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Redoing things

| family, life

SCHEDULED: 2010-09-07 Tue 08:00

It took me an extra weekend, but I repainted the chair I've been working on. This chair was my very first paint job. When we were working on this last weekend, W- was painting his chair too, and I made the mistake of not asking him for help. It turns out I'd loaded the brush too heavily, and the resulting runs marred the finish. So we sanded and scraped some of the excess paint down, and I repainted the pieces.

I thanked W- for helping me learn. He thanked me for caring. =)

There are a lot of things I'm doing for the first time. Whether it's figuring out painting or my career, I try things out, make the occasional mistake, and get better.

Lessons learned from painting: Don't rush. Go light – paint with an almost-dry brush. Ask questions. Watch other people. And don't be afraid to do it again, even if doing again might make things worse. (I sometimes gouged wood out while trying to scrape paint off.) It's just a chair, so don't worry too much about it, but it's a good story too.

In other news: W- has finished painting his chair Bibbidi Bobbidi Blue, and J- is painting hers with One Enchanted Evening. Mine is Pooh Bear Yellow. Attack of the Disney pastels! =) When we finish the chairs, I'll post a picture of the three of us.

Learning storytelling from my parents

Posted: - Modified: | family

My parents are both storytellers.

My dad makes everyday life seem epic, with sound effects and humour. He embellishes tales to make them more dramatic. He tells stories in conversation, and is often the center of attention in a large crowd.

My mom keeps the stories of generations, revealing unexpected connections with grandparents or great-grandparents. She tries to stick as close to the truth as she can remember. She tells stories in intimate conversation and through her writing. I look forward to our weekly Skype conversations because of the mix of stories she shares: some about the past, some about recent adventures.

I’m really lucky that my parents both love telling stories.  Growing up, I saw how the stories they told inspired and energized and connected people. Good stories don’t have to have morals, points, or storybook villains threatening to destroy the universe. Sometimes a slice of life can make an unexpected connection.

I want to learn how to tell stories like that. My sister Kathy tells stories like my dad does, and I tell stories like my mom. I want to get better at saving and telling stories, particularly the difficult ones, and writing is my way of remembering.

Television and the push and pull of motivation

Posted: - Modified: | family, life, reflection

For the first time in years, we have a television in the house.

I resisted the idea at first, nervous about the gravitational pull of a large television, the mind-numbing effects of passive attention, the shift of hours away from other pursuits.

It would be nice to play games with W- and J-, though. I remember how much J- enjoyed teaming up when we both had Nintendo DSes, and there were some new games that would be fun to explore on a Playstation 3. And the TV would come in handy when watching movies from the library, which we often do while folding laundry.

So we crunched the numbers, figured out what would be worth it based on a projected use of 1-3 hours per week, and headed to FutureShop to pick up the television. FutureShop was out of Playstation 3s. Walmart had plenty in stock, as well as less expensive HDMI cables and controllers. (You can save a few more dollars by ordering an HDMI cable off the Internet, if you plan ahead.) Having rounded up the gaming parts, we returned to FutureShop to get the TV and a wall-mounting bracket (important for keeping it out of reach of cats).

We’ve had the TV for a weekend. So far, we’re still okay. The chores are done. The freezer is full of meals for the next week. I’ve still had time to read and write. We’ve still had great conversations.

And it was a lot of fun exploring the world of LEGO Harry Potter with J-, who’s getting a lot of practice in solving puzzles, particularly stubborn ones. She and W- have been having fun playing LittleBigPlanet, too.

Here are some things I’ve realized about having a television:

TV is not inherently bad. It’s a tool. However, many people have invested a lot of time and energy into figuring out how to use this tool to engage or sell to others, so we should be careful about how we use it and what we absorb.

Knowing that movies and video games can be very engaging, I want to make it easier for me to make time to do other things. This is where choosing the right perspective really matters.

If I frame it as resisting the pull of the television, that’s going to take energy and wear down my self-control. (More about ego depletion on Wikipedia.)

On the other hand, if I focus on how much I want to do other things, then it becomes much easier to do them. I’m not fighting the television; it’s just the wrong tool for what I want to do. Let’s say that I want to write, which is fun and interesting and helps me learn. Instead of watching a movie, thinking, “I really should be writing,” and then trying to muster the energy to change activities and do it, I’ll focus on how much and why I want to write, and the television becomes irrelevant because it’s the wrong tool.

It’s easier to focus on the positive than to resist the negative. Easier for me to pull myself towards something than to push myself.

Are you avoiding or trying to break a bad habit, too? What if you tried flipping things around – focusing on the good parts of things you would rather do, instead of on resisting the bad parts of the things you don’t want to do?

Growing up

Posted: - Modified: | family

One of the best things about growing up must be examining your childhood assumptions and realizing that you’ve outgrown them.

