The copilot syndrome

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”.

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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.

Source: lupineandruby‘s pinterest

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.

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Dog-sitting: on responsibility and needs

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!)

Daisy flieg!

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.

Fox sketches and book recommendation: “Fuchs ganz nah” by Klaus Echle and Anna Rummel

I was looking for great nature photography books in my local libraries and stumbled upon this one, that narrates the friendship between a vixen and two humans: the three met almost every day for a few months in a specific point in the woods, and from there they walked together, with the humans observing the behaviour of the animal and taking pictures. It is a fascinating narration, full of awe and respect for wildlife, and of incredible close-ups of the vixen.

Link to publisher’s page

As I have to give back the book in two days, I decided to draw a few portraits of the fox just now:

As usual, the first two sketches are a bit off. From the fifth onwards I got a better grasp of the typical marks that make the drawing look fox-like: the large ears (still, I made many of them too small), the white patch on the sides of the nose and cheeks with its sharp boundaries, the colour pattern, the black back of the ears, the pointy muzzle. I think the last portrait sums up that quite well. Her ears are really huge 🙂

I’m getting hooked to this 10-sketch sessions, I’ll post more of them with new species – if you have preferences just leave them a comment below!

Book recommendation: “Palomar” by Italo Calvino

I read this book when I was around 12 and I felt it matched my thoughts so exactly that it was almost scary. I have kept re-reading it, partly because I still like it a lot, and partly because it makes me remember the first time I read it.

images.duckduckgo.com

Mr. Palomar is portrayed as a careful observator of the world, determined to analyse it in its smallest details. The book is made of short reports of specific situations (Palomar’s attempt to count the waves of the sea; an afternoon in his garden, whistling with blackbirds; the observation of the Moon during the day; shopping at a French cheese shop…), that he dissects, with the solid scientific intention to understand them fully, but with the often awkward result of losing focus on the rest of the world, or discovering the meaningless abyss of matter underneath familiar and reassuring scenes.

I feel respect and admiration for Mr. Palomar, as I see him fully absorbed by his quest. The simplicity of the subjects of his study could hide the grandiosity of his attempt, and make it accessible to everyone – as long as one keeps questioning and describing every detail of what one sees. It was my scientific approach when I was doing research, and is the likewise curious approach of nature journaling.

Footsteps in the forest

Last Sunday we went for a walk in the Tegeler Forst, near Tegel Lake in the north-west of Berlin. The weather was a bit cold and damp, but the walk was very pleasant. We met several other hikers, including a man walking his two cats 🙂

We didn’t see many animals, except birds; but we saw many footprints in the soft mud of the trail:

The first paw print is very likely from one of the cats we saw – a wild cat is much less likely. The two following hoof prints are from deer, either young red deer or roe deer. The fourth paw print could be from a raccoon, that has been introduced in Germany a century ago and that I already observed in the city last year. The last two paw prints are likely from a dog and a fox. I think that the last one is a fox, because there is free space between the palmar pad and the toe pads.

Any experienced eye can say more? Let me/us know in the comments 🙂

On giving and receiving feedback

Today I visited a Montessori classroom (around 30 children, 9 to 11 years old) and had the chance to attend a presentation about animal welfare, created by one of the children. First, it was a feast to see how much information she collected, how she organised it into a meaningful sequence, and how she presented, both reading texts written by herself and initiating brief guessing games where all children gladly took part. The presentation lasted almost an hour, and awoke the general curiosity. Many children set precise questions and she answered with sincerity.

Obliques

The most touching part for me was the final feedback from most of the people present, both children and adults (the teacher, the girl’s parents and a few guests including me): it felt sincere, accurate, carefully worded and spontaneous. I have read many articles and books about giving feedback and I thought I knew a lot, but was overwhelmed and almost surprised by how experienced everyone acted in that circle. I was equally moved by the quiet joy of the girl answering with a few words to each person, often with a simple, soft “Thank you”. It felt so right! She did a terrific job, put a lot of effort, time and passion into it, presented it to the whole group with an enviable nonchalance, then her classmates gave her positive feedback and a few points to improve: she deserved to be proud for that. It made me think of the times when my parents scolded me for looking too proud when I received compliments, and I am so glad that this girl, and the other children in that group, can practice this healthy feedback exchange from an early age so that it can become a natural, fully functional part of their growth.

Die Sonne genießen. N'Jumo, Orientalisch Kurzhaar.

On disappearing while observing

At the last concert I attended as audience member, I happened to think about my love for observing. I loved to be for once in the audience instead of on the stage; to have the privilege to be still, to receive music without the need to interact with the musicians, except by clapping and cheering after each piece. The moment I loved most was after the concert when I stood near the stage, looking at the drummers packing up their gear: concentrated, efficient, relaxed after the show. I didn’t feel the need to interact with them, it would have been an interruption, even if I approached the stage with the wish to greet one of them. After a while he noticed me and walked over for a quick greeting, then had to come back to his instruments. I felt like a birdwatcher, briefly approached by a curious bird. I then wondered how I could ask (or even pretend) attention and recognition, when I feel so blessed as I get little or none of it. Maybe it’s because this is how I make sure to get sincere attention, instead of artificially-induced positive feedback.

I thought that attending a concert is one of the many setups where I am not the centre of attention, and not even an active participant in a communication. I felt the same positive sensations when I was observing wildlife during my university studies, and I realise that it was the strongest reason for me to enter the wildlife management field: this ability to disappear from the eyes of the animals, while working behind the scenes for their well-being. Well, sometimes they did notice me, like “Gina”, a female red deer rescue, who loved human attention, especially when it came in form of food 🙂

La Gina

I felt a similar heartfelt call when I met Maria Montessori’s concept of observation and her way of enabling children to learn by themselves, by stimulating their curiosity rather than actively keeping their attention on activities designed by myself. Even my friends sometimes make me the wonderful present of their spontaneous life, free from interactions with me. With my closest friends I notice that we have communication phases and observation phases, and we found our way to stay near each other with the possibility, but without the obligation, to interact. I feel it is a true mark of respectful closeness.

I have even experimented this mindset by standing near an intersection for several traffic light cycles. For ten minutes, the traffic lights lost for me the usual meaning of “Wait! Walk!” and my attention moved to the approaching cars, bikes and pedestrians. I watched how impatient each of them was, how some people scanned the surroundings while waiting and others kept their attention on the traffic lights; how some children on bikes negotiated the intersection with careful attention; how few people noticed me while others didn’t. At the orchestra’s rehearsals, it happens that I have significant gaps in my notes, or I plainly have nothing to play for a whole piece: wonderful! Time to disappear and observe! Time to watch other musicians and better understand which parts are hard for each instrument; time to better hear each one of them in the sum of sounds; time to enjoy their concentrated faces.

I sometimes think there is something odd in my fascination for this kind of disappearance. At the same time I find very healthy to practice invisibility and experience the world without being the centre of it, at least for a little while.

Any of you made similar experiences? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.