Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A-minor is Boring

So I have this habit of saying whatever I'm thinking without really thinking about it. In a positive light, one might view this as a side-effect of being so completely focused on the it of a conversation that there's not a lot left for decorum and protocol. In a more negative light it would appear that I'm completely insensitive to the feelings of others.

From a practical perspective, saying what I thing has become a great filtering mechanism, for friends that is. It's kind of like our driveway; anyone who comes to our house really wants to be there.

My filter tends to have a polarizing effect. There are people who really appreciate getting a straight answer no matter what and there are people who really don't, especially when it's delivered with enthusiasm and delight.

Sometimes they're the same person.

For example, Iris has come to see that my verbalizations regarding her singing or her writing or her drumming or her mood are never personal, they're just matter-of-fact observations from someone trying to be helpful. However, there are moments when she just doesn't want to hear them.

For a long time, it would take me a while to recognize the signs that she wasn't open to "feedback" at the moment. Over time I got really good at recognizing them; Iris would say, "Look, I don't want any feedback on my drumming right now", and by the fourth or fifth time, I'd stop. We've now got it down to this look she gives me. It's one her mom uses to melt ferrous metals.

Sometimes I'll say something and only later think, "Hmmm... I wonder how he took that?"

I used to get kind of hung up in moments like that, over-thinking, second-guessing and then trying to explain. Since that never worked, I stopped.

I've also tried not saying what I'm thinking, but that only leads to multiple simultaneous conversations; there are the conversational threads I maintain in my head (the ones that follow what was unsaid) and the audible one. That doesn't work either.

So, I say what I'm thinking.

By the way, this is different than saying what I'm feeling, or more accurately, saying something that appears to be matter-of-fact, but is really just a byproduct of emotion. For example, there's a big difference between, "In the last song, you sped up significantly whenever you played a drum fill" and "For a drummer, your sense of time really sucks." The latter would not qualify as saying what you're thinking.

Phew... glad that's out of the way.

The other day at rehearsal, Scott said, "Wow, I was really getting tired of playing in A-minor. After a while it gets so boring."

My first thought (read verbalization) was, "How can a key get boring? There are limitless possibilities even if you never change keys. A key can never be boring. It's the musicians who run out of new ideas that are boring."

And then I thought about it. "Hmmm... I wonder how Scott took that?"

And then I thought, "But that would be what I would want to hear if I said something so naive."

And then I thought, "Hey, Scott's one of those people who makes it up the driveway even when his car won't."

So I continued, "It can be amazingly useful to play in a single key so long that you completely exhaust your repertoire of musical phrases and ideas. After a while, you start to tap into something deeper and better, but you first have to clear the clutter of what you already know."

Scott just smiled and said, "Yeah, you're right."

Happy Wednesday,

Monday, November 28, 2011

It Gets Easier

If you would absolutely know just one thing, know this: It gets easier.

OK, there may be other one-things to know, but It gets easier is a really good one.


There's this curious thing we humans do almost without fail. No how many times you've overcome obstacles and challenges, whenever you face a new one, you estimate the amount of effort required based on your first try.

It doesn't matter whether you're eliminating sugar from your diet or starting an exercise program, whether you're learning to ski or taking up the piano. The first time you try something new and challenging, it's likely to be pretty hard and, if you're like most people, you'll be tempted to project just how hard it is into all future attempts.
I can't imagine going through this every time someone brings out a fresh baked dessert; I miss sugar so much.

I thought I was gonna die the last 100 yards. I barely made it a half mile and I feel terrible. How am ever gonna run four miles, let alone a marathon.

I don't see how do people enjoy skiing; all I do is fall and these bindings are killing me.

I tried and tried, but I just couldn't get my fingers to do what I wanted them to do. I want so badly to play piano, but I just don't have the coordination for it.

Not surprisingly the result of these projections is to quit. Who would want to continue an activity that's painful, that leaves you feeling terrible, that makes you feel like a klutz?

The thing is: It gets easier.

More than that, It gets a lot easier. What you perceived as painful, overwhelming or impossible becomes invigorating, inspirational and easy. That is, if you keep at it and believe it will.

Not only that, but the rate at which it gets easier increases. Sure, it gets easier, but it also gets easier faster as you go. At first, it's getting easier may be imperceptible. However, over time, you'll start to notice that it got easier, from month to month, then from week to week, then from day to day.

Just Do It!
Trite but true, there are times where you've got to stop thinking about it, get off the couch and just do it. You can read all day long. You can study and pass tests. Still, there are things to be learned that can only be learned by doing.

Further, if the things to be learned by doing are challenging, you'll be engaged in the process of trial and error. Remember: It gets easier.

Regression Towards the Mean
It's important to recognize that the path to easier is often one of two-steps forward, one step back. Day to day, it may get harder, but over time the average effort required is less (and less and less).

The statistical phenomenon is known as Regression Towards the Mean. It's important not to look at easier on a day-to-day or try-to-try basis. What matters is the average or mean effort over time. It's tricky because we tend to lock on to the most recent experience, sometimes to the exclusion of all others. Remember it's the average challenge/effort that gets easier.

In the end, if you stick with it (and pay attention), it gets easier.

Happy Monday,

Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's Time

It’s time.

He looks out at the tumultuous waters. He seems to see things I don’t yet see. The wind gently ruffles his giant mane. His enormous flank shields me as I pull in my coat to ward off the chill.

It's a strange moment, surreal.

It feels like the moment between inhaling and exhaling, the second between darkness and the beginning of dawn. Waiting, watching, expecting: something is going to happen. Something big.

I’ve worked for this moment. I’ve trained for this moment. So much of what I have done and experienced point to this moment, to this time. Now is the time.

My insides quiver nervously, excitedly, uncertainly... I do want this, don’t I? Before I can formulate a thought he whispers, "You are ready for this."

Do I believe that? Am I ready? It’s not too late to change my mind. It’s time, but for what?

I get to decide. This could be a time to retreat, to surrender to the status quo, to just be... normal. My mouth fills with a bitter taste at the thought; my stomach turns in revolt.

"No", I think, "Normal won’t do."

