Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Quantified Five Year Old

Pre-filled behavior chart, predicting the future.
Colin, in an attempt to earn a toy gun, has started drawing out behavior charts. Days with check marks are good days, and days with X’s are bad days. The most charming (disturbing) part about these, is that he fills them all out in advance.

He drew this one this morning. Today started out as a good day, but then got X-ed over to a bad day, after he had a meltdown that Jack was being taken out for a special birthday breakfast. Halloween, is prominently featured as a good day, and his upcoming flu shot, a bad day. I asked him about the row of bad days at the end of the chart and he said, That’s August, when some bad stuff will happen.

So, apparently, at five we have in place the mental process that can anticipate good and bad things happening, and start planning our reactions accordingly. What’s amazing (disturbing) to me, is how much I still do this throughout the course of my own day. I like this, I don’t like that. I agree with this, I don’t agree with that. I’m looking forward to this, but not to that. This is good, this is bad. We do so much of this checking and X-ing that we pre-program our experience before it even occurs. Thank goodness for logic, so we can retroactively clean up and refactor the mess that we created. Time travel ain’t got nothing on our imaginations.

During the rolling tantrum that ran all morning, Brendan and I alternated between offering compassion for Colin’s hurt feelings (hugs and validation), and trying to sooth him with rational explanations (you had a special birthday day last week, now it is Jack’s turn). By drop-off time for school, we were simply relieved to not have to endure his unhappiness anymore, or our failure to alleviate it. He understood all the reasoning, but it seemed to offer no relief at all, and that is distinctly different than my adult experience. It’s pleasant and easy to share in someone else’s happiness (or at least be neutral), especially if I’ve recently had a similar experience myself. I don’t worry about getting my flu shot, because the discomfort is a small price to pay for the security of vaccination. In fact, I worry about not getting it. Sometimes, logic is the only salve I know how to apply. Not so, for Colin.

Watching my kids grow up is like witnessing the super-slow-motion implosion of the human psyche, or as it’s commonly referred to in western psychology, normal cognitive development. With each additional skill of abstraction, they create another surface onto which they can layer experience. But then they need a set of filters for making sense of the abstracted reality, and integrating it back into their model of the world. The more elaborate the model becomes, the deeper their perception of separate self. Fast forward another 30 years, and perhaps they’ll be hitting the break point, where the accumulated model reaches its limits.

Is there a better way? Is it possible to re-infuse these stages of development with some of the beautiful simplicity of the direct experience they’re shedding? Can that be done, without also limiting them? Maybe the truths of growth are always hard won, and painfully released, and it is simply our job as parents to offer safe and loving shelter.

October Bouquet

Bouquet of burdock, grass, berries and yellow flowers
It is unusual, as a mammal, to experience coolness from the inside out, I say to Linda as she takes the needles out.

Afterwards, I go for a walk. The sun is out. The moon is out. The sun is loud and the moon is quiet, but both are bright. It is cool and very crisp. Something small inside me says, yes, as I cross the road towards the old Governor’s estate.

I walk past the small pond, and pause as I come up towards the large garden plot, plowed and planted with a cover crop for winter. The grass off the path ahead is rustling in the piercing sunlight. I stand and watch the organic shimmer. It is beautifully choreographed – the short grasses flicker in staccato quarter-turns, the long grasses bend sideways, low, and back in slow, sweeping bobs. Movement and stillness ripple through the space.

I am about to set off again, when I notice burdock to my left. I have been thinking about burdock, and decide to take a stem, then two, so I can photograph them later. I walk with the dry, shaggy, husk of a bouquet clasped in my hand, a march of ephemeral conquest. I am carrying it like a bright-eyed suitor, and have the same feeling in my heart. I am struck by how silly this must look.

Suddenly I see there are yellow flowers all across the garden. They are in such contrast to the burdock, I immediately want to put them together. To my left, there are several types of branch berries, and what I think are choke cherries. I take some berries and leave the cherries. I add a stalk, then two, of creamy brown, heavily seeded grass. Now it feels like a proper bouquet. Now it is telling a richer story, of death, and life, and the abundance in between. I walk past a beautiful evergreen with red blossoms that hang like little lantern shades around bright red berries. These flowers are lovely, I want to add them, but I think it will clutter the narrative, so I resist.

