Learning to work through the various challenges felt like too much work.  I'm so glad for people in my life who allowed me to watch them figure their stuff out.  I want my relationships to be open so that others can see what they want and don't want, and figure out their own path/work.

I remembered looking at Demi Moore's body in G.I. Jane and thinking, I really want to look like that!  I figured that it took some effort.  Given that I haven't been extending the effort, I was lying.  I don't really want to look like that.  One day, I might really want it, though...  I can decide in a second!  Then I'll do the work!  So will you.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Perfect Relationship

You'll never find your gold on a sandy beach
You'll never drill for oil on a city street

I know you're looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks

But there ain't no Coup de Ville

Hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box

Meatloaf, Two Out of Three Ain't Bad
I have lots of friends who seem to always be on the lookout for the right person. Some of them are primarily alone seeing potential candidates infrequently, some take an approach that is more serial in nature (skipping along from one the person to the next the person), and others maintain sustained relationships with not the person while keeping an eye out for the person.

There are several common themes that I've noticed among people who can never seem to find what they're looking for. First and foremost is not knowing what you're looking for. Second is knowing what you want but not believing that you can have it. Third is not taking action to encounter the desired person. Fourth is getting distracted by the ephemeral concepts of attraction and chemistry

What Do You Want?
I'll often ask someone who is looking for that special someone, "What are you looking for?" or "How would you describe the person who is perfect for you?"

Even people who've been looking for years will answer, "What do you mean?" or "Ummm... I don't really know." or "I can't say, but I'll know him when I see him!"

In trying to discern why it is that someone hasn't achieved his stated goal, these answers provide what we in the trade call a clue, in particular, indicating that the person speaking has none.

Rather than proceeding directly to the most obvious question, "Do you really want to be with someone else?" (a question to which most people will immediately answer 'yes' without thought or consideration), I usually try to facilitate the 'what' questions. You'd be surprised at how challenging the basic what questions can be to the cluelessly loveless. After a series of open-ended, deeply-personal, probing questions yield answers like, "Gee, I just don't know" or "I guess she would be... hmm....", we'll often ratchet down to basic, multiple-choice questions (often limiting the number of choices to two).

For example, I might ask, "Well, is the perfect guy taller than you or shorter than you?" or "Does she prefer hiking or going to movies?" or "Is he strong and independent or could he use a little loving care and nurturing?"

Usually, we'll start getting at least some traction with these types of questions as the amorphous blob of the perfect other begins to take shape. However, there are times when someone will offer an answer that I would call a super clue: "You know, it really doesn't matter to me whether he's thus-and-such or this-and-that. I just want..."

The super-clue is two-fold. First, no matter what you think, no matter how trivial something may seem, it does really matter whether thus-and-such or this-and-that. Relationships don't fail because of big things that occur once in a while; relationships fail because of lots of little things that happen all the time. Thinking that it doesn't matter is the biggest contributor to a high rate of serial relationships.

Second, the "I just want..." part is usually the first response made by the would-be partner that is an open-ended statement of honest desire. So, we seize upon it like the invisible end of cellophane tape on a roll that we've been spinning for hours, carefully plying it away with more questions.

I love these explorations because we always end up with greater clarity: either clarity regarding the perfect other, or, clarity regarding the would-be partner's commitment to not being in a relationship.

Can I Have What I Want?
More often than not, the reason we lack clarity on what we want isn't because we don't have a good idea of what that would be; it's because we have an underlying belief that we couldn't get it anyway. We live so long with a belief in the futility of pursuing our deepest desires that we stop even considering them. We compromise and compromise and compromise until, when asked, "What do you want?", the real answer seems like a distant memory or fragments of a dream.

This phenomenon is not limited to the pursuit of relationships. It happens with careers, the places where we choose to live, the activities we pursue, and so on. Our belief that we can't get what we want invariably leads to wanting what we can get. However, we don't actually want what we can get, we just accept what we can get. We begin to answer, "What do you want?" with "What I'll accept." We sense the incongruity, but we ignore it. Over time we simply don't notice it anymore. Our wants have been completely supplanted by our accepts.

So, believing what you can actually get what you want, is a prerequisite to answering the question, "What do you want?" However, it's a two-pass algorithm; you can't get to the real answers until after you've answered once, looked at your answers, and then asked yourself, "Hmmm... is that really what I want?"

I can remember talking with my daughter Eila just before her senior year in high school. She had just explained to me how her schedule was full of advanced placement courses for college. I said, "Eila, you're doing great! Is that what you really want to do?"

Without hesitation, Eila responded, "Oh, no, dad. I'd much rather do art and music. But that's so impractical."

We talked some more and Eila spent her senior year almost exclusively taking art and music classes.

In the end, even when people say, "Wow, I guess I don't really want to be in a relationship!", it's almost invariably as result of not wanting what they believe the can have in a relationship.

What Are You Willing to Do?
Once you've gotten clear on what you want and believe that you can get what you want, you gotta do something about it. The single most important and most often avoided action involves placing yourself in situations where you have at least a chance of encountering the person you're looking for.

If you work exclusively with people who are married and you're not interested in providing opportunities for extra-marital activity, then you're not likely to find her at work. If you want to spend late evenings debating the merits of various existential philosophies, the local pickup bar may not be the place for you. If you want to go climb Kilimanjaro, then the weekly coffee clutch probably won't cut it. Sure, there are exceptions. However, you can stack the odds in your favor simply by actively being in the right place at the right time.

One day as we were driving from New Jersey to the Berkshires, out of the blue Iris said, "Oh, I know what it is: no gray hairs".

I said, "Huh? What do you mean, no gray hairs?"

Iris then proceeded to explain that something had been bothering her since we'd gone to dinner the evening before. Something was askew, but she hadn't been able to put her finger on it. She'd just come to the realization that although the average age of the restaurant's patrons had approached 50, there had been not a gray hair in the bunch. This contrasted sharply with Iris' primary experience of the US, Cambridge, MA, where hair coloring and even makeup were the exception.