I take a deep breath and slowly turn my head from side to side, releasing the tension, releasing my uncertainty, releasing my need for certainty. I stretch my shoulders and pull myself upright straightening my back. I release my fingers that are still clenching my coat.

He seems to know, to sense the change in me. His eyes meet mine.

"Yes", I say. "It’s time."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thoughts on 'gettting'

In past blog posts (HERE, HERE & HERE), we have talked about the process of ‘getting’ somebody, or being ‘got’ - how rare it is, how deeply meaningful it can be. However, it’s still a rather vague concept. For one thing, it’s a very American usage, almost slang, and probably not meaningful to non-American speakers of this already maddeningly complex language. So I thought it would be worthwhile to spend some time exploring it and understanding it better.

I suppose one could consider two contexts of getting. One, when you set out to get somebody – to initiate communication with a person with the intention to connect at a level deeper than the outermost layer (refer graphic HERE). The person could be a playroom volunteer, a family member or co-worker – anybody with whom you have an interest in a closer relationship. Alternatively, you could be already in a conversation with somebody and you now want to take it to a deeper level. Example: an argument or other intense communication. In either case, this is primarily an exercise in communication driven by an intent to connect deeply. How about trying on these suggestions in your next attempt at getting somebody:

- Intention: to connect to this person at the level of their deepest hopes and fears, to give them my complete attention during this process

- Attitude: What this person has to say is important. I will respect it even when I don’t agree, because their opinion is just as valid as mine. When they are talking, it is their time to talk; there will be plenty of time later to express my thoughts. If I let them have their say completely and exhaust their urge to express, it will bring them to a point of peace and may actually help them listen later when I want to talk. My attentive listening will be an act of love and peace in the sea of superficial and competitive conversations that typically surrounds us.

- Actions: I will give the speaker plenty of eye contact, and try not to let my gaze wander. Nods and “m-hm”s provide feedback that I’m listening, but I will also ensure they are genuine. If the conversation is interrupted, I will be the one to prompt them to resume. I will summarize and restate periodically to confirm that I have heard and understood correctly.

A simple principle from which I have benefited immensely is something I first read in Stephen Covey’s books many years ago: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. At first look, it appears to be altruistic: give the other person’s views priority over your own. That always makes it a tough sell, especially when in the heat of debate or when the topic is something near and dear to one’s heart. However, as I implemented it in my daily interactions, it quickly became obvious that there’s a self-serving angle to it too – when I have deeper insight into my partner’s position, I’m better placed to respond effectively. And if my intention is to genuinely seek resolution or common ground, this principle quickly becomes second nature to use.

To implement this principle most effectively, not only must you understand, the other person must know that you understand. What Covey recommends is that before you state your point, first restate the other person’s point in your words to their satisfaction. Try it sometime, especially in a really intense argument; it can be one of the most powerful, validating and loving experiences you can give yourself. It happened to me just the other day. A close family member came at us out of the blue, guns blazing. He was furious; so clearly upset that he was physically shaking and close to coming to blows. Now, this is a very uncommon situation for me, and it would have been easy to take the fight-or-flight perspective. However, it was very empowering to instead focus on his emotion, and invite him to fully share why he felt that way. The resulting conversation helped us all explore some important issues and we ended at a deeper and closer place than before.

I realize this comes from having a measure of internal security - feeling comfortable in my own skin, knowing that I am lovable, worthy and adequate, that I have something worthwhile to offer someone sometimes, that I don't have to feel threatened by negative feedback.That is just working on the communicator, in addition to the communication.

In what ways do you supercharge your communication?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk about your limitations, all the reasons you can't do this or wouldn't have time for that? Is your rant starting to sound more like schtick and less like well reasoned self-assessment?

Where does attribution fall? Your overbearing boss? Your dyslexic kids? Your partner whose spending is out of control? Are you overworked? Underpaid? Too tired? Too out-of-shape? Too anxious? Too depressed? Too concerned? To distraught?

What is it that stops you from doing what you would do were it not stopping you? What would you do if you had all the time in the world to do it?

The quest of many software developers is to work on a "greenfield" project. The phrase refers to a new project that is well funded with minimal limitations and constraints, one where the team can really stretch out creatively.

The term greenfield refers to the experience of an American-football player who carries the ball into a fray of blockers and would-be tacklers bracing himself to be smacked down at any moment. A hole opens. He runs through it and is confronted by nothing but yards and yards of green field, the goal posts of the end zone, and the rising roar of thousands of screaming fans.

There's no time to think. No consideration to be given... Nothing to hold him back... Nothing to stop him... Nothing, that is, but him.


For real software guys the chance to work on a fully-backed greenfield project is better than being employee number four at a start-up that just IPO'd. It's better than a promotion. It's better than a pay-raise or bonus. It's better than winning an award.

Assignment to a greenfield project is often provided as a reward for exceptional performance. Real software guys live to work on greenfield projects, to stretch out and show what they've got, to push the envelope of what is considered possible, to push themselves to new heights of skill and insight.

Boon or Bane
Despite all that, greenfield projects are the bane of many, I daresay most. No matter how much a developer complains about the things that limit her (poor funding, lousy tools, limited time, a terrible core design), she takes comfort in her constraints. As long as the constraints are there it's impossible to fail; there's always someone or something to blame, a way to explain how he could have done better if only...

Take away the constraints and rather than shooting down the yards of greenfield towards the goalposts, the would-be greenfielder freezes providing the defensive line more than ample time to realize every imagined smack-down and then some. Compared to the number of software developers who long for a greenfield project, the number of developers who thrive in one is, well... we're talking the low one-percents here.

This phenomenon is not limited to software developers. You see it in art, science, architecture, engineering, cooking, vacation planning. You name it, total freedom can be terrifying.


Really Creative
I think it comes down to two things: 1) a misunderstanding of creative process and 2) overconcern over blame, attribution and credit.

People think that creativity is about limitless expression of what lies at the core of each us or some such malarky. Outside the realm of fairytales, that's not what creativity is about. Creativity is the struggle that ensues when an artist is confronted by the constraints of his medium. Creativity's parents are not freedom and inspiration, they're limit and deadline. Understanding that limits and constraints are essential to the creative process can turn any number of "terrible" situations into ones that are more than tolerable; they become downright inspirational.

