Back end of an elephant in the afternoon

Elephant leaning against the bars, Oakland Zoo

Back end of an elephant in the afternoon

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Advice on Advice… =0?

I’m a teacher. Advising kids on how to study, what to study, how to plan projects, how to cope with parents breaking up and friendships going bad. It’s what I do day by day. So it’s tempting to take it out into my friends and family. The Dear Abby of my social set. I know – you want to invite me over right now to put your life to rights! And really, isn’t it the worst when someone really does do that?

My grand old grandmother writing me a letter on my 30th birthday advising me to be less picky and get married before it’s too late. Very helpful – luckily I could call her right back and tease her about it. She couldn’t help it, she was compelled to tell me her strongly felt thoughts and it really was because she loved me so much. But annoying, and like I hadn’t realized the “Oh my God, I forgot to have children.” moment from the famous cartoon.

Or much worse, when I advised a student who was always raising her hand and basically sucking up to me in front of the class. Would have been better to stick to how the behavior impacted me and the class, rather than try to share details of my life with her and suggest that she had some issues that needed resolving. Way out of my purview. Greatly hurt and angered this very articulate girl who was making a specific choice it turned out.

But why do people advise others without being asked? Self justification – the ‘do what I do’ advice? Control? – extending our sphere of influence can feel so gratifying. Mis-guided intellectual exercise of problem-solving? Fun in a nerdy way, at other’s considerable expense if they are not up for it. But underlying all of these is often just the plain old drive to help.

Helping is what is behind, say Wikipedia. A vast majority of blogs (with some self-promotion thrown in). It’s a drive as powerful as curiosity and it makes us happier. According to research 🙂 and well, duh.

Advice on HELPFUL advice? Well first it depends if anyone wants to know…. So how about I want to know and you give ME some advice? You know I could use it!

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Visualize Biking up Big Hills…

Of course it’s a metaphor. But also real. I really like riding up hills, almost as strange as actually sort of enjoying reading physics text books. And so connected – lots of downhill force to over come, tiny, weak little legs providing just barely enough uphill force to creak the bike imperceptibly upwards. And then naturally, friction. I blame that mainly.

I used to like riding and then I got bored and out of the habit. I do remember having great thinks on my bike, and being deliciously tired afterwards, then cheerful and energized with new ideas.

So what the (*&^ happened?

I guess I stopped imagining the ride and thinking about the how, where and when of the next challenge.

Visualization is a very effective coaching strategy for athletes, so I’m going to start imagining starting and FINISHING the climb up Bear Creek and the lovely bumpety-bump ride down the trail to Tilden Park after. Then I’ll imagine making it to the top of Mt Diablo, turn by turn, winding up through the tawny blonde hills early one Saturday morning not too long from now.

Imagine yourself a small step toward something you know you’d really like to do. And then you’ll be half way there…

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Be direct out of respect

I live in a culture where any negative feedback is so politely given (in general….) that it’s easy to miss or dismiss. Or rationalize. And then people fade away. Don’t invite you places, are too ‘busy’ to get together, let you down at the last minute. Or don’t marry you, fire you ‘out of the blue’ or even leave home and never come back, even for Christmas. Not, I hasten to add, have some of these happened to me, or at least not yet.

So I’m advocating for a magical thing called ‘compassionate demand’. Where you expect the people you love and/or respect to be their best self. I ask a lot of my students because I care about them so much. It makes me feel better when assigning a huge essay over the weekend… 🙂  It does allow me to give them some level hard work and cut through the whining. Turning the idea over, what’s it saying if I don’t? “Oh, poor thing, I know this is too hard for you, so I won’t ask you.” Brrr. Patronizing. There’s a sweet spot for challenge. The zone of proximal development if you want the edu-babble. So I aim imperfectly for that.

But bosses of the world, please, do the same for us employees. TELL us when we are not performing, help us to improve. Evaluate frequently, fairly and be direct out of respect. Hey, give specific praise too when it’s warranted. But it’s actually cruel in the end to let things go, then find a sideways method to force us out. Plus it penalizes your best performers who might be watching it all go down for years and years while they work harder to make up for a poor employee.