The thing is this. If you're looking for someone who is particularly concerned about how he looks and how you look, then you probably want to move to the Jersey shore. If you don't want to be bothered with that stuff, then you'd likely fare better in Cambridge. Sure, there are always exceptions. But, why not stack the odds in your favor.

Attraction Distraction
One of the common reasons we don't find what we really want in a relationship is that we get distracted by attraction. It's not that attraction doesn't matter; it's just that, when evaluating prospective partners, we tend to place too great a weighting factor on attraction.

There are several challenges with this. First, the person that we first meet (at the office, taking a course, dancing, skiing) is often not the person she is daily at home. She's on her best behavior. She's likely actively being attractive. It's not false advertising per se... well, maybe it is; but it's socially accepted (expected) false advertising.

Second, attraction is more about you than it is about the other person.

When I played music in clubs, I used to hear a phrase, "Two at ten, ten at two." It meant that, at 10:00 PM you might see two people in a bar that you find attractive; by 2:00 AM, you'll see ten people who you find attractive, even if no one has entered or left the bar. Attraction has a lot to do with how you feel and what you're looking for at the time.

Third, attraction is contextual. The person who you find appealing in the boardroom may be less so on a mountain-biking trip. The person you find attractive at the gym may be less so at the premier of a foreign movie. The person who looks great from across the room might only look great until he walks up and opens his mouth.

Attraction, chemistry, etc. are all great. However, they're just part of the mix and they're not foundational.

Believe, Know, Pursue
I believe that we can each have an amazing relationship if we:
a) decide that we can indeed have (are worthy of) the relationship we want,
b) stop talking about what we'll accept and get really clear on what we want
c) take steps to encounter the person we're looking for and then pursue the relationship

By the way, all the above apply to pretty much anything we desire.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spit and other things, Part 2 (or Change is Constant)

This morning, I woke to the aroma of poop.  Large quantities of it, from the smell of things.  Usually, if Jay did something 'significant' while asleep, he would come and get me as soon as he is awake.  He'll tell me 'Eww!  Wipe!'  Nothing yet, so I waited.  I didn't want to wake up just yet... The pungent aroma was urgent, though....  I got up to investigate.  Jay was still sleeping, wrapped snuggly in his comforter.  I woke him up and began to peel back the covers.  It took a fair amount of fortitude to handle the sight and smells that forced my system out of it's sleepy state.

About an hour later, everything was squeaky clean, with only faint remnants of the various smells.  My son was extremely happy, having relieved himself of the considerable load.  I have to admit that while attending to the situation, I was tempted to think How the ... am I supposed to deal with this for the next .... years??? Potty training has been a moving target for us for several years.  Jay was somewhat potty trained at 5, had a regression and potty training was one of the many things to go. He was potty trained for peeing at 9, but the downstairs bathroom stopped working and he ... well, he stopped peeing in the toilet, so here we are at 11, wondering.

My mind drifts to some of the big and small changes of the past few years....
  • I remember Jaedon deciding he had to collect bits of string, lint, sticks, fuzz and walk around with them in his hands. I used to try to take the stuff away.  Thankfully, my friend Kat asked me one day "Why are you taking his stuff?  Help him collect stuff"  And so I did, until I didn't even notice his stuff anymore.  Several months later, I noted that he wasn't collecting the stuff.  I don't know when it stopped.
  • At 2, sitting in the speech therapist's office, Jaedon looked not the least interested in the shape sorter.  He would randomly try to put pieces in, maybe just indulging our passionate requests, but the pieces chosen bore no resemblance to the shape of the opening being accessed.  One day, he just came in and put all the pieces in.  We gave him one that was more complicated and in a flash, he had all the pieces in too!
  • Jaedon was a constant buzz of sounds, but it appeared to us that there was no co-relation between sound making and communicative intent.  Then, one day, after days of teaching him the word tickle, he got it!  Maybe a year later, he got the word 'cereal' (though it sounded like 'ee-yah').  Now, he regularly uses single clear words, or not so clear 2-3 word combinations.
  • 2 months ago he was playing with spit in his mouth.  Why? Who knows? Was he increasing his muscle tone?  Was he exploring his mouth? Was he strengthening the sphincter muscles all over his body? (pursed lips and sucking motions help sphincter muscles to develop).  Whatever he was doing, he's doing it far less. I would say, almost never, except on a rare occasion.
  • 1+ year ago, Jaedon's anal sphincter muscles were going full speed, voiding small amounts of poop constantly, making attempts at wearing underwear and other potty training strategies exercises in futility.    A month ago, the overactivity stopped, and Jaedon started to have regular sized poops at almost predictable times.  I wish I knew what I did to make it happen.  I could market it!  Maybe Jaedon did it by himself....
So in answer to my  question above, I'll deal with it one moment at a time.  I'll resist projecting into the future, and embrace the treasure, the sacredness of the moment and everything Jay brings to this moment I share with him.  

One thing is for sure, change is constant.  I couldn't plot a course to where we are today, so I probably won't be able to plot a course to the next step.   I may even be surprised by what I see at that next step.  My surprise gives me the opportunity to be curious and grow.  Jaedon will do what he will do.  Let me do what I will do.  I love and I work.  I work because I love.  Isn't all loving work sacred?

My friend said she told her son that she would change poopy diapers until she didn't need to change them anymore.  So will I.  Jaedon, my love, I'm so glad you put the poop outside you body.  That is definitely the best place for it to be.  Daddy and I will help you clean up as long as you need us to, and one day, we hope you will put the poop in the toilet.  Until then, just get it all out!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I Really Want It... Right?

Let me tell you that I haven't had a partner for several years. Over the last year, I haven't even had a real date. And yet, on several occasions I've said that I wanted to date.