However, understanding creative process is not enough. If you're concerned about what people will think, or how well you'll do, or whether or not you're squandering the opportunity you're, well, screwed. Concern over success, failure, attribution, blame, or recognition will kill creativity faster than anything. All those great ideas you had while bound in the contraints of life vaporize leaving you with nothing but... well, nothing.

So what is it you want to do? What is it that's keeping you from doing it? How real are your limitations and constraints? How can you translate each limit into a seed of creation? What's holding you back? When are you going to change everything, without changing much of anything?

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, November 21, 2011


Whenever I hear someone say the words, I can't imagine how someone could..., I pause and think, "Hmm... could I imagine that?"

I can't imagine how someone could be so coldhearted as to not have shed a tear while listening to her heart-wrenching story!

Hmm... Maybe she was distracted by the story's inconsistencies? Perhaps he was trying to hold it together, to be stoic? I can imagine that.

I can't imagine how someone could be so stupid as to turn down a scholarship to such a wonderful college!

Hmm... Perhaps he believed he had better opportunities taking a job pursuing his passions? Maybe he didn't understand what the scholarship and education would mean to him over the long haul? I can imagine that.

I can't imagine how someone with ample resources and access to doctors, nutritionists and physical trainers could fail to lose weight and get into shape!

Hmm... Maybe he doesn't actually want to get into shape? Perhaps he finds eating more appealing than walking? I can imagine that.

I've never come up with a "can't imagine" scenario that I can't actually imagine. However, there are some that come close. The scenario that has expanded from a transitional-phase to the-past-25-years-of-my-dad's-life is a good example.

It's 1987. We're gathered at a lavishly appointed dinner party celebrating my dad's retirement. He's 59. His kids are grown. He's got plenty of money and a loving partner. He's got impeccable credentials and a great network. He can do pretty much anything he wants to do.

25 years later, the "can't imagine" scenario reads something like, I can't imagine how someone with the world at his feet and nothing to hold him back could squander it all and do absolutely nothing with his life!

To be clear, the "do absolutely nothing with his life" would be my dad's description. While 'nothing' may be a bit overly dramatic, I would agree that his level of accomplishment divided by his potential for accomplishment does approach zero. Further, if you couple all he had going for him with his nearly obsessive desire to do something significant and meaningful, it's pretty tough to imagine how he wouldn't have done more.

The scenario does come pretty darn close to one I can't imagine. So, what's that tell me?

It tells me that I have to do more if I want to understand my dad's situation, at least, if I want to help him with it. I have to put myself into his shoes so-to-speak, to get inside his head, to... you get the picture.

Of course, all that's easier said than done. My mind is overflowing with ideas and things I want to accomplish. I can't imagine not knowing what to do with myself. I can't imagine having no interests and passions. I can't imagine spending hours watching television or reading books. I can't imagine watching and reading about others doing rather than doing. I can't imagine being bored.

That's a lot of "can't imagines"; they're all "can't imagines" for me. I can imagine others having no ideas or passions, living life voyeuristically, or being bored. I just can't imagine me doing so.

Therein lies the disconnect. If I can imagine something for others, but not for myself, how can I relate to them or their situation? What method can I use?

I have to dig deeper. What would cause me to run out of ideas? What would cause me to prefer watching to doing? What would cause me to be bored?

Hmm... OK, 'bored' is a good trigger. I can imagine being bored if... I limited myself to the pace, passion and expectations of others; ...I only did things I could do with someone else; ...I paid attention to what others called reasonable; ... it were important for me to fit in and be accepted.

That's a step in the right direction. My conjectures may have nothing to do with my dad's motivations, but they're better than "can't imagine", a starting place. One thing is for sure; if I stick with "I can't imagine", then the likelihood of me ever understanding and helping is severely limited.


Happy Monday,

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How Do You Know That? (II)

On Wednesday in How Do You Know That?, I suggested that a surprisingly large percentage of the myriad "facts" that comprise our points of view are no more than hearsay and lore. On the flip-side...

"It's the master cylinder."

"It's the master cylinder? What's a master cylinder? How do you know it's the master cylinder?"

"The brake pedal on your car is attached to a lever. The lever is attached to a rod. The rod is attached to a plunger inserted into a sealed cylinder of brake fluid. So the rod and plunger are a kind of piston. The cylinder full of brake fluid is attached to pipelines that connect to each of the brakes.

When you press the brake pedal, the plunger is pushed into the tube compressing the brake fluid. The change in pressure is distributed down each of the pipelines. At each brake, the increased pressure expands other pistons causing the brake that push the brake shoes against the brake drums or brake rotors."

"And you know that because?"

"Because I could never afford to take my car to a mechanic."


"So I learned to do things myself, like changing brake shoes and bleeding brake lines and replacing master cylinders. When friends found out that I could do that, I ended up helping them do the same. You might say that I've become intimate with various braking systems."

"OK, so you know something about these master thingamawhats. But how do you know that this guy's problem is the master cylinder. He barely said ten words about it."

"Well, he described significant variance in how far he has to push the the brake pedal before the brakes engage. He also said that the brake fluid level is good. So, it's the master cylinder."

"But you don't know that! You can't know that. You're just guessing."

"So what do you think it is?"

"What do I think it is?"

"Yeah. You heard the guy's description of the problem. What's your diagnosis?"

"Uhhh... I don't know. I don't have any experience fixing cars."

"So let's say you're this guy. You're concerned that your brakes seem to engage randomly. You can ask one of us for help. Who'd you ask?"

"Well, I guess I'd ask you."

"Even though I don't know the answer."

"Well, yeah, I guess."

"Why? Why would you ask me if I don't know?"

"Well, hmm... I guess because have you experience with this kind of thing and you seem to know what you're talking about."

"But what if I'm wrong?"

"Uh... I'd try something else?"

To be sure, our minds are cluttered with manufactured facts, random associations and events that never took place, things we "know" that have no basis in reality, stuff that wouldn't survive the scrutiny of, 'How do you know that?'

On the flip-side, there may be even more that we do know that we fail to see or acknowledge, not "facts", but conclusions derived through deduction and induction. Way back in February 2010, in For the Sake of Argument, we talked about the basics of logical thought, how brick by brick, we can build sound conclusions from little factoids.