Politeness is not the same as kindness. I’m going to continue to try to be respectfully direct – when you do… it affects me like this… so I don’t just disappear on colleagues and people I love when the going gets tough. It’s about the hardest, scariest thing I’m trying.

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String – the answer to life.

My plants get brave, then they can’t help it any longer, they wilt, they cry in little, plant-y desperation and finally, finally, I get round to watering them in the nick of time, as they go into Stokes-Cheyne transpiration patterns. Clearly, unless I want to spend my summers in a haze of self-induced guilt, I have to put in a drip system.

Considering I have actually taught project management, this couldn’t be too hard, right? But I just couldn’t get motivated with the tape measure and diagram dealie. Then getting tangled up in tubing and going What the @$%^$%! and all the money ending up in another heap in the shed.

The answer is string and sticks, thanks to my dear friend Patty. She laid out her drip system with different colors of yarn, with popsicle sticks where there were branches on the ground, in her actual garden. Now THAT sounds like fun. I could do that.

Then you have to measure the total length of tube, count the sticks for the number of joiners. The alternative is taking this giant tangle of string and sticks into the garden shop and saying “I want THIS much tubes.” But still, I could then lay it out over the string, and cool, water for my poor plants. On to the next guilt trip!

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Stressed? Read THIS book…

Last minute re-arranged staffing at school and surprise inservice with NO CONSULTATION, just sone of the little irritations of being employed by a school district. Oh, I just shouted. Not sorry. So yes, I’m sort of stressed. Luckily Jen Lancaster saved my family from toooo much bitching with “Bright Lights, Fat Ass”. So me. So El Sobrante. Here’s a couple of excerpts to help your day go better too.

“IKEA… is Sweden’s master plan to make Americans so busy trying to construct furniture with Allen wrenches that we don’t notice they’ve invaded us. (Personally, I think it’s payback; the Swedes are pissed that we aren’t buying ABBA albums anymore.”


“Fletch chews a meatball thoughtfully and then says, “You know, coming to IKEA is a lot like doing tequila shots”. “Why’s that?” I ask. “Because when someone suggests it, it seems like a fantastic idea – big fun and all – but in the morning you wake up nauseous in the middle of a pile of table legs, with no idea how you got there, and swearing never to do it again.”

So maybe IKEA should sell tables without the legs, so you could also be legless?

And on a slightly more edgy note (about cell phones in public):

“”God forbid anyone be quiet for a minute, because that’s when the they begin to hear the voices in their heads. You know, those little voices that make them question their views on society, ethics, organized religion, etc.? And we can’t allow those thoughts, now can we?”

But seriously, have some book candy (with a little salt and spice) on tap, just in case of a day like today. In the best British fashion, I’m going to sublimate outrage with laughing my arse off instead of oh, I don’t know, finding a new job where I have some control over decisions that affect me. I know, dreaming. The whole money vs freedom trade-off thing. Such a growth experience. Share your book candy and rages below. Please.

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Going with the teen age flow…

My 16 year old son is home after 7 weeks away working for my sister in England. It’s so tempting to be all over him. Whadidyado? Whatwasitlike? I want to know all that he’s thinking about, specially as I’m at a bit of a loose end, sort of waiting for school to get started.

I’m trying something I saw in the book “Switch” where abusive parents were taught to follow their child’s lead instead of trying to direct, control and judge their child’s play. It was a really effective intervention.

So I’m trying the same thing in a 16 year-old, modified form, considering that Jamie is not really playing with blocks any more nor is all that abused. Just being here while he recovers from jet lag, not going out, not being too driven to just hang with him a little when he surfaces for a chat every now and then. That’s the thing I forget. You just have to be around. It’s not about ‘quality time’, it’s about being quietly here, taking a bit more interest in music than I might choose for myself.

A quiet couple of days, feeling the house and the pack – pets and all – back together again.

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I’m trying to waste less food.

25% of perfectly good food is wasted each year in the US. (US waste more food than offshore drilling in this week’s New Scientist). It’s so much that just reducing this would remove the need for offshore drilling in the US.

Every week (or two) there are all kinds of er, slimy science projects that would actually escape from the fridge and run about the floor, teasing the dogs. Like slime mold amebas which send a signal to all the other amoebas, they point their little noses in the air and run up the gradient to form a slug together. I know, crazy. But true.