Remember in my earlier article(s) where I said that I wanted to find a new partner? I decided that before I would search for a new partner, I first wanted to get rid of my back pain. Who wants a partner with back pain?

In order to get rid of my back pain, I spent time on physical treatments and I did dialogues to address whatever psychological reasons I might have for holding on to the pain and tension. My back pain disappeared.

So, I joined dating sites and singles clubs hoping to meet someone interesting, but I soon gave up, thinking, "I don't seem to attract the right kind of person. I better make some changes in me first. I want to find a healthy and energized man, and such a person will be more interested in me when I am also highly energized."

So, I started running again. I kept telling myself that getting fit was the best next step in finding a partner. To be honest, if running could bring me any closer to finding a partner, it would probably have been wiser to join a running club, rather than run on my own or with a girlfriend! In a running club, there might have been social gatherings or other activities where I might have met my next partner in a relaxed social setting. Duh!

Next, I decided that it would be wise to get back on my old career track. Working as a handicap aid with special needs children and as a part-time schoolteacher didn't provide a lifestyle that attracted lots of men into my life. I often worked early mornings, which made it difficult to not be exhausted at night and unlikely for me to go out in the evening. Also, most of the new people through my work were in trouble and struggling. After work, I really didn't want to talk to anyone new.

So, I got back into a job where I could use my analytical skills. I started with a job in the financial sector and I can tell you, most men in the financial sector seem to either get married at eighteen (and stay married) or they are extremely boring...

Then I moved onto direct marketing and data management. The men working in data management are slightly more extroverted than Finnish people! If you do not know any Finnish people, I can tell you that an introverted Finnish person will look at his shoes while talking to you and an extroverted Finnish person will look at your shoes while talking to you! These people do have an excellent sense of humor, but...

Ok, let's move to the direct marketing people; they are outgoing, love sports, love fast thinking, and quickly I realized that they are so into fast thinking that it might never occur to them to stop and reflect on themselves and their behaviors. Not exactly self aware.

Lately I've gone out dancing. I've actually met a few men who showed proved interesting. Unfortunately for them (for me?), I just rediscovered dancing. So, while dancing I am not really taking time to connect with the men around me!

Last year I decided that the way to find a new partner would be to love bigger! In my interactions with people, especially with my friends, I've been doing that and I like it. Still, at times, I wonder, "Loving the family I am volunteering with, loving my nieces or my girlfriend and her family, how exactly is that taking me anywhere?"

The other day I decided to spend my weekly dialogue session on the question: how do I find a partner or a lover.

It wasn't the first time I had this thought, and you probably can guess what happened... I started out with: I want to explore how to create a love-relationship. However, before I explore that, I want take a moment to look at this conflict two friends are having and why I got so upset about it.

Need to say that I never got back to the first subject?

While writing this article, I thought about asking: who wants to go on a date with me? Or, who will set me up with a friend?

But honestly: as much as I like a long distance relationships, I still think that going on dates in the area I live (or at least in the same time zone) would be more beneficial.

My intention for this article is not really to get a date - even if it would be nice - but to describe an example of how we sometimes proclaim to have a goal -- and to have a clear intention on reaching that goal -- and yet we do a lot of things to stay away from it. We make up ideas of things that are more important in order to go for our goals, instead of seeing them for what they really are: distractions!

I do love my lack of pains and my fantastic job and great colleagues. Now maybe I can take the time to figure out why I have been staying away from creating a real love-relationship!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who Loves You

I was thinking this morning about questions that are somewhat open ended, but also tell us a lot about ourselves. I like them particularly because of what the answers tell me about me. The answers are more reminders than they are extemporaneous statements.

Happiness Alarm Clock
One of the questions that we hear often and yet fail to take full advantage of is "How are you?", or as we say here in Jersey, "How y'doin?"

Now, granted, the expected reply is often simply, "How YOU doin?" with no expectation of a detailed and thoughtful treatise. Nonetheless, "How y'doin?" can be an amazingly useful question when we recast it into what I call a Happiness Alarm Clock--an alert that reminds me to check in with myself and see just how I am doing.

I can look at how I am emotionally (happy, sad, angry, fearful, worried, excited). I can look at how I am physically (hunched over or sitting upright, tight or loose muscles, relaxed or clenched jaw). I can compare my activities with my plan (am I doing what I intended or have I drifted off). All this makes "How y'doin?" an amazing gift.

But wait, there's more! Like an alarm clock, the effect of Happiness Alarm goes beyond evaluation of my current state. It also provides me the opportunity to change it. Rather than going from sleeping to waking, I can go from unhappy to happy. I can go from being uptight to relaxed. I can go from wondering aimlessly to getting back on track.

How you doing?

Wha'D'ya Know?
Another fun and useful question is, "What do you know?"

Again, in order to maximize the benefit of this question, you'll want to expand beyond the intended scope of the asker. In this case, I like to hear 'What do you KNOW?', recasting the question in terms of what I hold to be 'true'. By true, I don't refer to the absolutes like god, the origins of the universe, or the meaning of life. I simply mean, what are my absolutely, positively, rock-solid, foundational, and apparently never changing, core beliefs.

For example, one of my core beliefs is, "There's nothing that I can't figure out." Another one is, "I am loved."

Getting in touch with our core beliefs is powerful. It's our core beliefs that define who we are and how we respond to stimuli. It's our core beliefs that make or break us in crisis. It's our core beliefs that cause us to seize or pass on opportunities. It's our core beliefs that result in us being generally happy, or generally unhappy.

I love sitting around with others and hearing what they KNOW. I'll often hear something and decide, "Wow, I think I'm going to adopt that one for myself."

What do YOU KNOW?

Who Loves You?
A third really great question, is "Who loves you?" In business, it's often asked rhetorically after someone has let you know that they've done you a favor. However, the question presents a great opportunity to remind yourself of the people in your life whom you might have taken for granted. It also provides an opportunity to give yourself a little boost of positive energy.