I walk along the stream, instead of the drive. A break in the grass invites a pause. Cords of thick pond weed bow to the current, which currently appears quite still. I look for fish or turtles in the clear water, but see none. I wonder if the turtles have gone into the mud for the winter. Oh! there are two on the bank, sitting right together. But they are only rocks, that have camouflaged themselves as turtles.

I follow the stream back up to the big pond where it starts in a slip over the dam. I have never seen the pond from this angle. A lone Canada Goose drifts along, oddly separate from the gaggle I hear over the hill. A large bird glides over the water, in a slow downward arc. It flies too elegantly for a goose, it is too slender to be a hawk or a vulture. It is a heron. It’s flying towards me and I hope it will land where I can watch it. It loops back to the other side and settles in a tree, immediately blending into and extending the branch on which it has landed. If I didn’t know where it was, I would only see a thick gray branch disguising itself as a heron. But then the heron shakes its tail, resettles its wings, and gives the tree away.

Spoon Fed

Spoon of baby food being cooked with a lighter.
Hey Baybeee. Heeeeeyyy. Do you want some? Do you want to try it? Mmmmmmm. It’s good. You’ll like it. Just a little bit? Yeahhhh. Just a little bit. Open uuup. Opeennn uuuuup. Mmmmmm. Good boy. That’s a good boy. Do you want a little more? Good baby.

I am cooing and coaxing my infant to eat. I am watching his every gesture and adjusting my serenade as we go, in the mother’s chant that runs low to high and back again, the velveteen stream that jackets each word as it tumbles out. My heart is full of love and I am smiling into the song when it strikes me: I sound exactly like a drug dealer. Or, I sound exactly like the Hollywood version of what I imagine a dealer to be. My addictions are all in the sanctioned spaces of consumption, achievement and relationships; it’s harder to suss them out from the tinkle and jangle of the every day.

Are our patterns just unskillful reenactments of this scene? Are the bad habits we step into again and again, the childish groping at the most immediate and imaginable version of fulfillment? How do we start out so beautiful and end up so fucking crazy? Are we committing no offence greater than seeking again, the innocent moments when every sense was sated? When food was placed in our mouths, when our ears hummed with the sliding vibration from our mother’s throat, when all we saw were big eyes reflecting back our own love and wonder? Perhaps our lives are just a messy, gross motor gesture to go back to the source, to hold for ourselves the spoon that feeds us.

An Agile Life

Agile board of post-its
I struggle with feeling satisfied at the end of my domestic days. Slowing down, being mindful, and making a deliberate effort to do fewer things well, I was surprised to discover, left me feeling like I was not doing enough, and bad at everything. Coincidentally, this was also how I felt when I was taking on more than I could ever hope to accomplish. My solution to investigate this? Pay even more attention to what I’m doing, or rather, pay a different kind of attention.

I have stepped off the corporate path, and am still running my tongue around my gums to get the taste out. Yet, when it came to trying to figure out what is actually going on in my BIG TIME OUT, the most sensible thing I could think to do was to run an agile board. I spend a lot of time wondering why our corporate and economic models omit so much of real life, but as it turns out, this has been a really helpful lens to understand my own behavior. Funny that.

I’ve got five epics: my personal endeavors, kids & family, and the logistics of the household, a “today” task list, and, of course, a backlog. I put down all most some of the stuff I anticipate needing or wanting to do, estimate how long each task will take, and then prioritize the “today” column each morning. This has been a very educational experience.

Lessons learned:

I suck at estimating how long stuff will take. I rarely know how long something will take until I’ve done it. Often, I forget to measure in a discrete way, so I retroactively guess. Sometimes I skip estimating because I don’t know, but don’t bother break out a task into something more estimable, or even hazard my best guess. I’ve seen (and by and large believed) all of these things in development teams, but trying it with something so personal let me understand the limitations of estimates in a much deeper, felt sense.

