Here is one more post for the series “short posts about big topics”.
This time I will describe a behaviour of my mind that can be compared to the garbage collection feature of programming languages. For a computer program, it is a way of removing objects from memory when they are no longer used. This can happen behind the scenes or be manually controlled, and is necessary to avoid memory being saturated by items no longer in use. For a programmer, it is an art in itself to be able to juggle a collection of items that would overflow the available memory, by having at each instant only the item or part of item that is actually needed.
I noticed that my mind is able to do this decluttering work too, but at two conditions: the task has to be properly completed (more on “properly completed” below) and the stress level has to be low. This has some impractical implications: long-haul or non-progressing tasks stay in memory until they are complete, because the cost of recalling everything about a suspended task is high, and considered higher than keeping the task in memory as is; the mind’s threshold for “properly completed” is quite high, so tasks need more work/time/attention than average to be allowed to leave memory; and last but the most critical of all, if I’m stressed I actively keep in mind more inputs than usual, to counteract my mind’s emergency garbage collection (which can’t properly keep really important tasks), and I rely more heavily on tasks’ completion to prove myself I’m still functional, both of which further extend the time an item stays in memory and makes overflows happen faster and more often. This is another way of describing the behaviour of my mind, which shares similarities with the “fragile autopilot” metaphor.
I didn’t describe this mechanism to receive feedback about how to change it. Of course a major review will make sure that the mind always has free space for new tasks, but at the cost of too many other features/behaviours that I consider fundamental in allowing myself to consider this loose puzzle of body and thoughts as “myself” (there is more about that, but for another time). I am actually able to function and even shine, when the conditions are favorable; I just recently started the process of identifying those conditions, and I have no practice about making my needs clear, so for the short/mid term I will have to live with memory management issues and temporary workarounds. It’s not that bad, because I know how crashes look like, but it’s surely a lot of work. Thanks to all the people who are patient with me during this phase, and thanks for all supportive inputs 🙂
It has been many years since I first formed thoughts about this topic, so I wish to share them.
I remember the relief that I felt when I started programming. Finally I was receiving feedback in ways that I was fully OK with. It took many years to understand why I liked it so much, and why I preferred to interact with a program/software/machine than with most humans.
I must say that I was not a very patient person nor very ready to admit my errors, before I met computers. I think what allowed me to grow was their transparent way of dealing with my inaccurate inputs.
First of all, they were consistent: every time I made a typo or called the wrong command, I got an error back. The machine had zero tolerance for inaccuracies and instead of being annoyed by it I was deeply, sincerely thankful. (Of course there are some programs which are not that picky about input, and these are the ones that confuse me most, because I can’t know in advance if the input will be reviewed properly, or if an error can sneak in). I notice that I am confused by inconsistent feedback and I tend to get angry when that happens – but often it is misread as me getting angry for negative feedback, which can’t be far from the truth! What I fear is to be randomly left on my own judgment, and being corrected only at the Nth repetition of the same action. I can’t understand why it was OK for a while and suddenly it’s being corrected. I would really prefer to know all the criteria in advance, even if I know very well that I can’t work on every aspect from the start, because I have the information that this will be worked on at some point in the future. I understand how I confuse people when I say “Let me know about all my mistakes! Don’t worry about giving too much feedback! Don’t try to be nice by giving only partial feedback!” and I can also understand how demanding it sounds. I guess it has to do with a different kind of honesty that sounds brutal when applied to people.
Another important point is that they were factual. The machine didn’t throw back an error out of spite, tiredness or with any kind of emotion attached. It simply pointed out that there was some problem with what I did/wrote, and that was it. No judgment, no making fun of me, no extra layer to decode, just the fact. And when I solved the problem, the machine had zero grudges or worries about the error happening again. It had the apparent patience to letting me try until I found the right instruction to type in, and it meant I could take all the time and attempts I needed. I took it as “OK, I need to learn a bit more about this topic, so that I get the right words in the right order, no matter how unfamiliar this language looks – because it is the language of the machine and it has no other way to communicate, so it’s on me to learn it”. In most other social situations there was some kind of pressure to not make mistakes and not being able to repair the mistakes, and more expectation about everyone knowing the rules already. My machines relied on precisely written instructions and were free from the several implications that puzzled me, mostly because I didn’t mean them.