Think of the people in your life who love you. Visualize them loving you and love them back. It's a great energizing experience.

In some cases, people will be unsure of how to answer. They may feel altogether unloved. This of course makes the question even more useful.

I've never met a person who after prodding, questioning and exploring, couldn't think of a least someone who loved him. The process of exploration and discovery is itself worth the time taken. Even if the discovery process yields no results, the act of pursuing it with another person leaves at least the pursuer in the position of loving the person asked.

Who loves YOU?

All In All
So, next time someone asks you, "How y'doin?", think to yourself "Hmmm... How AM I doing?" Check in with yourself emotionally, physically, logistically.

Next time someone says, "Yo, what'd'ya know?", call up a couple of bedrock beliefs that you KNOW you can count on.

Next time someone says, "Hey, who loves ya?" with their thumbs pointing back at themselves, take a few seconds to flash through your mental photographs of the people in your life who do love you.

Of course, you can also start asking the questions in the manner outlined above. Next time you ask a friend, "How y'doin?" and she responds, "How YOU doin?", you can say, "No, really, how ARE you doing?"

Could get interesting.

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wax On, Wax Off

When it comes to teaching the unteachable, I'm a big fan of rudiments. Rudiments are the basic components of any skill or subject.

When learning to play the drums, you spend a lot of time learning to play rudiments, basic rhythm patterns that can be later combined to form complex music. When learning mathematics, before performing complex operations, one learns addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables. Before the Karate Kid learned to kick ass, he learned how to apply and remove automobile wax.

Rudiments are the foundational building blocks or any subject or skill. To work, you must learn them so well that they become second nature. When you do, advanced concepts and skills come easily. When you don't, they come with greater difficulty, or not at all.

How Are Your Rudiments?

Over the years, I've worked with many people with advanced degrees who still couldn't write a decent paper, create an effective PowerPoint presentation or communicate an advanced concept to a lay audience. Rather than ferreting out the specific missing rudiments for each person, I developed a set of exercises and rules of thumb that by virtue of their implementation force acquisition of the rudiments. The following represent a few of them.

1. If you want to be interesting and engaging, ask a question.
Have you ever encountered someone who seemed almost desperate for someone to sit down and talk with him. Every once in a while, someone will actually engage him in conversation, usually for the last time. I've seen regulars at coffee shops or bars whom other regulars either quickly dismiss and move on, or, avoid altogether.

It seems that the more the desperate person tries to engage others (the more he talks and shares), the more he is avoided.

If you want to be interesting and engaging to someone other than yourself, ask a question.

2. For #1 to work, listen to and be interested in the answer.
Of course, there are folks with whom I've shared #1 who immediately proceed to ask a question and then either don't wait for or listen to your answer, or, answer the question themselves. Some will pause and bide their time while you speak, then non-sequitur themselves into whatever it is that they wanted to talk about.

Listen and be interested.

3. Create Effective PowerPoint Presentations
One of the greatest tools in the world is Microsoft's PowerPoint. With PowerPoint almost anyone can become a prolific purveyor of beautiful presentations that are absolutely terrible. Over the years, I've refined a set of rules that has never failed to dramatically improve the presentations of people who work for me.
  • Presentations must be ten pages or fewer including cover and summary
  • No fonts smaller than 18pt may be used
  • Only Times-Roman or Arial fonts may be used (pick one)
  • No colors other than black and white
  • No pictures (photos)
  • No words with more than three syllables
  • The 18pt and color rules apply to charts, graphs and graphics
The above are the wax-on, wax-off guidelines, the rudiments. Once they have been mastered, we move on to things like colors and images. But not before.

If you have the opportunity to run meetings in which PowerPoint presentations are used, try this out and let me know how it goes.

4. Write Documents that People Read and Understand
One of the things that I've learned in business is that being able to write effectively can take you really far: certainly much further than having the same skill set and not being able to write effectively. Here are a couple of rules of thumb that can help you improve your writing rudiments.
  • Use absolutely no adverbs: adverbs are the greatest enemy of vocabulary. By banning them, you'll create an environment in which your vocabulary will flourish.
  • Limit yourself to two adjectives per paragraph: adjectives are second only to adverbs in their vocabulary-limiting effect.
  • Use only active voice.
  • Limit sentences to twenty words.
  • Use only words that are three or fewer syllables in length.
  • However long your first draft is, rewrite it using half as many words.
  • Check everything for consistent verb tense, and then recheck it.
  • Blindly obey the word processing program's grammar corrections. If words or phrases are highlighted as being improper grammar, then rewrite them until they are accepted.
5. Effectively Present Complex Topics
When I first started working as a clerk at Bell Laboratories, I would often ask the engineers to explain mathematical, software, and electrical engineering concepts to me. I can remember talking with my dad (who was an electrical engineer) about what I was learning at work.

Convinced that I simply wasn't ready to understand the answers to the questions I'd asked, I would say something like, "Dad, some of these concepts are so advanced that it's going to be a long time before I can understand them. Even the guys from Standford and MIT can't explain them to me!"

My dad would matter-of-fact-ly answer, "That's because they don't understand them."

If you really want to know your topic and present it well, practice your presentation with your mom or your six-year-old: someone who will listen intently and who has no clue about what you're presenting.

If you can effectively present a complex topic to your six-year-old (including satisfactorily answering all her questions), then you'll understand it. If you understand it, you can present it.

6. Teach in a Way that Students Learn
Here's a quick rule of thumb that can dramatically improve your teaching skills. It directly applies to teaching someone how to use a computer, but can be extended to other disciplines.
If you are typing, then they ain't learnin'
Pretty simple, huh? Yet, amazingly useful.

