Tangram

I first thought that my life would be a blank canvas, on which I would trace my own drawing.

Then I thought about it as a blank canvas, on which I traced a drawing under the guidance of other people.

Then as a puzzle, and I started noticing missing pieces, and the immense task of finding the right place for each of the existing ones.

Finally as a tangram, where the pieces have no predefined place, and there are minimal rules on how to compose a figure out of the seven geometrical shapes.

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If there will be any step after the tangram, it will be a variant where I can use less than all seven pieces, where I can develop the figure on more dimensions than the flat plane…

A reflection on mutual attention, regard, inner space

Long post ahead! Enjoy this giraffe picture first 🙂

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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:

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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:

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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!

Progress with yoga

I have started a new yoga class and I’m starting to adjust to the amount of effort and stretching required. The previous class was more relaxing and exploring, while this one is definitely more demanding. The first few lessons felt really hard, and I was unsure if the muscle discomfort I felt in the following days was OK, or a sign that I asked too much from my body. After a month I can say that it’s OK, and I’m getting better at knowing how much to exert myself in order to get the benefit from the stretch, and where to stop.

BKS Iyengar Parivrtta Trikonasana, 2016, Tinte auf Papier, 29,7 x 21cm — Svenja Karstens

I have started quite conservatively, by stretching only a little, and stopping as soon as I felt pain. I knew that the exercises require to go past my comfort zone, and that Iyengar Yoga, the yoga style of my teacher, was above my current level of fitness. But only after a few tries I trusted the teacher and finally myself in doing a bit more. The result is that I feel less and less tired and aching after each session, and I become more aware of what my body can do. I’m lucky that the sessions are attended by a handful of people, so that the teacher can give each one of us a lot of attention.

I’m glad I met another person who doesn’t simply whip me forward, but gives me information about what they observe about my current state/skills, and give me useful and feasible next steps. I was about to add “until I don’t need them anymore” – but it felt rather arrogant. I feel I will benefit from experienced people’s feedback all my life long! I’ll maybe need them less, but appreciate them all the same.

Double book recommendation: local people autobiographies

This time I review two book at once, namely “Ick bin een Berliner, da kieckste, wa?” by Ronald Potzies and “El ZĂ©lese” by Antonio Carlizzi.

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Both books are the account of the lives of two people I know personally, and this makes me consider these books differently from others: they are the written version of facts and emotions that happened first in real life, while in most other cases either the book is my only connection with those lives, or it is a work of fiction. I enjoyed the direct language of both of these accounts, and the many references to common and sometimes hard conditions of life (both authors experienced world wars) that would otherwise be considered unsuitable for a fiction work, or would be mentioned sparingly, as background information, instead of a daily struggle. I find much to learn not in the abstract model that could be extracted from the lives of these two men, but in the details: the way they took a decision without knowing enough to be sure to make the right choice; their inner strength; their simplicity in being human without becoming heroes or book characters.

These are two books dear to me. I’m curious to know about similar books you read, please mention them in the comment section!

Double book recommendation: “Kobane calling” by Zerocalcare and “D’autres vies que la mienne” by Emmanuel Carrère

Yesterday I finished reading “D’autres vies que la mienne” and took a moment to let the feelings sink. It was a moving book, that I read page by page as if I were listening to someone, letting their words decide the speed of narration. Carrère talks about the stories of members of his close family and of dear friends, as he wanted to portrait “other lives but his” in a direct and simple style. While reading, I felt taken very close to the people in the book, as if they were old friends. Carrère has a way of describing facts and perceptions that made me feel respectful while learning of very personal, often tragic, life events.

When I talked about the book to a friend, I realised that my feelings while reading looked much like the ones I had when reading “Kobane calling”, a comic book about Zerocalcare’s non-reportages in Rojava. Despite the apparent lightness of the chosen medium, the stories of the people he meets are portrayed as life-like as possible, hard and uncertain.