When I started programming, I felt I entered in a comfortable bubble, with objects I was able to interact in a fruitful and pleasant way. I was able to notice the subtleties of their language and I was rewarded by them working productively and with their remarkable accuracy. When it happened that I mistyped a command and got some output that was exactly what I asked for, but not what I wanted in my head, I felt a bit sorry for the machine as it had worked on the wrong assignment, and angry at me for not noticing the mistake in the command. I never got angry at the machine for not “understanding what I meant”, because I know very well that it is not able to guess that. My patience (and my success) with the machines was a wonder for many. I just can’t think of handling them any differently. There is a complicity with the machines that I rarely get with anyone/anything else. That’s why every laptop I have, and every server I used to maintain, has a name that I remember.
And to finish with a somewhat old picture, here are Galadriel (left) and Matusa (right), my second and first laptops. I am thankful for all I learned from/through them and the worlds they introduced me to.
Hello all, here are some more pictures of my hobbies’ progress these last two weeks. I mostly knitted and drew:
I started this sock toe-up, so that I can stop anytime on the leg (actually I want to use the whole skein, so I will stop after I used 1/4 of it; for some reason most of the knitting instructions for socks estimate 100g per pair, but I will have pretty long socks using half of it). Toe-up sounded challenging at first, and the 2mm needles are both thinner than usual and a bit too long, but it’s progressing nicely and very regularly. As the weather is still cold I plan to use them before next cold season.
The yellow sweater is made of linen and it follows the Audierne pattern by Regina Moessmer. I am fascinated by how it drapes and am very curious to see how it will look after the first wash. The picture shows the back of the sweater, with the cables-and-ladder pattern. One cable runs below each arm as well.
Regarding drawing, I finally took the courage to start using the waterbrush I bought almost a year ago (the water-filled pen on top of the picture), and followed the waterbrush introduction by John Muir Laws. This is my first experiment with it:
I was very surprised by how easy it was to paint uniform shades of colour. There is very definitely space for improvement but I had way worse results with a simple brush. The palette is an ordinary kindergarten set so the colours have no special merit in the result, nor the water 🙂 I will definitely keep using this tool, and keep you posted with useful tips and links I happen to find.
I wish you all to stay healthy and safe, and maybe even sane, until the lockdown measures will be progressively lifted. I wish you find great ways to stay in contact with your loved ones and to not have to worry for work or housing. Hugs to everyone!
I was thinking about how setting a goal shapes the way one takes to reach it.
Let me pick an example with music, my most familiar environment. Let’s say my orchestra plans to play a given difficult piece for next concert. That goal will influence all rehearsals, filling them with a detailed plan, that includes the progressive steps to the full execution of that piece: separate rehearsals per section, focus on getting to play to the required speed, focus on expression, and finally playing the piece properly from start to finish.
When difficulties arise during rehearsals and it starts to look like we are not progressing as fast as we thought, it’s time to find shortcuts. We simplify our parts, play a little slower than required, remove details. This is where I start to diverge from how one is expected to work. I rarely think about the goal directly, it is for me more of a part of the landscape that I sometimes remember to look at, but my interest is on my immediate surroundings, on the atmosphere at the current rehearsal, on what I can do right now. I’m relieved that someone else is responsible for keeping the boat sailing straight towards the goal, because I just couldn’t! My work is more of a fractal exploration, without direction, with the focus on how I walk, and no eye on the time – in this mindset, shortcuts simply make no sense. I observe and I accidentally also take part to the rehearsal. This is where I’m not offering any grip to the usual motivation talks which sound like “Don’t you feel the pressure, the urge to reach the goal?”. No, I don’t. It doesn’t mean I explicitely avoid it, but simply that it will be the side effect of me having the space to wander at will. I first had to prove that my random exploration takes me to the goal anyway, before I was given the trust to be left free alongside the bridled horses, apparently aimless, for the surprise of some.
I felt that this can be a good parallel with how one works with animals, for example during horse riding. I sometimes get the feeling that the rider has a goal in mind and gets to the point where the test approaches and they start looking for shortcuts, but that is where+why the horse loses connection – because the horse doesn’t seem to think in terms of goals, and the proposed shortcuts look like forced steps that take attention further away from the flow of observation, of being in the present. This gearing up tends to make things work both worse and slower, it requires even more shortcuts, and that brings the opposite of the desired effect! It takes a lot of trust to stop this vicious cycle when the deadline is approaching, but re-focusing on the present seems to me one of the few respectful and efficient ways out.
I hope that makes sense! Let me know if that resonates with you, I’m curious to read about your experiences with deadlines, goals and shortcuts.