Whether you're teaching computer skills or rock climbing or piano or math, if you're doing the work, you undermine the efficacy of your teaching. So, whether teaching piano or computer, have the student sit at the keyboard, not you. Verbally instructing versus demonstrating will force an improvement in your understanding of what you want to teach. Having students implement your instructions will improve their understanding.

This can be applied to pretty much anything, e.g., asking a student write on the whiteboard or blackboard as you introduce a new math topic, or, having a student demonstrate how to bunny-hop on a mountain bike.

7. Balance Your Brain
To work around the carpal-tunnel and tendonitis in my right hand and arm, I decided to go lefty. I began writing and mousing left-handed. It was challenging. Yet by refusing to go righty, it came quicker than I'd anticipated.

Beyond the obvious skill differences, my experience writing left-handed was completely different. Whereas writing with my right hand was goal-oriented and utilitarian, writing with my left was process-oriented and fun.

Long story short, I started to mimic my left hand with my right and my tendonitis and carpal-tunnel disappeared.

Pick something that you are right- or left-side dominated, and do it with the other side for a month.

Have Fun
As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, Order in the Classroom, we often struggle with advanced skills and concepts because we've skipped some of the basics. When we unearth the basics we've skipped and learn them, everything else comes together.

The exercises I've outlined above are essentially shortcuts to recovering basics or rudiments. By following the guidelines, you'll pick up all the basics without needing to formally discover what's there and what's not.

If you have cause to write papers, or create PowerPoint slides, or present to others, I invite you to try some of the above exercises and see how you do. If it comes easily, then you've probably got your rudiments covered. If not, it won't be long until you do.

Have a great, rudimentary Monday!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Order in the Classroom

One of the less fortunate side-effects of standards for growth and development is the pervasive belief that a child's age defines what he should or shouldn't have learned, what he should or shouldn't be capable of doing, etc. When it comes to the metrics employed in raising children, our society is almost exclusively focused age-appropriateness. We see age-specific charts for height and weight at the pediatrician's office. We see specific curricula designed for each year of elementary school. We're taught at what ages children become self-aware and at what ages they become capable of abstract thought.

Almost from birth, parents begin comparing their children to the standards. How much did Bobby weigh at birth? How much at six months? When did he start crawling? When did he first start pulling himself up? When did he take his first steps?

Some parents make it really important that their child be within a certain percentile of growth and development. They become downright distraught if she's not in the top twenty percent of this or that age defined metric.

Some parents try to "help" their children by artificially accelerating their development employing special programs and lessons designed to get them off the charts and over the top: reading at age four, Chopin etudes at age ten, calculus at age twelve, and so on. Although it's all for the children, most of us seem to derive a sense of pride and satisfaction when our children are ahead of the curve.

The Big Problem
The problem with age-appropriate standards is in how we use them. Age-appropriate standards simply reflect ages at which children typically acquire certain skills and knowledge. That's fine; however, we don't stop there.

The first place we go awry with age-appropriate statistics is when we take a statistic (the percentage of children who have acquired a certain skill by a certain age) and translate it into a metric (a required skill for children of a certain age).

The second is when we compare our children to the metrics and make their alignment with the metrics meaningful and important. I'm worried about little Susie, she's thirteen months old and still not walking. Little Frank is so smart, he started reading books at four.

The third (and perhaps most insidious) is when we let age-based metrics define the developmental curriculum for an individual child.

Here's how it goes. We start with something that reflects typical development, for example:
4-5 years old:
know numbers and letters
6-7 years old:
perform addition and subtraction and read simple stories
8-9 years old:
perform multiplication and division and abstract the meaning of stories
We translate the statistics for typical development into a should. Mary's almost eight years old; she should be able to do addition and subtraction by now!

Having converted a statistical norm into a mandate, we do everything we can think of to help Mary learn addition and subtraction: tutors, summer school, special games, videos, etc.

Sometimes it works, many times it doesn't.

Oftentimes, when it doesn't, we'll have a child repeat a year of school. Why? Because we assume that the issue has to do with the child's rate of development. Her development is slow. We treat her not being able to do math as we would treat her being short. If we simply put her into a group of younger children, everything will be fine.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Rate of Development vs Sequence of Development
Now, here's the problem. The reasons that Sally can't do addition and subtraction, the reasons that Billy can't comprehend the higher order meaning of a story, and the reasons that Alice can't catch a ball have nothing to do with their rate of development (how fast they learn and grow). The reasons have do to with their sequence of development (the ordering of acquired skills and knowledge.)

Although we can use age-appropriate criteria to identify when a child is not developing typically, age-appropriate criteria tell us nothing about why he is developing atypically. Fortunately, in addition to the statistics that reflect the ages at which children typically acquire skills, there are data that show the sequence (or order) in which skills are acquired (regardless of age).

For example, regardless of the age at which she does it, a child will typically roll-over before she crawls. She'll crawl before she pulls herself up. She'll pull herself up before she walks.

A child might respond to touch before responding to eye contact, eye contact before gestures, gestures before words, words before phrases, phrases before sentences, and so on.

Although we might identify typical ages at which children acquire these skills, the importance is not the age at which they're acquired, it's the order in which they are acquired. The reason the order matters is that most skills build upon previously acquired skills. When we skip a prerequisite skill, it makes acquisition of dependent skills difficult or impossible, regardless of age.

Almost invariably, when a child of ten is struggling with multiplication and division, it's not because he's developmentally slow; it's because he's skipped a developmental step. It could be addition or subtraction or basic orders of magnitude (e.g., understanding tens versus hundreds versus thousands). The older the child and the more complex the task, the longer the list of potentially missed developmental steps. When a child of fourteen is struggling with algebra, it could be addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, abstract thought, reading comprehension, or any of a number of factors.

Since the cause of the current challenge often has to do with a developmental step that was skipped years before, having a child repeat the current lessons over and over won't be of any use and can even be counter productive.