If you're good at logical thought (reasoning) then are countless facts you know that you don't know you know, facts that you were never taught or learned, facts that don't clutter because the don't exist until you need them, facts that don't depend upon the experiences of others.

The cool thing is that reasoning is a skill that is well understood and easily learned. It's just not one that we spend much time teaching or learning. Not only is good reasoning easy to learn; so are the common pitfalls of bad reasoning (see Fallacy).

Unlike facts, reasoning is not learned through memorization and recitation, it's learned through practice. It's a skill that can be honed with others: challenging each other's logic, pointing out fallacies, dissecting arguments that don't quite ring true, building and strengthening.

If you're good at reasoning, you can derive all of western music theory just by listening to music; you can derive operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division just by playing with numbers; you can learn all the rules of chess by watching others play; you can figure out grammars for languages you don't speak; you can discern the meanings of words you don't know.

If you're good at it, that is.

Happy Sunday,

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Skill of Being Present

What if you are about to enter a historically accurate building, a well maintained, exquisitely decorated and furnished manor style home that has been around for hundreds of years?  And what if you are a history, interior design and architecture freak?  How would you enter this timeless edifice?  What would you do when you get inside?  You would probably walk in slowly, savoring every minute detail.  You would reverently finger the detailed etchings on the door’s old brass knocker.  You would gasp at the sheer enormity, overwhelmed by the volume and detail opulently displayed everywhere you look.  Not knowing where to begin, you look at the first thing and allow time to stand still.   You become totally Present.  You have all the time in the world.

Unpacking the Present

We have the habit of paying attention to multiple things at the same time, or at least, quickly switching our attention from one thing to another in a matter of seconds.  The skill of Being Present with someone is the complete opposite of that habit.  We practice controlling our focus and attention so it is concentrated on one thing, the person we are with.  We practice really being with them: tuning in to them, focusing your attention on them, not for any other purpose but to just be with them.  We practice focusing our thoughts, emotions and intentions on this moment in time, the present moment, leaving the past, and not looking to the future.

Jaedon is my best and most effective teacher for this particular skill.   He can have long blocks of time during which he is quite happy to engage in his own internal processes.  He may be vocalizing to his own mysterious rhythm, flicking his fingers at warp speed, or any number of seemingly random things.  The common factor is his desire for another person’s presence during those times.  It may be tending towards zero.  He often wants me to be close by, but will pay no attention to me at all as he fully engaged with himself inside himself.
Over the years, I have settled into a pattern of curiosity where Jaedon is concerned.  I no longer try to pull his attention away from the various fascinations and obsessions.  I partner with him in them!  I find that I cannot become an authentic partner until I do two things:

1.        Stop

o   I clear my mind of my thoughts about anything else but the present moment and what Jaedon is currently captivated by.  I actually don’t even think about Jay much, as that can lead to thinking about autism, his intervention, goal setting and many other things that have nothing to do with a deep, intimate, human connection. 

o   I clear away any heavy, disturbed emotions that may be lurking.  I can always bring them back later if I want. 

2.       Focus

o   I focus my emotions so that I feel joy, gratitude and peace.  I create inside of me loving, joyful, clear feelings about Jaedon, his life, me and our life together. 

o   I focus my attention on his physical form.  I observe his body, his actions, his affect. 

o   I focus on thoughts about Jaedon, myself and our time together that encourage me to deeply engage, to love our time together

Try it

This is easy to try.  No-one need know what you are doing.  It’s all internal.  Choose someone with whom you already have a friendship, but your interactions may have become routine and… boring.  Decide to spend 10 minutes with them being present.  Stop your thoughts and emotions, pull them from the past and the future, and focus them on the person for the next 10 minutes.  If you find keeping your thoughts in the moment to be easy, wonderful!  If your mind feels unruly and chaotic, don’t worry.  Take it a minute at a time.  Try for 3 minutes and practice.  Try it with a friendship that’s flourishing so that it will be easier to practice this skill.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How Do You Know That?

It's a valid question that we'd do well to ask more often. It's often not asked when best asked and often not asked even when asked, that is to say, the words are used to state incredulity not to solicit insight.

The guy next to me at the robata bar is talking to the bar tender about the financial crisis, how it's due to governments not taxing the wealthy. As he drones on, I turn to him and ask, "How do you know that?"

He looks at me squinting, his head cocked to the right and says, "How do I know what?"

"How do you know that the financial crisis is a result of not taxing the wealthy? How many dollars are we talking about here?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean: what would be the quantitative economic effect of increasing taxes on the wealthy? How much new revenue would that be? How would it compare with the deficits? What would be the net outcome?"

"Well, everyone knows that 90% of the wealth is in the hands of 10% of the people. The effect would be huge! Duh."

"How huge?"

"What do you mean?"

"How huge would the effect be? How many dollars?"

"Well... it would be, uh, billions. At least billions. Maybe trillions."

"How do you know that?"

"Well, everyone knows that."

"Look man, I don't have an opinion one way or the other. I've heard a lot of people talking about taxing the wealthy, but I've never met anyone who actually knew what he was talking about. I was wondering if you were just repeating things you'd heard or if you had some numbers."

Much of what we "know" is simply poorly relayed hearsay if not pure fabrication, so much in fact that we don't think to question it. We've become comfortable with worlds of would-be facts that have never been scrutinized, verified or validated; they've never even been questioned. The pedagogy of modern life is primarily unquestioned instruction of the way things are.

Your head is filled with impostor-facts: comments by your dad at the dinner table; opinions of your primary school teachers; flippant responses from your friends; gossip overheard in the boys room; the frustrations of your first boss.

What you remember most about Susie from high school or Timmy from grade school may never have happened. What you think about the person who was president or prime minister when you were five is likely no more than a mish-mash of your mom's and dad's comments. You may have strong opinions about car models you've never driven, places you've never visited, foods you've never eaten, people you've never met and activities you've never attempted.

Why? Because you already "know". You know that the car would be junk, the place dangerous, the food icky, the people boring, the activity impossible.

How do you know that?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

That's All There Is to It?