As I learned German very late, I missed the opportunity to absorb culture together with language, as I would have done in kindergarten and in school and in everyday life, were I born in a German-speaking place. I notice this gap when I write in cursive, when I sing children’s songs, when I use proverbs and figures of speech – they all come from Italian culture. I’m trying to bridge this gap by reading childrens’ books in my local libraries, and it’s always fascinating. Especially history books that -of course- center on another country. In my mind, history is so deeply connected with the history of my country that I first have to find connections with my own knowledge in order to properly place the events of German history on the time-line.
That’s why I think I can profit from childrens’ books and in general from books-that-explain-things rather than just a dictionary. With only word-to-word translations I would not get the culture inputs that I need to feel more integrated here. On the other hand, some books take their time to explain concepts that I know already, and don’t require that much attention from me. This is in converse the most concentrated and captivating collection of culture insights I picked so far:
It’s a collection of German idioms, described in their meaning and origin in a short paragraph. Many expressions come from the past, and cite knights, ancient arts and crafts, farming, commerce, construction, old administrative structures. I liked how it gave me another angle of the German culture, not directly like in an history museum or book, but indirectly through many bits and pieces that survived in today’s language. My favourite is “Alles in Butter!” which means “All is OK/safe!”, and comes from the times where merchants transported fine glass manufacts from Italy to Germany, across the Alps on carriages. The risk of breaking would have been very high, if the merchants did not submerge the glasses in liquid butter, then let it become solid and protect the fragile objects from any shock. At destination, the butter was melted again and the glasses taken out and cleaned. Clever and effective!
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:
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!
Long post ahead! Enjoy this giraffe picture first 🙂
A few days ago I read Regardez Moi, an intriguing post from TeresaA about a horse clinic she attended. She reports how Nikki, the clinician, explained how she doesn’t use the term “respect” anymore when it comes to horses, in favour of “regard”. The latter term involves more the tuning of the horse’s attention to the person (and vice versa), rather than recognising some form of authority or leadership, or demanding compliance – “regard” can be seen as a communication agreement, before anything else can happen.
My own understanding of what she describes in the post is summarised in this schema, where an individual is surrounded by a circle, that includes and protects the individual’s personal space, time, resources and choices. Outside of it there is the external world, where many things happen, from which some of them try to reach the individual. The inputs are accepted when they pass through the circle’s doors:
Stimuli, inputs and requests from the outer world bounce off the circle walls, or come to the doors of an individual’s space and try to enter. The individual can use various strategies:
letting all inputs through the doors, and decide how to deal with them once they’re in (maybe thanks to abundant time/resources? or for fear of being mean when turning them away? or because the circle itself is incomplete or broken, so that inputs come inside as they wish?)
let some inputs in, keep others out, according to time/energy availability (preserves the individual when needed/wanted)
keep all inputs out a very strong circle and locked doors; pick very carefully what can pass the doors (the individual would feel overwhelmed, or unsafe, or is unable to properly process the inputs once they’re in)
“Regard” seems to me the label for “accepting inputs”, “be ready for communication”, “keep doors ready to be opened”. I find that this term applies well to the middle situation of the previous list, where the individual feels able to accept and process inputs, and is therefore willing to listen. Denying this regard means ignoring, refusing the communication right away, being focused on something else, being unreachable.
I wondered what can make one unwilling to accept inputs, for example because of fear or habit, and I found that the initial model was too simple. It doesn’t deal with what happens after the input has passed the doors. I have extended it and added a second circle inside:
The inputs can now pass a first door, get into a middle space that is managed by the individual, but that is not the core space, so it’s more like a waiting area. The individual decides then which of these inputs can pass the doors to the inner core, the truly personal space. From the outside perspective, the inputs passed the visible doors, so they have been accepted by the individual, and they are confident they will get some dedicated attention and feedback.
I am aware that this involves the maintenance of two attention gates, and it seems easier to use only one: that is, ignore everything (keep doors locked) until it’s the right moment to pay full attention to them. It is very safe, especially if one is not so good at managing the doors, so that everything that passes the first door is likely to run free in the inner space and feast on precious personal resources. But what would a single gate mean for the external world? That it would need to repeat its requests until the “attention lottery” grants the prize – which can be never. The external inputs/requests have only a vague idea of how to increase their chances of being heard, because it all happens inside oneself, and the data they get are “no answer at all” or “full answer”, with no apparent pattern. It means that they will multiply their attempts and make the pressure even worse. (Job applications anyone? People or companies who don’t answer to mails or the phone?)