I Can't Do Math
Almost everyone I've ever met can identify some skill that they simply do not have. It may be math, it may be music, it may be dancing, it may be speaking, it may be writing, it may be throwing a ball.

Invariably, with a little exploration, we can identify the missing developmental step.

For example, I've met lots of adults who, after years of lessons, frustratedly gave up on learning the piano. As we explore why piano was so difficult for them, it typically comes down to having skipped an important developmental step: discerning pitch. (Discerning pitch involves hearing the difference between one note and another note, and identifying which is which.) Without this minor developmental step, the only way to know whether or not you're playing what's on the sheet music is to look at your hands.

I've known many people who can do arithmetic, but can't do algebra. A little exploration typically reveals that the problem has nothing to do with math, but instead, the inability to quickly shift between concrete and abstract thinking. We'll talk about an algebraic formula like (a + b) * c = d, and the I-can't-do-algebra person will say something like, "Yeah, but how do you know what a is?"

What to Do
To be sure, it can be quite useful to understand the ages at which children typically acquire various skills and capabilities. However, it can also be quite a hindrance if you want to help a child overcome developmental challenges. We end up focusing on a symptom of the challenge, not the root cause of the challenge. At best, we can help a child pass all the tests that certify him as having achieved all the age-appropriate developmental goals, but it's highly likely that he doesn't really get it.

In the end, taking the age-appropriate approach is akin to getting a child to grow from four-foot-five to five-foot-eight without passing through five-foot-two. The steps in between matter.

I believe wholeheartedly that (with rare exception) anyone can do algebra, anyone can play piano, anyone can learn to dance, anyone can learn to write. However, if you dismiss yourself or your child as being too old or as "should have learned that by now", you'll never get there. If you dismiss the possibility because you've "tried it before", you'll never get there. If you try again, simply running the same program that didn't work previously, you'll never get there.

However, if you take time (on your own or with someone) to determine the developmental steps that build to the desired skill, to identify the ones that you might have missed, and to work on acquiring the missing building blocks, you can get there.

If you're interested pursuing this further, you might google phrases such as developmental sequence and age appropriate curriculum, along with the specific areas of interest.

Order in the classroom!

Happy Sunday,

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Faking It

I read slowly. Really slowly.

It's not because I'm savoring every word, though that happens at times. It's simply because I can't ready quickly, or at least, not very well.

That is, except when I read really, really, really quickly. In which case, I read faster than anyone I know.

This morning, I was trying to figure out why sometimes it takes forever to read a page and at others, it takes no time at all.

Learning to Read
When I was five, I was introduced to phonetics, the sounds of various letters and letter combinations. The whole concept felt somehow amazingly powerful to my five-year-old sensibilities and I became obsessed with spelling things.

I would ask my mom to give me words to spell and I would slowly break them down into their component phonemes, spelling them back to her. I might spell fish with a ph or with an f, depending on which phoneme was most current for me, but I pretty quickly got to the point where I could sound out any word. My parents would have me perform at family gatherings and parties. I can remember my mom asking me to spell antidisestablishmentarianism and watching everyone gape as I slowly worked my way through this word that held absolutely no meaning for me.

At first to mom's delight, and later less so, I started sounding out and pronouncing random words that I would see: on billboards, on posters, on backs of magazines, on letters. I would pick words because of how they looked (their shapes or the colors of the letters), not because of what they meant. Even after pronouncing and hearing them, more often than not, I didn't know what they meant.

Because, I was really good with phonetics, my teacher decided that I was an exceptional reader and put me into the 'top' reading group. I came home from school and proudly announced the fact to my mom who celebrated it with me, telling me how wonderful I was.

There was only one problem. I couldn't read.

I mean, I could look at the page and pronounce every word on it. It didn't matter whether or not I'd seen the words before. I didn't matter whether or not I understood the words or the context or the story. It sure seemed like I was an amazing reader. That is, as long as understanding what you're reading doesn't matter.

Elementary Fast Track
I sailed through first, second and most of third grades being a 'top' reader. But then, in fourth grade, they wanted us to start explaining the contexts of the stories, the motivations of the characters, the lessons learned. I didn't have a clue. It's not that I couldn't remember the specifics and needed to look them up. I would look at the written exercises before me and not be able to interpret the questions, let alone answer them.

Because I had been such a great sounder-outer, it never occurred to anyone that I couldn't read. Everyone assumed that I simply wasn't trying. I received lecture upon lecture about how I have to do my work. I was made to stay in my room until it was done, until I learned to be responsible.

You can imagine how well that all worked.

Remedial Reading
By my junior year of high school, I was sentenced to the remedial reading lab in the hope that I might learn to read well enough to graduate. At this point, I'd also completely bombed out of math. The reading lab had a self-paced program that involved readings and exercises to test comprehension.

The level at which I began the program was not too far beyond where I'd been in third grade. I began working through each assignment and answering all the questions. Sometimes it would go quickly, but most times I had to take it really slowly or I'd miss something (or pretty much everything.) In the end, if I read slowly (and usually repeatedly) enough mouthing the words just loudly enough so that I could hear them, I could satisfactorily answer all the questions.

I remember feeling embarrassed and not wanting anyone to watch me as I painstakingly worked through these rudimentary exercises that felt stupid to me. It wasn't that the concepts or ideas being conveyed by the stories were challenging. It wasn't that the vocabulary was challenging. It was simply that getting from point A to point B was, well, nearly impossible.

Pattern Recognition
Even today, I'm a really slow reader, except when I'm not. I think the difference lies in logic and pattern recognition.

For example, if I were to read a novel with many characters and lots of 'random' events and behaviors, I would need to read really slowly to follow it. However, if I read a scientific text on physics, or computers, or biology, or neurology, or if I look at the instructions on how to build or put something together, I fly.

