On welcoming inputs

Last night I thought about why I don’t feel entertained by novels and movies anymore, and have trouble listening to the news and sometimes even to everyday conversations. I guess there are many factors at play, and different combinations for each situation; still, there is a leitmotiv in my perception that connects them. I apologise for the somewhat vague title, but this is the best fit I could find.

I have realised at a way earlier point in life that I receive information from the outside world in form of a mix of events that can be explained with laws of nature (in the broadest sense) and the opinions about these events. This seeems so obvious that it’s odd to mention it at all. What I recently realised is that I used to give both of these categories the same attention, the same right to be heard; and that I was listening to any input with full focus, genuine intention to understand it well. Not surprisingly I was good at school and I was regarded as a good listener, but I regularly and increasingly got overwhelmed.

The solution that most have suggested to me is “well, focus on some specific topic, filter the inputs the you get, there will always be too many situations that would need your help anyway, think about yourself first”. I understand , but I manage only to half-heartedly agree with that. I recognise my finite resources and I’m working on acknowledging my own needs, but I have no usable logic for picking up a topic. I guess it has to do with my intention to work on a given issue that I met directly, not on what someone managed to convince me to. I would feel horribly guilty to have followed a good marketing feat and have disregarded a more urgent issue just because it was not as brilliantly presented. I think of many examples of great storytelling that made a legitimately good work in raising attention on some obscure yet important topics, but I have the uneasy thought that there is much more in the shadows that can’t sell itself as effectively, and it would be inhumane to expect it to.

Connected to that, I got the increasingly clear perception of that “listen to me, disregard the others, I’ll make you change how you think or confirm your views” in works of fiction. I started to read books in a different way. Until recently, I was reading to discover new topics and the views of the authors, and use them to build my inner world, changing them as little as possible. What happens now when I pick a novel is that my brain defiantly grabs a notepad and takes notes about what views the authors want to bring forward, tries to find out inconsistencies, reasons to stop reading. Same happens, with more success for the brain, when I watch a movie. I seem not to be able to get into suspension of disbelief, and I see the movie as if I were on the set: I can almost hear the director telling what he/she wants to see the actors doing (which brings its own pleasure, as a behind-the-scenes experience). I can only watch videos and read text where the self-irony or self-observation is so blatant that I’m not expected to approve the narrative or have empathy of any sort. The focus moves to the acting ability, the photography, the use of narrative devices for fun. I can watch the Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the IT Crowd over and over, and I am very wary in watching anything new, even when I get suggestions from friends.

I think there is a lot behind this change in my perception and I’m trying to understand it better. I would be curious if anyone has similar experiences or has hints for further exploration on the topic.

Drawing update: horses’ ears

A few days ago I challenged myself to draw horses’ ears. I have been drawing horses for as long as I can remember, but with a moderate and varied amount of attention to detail. Therefore I am able to draw horses’ ears somewhat by memory, so that they don’t look that convincing. Thanks to a library book with a lot of pictures (I prefer to copy from printed images instead of from a screen) I found plenty of portraits from which I could draw. Here is the result:

Drawing practice: horses' ears

As usual, the first two sketches are a warm-up. From the third onwards I tried to notice something characteristic from each sketch, and for the forward-facing ears of sketch #3, it’s the angle in the inner ear side (I used to draw round ears by default – some horses have a less pronounced angle, but it’s always there). The same angle is visible when the ear is turned backwards: in sketch #6 I drew the ear as a trapezoid|trapezium, instead of a triangle. It felt strange to draw the ears like that, but in the end they look more realistic. The following sketches are more about ear positions and differences among breeds and individuals.

My next focus will be on hooves/feet, stay tuned for next post!

The radar – a way of paying attention to others and being focused on your task

I have been visiting a Montessori preschool this week, and had my usual joy in observing without participating. I appreciated how the two teachers had all twenty children in mind, and moved from one to another to attentively guide them in a given exercise, gave ideas for further work, paid attention to all children who asked for a moment of it; and the children were calm and mainly focused on their occupations, called the teachers only seldom and always got an answer – even a “I’m busy now, but I come to you when I am done”. I found that profoundly calming, and a wise economy of communication (and noise. It was a smallish room with 20+ people in it, no way that everyone can talk simultaneously and be heard. Think of how restaurants can become incredibly loud!). If children grow in this two-way attention, they know that each call gets a feedback, so there is no need to call ten times in order to hope to be heard once – or worse, to make sure that the other person hasn’t forgotten you are there (how many children I have seen crying or calling their parents repetitively, without any more hope to be heard, but attempting to get attention by being annoying).