When we were growing up, my eldest sister and I were more academically inclined than my middle sister Kathy was. Kathy hated math.

Fast-forward to now. Kathy’s acing her MBA classes, tackling finance courses head-on. She also saved up and bought her first appliance: the best refrigerator she could fit in her budget. (And she got it at a discount, too.) She’ll put it to great use – she’s got an instinctive flair for cooking.

Can’t wait to see how we all grow. It’s amazing!


| family, happy, life, reflection

(click for a bigger version)

I must be the happiest girl in the world. =)


I remember learning that you can’t help the face you’re born with, but you earn the face you have when you die.

I saw so many people with neutral or frowning expressions, and how their habitual grimaces had been carved into their wrinkles. I saw people whose crow’s feet and laugh lines spoke of lots of smiles instead.

Some people frowned a lot but were generally happy, like my dad. Some people smiled a lot but were generally happy, like my mom. And then there were people who were very good at talking themselves into sadness or anger or frustration, even though life was great, and there were people who were good at talking themselves into happiness, even though life occasionally took a curve.

I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. Here is that story retold by Peter Robinson, excerpted from How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life:

Over lunch today I asked Ed Meese about one of Reagan's favorite jokes. “The pony joke?” Meese replied. “Sure I remember it. If I heard him tell it once, I heard him tell it a thousand times.”

The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What's the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don't you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I'd only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you're doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson

I read books about happiness, too. Some books talked about set points and circumstances, showing how both lottery winners and accident victims tend to return to their previous level of happiness even after significant events. Watching people, I learned that happiness is more about what’s in your head than what’s outside it.

Hugs: Growing up, I remember giving and receiving more hugs than either of my sisters did. My eldest sister was a little aloof. My middle sister was unpredictably angry or sweet. I was mostly affectionate. Even today, I still give my parents spontaneous hugs whenever I see them, and I hug people a lot.

In high school, I came across a book on neurochemistry that suggested that hugs were associated with higher oxytocin levels and lower cortisol: more bonding, happiness, and trust, and less stress. Over time, hugs and other forms of affection could increase the number of your cortisol receptors, helping you bounce back from stress faster. It tickled me to think that there could be geeky explanations for not just happiness, but the ability to be happy and resilient.

Splash Mountain: Perhaps that was why I was generally easy-going as a child. If we changed our mind about something, I might be temporarily disappointed (if at all), but I recovered quickly. I remember my dad and I once lined up for the Splash Mountain attraction at Disneyworld Orlando. We spent what felt like two hours in line while my sisters and my mom wandered around outside. When we got near the front of the line, they announced that the ride was closed due to mechanical troubles, and they couldn’t say when it would reopen. My dad was concerned about the rest of the family, who had been waiting for us, and he suggested that we leave. I was fine with that, so we went. Shortly after we left the line, the ride started back up again. I shrugged and laughed. We eventually lined up again because my dad said that if he didn’t do that, he knew he’d hear about it for years and years. I remember it well because of that – realizing that I wouldn’t have blamed him for being impatient or carried it along like a grudge, and that perhaps this was an odd thing…

This is not to say that my childhood was entirely amiable. I found that I was generally happier when I had more choice and more solitude, and got stressed out when I had neither. For example, when a drive south to attend a wedding turned into an extended road trip with no clear end, I felt trapped and upset. But in general, I was good at letting stress go.

I remember watching how my mom’s menopausal stress combined with my sister’s teenage angst to result in fireworks in the house. Stuck in the patterns of anger and frustration, they dredged up past grievances. They survived, and have since then become closer. I remember realizing that it did no good to hang on to old hurts. Much better to let go, to be like a pond of water rippling back to serenity after disruption.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull: My mom had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on her bookshelf. I remember not quite understanding it, but reading it and rereading it nonetheless. Looking back, I think I understand it better now. I remember thinking about the deliberate experiments of flight, the joy of learning, and the challenge and delight of sharing that with others. Then I thought about journeys, and perfect speed, and how most people think of happiness as something to be pursued—but what if it just is, if someone could just be happy? And I did.

More to come…


Posted: - Modified: | family, gardening, life, passion, reflection

It was sunny and almost spring-like on Sunday. I rode my bicycle 5km to the Artscape Wychwood Barns, shedding my winter jacket and fleece along the way, enjoying the ride in a light turtleneck and thermals. That 5’C is warm must speak to the reality-distorting powers of winter, which will make a return in the next few days. But today was like spring.

I wanted to check out the Seedy Sunday event I’d learned about on one of my favourite Toronto gardening blogs. The converted barn bustled, hundreds of visitors flipping through seed packets and comparing cultivars. I slipped into the attached greenhouse for a seminar on seed starting, marveling at the rows of young plants sheltered from the cold. After wandering around to see what was available, I bought almost twenty seed packets: cherry tomatoes, assorted carrots, bok choi, bitter melon (W- loves it), and various herbs.