I find that both schemes rely on the ability to say no to inputs. The “no” in the schema is represented by an input going inside through the door, then back outside. If saying no is not possible, the only way to limit the input overflow is not to let them in at all, no matter how urgent they think they are. The two-circles scheme makes it possible to say: “I have noticed this input from outside. I have given some attention to it and I’m deciding what to do” while the input is not yet in the inner personal space. Then one can say either yes (and the input comes through the second set of doors) or no (and the input leaves the waiting area and comes back outside).
The two-gate model allows external inputs to get an answer quite fast, that is either a no, a yes-now, or a yes-in-the-future. I would like to work in that direction, because I feel that (at least some) external requests need an answer soon, at least a short one, out of politeness and regard. Some close friends provide me this kind of feedback, and I feel at ease with them, because I know I don’t have to ask more than once, and they are confident they can say no anytime. There this a sort of elastic connection and mutual consideration that I cherish a lot.
Enough for today… I’m still reflecting on this topic and will likely write more about it, thanks for reading so far!
I recently thought about my habit of being ready to take over responsibility from others. The classical situation is when I’m with one or more people in a car and I am in the passenger seat. I call it the “copilot syndrome”.
In this situation I feel I have to be alert and ready to help: I check the road signs, the directions, the weather ahead, I ask the driver if they’re tired or thirsty. The funny thing is that I would not be able to take the wheel: I stopped driving in 2010 and am too scared to try again, especially without preparation. So I am in the funny position to feel a lot of responsibility but be unable to actually do much. At the same time I can’t relax and for example simply look outside of the window, or sleep. I have the fear that I would not notice something important and that it would be my fault, that I should have paid attention; as if there were a responsibility chain and I am always the next in line, and all others (except the first in line) come after me, and even worse: none of them would step up if I don’t act.
The other, maybe more important, funny thing I finally noticed is that it’s rarely necessary that I pay so much attention, or that I feel this copilot burden at all. It doesn’t mean not caring about how the car trip is going, or be passive if doubts or problems arise – it’s more about feeling a more reasonable amount of responsibility and not waste energy and attention being fully alert while the situation is well under control.
I can understand how my readiness to step up has often been seen as great resource and a cool fallback for the group of people I was part of, because others were reassured that I would take care of glitches before/instead of anyone else. But it’s a disaster for me, when this means that I have to constantly feel in charge: this indeed happened on a couple jobs, that I luckily managed to leave before they drained all my energies.
I have a few hunches on how I learned to feel this obligation to pick up responsibilities. The important thing now is that I have a plan to get rid of this habit. My current strategy is to pick situations where actually nothing serious can happen if I don’t pick up the lead, and see what indeed happens. The experiment is ongoing and it’s early to tell if this approach would work in more critical situations; but I can already say that I feel more relaxed, and even reassured that I’m making progress.
My dog-sitting is getting more and more interesting, as I am getting better in understanding what is happening in the communication and interaction with the little dog I’m taking care of.
(Warning! Long post ahead. Have a funny dog picture!)
One thing I read in Karin Actun’s book is that we can map dogs’ roles as “higher status” and “lower status”. She doesn’t identify a pyramid hierarchy because she observed that dogs interact only in pairs (themselves and another dog), so there is no “boss” of the whole pack, but rather a dog who shows its higher status to any other dog in one-on-one encounters. Her explanation is more complete but I hope this summary is good enough.
The important thing that she underlines is that “high status” doesn’t mean “I can use my force against you, I can make you comply to what I want”. It’s more about “I can use space and resources as I need, and if you are in the way you will make room for me”. But not only that: the crucial part for me comes now. So far I thought of authority just like this: someone who can decide something I can’t contradict. But her observations on dogs brought another important point: who has a high status has also the responsibility to make sure the ones with lower status have their needs met. A good example is parenting: parents and other individuals who take care of younger ones should make sure that these have food, water, rest, protection, play, challenges and so on. If they don’t, their authority is hollow and dangerous for the younger ones, and it’s better that they start to take care of themselves on their own – most likely against the will of the authority.
In my case, as dog-sitter I am responsible for the dog if I make sure he gets food, fresh water, movement, interesting activities, interaction with other dogs, cleaning and brushing, and that I notice when something is wrong and he could be ill. I could not claim respect or obedience if I forget about one or more of these things. That would be the reason for the dog to think: “She is not noticing that I have this need! I must take care of that myself. I will not listen to what she tells me about it, because my needs could not be met and it would be the worst thing ever.” and… he would be right!