I turn my 69' Buick Skylark into the visitor's lot, roll into a vacant parking space, turn off the ignition and say a silent prayer as I wait for the engine to stop coughing. I get out and turn to lock the door but realize that the relative value of the surrounding cars makes locking my doors superfluous.

I walk toward the main entrance. The glass-walled building seems one with the strangely quiet Illinois sky. My blue-corduroy sports jacket and pants don't quite make a suit, but their the closest thing I've got and they're pretty much the same color. I never noticed the swishing sound the pants make when I walk. Do they do that all the time?

My friend who set up the interview told me, "Look, it's just a clerical position, but it comes with full benefits and opportunity for advancement. You could really turn this into something if you put your mind to it."

I take a deep breath and push through the revolving door.

The past couple of years have been tough. Trying to pay the bills, trying to take care of Joy, trying to be an adult. Rene waits tables at night; I work days. We spend about a half-hour together in the transition mostly talking about Joy.

My career attention span isn't great. I've been a short-order cook, a trash collector, a house painter, a landscaper, a long-haul truck driver, a shoe salesman, a waiter and bicycle mechanic. Each month I hold my breath waiting to see which checks clear first, the deposits or the bill payments. The landlord's started to ask for cash and we still don't have any healthcare. I wonder if it's always going to be like this.

I make different attempts to get ahead applying for jobs that advertise training and growth potential, but I never manage to get an interview let alone hired. My resume fits on a postcard, my education is unmarketable, my string of jobs unimpressive and my GPA, well...

I decide that I need to complete a degree, any degree.

I take out a student loan and register at Elmhurst College a local four-year liberal arts school.

When the counselor asks me about my major I say, "Whatever degree I can get fastest."

She stops chuckling when she sees that I am serious.

"I understand that you have financial pressures and that you want to move quickly, but perhaps you should still give some consideration as to what type of degree you want?"

"OK, I want the fastest degree that can get me a job with healthcare benefits."

"How about we begin without declaring a degree. There are many required courses that you'll need to take regardless of your degree. Let's start with those. Perhaps a degree choice will become clearer as you go."


Two required courses are English and science. I register for Writing for Business and Physics of Anatomy. I figure business writing is good if I want to get a job and the physics course is a watered down version designed for pre-meds who don't do calculus.

Up to this point my understanding of writing has been: create something that sounds smart by using as many multisyllabic words as possible. My English professor sets me straight the first day. He starts the class by asking us each to write a paragraph on what we hope to get out of the class. He then reads aloud each paragraph and comments.

As he finishes reading mine, he gets up from desk, walks to mine, sets down the paper, looks me in the eye and says, "First of all, be clear. This will require you to understand what you're trying to say. Second, get to the point. This will ensure that you have to know what your point is. Third, don't use any words with more than three syllables (your last name excepted)."

I look down at my paper as proceeds to the next author. No one ever told me that writing was just about communicating clearly and succinctly. That makes it much easier.

Physics is taught by this guy Earl Swallow who talks about it as if it were part of everyday life. He walks into the classroom pointing to a couple file cabinets that line the wall and asks, "If you had to move those file cabinet across the room, how would you do it with the least amount of effort using only what's available in the room?"

He spins toward the class, sits on his desk and says, "You're driving up a winding mountain road in your Fiat Spider. How fast can you make it to the top? When do you brake? When do you hit the gas?"

He focuses on a particularly unathletic-looking guy at the front of the room and says, "You want to show off for your girlfriend by free lifting some heavy weights. How do you maximize the amount you can lift without working out?"

I spend the first five weeks wondering when we Earl's going to start teaching us physics. Instead, we learn how to build a sound structural framework with minimal materials, or why accelerating through a curve provides more control than braking, or how to make impossible billards shots.

I don't know any math beyond basic algebra but it doesn't matter; Earl's examples are ones that I can picture in my mind and Earl doesn't care how we get the answers as long as we understand how we got the answers.

Earl tosses us a problem and while others whip out their HP 31E's, I pull out a sheet of paper and draw. Eventually, I reduce the problem to series of squares and right-triangles, geometrical objects that I understand and can compute. I roll it all up and I get an answer.

One day, I turn to see Earl looking over my shoulder, smiling. He says, "You know you're doing trig, right?"

"I can't do trig."

"Well you're doing it nonetheless."

"What do you mean?"

"That calculation there, the one where you've divided the far side of the triangle over the long side. That's the calculation for sine. And this one here, where you've divided the far side over the short side. That's the calculation for tangent."

"You're kidding me. That's all trigonometry is?"

"Yup, that's about it. Except that with trigonometry you could save yourself some time. All you'd have to do is plug that angle into a calculator and you get the same answer."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

Pretty much anything that mystifies you can be translated into something that elicits the response, "That's all there is to it?"

Happy Tuesday,

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Before I Hit the Ground

Yesterday, in Something Astonishing, I shared a response by Mister Will to one of Jenny's writing prompts. Today, I'd like to share one that Iris wrote. The prompt was: before I hit the ground.

Happy Sunday,

Before I Hit the Ground
Before I hit the ground my mind goes one last time through some crazy emergency checklist to see if there's anything I can do to stop this. Let me see…
  • Hold on to something? No.

  • Steer myself in another direction? No.

  • Stop it? No.

  • Is there anyone to help me? No.

  • Is there any way to avoid this? No.

OK, breathe. This is it then, my last couple of breaths on earth. Not the moment I expected at all, but hey, life is full of surprises isn’t it. I would have loved to say goodbye at least. Hugs and cries. Maybe this is easier. They will figure out that I stuffed some cash in my mattress, I guess. I never got to finish my will.

Wow, this gravity thing is strong. I can see the end of my journey approaching quickly. The air resistance is huge, but I'm still going down, down, down. The noise racing past my body is like a lullaby as I continue to contemplate...

What will happen after I smash to death on the quickly approaching concrete? Will I stop thinking? Will it hurt? No, don’t go there. Think different thoughts. Err... Will I become a soul? Will I become a ghost?

Hey, don’t they tell you that at the end of your life you flash through all your experiences? Damn those liars!


A bright white light shines into my eyes. Damn, can you turn that thing down please? My freshly crushed head cannot tolerate your enthusiasm one bit. Come on guys. Be considerate with me. Can you otherwise just change the color to something more appropriate?