I realized this morning that the difference lies in the subject matter, not in my reading skills. Scientific phenomena tend to behave in predictable manner. Instruction manuals tend to reflect (more or less) the underlying design of the tool or system. One doesn't need to read all the superfluous prose to understand what needs understanding. You can hop from key phrase to key phrase and fill the rest in.

On the other hand, novels (and for that matter, instructions on the completion of bureaucratic forms, and legal documents) tend not to be as well structured, thought through, or organized. You can't pick up a word here or there and accurately fill in the gaps. You have to read the whole thing. In that case, if I can't get someone else to do it for me, I read really slowly.

Faking It
Fortunately for me, outside the realms of bureaucracy, religion, tort law, and psychology, most of the universe has an underlying logic and flow. You don't need many data points to figure things out. So when it's time to read elaborate documentation, I fake it.

I've talked before about never learning to read music because it's so much easier to simply hear it and play it. It's the same with the technology. After being handed reams of documentation on requirements and design, I'll ask someone to simply draw a picture of what they want to accomplish; it's so much easier just to derive all the math than to read a description written by someone else. Not only do I not read the instructions that come with do-it-yourself furniture, but I also put it together without leftover parts.

Also fortunately, going the other direction isn't a challenge. I can't read music, but I can write down what I hear. I can document complex technical work. I can write this blog.

Sometimes, in regard to music, people will ask me, "What do you mean you can't read? You can write!"

Hard to explain.

So What?
I'm not particularly sure how I ended up thinking about reading this morning. Perhaps it's because the other night, as I lay in bed reading a novel on my iPad, Iris decided to rest her head on my shoulder and read along with me. I could feel her body move ever so slightly as she completed each page just as I reached the midpoint.

It might be a meeting that I had this week with one of my colleagues at Angel-Med as we worked on interpreting the electronically captured waveforms of a beating heart. He pointed to a section of the waveform and contemplated how we might get the algorithm to "see" the pattern of change. I thought aloud, "Well, if we can see it, then we can get the software to see it."

Whatever the reason, it occurs to me that there may be other people out there who've had the same experience, some of whom might be just five or ten or sixteen years old. You might have people in your life (including you) who seem capable of something at some times, and then completely incapable at others. Maybe, they're not capable in the first place. Maybe they're just faking it.

Of course, all this is coming from someone who can't even read.

Happy Saturday!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lucky Kids

Yesterday morning, I decided to indulge myself in a sublime benefit of working in New Jersey, a real bagel. You see, in the Berkshires we have be-galls (bagel-shaped bread-matter that brazenly remind you with impudent assurance in each and every bite, "I'm not a bagel and there's nothing you can do about it").

As if bagels weren't enough, as I slowly absorbed my little Jersey delicacy, I allowed myself time to savor QuinnMama's latest installment, Doo Wop, and Faith's latest, Quiet! Stop It!. BTW, if you haven't read any of QuinnMama's blog, Zen Master Quinn, and if you're short on time today, then please stop reading this article immediately, click the link to Doo Wop, and proceed as directed. Why waste time with Elvis on black velvet when Renoir is sitting in the next room.

Loving What You Do
So, as I sat down at with my bagel and coffee, the shop's sole other patron (let's call him Joe) looked up at me, and with a big smile said, "Hello!"

I responded in kind. Joe enthusiastically commented on it getting really warm today and that it would be hot all weekend. His was more than your typical weather comment, and it certainly wasn't a complaint. So, I asked him about it.

Joe explained that he was in the air conditioning and heating business and that warm temperatures meant more work. It looked like he'd be working easily from 8AM to 8PM every day.

At first I thought, "Ahh, if you're in the air conditioning business, you make a lot more money when it gets hot quickly."

But that wasn't it. As Joe continued, he said, "I LOVE to work! It's therapeutic. It feels really good. As I talk to my kids who are now in college, I sometimes tell them, 'You guys are lucky to have a dad who LOVES to work."

As someone who himself loves to work, I felt like a rank amateur in the presence of a master.

As I considered Joe's statement, the implications of what he had said hit me like bird-doo on a freshly cleaned windshield. For the vast majority of us, working is a given and, next to sleeping, takes more of our time than anything else. His kids ARE lucky to have a dad who LOVES to work. Imagine the contrast between growing up with a dad who HATES his job or simply GETS BY and growing up with a dad who LOVES his work.

As we continued talking, the topic turned to kids.

Turns out that Joe's daughter is studying biomedical engineering at a university where she just completed her first year. I let Joe know that I was also a biomedical engineer working for a company next town over. I shared how much I love my work and how fascinating and fulfilling I find developing devices that help people in ways that were previously considered to be impossible.

As we continued, Joe shared how his daughter's first year at the university had been a bit of a challenge for her. She had always been the smartest kid in class. When she arrived at school, she quickly discovered that she was now in a group where each and every person had been the smartest kid in class. It can be a bit daunting when suddenly confronted by a test score perched dead center on the bell after spending a lifetime just left of the right margin.

As he talked about his daughter's experience, it occurred to me, "Wow, poor kid's so smart that she never had to do anything impossible. It might be that she's never even had to do anything that she found challenging."

I mentioned this to Joe and then proceeded to think out loud about the importance of doing the impossible as we grow up--not just once in a while, but frequently. In contrast to Joe's poor daughter, I was the lucky one for whom almost nothing came easily. I can't count all the things in my life that have gone from impossible to requires-no-effort-whatsoever. After a while you get to the point where the statement, "Shit, I can't think of a way to do this!" is one of enthusiasm and excitement, not demoralization and defeat.

Lucky Kids
As I type this morning, it occurs to me that my kids are lucky to have a dad who LOVES tasks that are IMPOSSIBLE. So much of our lives (the parts where we sit up and pay attention) is spent avoiding, navigating around or dealing with the challenging and the impossible.