I reflected on that point on my way home. Some time ago I wrote a note about the ways of paying attention to someone else in the background, and be responsive when this person actually starts interacting. I experienced how some friends switch between full attention to me to full focus on something else, and I always felt as a nuisance when I interrupted them with the start of a conversation. There was no concept of background for them, there was no chance to me to pick the good time to chime in.

On the other extreme the radar process could take too much of the foreground space: I could pay attention to everything and get distracted by every new input. I find this exhausting, and disrespectful for the current task, that must pray that nothing pops up while it is being dealt with.

The sweet spot could be hard to reach and it depends much on how the inputs behave (some would like to get attention immediately, others would prefer to never disturb…), but I have seen people doing that with such a mastery that I am totally confident it can be done by everyone, with a bit of practice. My drum teacher can keep an eye on me when we play in the orchestra, such that he invariably spots if I’m lost, and we can debrief the concert afterwards with great accuracy. I strive to reach that ability when I will finally become a kindergarten teacher. I have experienced how relaxing it is to be in someone’s radar and to know you can ask for a moment of attention, so I definitely aspire of being that attentive kind of person for the children.

Doe Pair – by Carl Monopoli

“Nature connection through deliberate attention and curiosity” – John Muir Law’s TEDx talk

I was introduced to John Muir Law‘s learning materials for natural illustrators by fellow participants of NHI101x, bought his book “Nature Drawing and Journaling”, enjoyed the bubbling stream of ideas and excellent illustrations (I’ll write a review as soon as I finish it, stay tuned!) and now I follow his blog, where he regularly posts drawing tutorials and other useful tips. Today I watched his TEDx talk about enhancing the quality of our observation of nature, by the means of simple and effective methods that unleash our curiosity on natural subjects. I find it a brilliant summary on the art of observation – a compact starter kit like very few others. Enjoy!

On managing focus in everyday life

I have been challenged to productively plan my own days since I left my last employee job. It has been hard at the beginning, because I had no experience in integrating sudden inspirations into a structured day program. I had also little conscious feedback about how much to structure the day: meals at fixed times? Timeboxes or do an activity until the planned result is achieved?

After quite a long test phase I settled for a simple planning system, based on a weekly cycle. At the beginning of each week I plan the 4 or 5 goals I want to reach. I pick these goals from a bucket list that I occasionally update. Every day I select maximum 3 activities I want to do and decide a rough outline of the day. I usually don’t put exact times, as I prefer to finish a given activity rather than switch when it is not yet done. If an activity is not completed or not done at all, I shift it to the next available day, or think of which problems are preventing me to complete it.

I find that this loose planning helps me focusing on each activity, because I know that I planned for it, I decided it was important; I can forget other activities and deadlines, because I am confident that each of them has been marked in the planning and will get a dedicated timeslot. It also gives me clear feedback on how productive my week was.

That made me think about the focus of attention of a rider in an obstacle course (it applies in other disciplines and riding moments, but the obstacle course makes it especially clear). The rider has the whole sequence of jumps in mind (that’s my guess!), but not in the immediate focus of attention. Approaching a jump, the focus narrows solely on that obstacle. Right after the obstacle, the attention turns to the next obstacle – and the body faces it too, as a physical message for the horse. Between jumps there are some moments where the focus of attention can embrace a wider part of the jumping course, but they are (should be) usually brief, because the next obstacle approaches fast.

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ABS Horse – from MazetMan on Flickr — I like how rider and horse look straight to the obstacle, even if their bodies are in an unstable, dynamic equilibrium

My difficulty was in finding a good way of planning, that is efficient and not too demanding in terms of time and attention. I felt I was alternatively being the rider, the horse and the instructor. Sometimes I would have loved to be only the rider, or only the horse, but it was never an option (or at least not a good one). I found a lot of inspiration from friends and the wider Internet, who suggested me planning tools, tips and tricks – but the ultimate feedback came from myself. Quite a hard lesson for my obedient side, which prefers to take pride in completing an assigned task, rather than taking responsibility on choosing one task among many.