I felt that both authors opened me a direct connection to other people, in a way that these very people were the centre of attention – not the authors, nor me the reader. It would have been easy to bend these lives to make them more cinema-like, more appealing to my reader’s eyes; or to let the author show off their drawing/writing skills, or even to make use of the facts to squeeze out some general morals; I felt none of that. Both authors wanted to mention that their point of view was unescapably partial, and that they were humans as much as the people they portray in their narrations. I felt, together with them, the most sincere respect and admiration for people who bravely and modestly deal with the difficulties of their lives.

 

Book recommendation: “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar, “Dieser Mensch war ich” by Christiane zu Salm

I read Dieser Mensch war ich (this person was me) many years after Memoirs of Hadrian,  but I wish to review them together, as they share common themes, and have woken similar emotions in me during reading.

Source: randomhouse.de

Source: bookdepository.de

Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a first-person novel about the life of emperor Hadrian, examining various events of his long life with the wisdom of his last moments. I felt that Hadrian showed an uncommon serenity towards the end of his life. Christiane zu Salm collected one- or two-page summaries of hospice patients in her care (she is Sterbebeglieiterin – assisting people approaching death), who agreed to be published in her book. These people are much closer to us than Hadrian: they were mechanics, shopkeepers, teachers, unemployed, with children, with complicated families, married, alone, sad, ready, desperate; it is easier to relate to their words and their feelings, because we share common experiences. Still, I see that the approach of the end of their lives made them all (Hadrian included) think of the same questions, and made them all simply human. I appreciated the somber, elegant lyrism of Hadrian’s long monologue, but I didn’t feel that zu Salm’s patients were less interesting or important because they used ordinary words. Presentation in this case is not relevant to me, and I hope I’m not alone thinking that.

I wish to end with the thought that these are stories of people’s lives. Death is of course very present in both books, but as a future event, as the end, rather than a fact in itself. I felt that their message was to appreciate every moment of life, and they made me think about what makes my life meaningful right now.

Shopping strategies: focused and scanning

I noticed I have two main strategies while grocery shopping, that strongly depend on how much time I have and how much optimisation I need to achieve. When I’m in full focused mode, I set up a kind of filter and I only pay attention to what I have to buy. On the opposite extreme, when I’m in scanning mode I am looking at everything with interest.

OK, this is barely new information to anyone. What I want to share is the surprise I felt when I thought: when I’m commuting, am I more focused or more scanning? And when I’m in a queue? When I’m home? I realised that I tend to travel around in a very focused manner. I wait at the bus stop with only my destination in mind. I check the phone to see if the bus is late. Only few times I have managed to look around in a more scanning-like way, and I discovered a woman on the balcony, reading among her flowers; the different greens of the trees above me; a crow walking across the street; the nice evening light.

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Source: my Flickr

This way of looking around didn’t take long, and filled the few minutes of waiting time in a very enriching way. I want to practice it more often, especially when I feel that the focused mode can be switched off for a while.

Teaching: building bridges

I have been thinking about the differences between good and ok teachers, and I came to the conclusion that two things are important: showing passion for the topic, and being able to build bridges between known and unknown, for the students to cross. I would like to explain more about this latter point in this post.

Ponte em Paranaguá Raí Nagaoka on Flickr

When I explain something, I need to be aware of what the other person knows, because otherwise I would build a bridge between two unknown topics, that are not connected to anything else. That bridge will therefore be unuseful and will likely deteriorate before any other bridge will be built nearby. A big chunk of information I learned from school stayed, sadly, like cathedrals in the desert, away from my everyday life, precious in theory, but disconnected and quickly forgotten.

It happens that other people find a bridge by themselves, and are enlightened and proud of that new connection. I have learned to avoid judgment on how far-fetched is that connection for me – for example when I introduce a classical composer to some friends, and they connect it to medieval movies they have seen. I could correct them, because the composer has no relation whatsoever with the time and location of those movies; but the main effect is that the bridge is lost. That long bridge is a connection, nevertheless; when a new composer will be presented to these people, they will already know one of that time: so one new bridge could be added to the network, or as an intermediate point on the existing bridge. Condemning bridges is usually a bad move, rarely something positive. Of course if a bridge is misleadingly connecting two things, I point it out; but I try to offer an alternate connection.