Red, huh? Hmm... Ok, I guess I asked for that didn’t I.

Listen, I just died unexpectedly and... Wow, you must hear that all the time don’t you. Anyway, I am not very experienced at dying but I can tell you this went all wrong.

In the red canvas before me a door appears in the distance. It seems to fly towards me, faster and faster. As it approaches, the door slowly opens.

This is insane. It feels like I am falling again, but my visual says I am going to be swallowed by this beast. Is there anything I can do to stop it? Let me see…
  • Hold on to something? No.

  • Steer myself in another direction? No.

  • Stop it? No.

  • Is there anyone to help me? No.

  • Is there any way to avoid this? No.

Ok. This is it then. The afterlife consists of door beasts that swallow all that comes their way. What will happen after I get swallowed by that door? Will I stop thinking? Will it hurt? No, don’t go there! Think different thoughts. Err... Will I become a soul? Will I become a ghost?


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Something Astonishing

Each and every day our writing group members receive a short writing prompt from Jenny (QuinnMama) via email. Each of us reads the prompt and writes for ten minutes. The only rule of the exercise is: once you start writing, don't stop.

When we get together on Thursday nights, each of us reads one of our ten-minute pieces. The following is something written by our wonderful friend Mister Will. Iris and I wanted to share it with you.

Happy Saturday,

Something Astonishing
It didn't take much to astonish Wilbur. Some folks said he was "slow", but that wasn't how I saw him at all. From what I could see, he was the opposite of slow. Seemed to me that folks spent whole lifetimes trying to get where he already was, where he lived every day.

Wilbur could sit and look at a tulip blossom for an hour, easy, sometimes two. Sometimes I wondered if he could actually see it growing, see the changes happening right in front of him. He never got bored; that was never why he shifted his attention from one thing to another. Seemed like he was just all over one thing until something else came along that was just as interesting, maybe a little bit more even, and then he was all over that.

He was a hell of a brother. He used to be a bother – and ain't it funny how those two words is just one letter different. When we were both little, he used to drive me crazy getting stuck. That's what Mama called it. "Uh-oh, Wilbur's stuck again. See if you can't get him to go out and play ball or something."

Well, that never worked even a little bit. I'd throw Wilbur a ball, any kind of ball, and he'd sit down where he was and look at that ball like it had never been looked at before. And I'd throw up my hands and try to get him to do something with the damn ball, but it was never any use. Once he was stuck on something, he was stuck. S. T. U. C. K.

Well, one day, I just give up. "Wilbur, what is so damn interesting about that ball?" I said, and I wasn't being curious, I was being a little bit mean. But Wilbur didn't take it that way.

He pulled me down beside him and proceeded to show me everything about that ball – which was just an old half-wore-out softball. But he made me look at and touch and feel every single detail of it.

And damn if that ball didn't turn into just about the most interesting thing I'd ever seen. The red stitches weren't just red, they were half a dozen different shades of red and pink and orange, and there was a little tear in the thread and one end was frayed and the other wasn't. And there was one spot that was almost wore through the leather and another that had a little nick like it had been poked with the end of a knife.

And I started wondering about where all that ball had been, and who had held it, and thrown it, and caught it, and what kinds of weather it must have seen, and, I don't know, that ball just kept opening up and up and out and I swear it felt like I could've sat there all day just fussing over that old softball.

And I know damn well that anybody looking on would've figured both of us was slow and that would've been funny because everything I was thinking and feeling about that ball was coming fast and furious, once I'd slowed down and started paying attention.

It sounds damn corny to say that ball changed my life, and it isn't true anyway, because it was Wilbur who changed my life, I reckon, but I sure never looked at a softball – or pretty much anything else – especially Wilbur, the same way ever again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What I'm learning from the Zebra Finches

On July 7, 2011, we purchased what we thought was a pair of zebra finches (i.e. a boy and a girl).  I asked the store owner how he differentiated male from female and he pointed out the lighter coloring of one of the birds.  Knowing that female birds tended to be less flashy than their male counterparts, I relaxed and took our birds to their new home. 
They quickly adjusted to their new home, grooming each other and snuggling together in the evening.  By the next day, they started to chirp in their unique voices and respond to any bird-like sounds around (including car alarms, phone ringers and sirens).  Like a good pet owning homeschooler, I settled into the idea of a long term unit study and googled zebra finches to see if anything was missing from our initial setup.

A sinking feeling settled over me as I studied photos of male and female zebra finches.  Although one of the birds was undoubtedly lighter than the other, HE also had the characteristic orange cheeks, speckled breast and brown spotted sides.  He was just overall lighter colored.  We had 2 boy zebra finches.  I had to break it to Simonne, who was already planning for eggs and the like.

"That's ok Mommy.  We just need to get 2 girls now.  We can't send one of these back to the pet shop.  Look how happy they are!"

So off we went to another pet shop the next day (we didn't trust that guy any more).  We arrived home with 2 girls to add to what was becoming our mini aviary.

The ruckus!  The flying around!  The fighting!  The 2 chummy boys were no longer chummy!  A dominant male arose and the other male was ostracized, his movememnts limited to a corner of the cage.  The 2 girls had their pick of the perches and roosting spots in their new home. 
Janie promptly lost her feathers. What could it be? The options were:
  1. pests
  2. deficiency
  3. the male bird is using her feathers for nesting materials
  4. she's ready to mate
Although item number 3 was very likely, the correct answer was 4.  Soon, Zario, the dominant male, had made a personal connection with Janie.  They enthusiastically built a nest with everything they could get their beaks on.  Their nest was a colourful conflagration of string, yarn, straw, yarn, stick, yarn,... did we say yarn?  The children provided an endless supply of all colors and thicknesses and lengths of yarn.  I was startled to see Zario flying with about 12 inches of yarn one day, and, while circling the swing, wrapped it around his foot and tripped in mid flight.  I encourage the children along the lines of imitating more natural nesting materials.
Although Zeke is still the odd man out, he is allowed on the communal perch at night.  Things calmed down a little, minimal fighting between the boys, then...