I suck at prioritizing, and a rarely execute my day in the order of priority I’ve set. As a Product Manager, I wasted a lot of energy lamenting that business units have no idea how to prioritize. Turns out I don’t either. I don’t have a clear idea of what is most important. There are a lot of competing, non-binary factors that might make something more important, or not – it depends. As it happens, I can not predict the future, nor I am I all that comfortable with not being able to. I know how is ridiculous this is, still it remains true in my experience – which is frustrating.

Hierarchical models, like prioritization, are inherently binary – you’ve got more or fewer bits of “yes” turned on. But prioritization only remains accurate when layered on top of a perspective that it already matches. When they don’t match, then there’s a conflict to resolve. What I didn’t realize is that these conflicts are constant. Sometimes they’re small and obvious, like wanting to eat something before getting started, and sometimes they’re large and subtle, like reorganizing a business unit, or development team. Prioritization can be a useful framework, certainly, but expecting it to be a unifying, static definition of reality, well, that is not only impossible, but seems like a sure way to end up confused and disappointed. But we all agreed on the priorities… Equally as helpful as identifying what ever priorities are set, would be identifying all the conflicts that might impede them – and not just the obvious ones of time, budget, tools, and human talent. Comparing the length of those lists – priorities and conflicts – might be as accurate a predictor of project success, or percentage of overrun, than any other.

My “stuff” permeates the simplest tasks in way that is fairly alarming. It takes me five minutes to put in a load of laundry if I just grab enough clothes of a similar color, add soap, and start the wash. But if I do it the way I’m patterned to do it – get all the laundry from all over the house, and sort multi-tiered loads of laundry (bleachable whites, light whites, colors, and then by fabric weight within those groups, and/or other logical grouping like linens, kids, and adults) – then it takes me, well, longer, and how much longer varies based on the laundry that day. Subtle, personal preferences and patterns influence my actions in a way I just didn’t (don’t) realize.

My life is much more dynamic and emergent than a model like this allows for, which throws off my estimates and prioritization even more than they were to start. Almost nothing is linear, and I am constantly being interrupted. My tasks take way longer than I think they “should” because I am dealing with semi-rational, semi-functional, and unpredictable team mates. My kids are little and require a lot of help. Stuff takes longer because I need to do it for them, because they undo it, because they are doing something else at the same time, because they are practicing something they’re not yet good at, and almost everything at their age requires practice. I extrapolate my own (already bad) estimates onto the kids, and then end up unhappy that the reality did match a plan that was delusional to begin with. WTF? I can clean up, get dressed eat and be ready to leave in 30 minutes an hour, but doing this with my kids is a two, sometimes three hour job. I’ve spent years being frustrated by this, and feeling like this was somehow a personal failure of mine. And it was, but not in the way I thought – it was not a failure of execution, it was a failure to let reality define my expectations and actions, rather than the other way around.

My environment and the moods of myself and others are the largest influences of what I do. If the weather is nice, or my kids are foul, the day can take a radical departure from what I had planned. I am astounded at how much this alters the flow and choice of my activities; I suspect these likely hold a much larger sway in our business environments than we recognize.

Almost everything I do is cyclical, “done” is a dangerous fallacy. Seeing this (in the very concrete form of moving post-it notes back a forth, and back again) has helped me shift my attitude to valuing the quality of the process over the completion of the task. It’s also helped me see how the natural order of everything is fundamentally rhythmic. Any model that does not account for expansion and contraction is bound to fail at some point, because it’s leaving out half of something. This is what makes temporal models so tricky – time is linear, predictable, and only moves in one direction. When we bind other processes to time, it’s easy to expect them to share the same qualities, and consider the natural reset of the cycle a failure when viewed through the primary lens of time.

These are not particularly profound realizations, but rewiring my automatic response system to value action over outcome, and welcome resets, is a profound change (challenge) for me; it requires a lot of intentional awareness, emotional energy, and patience. A task is only done for a moment, before dust starts to accumulate again, or another dish gets placed in the sink. When understood in this way, valuing an instant of satisfaction, rather than the entire process in between those blips on the graph, seems insane. Why set up pleasure to be so brief, and so antagonistic to the natural course of events? I’m surprised by how strongly I associate the “completion” model with value, and how commonly I use that as my viewpoint.