I'm smiling as I think about the first times I took each of the kids driving. On a Sunday afternoon, Joy and I drove over to the huge and empty Bell Labs campus in Holmdel, NJ where she learn about fast she could take a curve when she properly applied physics. Eila and I tooled through Arlington and then Cambridge into Boston where she navigated Sturrow Drive from Alston to the Hatch Shell. Luke and I practiced parallel parking on really steep hills in Winchester, MA.

How Lucky Are Your Kids?
What do you model for you kids? How do they perceive your attitudes towards work... towards play... towards challenge... towards the impossible?

What attitudes do they manifest? Do you provide opportunities for them to do the challenging? To do the impossible?

When they complain about chores or challenges, do you intervene? Do you reinforce their beliefs that that it's bad by insisting that it's something they have to do?

How lucky are they?

Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quiet! Stop it! and other reflections on parenting...

Badummmm!! was the sound I heard behind me in the living room.  "What are you doing?" I said to Zachary as I watched him rubbing his arm. "Hurting myself" he commented.  What was I to say to that? Stop hurting yourself?  I tend to make those kinds of futile suggestions in an attempt to minimize my own discomfort.  Why would I be uncomfortable? This penchant for self hurting usually results in emotional noise.  Early in parenthood, I developed a goal of quiet!.

Zach was very amused by his wit and he shared his comment with his sister.  Interestingly enough, she tripped a few minutes later and the conversation continued along the lines of self-hurting.  Simonne's comment was "But you want to hurt yourself.  I don't want to do that."  She commented that someone needed to move the car-seat that she tripped over out of the way.  I wondered who that someone was, and offered a suggestion, which was ignored... I resisted my thought to remove the object of possible self-hurt.

Zach came back to me, again doing the same thing as before.  This time, he didn't wait for the question.  He announced his intention to hurt himself, but was not going to give himself cuts and did not want to need the hospital.

Muse: So many of us hurt ourselves and don't own up to what we are doing.  So many correctly identify the contributing factors to the hurt, but don't exercise our power to reduce those contributors when possible.

I'm listening to conversations in the kitchen this time, two little voices "It's not fair if you get 2 and I get one".  Normally, my goal of quiet! at all costs would have rushed me into the kitchen to put a quick end to the discussion.  Thankfully, I read Teach Your Children a few minutes ago and have been thinking about the trade-off between instruction and experiences. I decided to proceed slowly, and resist helping.

The problem was particularly challenging to the 8 and 5 year old because they were doing complex division, trying to determine exactly half of the remains of a smoothie, when a few ounces of the portion had already been consumed by the 5 year old.  The only real help I gave was to point out the size of the glass he used, versus that of the 8 year old's.  He was very willing to estimate the height of the fluid he had consumed, showing us with his hands. His sister poured her portion into his glass, noted with surprise that it was more than he had had (her glass was wider), poured her entire portion back into the original canister, poured it out into his glass to the appropriate height, then poured that back into her glass.  (Too many steps! I thought...but I remembered my intention).  The 5 year old continued the figuring, pouring the entire contents of the rest into his glass, noting the height, pouring it all back, then estimating half and pouring that into his glass.
FairPortionForZach2 = 1/2 (Total - 2* ZachPortion1) 
That's algebra!  I must note it on my next homeschool report.....

Muse: Allowing the children to figure it out takes time, and I have to be willing to not 'fix' the things that appear 'inefficient' to me.  My going slow isn't really the slow way, since the fast way isn't facilitating much learning!  Allowing people space and time to figure their stuff out may result in more of the actual change and growth that we wanted to see when we are busy telling them what to do!

Sometimes we don't give the time to have the experiences needed because we believe we don't have the time, or that taking the time will inconvenience someone else.  Today I was in BJ's watching a mom allow her son to empty the shopping cart at the self check isle.  It took considerably longer, and BJ's on a sunday is incredibly crowded.  She allowed him to make the mistakes, came to help him resolve them when necessary, then continued with her tasks.  I was directly behind her, in a hurry to be home, feeling a little impatient, yet filled with admiration for the process she was allowing her son to have, with the line stretching behind her.

So why do I stop myself from facilitating more experiential learning for the children?  Usually I'm trying to avoid some discomfort.  Let's take my goal of quiet!.  Like my son with autism, I do discomfort in the presence of emotionally charged noise.  Now, I am an advocate of being an empowered person and making environmental changes where necessary (see first muse).  I'm realizing thought, that I will opt to do that before a complete exploration of why I'm uncomfortable.  The challenge there is when the stimulus comes from other people.  Much of my care taking is really care taking of myself.  I don't want the noise.

Muse: Be curious about the cause of the discomfort to determine if I change the stimulus or myself (or both!)  Does changing the stimulus sabotage any of my other intentions?

I'm going to pretend that I have autism and am significantly challenged by emotional noise.  I'm going to set up a home program for me.  Let's go into my special room, where I play on my own agenda with my special friend.  Today, that friend is also me.  How do I be helpful to the other me?
  • Love and accept me with the discomfort. Turn towards it, not away from it
  • Note that it's really about me.  I'm ok with the children resolving their stuff.  My discomfort isn't about them and their well-being in the negotiation.  On my comfortable days, I lovingly facilitate or just plain leave them to handle it.
  • I can then allow myself to pause when I feel the rush to jump in. I can pause, go slowly and remind myself of my personal and parental intentions.  I can also pause to be curious and reflect on what's really going on for me.
  • I can be comfortable with my own discomfort, and celebrate that comfort with discomfort when I notice it!  Perhaps the more comfortable I am with my own discomfort, the more I can be comfortable with the discomfort represented in the emotional noise (or in any other stimulus for that matter!)
  • Wrestling with, accepting, allowing, changing my discomfort is my own experience!  I'm getting myself in there and figuring it out!  And isn't that what I want my children to get?  What better way than to model it?
So here's to a slow, thoughtful, experiential learning week in the Clarke Homeschool Academy (open 24 hours)!