Ruckus!  Fighting in the air! Screeching!  After watching them for a few minutes, I had a thought and forcibly removed Janie from her nest.  And there it was:  an egg!  That was in August.

It's been really interesting to get up every day and watch our birds.  The kids and I have learned more than we would every have known by reading a book on zebra finches.  And it's only the beginning!  After some 24 eggs that did not hatch (each clutch has 4-8 eggs that are incubated for 16 days before being ignored as defective) our last batch had one hatchling!  He or she is 9 days old, eats and sleeps around the clock and is still mostly naked and blind looking and growing in leaps and bounds.  Marya is also very busy with the baby.  She incubated when the parents couldn't, feeds the baby and sleeps in the nest as well.  A hybrid family...

To help out lonely Zeke, we added Snow White a few weeks ago.  She really had a rough time.  The other 2 women made her life hell.  I really should not have added a bird while there were eggs in the nest.  Zeke saw his opportunity, and in a few days, started enthusiastic nest building with Snow White, and they now have 4 eggs incubating (they look like duds, I'm now an expert!).

I may need a bigger cage.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

It's Do-Something-Unexpectedly-Nice Sunday

You might have heard the phrase, there are only twenty four hours in a day. Well today that's not the case (at least in the US). No sir, today you get twenty-five hours! That's an additional 60 minutes ( 3600 seconds) for free. An increase of 4.2% over yesterday.

What will you do with this temporal windfall? Will you let it lie fallow on the ground, forgotten until bedtime seems to have come a bit late? Or will you scoop it up and partake of it while it's still fresh and full of possibilities?

I'm sure you have hundreds of ways you could use your found-time, an hour in the pocket of your just-washed jeans. However, I'd like to propose something. How about taking your found-hour and doing something unexpectedly nice for someone? It could be someone close or a complete stranger. It could be an individual or a group. It could be someone you see frequently or someone whom you haven't seen in years.

Just think of all you could do for someone in an hour. You could wash their car or windows. You could make some cornbread with jalapenos. You could print and frame a photo. You could watch a couple's kids while they go enjoy a coffee together. You could vacuum the house or give a guitar lesson.

What unexpectedly nice activity will you undertake today?

Happy Do-Something-Unexpectedly-Nice Sunday,

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Little Things

No matter how much you do for yourself and others, your life is filled with people who do things for you.

Someone who prepares your meals; someone who pays for the food you prepare.

Someone who makes your morning coffee. Someone who pours your evening tea.

Someone who picks up the garbage. Someone takes the garbage to the street.

Someone who makes sure there's enough air in the tires and the oil has been changed.

Someone who makes sure the fridge and cupboards are supplied and the dishwasher is emptied.

Someone who listens. Someone who shares.

Someone who makes you laugh. Someone who inspires confidence.

Someone who knows where the flashlights are when the power is gone.

Someone who picks you up when you need a ride.

Someone whom you know you can call. Someone who knows she can call you.

Someone who waits up for you. Someone who never doubts you.

No matter how much you do for yourself and others, there are others who do things for you.

How will you express your gratitude for what they do, today?

Happy Friday,

Thursday, November 3, 2011

One Thing

One of the fundamental tennets of happy existentialism is: everyone does what she does in order to become happy or happier.

Before going further, let's remember that existentialism is a philosophy, not a religion. Unlike religions, philosophies do not embody truths; they are simply models, ways of thinking about things. Science is philosophical (hence the Ph in PhD). For example, we talk about electrons elipsing around neutrons and protons as though the pictures we see in the science book are photographs. They're not. They're just pictorial representations that model how the physical universe works. Scientists developed the models because they're useful. At best they're rough approximations; they're not true.

This is the case with all philosophy. We don't study it to find truth. We don't study it to "know" it. We study it to find something useful to us. So, a great way to think about a philosophical statement is to qualify it with the words "what if?"

What if everyone does what he does in order to become happy or happier? How would that change my approach to others and myself?

I believe this seemingly simple (and perhaps inane-sounding) question is profound. It suggests that all actions by anyone at any time are motivated by a single, unvarying goal: to be happy.

Happy, Shmappy
If you're thinking, "That's not true! People do things for all sorts of reasons!", please suspend disbelief for a moment and remember that this is just a model.

I understand the word "happy" can be a bit off-putting. However I haven't been able to think of a better word to serve as a proxy for any number of words that we associate with a positive state: contented, satisfied, fulfilled, joyful, loving, peaceful, calm, ecstatic, thrilled, blissful, safe. All these qualify as happy. So let's change our what-if to:

What if everyone does what she does in order to become more contented, satisfied, fulfilled, joyful, loving, peaceful, calm, ecstatic, thrilled, blissful, safe or happy? How would that change my approach to others and myself?

There are lots of words I overlooked; so please plug in whatever one(s) work(s) for you.

I'll Show You Motivation
Your next objection might be that people do things for other reasons: guilt, self-preservation, love, sympathy, remorse, apathy, fear, self-interest, altruism, anger, hate. There are plenty of reasons that people do things are than to become happy or happier. This seems to be the case, at least on the surface. However, if you dig deeper, you'll always find a motivation that ties back to happiness.

Consider a little boy with autism who regularly bangs his head against the wall. Why does he do that? According to our model, he does it to become happy or happier. That sounds crazy. Nonetheless, if you dig a little deeper you'll find that the model actually works.

Children with autism often experience challenges with sensory integration. A child may have difficulty processing aural, visual, tactile, vestibular or aromatic stimuli. The cacophony of an urban street corner, the flashing lights of a stopped police car, the touch of a wool sweater can be more than overwhelming; any one can physically painful. When a child experiences sensory overload, she does whatever she can do to stop the pain. This frequently involves drowning out the noise (visual, aural, tactile or otherwise) by stimulating another sensory system, sometimes quite vigorously.

If he's overwhelmed by sound, he might stimulate his visual system by flapping his fingers in front of his eyes. If he's overwhelmed by visual noise, he might run in circles to stimulate his vestibular system (inner ear) or bang his head against a wall to simulate his tactile system. Sometimes her actions may seem odd, sometimes self-injurious, but nonetheless, they're motivated by a desire to regulate her sensory systems, to find peace and calm, to find happiness.