With the exception of bitter melons, equivalents for the herbs, fruits, and vegetables I plan to grow are readily available at a supermarket that’s within walking distance. I can buy bitter melons in Chinatown or ask W- to pick up some from Lawrence Market on his way home from work.

But there’s a certain thrill in turning over the soil and watching earthworms squirm back into the ground in search of more nutrients. Seeing something grow and remembering that just last week that patch of soil was brown and bare. Tasting something fresh and knowing that it doesn’t get much better than that.

Also, the supermarket doesn’t stock purple carrots or yellow cherry tomatoes. =) And I hate throwing away herbs if all I need is a small bit of it (I’m talking to you, parsley). Much nicer to just snip a few from a plant that can keep on growing.

This year, I’m learning how to plan ahead. I’d like to start as many plants from seed as possible instead of buying plants from the nurseries of nearby hardware stores. It promises to both be cheaper and more wide-ranging. It’ll be fun. And if it doesn’t work out, I know where to get plants that are ready for transplanting, and I know those will work in our garden. =)

I suspect gardening’s one of those hobbies I’ll grow into. I want to be like that older lady down the street, the one who grew rows and rows of bok choi, tomatoes, lettuce, and other assorted goodies in the front yard of an apartment building. I always peeked at her garden whenever we walked by.

I enjoy gardening a little bit now, and I can imagine how much more fun it will be when I can appreciate the difference between cultivars and know what kind of environment I should provide to help the plants flourish. It all begins from a seed of interest.

Looking back on her years, my mom wondered what she did with her free time and why she can’t identify any particularly physical hobbies. She ran a business and raised us—that must count for a lot of time and quite a lot of exercise. But of the different hobbies she explored, she wrote:

Embroidery, sewing, pottery, carpentry, cooking, baking – I’ve tried them all but could not go beyond introductory levels – there was not one that I was passionate about to pursue through the years.

What I’m learning about passion is this: most of the time, it doesn’t spring full-formed from the ground. Passion comes from skill and appreciation. The more you know about something, the more you can appreciate it. It’s okay to be interested but not passionate about something as you explore it.

I’m interested in gardening and sewing. I enjoy baking, and I’m getting better at it. They’re not my passions yet, but perhaps someday, they will be. I’m passionate about helping people connect and collaborate, and about sharing ideas through writing and presenting. It took me a while to be able to really enjoy it, but now it totally rocks.

Passions develop from seeds of interest. They benefit from a little care, thought, and time. Maybe some potential passions have longer “times to harvest” than others. Some seeds don’t germinate at all, or they grow and they don’t flourish. Others are like zucchini and can take over the rest of your garden if you don’t pay attention. Some passions go well with other passions, like companion plants. Other passions don’t go well together at all. So you do a little planning, but you can’t plan too much, because life happens and you just need to figure out how things work out.

Sometimes you need to put in the right support structure. Sometimes you need to build a protected environment – a greenhouse of time and motivation – so that new interests can survive until they’re self-sustaining.

Cultivate the ground, plant seeds, and see how things grow. Keep what you like and think about replacing what doesn’t work out. And enjoy the process, always. It’s not about the fruits of your labour (although that’s yummy!), but also all the experiences along the way.

(Tangent: My dad is an awesome gardener of opportunities. ;) )

Gifts and graphs: visualization and gift-giving

| family, life

Many talents might be skills in disguise. For example, my sister Kathy has a flair for giving personal gifts, while I often struggle to think of what to give people. There’s no reason why I can’t gradually learn how to find just the right thing.

In The Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam says that drawing and visual thinking are skills that can be developed, too. He breaks the process down into four parts: look, see, imagine, and show. While it can be hard to figure out how you can get better at visual thinking in general, you can think of ways to get better at observing the world, making sense of patterns, imagining how you’re going to organize the information, and showing your thoughts. Getting better at each of the parts helps you get better at the whole.

Look, see, imagine, and show. That can help me get better at giving gifts and writing cards, too.

  • Look: I can observe people more closely. I can also look at what stores sell more closely.
  • See: I can find patterns that indicate interest. I can see the intended purposes of things.
  • Imagine: I can imagine what people might like or find useful. I can imagine how things can help.
  • Show: I can show what I’ve learned through a gift and a card.

So I can use the same basic idea to improve two of the skills I’d like to work on! (And the same thing probably works for facilitation, too…)

As my mom pointed out, it’s not the gift, but the time and thought that accompanies it.

The Back of the Napkin (Expanded Edition): Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
Dan Roam

The extended version has a hard cover, colour highlights, and lots of new examples. Like!

(Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link. That said, I recommend checking out your local library. I got this book from the Toronto Public Library, yay!)