Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mixed signals

Charlie is an incredibly well-behaved dog. I know that those of you who have been around him do not get to see that side of him. Unfortunately, his love for people (especially visitors) diminishes his listening skills. Yet when he is comfortable, just at home with his parents, his true colors and personality really come through.

Early on in the "potty training" process when Charlie was a puppy he would never really signal at the door when he needed to go outside. I assume that most good dogs would go to the door and paw at it to let their human owners know they need to go outside. Or maybe bark at the door? Or something canine-like. Rather, Charlie has always preferred to just stare at us. Or walk around nervously for a while. Or claw at the bedroom door. Or something equally strange. We just could never figure out what his signal was to go outside.

Then, one day, Michelle and I were both sitting on the couch in the living room. Charlie came up to the couch, took his front paw, lifted it, and clawed at the side of it. We asked what he wanted. He did it again.

"What do you want?" (that's right, we talk to him like he is a person).

The incessant pawing continued, more intensely.

Michelle said, "Do you want to go outside?"

Charlie took off running from the living room into the kitchen.

That is how we figured out his signal. Ever since that moment, when Charlie would claw at the couch, we knew that he needed to go outside. Sometimes he would jump at us and claw at our leg or chest when it was apparently urgent that he get out immediately.

Then about a month ago, Charlie did his infamous signal. We were all being cozy on the couch, cuddling up with quilts. Charlie got up from his cuddle spot and pawed at Michelle. She asked if he needed to go outside and he just looked at her. And then he pawed at her again. She said, "OK, Charlie, let's go outside," as she began to get up. Charlie jumped down to the floor and Michelle got up but Charlie just stood there looking at her, confused. She walked through the kitchen to the back door and Charlie followed. She opened the back door. He didn't move. Or go outside.

This relatively similar scenario happened multiple times. We couldn't figure out what was going on. Was the universally understood signal being changed on us? Was our dog confused? Was there a fear of something outside? Had the cooler weather made Charlie reluctant to leave the house? He had us stumped. He seemed equally confused by our reactions to his clawing.

One revealing day, the clawing happened again. This time, Charlie gave us another clue: he put his nose down to the quilt we had to keep us warm, nudged it, clawed at it, nudged it again. At first annoyed, Michelle instinctively lifted up the corner of the quilt, and then Charlie crawled under the covers and went to sleep. And ever since, he claws at us when he wants us to get under the quilt. Even smarter yet, he will claw at us when he wants us to get out the quilt so he can snuggle with it.

I guess Charlie clawing can mean many things: snuggle time, or a need to poop. Our signal has distinctly different, multiple meanings.

Oftentimes, signals in life can be confusing. We think we know what things mean and then we can find later that we were wrong. This happens in our interactions and judgements of other people, in our communication with each other, or sometimes even in conflict. Our judgements can be misleading. Or even flat wrong. When we are not patient, understanding, or persistent, we become jaded, frustrated, and even alienated. Yet, when we try again, take our time, act with caution, and are honest with ourselves and others, we become more willing to forgive or see the best in what otherwise might have been a misguided or misdirected interaction.

I've had a crazy couple of weeks full of misguided signals and energy. My work life has been exhausting to the point where I've wanted to throw in the towel and give up and give in. But I've been forcing myself to view the positive, look for the good, and give up what I can't control. This is not easy for me because I easily forget that there isn't always one signal in life. I can thank Charlie for helping me understand.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What I've been up to: the exterior doors project (and leaves)

New back exterior door.
Life has been busy lately. And I'm thankful for that. One of the reasons why I have not posted for a while is I have been putting some finishing touches on the exterior doors that I installed on the castle. The other reason is two 50-year-old large oak trees, one in the front yard and one in the back yard, and the corresponding leaves that keep falling from them.

First, the doors. The front door I put on last year and I left the trim unfinished. This has made our castle look a little less like a castle. Michelle has politely been reminding me of the unsightliness of the front of our house.

Then, the kitchen remodel process a couple of months ago, and the installation of a new back door, has led to a matching unfinished theme on both sides of the house. Both door frames have been exposed and awaiting either painting or siding. For those of you who have read past posts, you know that I really don't have the patience for painting, so, instead of painting the trim I was hoping for an easier, seamless solution that would be more permanent. I've been doing research on how to wrap doors and windows with aluminum siding. It looked easy enough. And I formulated a mental plan of how this project was going to work. Oftentimes when I imagine a project on the house, I discover that it is not as easy as I thought. Or I run into complications. Plus, if it is the first time I'm attempting a project, it makes me a little nervous because the end result doesn't always match my mental map. I considered just hiring an expert to do the job.

And I've been procrastinating.

And when I have some extra time and plan on doing the work of finishing the doors, I generally start with attacking all the leaves on the ground, leading to hours of work, and unfinished doors. But the cooler weather signaled a need to make the door project pertinent, in preparation for winter (and to please my wife). Forget experts. I was going to do this myself.

A day off from work and a trip to Home Depot led to my purchase of the aluminum trim coil. When I got home I began to improvise wrapping the doors, and I quickly discovered it was pretty easy, even though I didn't own the proper tools like a coil dispenser. It wasn't ideal, but I cut the aluminum coil with tin snips, shaped the edges to wrap around the corners, and then attached it to the door frames using nails sparingly. Then, I installed the storm doors and sealed the edges with silicon calk. The end result looks pretty darn good for an amateur.