If you look under the cover of any motivation, you'll find happiness (at least within this model). Every act of selflessness has some underlying motivation: to alleviate guilt, to find fulfillment, to feel good about who you are, to repay a debt, to do the right thing. All these tie back to how you feel about you. You may resist digging down to the "selfish" motivation, but that's only when you judge "selfish" as "bad". There's not a thing you do that doesn't tie back to your motivations and at the core of them is: happiness (or at least in this model).

This Makes Me Unhappy
You might argue that you do things that make you unhappy. I overeat and gain weight; how does that make me happy? I overslept and got fired; you're telling me I did that because it makes me happy?

The problem is that we often have conflicting elements in our happiness set. We love to eat and we'd love to be thin. We love to sleep in and we love to get a paycheck. Your elements and metrics of happiness change.

So What?
You might be thinking, "This is just philosophical bullshit, a semantic game, intellectual masturbation!"

In that case, what you're really thinking is, "So what? How does this change anything?"

That brings us back to the "what if?" Let's add another qualifier to our thesis: the best way he knows.

What if everyone does what he does because it's the best way he knows to become happy or happier? How would that change my approach to others and myself?

What if my boss always blows his top because it's the only way he knows to become happy? What if my kid acts out at school because it's the best way he knows to become happy? What if my mom uses guilt trips all the time because she's found it works best in becoming happy? What if my kid tortures the goldfish because he doesn't know a better way to become happy?

Think about someone challenging in your life. What if everything she does is motivated by becoming more happy (contented, satisfied, fulfilled, joyful, loving, peaceful, calm, ecstatic, thrilled, blissful, safe)? What if she does it because it's the best way she knows? How would that change things?

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

This is Really Important

I wish I could be there with you. You're so important to me. I just can't make it.

So you have something more important.

No, it's not that. There's nothing more important than me being with you today. It's just that...

Something more important came up?

Why do you keep saying that? I told you, being with you today is more important to me than anything.

Anything but whatever it is you're doing instead.

How do you know what's important to me. You can't read my mind.

No, but I can see your actions. You don't need to lie about it. I'm not upset that you won't make it.

Lying? How can you suggest that I would lie about something so important? You don't know what I'm thinking or feeling.

You're right. I can only hear what you're saying and see what you're doing. They're inconsistent. I guess I would qualify the word 'lie' with 'feebly'. You needn't lie so feebly about it. It's obvious that what you're doing instead of being with me today is more important to you than being with me today. Otherwise, you'd be with me today.

But it's not that simple. You can't just go telling people what their priorities are based on what they do versus what they say.

You can't?

Well, no. I mean. Hmmm...

What about an alcoholic who tells people he loves them and that they're more important to him than drinking, and then drinks? Or a woman says she loves you more than anything, but then cheats? Or a...

You're saying that I'm an alcoholic?

No. I'm saying that you can tell what's most important to a person by what she does, not what she says.

What about her feelings and thoughts.

Sentiment and well-wishes are nice, but in the end, without action, well, they don't count for a lot.

But being with you is really important. You're very important to me.

I'm not arguing that. I'm just saying whatever came up is more important. It might be transiently more important. It might be that you haven't really thought it through. But, for the moment, it's more important than being here with me today.

Doesn't that upset you?

Why should it?

Well, I mean, I'm making something more important than being with you. I'd be upset if you made something more important than being with me.

I do it all the time.

You do?

Sure. At night I make sleeping more important. At different times of day I make running or driving to the store or working more important than being with you. Does that upset you?

Of course not.

So what's the big deal?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dress Up and Pretend (II)

Yesterday in Dress Up and Pretend, I wrote about emulation as a form of self-education; one of the best ways to learn something is to find someone who is really good at it and do what they do. It occurred to me that I might have left out a few important items that may or may not be obvious.

One day, shortly after being promoted to management, I was asking my dad about how to become a great manager. I mentioned my theory of emulation and my dad said, "That sounds good, but the problem I've found is this: it's easy to see what bad managers do that make them bad; it's not so easy to see what good managers do that make them good."

I responded, "I guess that all depends on how you see."

To be sure, whatever it is that makes great managers and leaders great often evades analysis. More often than not that evasiveness is due to the bias of analyst. The analyst has expectations of what it is that makes the great person great. The expectations filter out much of what the great person does. Although the analyst feels she's thorough, she lacks the full picture.

One of the reasons we adults are terrible emulators is that we lead with our expectations. We analyze before we act. As we observe our model we casually discard various actions, activities and aspects of manner and demeanor as insignificant or irrelevant to what we want to accomplish. We fail to notice that the super-articulate, well-groomed, highly-intelligent manager who works wonderfully with the IT organization frequently shows up in the IT department unannounced with a large pizza and 2-liter bottle of Diet Dr Pepper. We don't see that first level manager who knows all the executives on a first name basis pays more attention to the executive assistants than the executives. We don't notice that they negotiator who wins all the big contracts always to concedes the minor points.

We have expectations of what it would mean to be a great manager, no doubt expectations that have been guiding us and haven't been working. No wonder it's so difficult to see what makes great people great.

As a result, when we emulate the manager, we don't. We simply pick up bits and pieces. In isolation they don't work. Our emulation fails. We decide that emulation doesn't work. Pricing your product like a Mercedes doesn't work if you miss the brand-and-quality parts. Making unconventional decisions like Steve Jobs doesn't work if your miss the getting-them-right part.

If you want to learn through emulation, you need to emulate all aspects of the person from whom you want to learn. Only after it's working for you can you discern significant from insignificant, important from unimportant (perhaps not even then.) If you analyze before doing, then you're not emulating; there are aspects of behavior that evade analysis until the behaviors themselves have been performed. Emulation is not dim-sum, it's bouillabaisse.

By the way, all this is true of instruction in general. Until we subordinate our own expectations and insights to those of the instructor, we compromise our capacity to learn. We haven't really "tried" it until we've tried it in a manner thoroughly consistant with that which was instructed. Wax on. Wax off.

You probably have a long list of things you've tried, but didn't work. I'll betcha a dollar that you haven't really tried them yet.

Happy Tuesday,

PS Once you've got it (i.e., it's working), then you can analyze and filter. Keep what you want, toss the rest.