The value of this process is in analyzing behavior, not outcomes. So frequently data, tracking, and analysis are used to pressure conformity to predefined outcomes – finish a project on schedule, loose three pounds this week, meet a testing standard – rather than understand the underlying reasons for any deviation that occurs. It’s good to have goals, it’s totally legitimate to have a schedule and a plan, but it’s also important to be able willing to question if the goal and the plan were reasonable to begin with, or if they account for all the common variables. Most discussions about “failure” are focused on what prevented the objective from being met (frequently cast as unpredictable, one-time events), or perhaps they skip right to fixing the problem. Typically it’s asked: How do we make up for the deviation that occurred, and prevent it from happening again? instead of Why did we see the deviation we did?

The most valuable part of this exercise has been to help me see that the root causes of my dissatisfaction are different than I thought. I’ve become more aware of my behavior, and make more conscious choices about what I’m doing. I’m more compassionate with myself, and more satisfied with the choices I make, in large part because they’re done intentionally, with fuller knowledge of what’s gained and lost. The data is not telling me what to do, it’s exposing what I already do – indirectly, by making visible the gaps between the model and what actually happened. I’m still not satisfied, but I’m less unsatisfied. I’ve got less doer’s remorse, and this is a good thing.

Beauty, Out and About, October

Some images today from my walk at Sheep Pasture and the community garden. Lovely fall day in Southern New England.

Woolly bear caterpillar, grass seed, grass seed, corn.

Woolly bear caterpillar, unknown, unknown, corn.

Milkweed silk, blond baby hair.

Milkweed silk, Jonah’s hair.

red berries, red vine climbing tree.

Unknown, unknown.

tomatoes

Tomatoes.

blue flower, marigold, pink flower with butterfly, black-eyed Susan, nasturtium.

Unknown, marigold, unknown, black-eyed Susan, nasturtium.

seed pods on baby sweater

Hitch hikers.

Getting Lost

sign-fail
I travel with out a GPS now, being sans phone. I get lost a lot more than I used to. This is particularly nerve wracking when I’m somewhere I really don’t know at all, like Boulder, CO, where I went in August for the Buddhist Geeks conference (which was awesome).

I spent some time getting lost (or more accurately, disoriented and walking the wrong direction) including late at night when I was tired, and wanting to be in bed, instead of walking around in the dark. I also did some driving, and wasted a lot of energy nervously trying to figure out if I was lost yet, about to get lost, or actually doing fine.

Sometimes I am so clever I outsmart myself, and this a great relief. It occurred to me that I have been acting out a metaphor for my own spiritual path and personal development. Behavior is one of our most direct (if not obvious) forms of communication.

When I travel without a GPS, here are some of the things that happen.

  • Having some guidance, like directions and a map, is helpful. I really don’t know much, and my awareness of how little I know is amplified without a phone to instantly broker information for me.
  • I have to pay more attention to where I am, and where I want to go next. I have to have some active agency in the process, rather than simply executing a set of instructions delivered at just the right moment.
  • When I walk by myself in an unfamiliar environment, I become much more sensitized to who is around me and what that feels like – especially in the dark.
  • When I get lost, I ask someone for help. I connect with another person when I otherwise wouldn’t. People, by and large, are always willing to help me. I make eye contact with them. I smile at them. I thank them.
  • I get a lot more anxious, and make a lot more mistakes. I go the wrong way, and have to turn back. I consult the map and try again, sometimes I still get lost, and I get frustrated. When I finally get on track, and my feet hurt, or I’m late, and I’m grouchy, I accept the reality that I just have to keep going until I get there. I just have to do the work, one step at a time, and I can be foul about it, or not.
  • I have to contend with detours, missing signs, and inaccurate directions. My anticipated reality and my actual reality don’t always match at the choice points.
  • Attentional laxity has very noticeable repercussions.
  • I always make it back to a safe place. Despite all the anxiety and frustration, nothing irrecoverable, or even that bad, has ever actually happened.

This is a good lesson. This is helpful to remember, when I am in the middle of a self-absorbed, hand-wringing, mind-wringing, heart-wringing, exercise about my choices, path and progress, which is an embarrassing amount of the time. Pay attention. Do the work. People will help you. Say thank you.