That’s why I take extra care in asking other people what they know already, so that I can present the new topic to them, by walking with them on bridges they find meaningful.

 

Telling your story – content vs. presentation

When you explain something or tell a story, two things are needed to make it interesting for others: the contents and the presentation. (That is quite obvious.) What is not obvious to me is the tipping point – when presentation becomes the main interest of the story, and the content alone would be mildly uninteresting:

I found this video very well done, all the presentation tricks are there: great music! stunning camera angles! dinosaurs! adventure! space! charismatic wildlife! suspense! Then, rewatching it, I started to see more and more little mistakes in the text and the image manipulation, and I saw beyond the tricks, and there was only that shabby old car. I still smiled, because I appreciated the effort in making such a great presentation.

This other video is a similar feast of presentation, over a generally niche and behind-the-scenes topic – system administration on SUSE Linux servers. I couldn’t imagine how to make a cool video out of it – but there it is (and the text is a gem, for IT-savvies!):

On a different set of topics, a great example of successful presentation skills is spoken word. In this case, content is chosen by the speakers among issues of their lives and their surroundings, mostly on social and racial inequalities. This video from Guante introduced me to spoken word, and it became viral last year:

That’s a bold, clear, resounding, thought-provoking performance. It’s about acting, rhetorics in the good sense – not in the one that filters and bends content according to presentation requirements. But how much of the virality has been generated by the topic, and how much by the great presentation skills? I don’t know, it’s hard to evaluate, but the important thing is that this content gained a lot of attention. In this case, I see that a strong presentation is functional to the content, and the intention of the speaker.

What worries me is when significant content suffers from a mediocre presentation, and fails to gain the attention that it should deserve. I can’t accept that the presentation is a necessary tool for any content to be considered at all. Does it deserve to be ignored because it is not able to advertise itself?

With that in mind, I just finished reading a collection of life summaries by people on their deathbed: Dieser Mensch war ich. They were not filtered to pick up the cool ones, the ones with a message for others – no, they were all there: the sad ones, the ones of people who think they made mistakes, the ones of people who felt guilty and miserable. The language was plain, simple, unpolished, confused sometimes. The presentation was barely visible, I felt it was almost pure content. How many of these stories would not be discussed outside of this book, just because they look uninteresting, because they have no hooks to the usual presentation tropes? And on the contrary, how many plain stories make it to the news, overdecorated with presentation?

I have subscribed to a storytelling course, but with these doubts I can’t make use of it. I would feel desperate if I understand that people listen to me just because I am able to sell my story, not because my story has a value in itself.

Rock bottom

Today I read Chris Nicholas’ post about reaching rock bottom and rebuilding from that foundation. I read it a few times to check what could match with my story. I found much similarity, but not on the “rock bottom sensation” that he experienced – and not yet any intention to start rebuilding.

I feel more like I fell off my horse. There is no proper desperation in that. I saw the fall coming as I progressively lost balance and slipped on the side of the horse, grabbed his mane, at last let the reins loose, felt the speed of the running horse from an increasingly uncomfortable position. I knew I just had to stay in the saddle like everyone else, but I just couldn’t anymore, at least not like that.

I fell off a galloping horse once and I can’t exactly describe how it happened. One moment I was hanging precariously on his side, the next I was on the grass, the horse a couple strides away – as if I had skipped ten seconds of a video. That same scene happens now. I am simply and suddenly on the ground, not hurt, at least not suffering. I had a very first thought: “Back on that horse, immediately! No one would notice.” but next I felt surprise, and an immense exhaustion. My rock bottom is a soft meadow. The horse has come back to me, slightly surprised and genuinely curious. He even stands reasonably still as I try to get back in the saddle. What blocks me are two feelings: the present lack of force in my muscles, even if the movements are routine, and the dreadful perspective of coming back to the unending race.

my rock bottom is a soft meadow

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