Next, I went back to the ever-present leaves, spending four hours in the yard, clearing piles away from absolutely everywhere. I felt pretty good about my hard-fought effort, until I looked up and saw endless brown leaves still clinging to limbs. After a windy, warm day yesterday, they released themselves. I woke up to a 28-degree morning, and this sight outside the back door:

There were piles just like this everywhere in the yard. If only I could do something amazing with aluminum wrap that would magically make leaves a low-maintenance, one-time, chore.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The amazing brain

Lately, I have been thinking about my experience from TEDxLincoln. The talks presented there have made me more aware of that wide world that is out there. Coincidentally, the theme of the day was titled Wide Horizons, Open Minds. Having an open mind definitely can broaden one's horizon, leading to unique perspectives about the world that would easily be missed if one was distracted or not open to seeing. Which, leads me to a short rant about my frustrations from the last couple of weeks.

I've become increasingly disappointed in those whom I work closest with because of their lack of open eyes and open minds and a general unwillingness to ask questions and listen first. Little effort is made to relate to others, listen to them, and make decisions based upon common, mutual understanding. Rather, actions are determined solely based upon one's individual lived experience, and communal experiences or ideas are automatically disregarded as invalid. Living among people who operate in this manner exhaust me. It's infuriating and demotivating.

But that is not the point of this post, nor is it the main reason I've been thinking about TEDxLincoln. I turn to the cool parts, the inspiring parts, the hopeful parts of humanity to recharge when I become frustrated and cynical. And that is where I intend to focus the premise of my writing today.

I stumbled upon a book titled Brain Power. I haven't read the book yet, but it is on my Kindle, awaiting me. The video that corresponds with the book is very cool, comparing a child's brain to the internet. The unique thing about our brains is that they are constantly malleable, changing, based upon where we decide to focus our attention. Our brains literally re-wire themselves because of behavior, connecting and severing synapses.

The neatest thing is that the potential for brain development is greatest between birth and the age of five. Every single experience of a child is a formation of the brain. The video below illustrates this in a more concise way than I can explain it here (and it also explains the formative nature of the internet).

Generally, we don't think of our brains in the terms presented in that video. We take brains for granted. But when you consider them, they are fascinating, impressive, and able to shatter unthinkable expectations. But brains are only capable of doing this if we focus attention strategically. This is proven by listening to Tiffany Verzal's talk from TEDxLincoln titled "Time, intensity, and Patience."

Tiffany and Brandon's daughter, Alexis, was the victim of a traumatic brain injury. As a result of her injuries, Alexis was expected to be blind, unable to eat on her own, and unable to walk and talk for the rest of her life. Tiffany explains in her talk that she and Brandon rejected Alexis's prognosis, repeatedly saying that was, "not OK." Because of their persistence and resilience, Alexis, at the hands of tremendous people at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, NE, was able to re-wire, rehab, and reteach her brain. See Tiffany explain how in her talk below:

Through intense focus, brains can do phenomenal things. Tiffany and Brandon Verzal produced an award-winning documentary titled Pathways: from brain injury to hope. I hope that we all can continue to broaden our horizons in life. And, like the title of Tiffany's talk, maybe more focus on time, intensity, and patience is what it will take to do just that.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

How Saying Yes Can Change Your Life: Mark Zmarzly at TEDxLincoln

Well, the time is finally here! The videos of the TEDxLincoln event, Wide Horizons, Open Minds are starting to be posted online. I can't be more excited, because now I can share my thoughts about the event, and, you, the blog readers, can watch these amazing talks for yourself.

The universe and I must be in sync because my favorite talk of the entire day given by Mark Zmarzly, "How Saying Yes Can Change Your Life," was posted first.

Essentially, Mark, through a series of stories, shares how we should balance the "yes" and "no" in our lives. He focuses on the "yeses" as a way to point out that they are what makes a life. As a fellow writer and English major, he shares that the "yes" is what puts a character in motion in a story. And, if you really consider this, it makes sense. All characters, whether they be in movies, on television, or in books, all say "yes" to something and that is what makes them compelling, intriguing, relateable, or likeable. Mark says that nothing happens in a story until a character is in motion.

So true.

Think about that for a moment.

It's really powerful when you dwell on that notion of motion in stories. Of course it's a small leap from characters in stories to us, the people in life, saying "yes" in order to put our own lives in motion. How often do we say "yes"? How often do we put ourselves in motion in order to live a life that is affirming and fulfilling?

While those "yes" moments define us and put us on certain paths, so does "no". The "no" is what captivated me in this talk.

Mark explained that "no" is primal, even for children. When kids are learning language, the word "no" is a root behavior and a word that they learn and use first, long before "yes". There are good reasons for this: children must be able to communicate what they don't like. So while affirmations are important, so are the opposites. Negations have impacts. Mark shares the statistics regarding the yes to no ratio that children receive from adults in their households growing up, and breaks down this ratio by economic status, giving us an insight into one of the many consequences and complications of poverty: a child who grows up in a professional class family will receive 6 yeses to every 1 no, while a child who grows up in a welfare family will receive 1 yes to every 2 nos. A child in a welfare family typically receives a 118% increase in negations per year than a child in a professional family.

Now that is power. Think about the motion of those "nos" a poor child receives and how it creates, shapes, and forms his or her world view growing up.

So the yes/no balance in our lives has real consequences. How do we harness that balance? What do we choose to embrace? And when does fear push us more towards nos rather than yeses?

What were some of the "yes" moments in your life?

One of my "yes" moments in life lead to Charlie. Michelle and I had talked about getting a dog for a long time and we vacillated about it until, one day, I just voiced with certainty that we should get a dog. In no time, we were bringing Charlie home as a puppy.

I'll blog more about that moment in another post. For now, you must watch Mark's powerful talk in it's entirety. It's 18 minutes long. Say "yes" by clicking play. You won't be disappointed that you did.