I notice quite clearly when he needs movement and fun, as he prompts me to throw his favourite ball by pushing it towards me with his nose and barking at me. I almost see him saying: “I really need to move! I really need to play with you because I was so bored this morning all alone at home!” and I can’t tell him to be quiet in that precise moment, because I see that the need is strong and that he wants to make sure I get it. I’m almost sad that he is telling it so strongly, as if I could not understand. I could work on making myself respected by starting with making clear that it’s my decision when he can run and jump, but it implies that I know when he has played enough, and I have no experience of that. What I’m doing is to give him many chances to satisfy his needs, so that he knows I am actually taking care of them, and in some occasions I decide otherwise – and he will likely be fine with that. I am new to dog-sitting so I need to learn to take responsibility in steps.
I started practising this when we go out for a walk and he needs/wants to sniff and mark at almost every tree. What he used to do is to run as far ahead as the leash allowed, then stop square at some interesting scent and refuse to move on until he was done. I was first pulled by him, then I was pulling him and forcing him to go on – and it was becoming unpleasant for both. What I do now is to be the first to walk towards a nice tree or bush, and stop there for a bit. I make sure to stop in a lot of places, because I am not so good in picking the ones with nice scents! I now see him following me, come to the tree, sniff around intently, marking, and then look at me as to say “Where do you want to go next?”. Sometimes I pick an uninteresting tree and he just looks at me like “We can go on, pick another one” – but he doesn’t rush ahead anymore, he is more relaxed now that he doesn’t have to take care of the sniffing all on his own and even against me.
While focusing on the interest in scents I got the bonus effect that he follows me more often than he walks ahead of me, and he doesn’t pull that much on the leash either. He is even OK when I tell him to go on when he finds a nice scent on his own, he just trots towards me when I call him because he likely trusts that I will give him another occasion soon. I could have got there by using force or punishment, but I would have ignored the need of inspecting scents that is important to him, and I would have given the message that I don’t care about them. I would have become a strong but awful boss!
At this point I am talking of needs as a whole and I don’t know if some are true needs or just habits, whims or anything else. My point now is to show him that I can take care of his basic needs, that I want to listen to him and his requests, and manage them for him. I am learning too! I can’t expect the dramatic changes that an experienced dog owner would obtain in this situation. It’s not even my goal. What I need is to sample as much information as possible and make sure I learn a little bit at every step, while not hurting the dog in the process.
A friend of mine asked me to take care of her Yorkie for one hour every day of the week, as she started working longer hours and was worried that the dog would feel lonely or need anything while alone in the house. I accepted, and started at the beginning of June.
You have to know that I never had a dog before, and the few times I met dogs was not a great experience. My uncle used to have huge herd dogs at home, and every time we visited I was completely overwhelmed by them! I was a tiny girl and they were for me as big as horses. My family never wanted dogs and I haven’t thought about getting one myself, as I am aware that it’s a big responsibility, for which I never felt ready. Dog-sitting sounds much more feasible (not my own dog, only few hours per week)… so I accepted the challenge.
I wanted to catch up a bit before starting to interact with the dog, so I browsed the library’s pet section and picked up these two books (in German):
I found them fascinating. Karin Actun wrote two unconventional guides on how to establish a good partnership with dogs, focused on observing and developing the inner feeling of respectful leadership, instead of giving exercises or rules and focus on making the dog comply. The second book I read, “Hunde Orientierung geben”, moved me really deeply. Karin’s words made me realise that I could become a good reference person for the dog by setting boundaries, asking and giving respect, all by clear communication, without using force or fear, or letting the dog be the leader. I never saw the way so clearly. I also realised how hard it is for me to make my own boundaries clear to others – both dogs and people. I actually stopped reading anything else and examined a lot of my past, and found so many matches with the situations explained by Karin.
Then I started taking care of this little dog, and it made for a very interesting set of experiences. It is clear that he is used to lead and to take care of himself, and to ask for what he needs or likes. It will take a while for him to realise that he can delegate a few things to me, and that I’m good at taking care of them. For example when we go out he is on high alert, as any other dog could harm us: when one comes round the corner he makes himself big, growls and barks. I have to show him that I can defend both of us in case of need (for sure from small dogs!), and that he can stay quiet – and it starts working, he is calmer every day 🙂 On many other occasions I can understand what he wants to tell me. It’s fascinating to see how he start trusting me and how he is trying his best to understand what I want to communicate. I’m glad I got so much information from these books, and from the videos and explanations on Karin’s website, because I can process a lot more information than I would do by simple trial and error. What I see is that there is as little frustration as possible between me and the dog, and I find it incredibly reassuring, and promising, for both.
Stay tuned for more posts about this dog and what I’ll observe during our mutual respect building!