It’s never been good enough just to you know, try harder. So I’m going to be a bit more specific. I’m going to try to:

  1. Track what I throw away.
  2. Plan meals for the week and make a shopping list of 1 fewer meals than I think we’ll need (we often go out/have a snack instead of about 1 meal a week. Okay, so sometimes we have popcorn, ice cream bars or cornflakes for dinner…)
  3. Go through what is already in the house so I don’t buy a 6th bottle of cumin.
  4. Only buy what is on the list (Will keep trying.)
  5. Get over the fear of a. imminent starvation and b. that guests might feel hungry or unwelcome if I have less than double the food that we need. It’s a left-over from my grandmother who was a legendary hostess.
  6. Tracking what I throw away after the changes are in place so I can be objectively smug. Did I just write that? I mean so I can see if I made ANY progress at all.

I’m trying to model something I’m going to get my students to do – aka do any changes for the environment themselves BEFORE telling anyone else what to do! The antidote to smugness. Maybe.

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Can I do without this 1 thing, for now?

Well, not the blog, but stuff? Tasty snack, new shirt, a brighten-up-your-skin cream? How do you reduce as in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? So I’m trying asking that question above. The “… for now?” rider is important because I’m not cutting off from EVER having another barbeque pork chop, just for today.

The worst is grocery shopping: shocking to realize that people study consumer psychology as their life’s work. Supermarkets are deliberately set out so you have to wander, lost and dazed to find the staples that you want, located at diagonally opposite corners of the store. No natural light, no clocks, soothing music and frequent re-location of products so you have to wander even more, it’s all part of a capitalist plot (or a way to break even for a business). Here’s a fun link about food psychology surprises from Cornell U.

Add the whole branding thing to unintentional consumption, with the subliminal message that you are a sad loser UNLESS you buy this product which will fix you in this or that way. I was confused for ages before realizing that feeling bad after a shopping trip is sort of what advertisers intend, otherwise why would you need their product?

With all this marketing psychology stacked against me, I’m still tempted to consume, and that’s left over fear of enforced austerity I think. Like my great-grandmother having to go to be when it got dark to save candles, or having one dripping sandwich for her long day at a factory and being too ashamed to eat it, so she’d be hungry instead.

Reducing is really hard. For dieting, for budget reasons, for space reasons and for the environment. But less stuff and less weight makes most people in the west actually happier. I’m going to try the q. in the title for a few days. Measure of success: ONLY buying stuff on the list. Only eating when actually hungry. For now.

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Watch Out for the Wild Lands!

Horses on furlough from the race track live in the field up from our house, they look like live wood carvings. Sort of startling against the moth-eaten scrubby hills that we get hard into the dry season. We keep an eye on them, the comings and goings. We wander out and say hello to strangers, so they’ll know that someone is paying attention.

The nice guys in trucks told us they were subletting the land above, and they would be making some improvements to the gates. Desperately needed. I am done with getting all hung up on rusty wire as me and the dogs squeeze through. Comings and goings. A bull dozer. But they seemed like such nice guys, they were going to be putting in some winter shelter for their horses.

WAIT A MINUTE! They bull dozed the vernal pool that has thousands of frogs every spring. Stacks of building materials suggest a permanent structure. Our neighborhood fought for years to enforce the environmental process for any building on our beautiful hills.

I considered letting it go. “You just can’t fight progress.” “Someone else will do something about it.” “I’m just a little person and I don’t want to get beaten up.” But I felt too angry, after walking the dogs through the mess.

So here’s the plan – call up the county sheriff (done). Find out who, exactly to call in the city – Building Code Enforcement office. (done). Follow up daily until we get news (doing). Let our neighbors know what’s going on (done) and get others to help with the general ‘bugging’ of officials (doing). Post notice on gate to let the guys know that they’ll need a permit to continue building – scary in case they got seriously angry – but done 10seconds before they arrived. Close call.

In the end, I’m betting that the amount of hassle this will cause, will get the new horse owners to reconsider where they locate their stables. And I feel a whole lot better having done something effective. I recommend it!

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